Walter Hudson's Guide For Making Peace Between Christians and Objectivists
In the coming years my friend Walter Hudson is going to emerge as one of his generation's most effective, engaging voices fighting on behalf of freedom and American values. It's been a great joy to work with Walter and see him continue to explore a variety of different subjects and styles. He's proven himself as one of my most reliable regular writers, turning in polished, well-thought pieces each week that challenge and entertain. I'm convinced that someday everyone else will come to the conclusion that I have: he's his generation's equivalent of Dennis Prager -- a welcoming, accessible, but still challenging, honest voice, capable of changing hearts and minds simultaneously. And he's a Tea Party activist out in the grassroots doing work in his own state and community.
I'll highlight some of Walter's most engaging articles in several free miniature e-book collections here at PJ Lifestyle in the future. So far, I plan to bring together some of his writings on video games, race, Good and Evil, popular culture and the joys of capitalism. But first, I would like to begin showcasing Walter's talent with this collection of four articles he wrote during February on a mission that he and I both fight together, the attempt to reconcile two warring philosophies and their activist movements: the Judeo-Christian tradition and Ayn Rand's Objectivism. The battle between secular radicals and religious fundamentalists is a false one. We can be both Bible-based people of faith and reason-minded, science enthusiasts. Walter makes the case in an invigorating, compelling way and I invite everyone to dive in to his engaging arguments.
Below you can click to see the original articles and the spirited debate they produced or jump to the articles in this collection. The pieces in this compilation feature new editorial afterwords by me.
- David Swindle, PJ Lifestyle Editor
First published February 7, 2013:
Objectivst philosopher Andrew Bernstein debates Judeo-Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza. Click here to start at the beginning of the series on page 2.
First published February 14, 2013:
Objectivist philosopher Andrew Bernstein accused Christianity of rejecting reason in his recent debate with apologist Dinesh D'Souza. Click to jump to part 2 on page 8.
First published February 21, 2013:
As a dialogue begins between advocates of Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy and professing Christians, it's vitally important to clarify terms. Click here to jump to part 3 on page 14.
First published: February 28, 2013:
Adherents of Ayn Rand and followers of Jesus Christ must set aside differences to secure individual rights. Click here to jump to the conclusion on page 21.
Depending upon whom you ask, Christianity either withers under constant assault from a secular humanist conspiracy or flourishes as a virulent social tumor threatening intellectual and moral progress. This Friday, two leading intellectuals will take up the question of whether Christianity is “Good or Bad for Mankind.” Prolific writer, scholar, and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza will trade arguments with professor of philosophy Dr. Andrew Bernstein. The debate will take place on February 8th at the University of Texas – Austin’s Hogg Auditorium beginning at 7pm CST, sponsored by The Objective Standard and the UT Objectivism Society. It will also be broadcast live over an internet stream.
This intellectual confrontation “is guaranteed to set a new standard on the subject” according to The Objective Standard. That promise will be fulfilled. The arguments offered will differ from previous high-profile debates regarding Christian morality. While atheists whom D’Souza has engaged before have come from a position of skepticism or secular moral relativism, Bernstein's body of work previews a fresh approach.
Bernstein will channel Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism, which not only rejects the Christian worldview, but emphatically indicts Christianity as a profound moral evil. While that may sound familiar and evoke recollections of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or the like, Bernstein’s argument will differ in that it will not merely cite alleged evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity but drill down to the root of what makes a thing good and assert that Christianity is the opposite.
Readers who have followed my recent work at PJ Media may have noticed two things. First, that I frequently evoke the work of Ayn Rand in support of my moral and political views. Second, that I am a professing Christian eager to contend for the faith. These two aspects of my person no doubt meet with frustration, confusion, or condemnation from both Christian and Objectivist readers who perceive their respective worldviews as irreconcilable. I dare to contend that, while there are certainly profound differences in these worldviews, they are not as wholly irreconcilable as either contingent thinks.
Let’s preview some of the arguments sure to be made in Austin. Next week, we’ll respond to these points along with any others which arise and consider just how incompatible Christianity and Objectivism truly are. Here are 5 accusations sure to be leveled against Christianity by Andrew Bernstein in his debate with Dinesh D’Souza.
5) Neither God Nor Scripture Reveals Knowledge
The root from which a philosophy springs is its epistemology, the answer to how we know anything at all. The Christian worldview requires an epistemology which allows for revelation from a supernatural source. Scripture is said to be inspired by God, meaning it embodies more than the rantings of a desert nomad. Christians believe that God speaks to us through scripture, imparting a portion of his unbound knowledge for the benefit of mankind.
Objectivism, as the name suggests, regards the notion of revelation as a rejection of reality. The only way to know something according to Ayn Rand is to perceive it with your senses or deduce it from facts of reality established through observation and reason. This root idea regarding the source of knowledge informs all of Rand’s conclusions in the other branches of philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, and politics.
Christians entertaining Bernstein’s challenge to D’Souza should understand that faith and reason are defined as opposites in Objectivism. To accept an idea on faith is to concede that it defies reason, that it cannot be supported by the facts of reality, and that it carries no true moral authority.
Epistemology proves an irreconcilable difference between Christianity and Objectivism. Nevertheless, D’Souza will not need to argue epistemology in order to push back against the assertion that Christianity is a profound moral evil. We’ll explore why next week.
4) The Supernatural Does Not Exist
It follows that, if reality consists only of that which can be perceived with the senses, God or any other supernatural being is not real. Rand’s epistemology informs a metaphysics which regards the universe as simply that which exists, not a creation, but a “metaphysically given.” In the vernacular, it is what it is. Rand’s intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, elaborates in The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series:
The universe is the total of that which exists—not merely the earth or the stars or the galaxies, but everything. Obviously then there can be no such thing as the “cause” of the universe. . . .
Is the universe then unlimited in size? No. Everything which exists is finite, including the universe. What then, you ask, is outside the universe, if it is finite? This question is invalid. The phrase “outside the universe” has no referent. The universe is everything. “Outside the universe” stands for “that which is where everything isn’t.” There is no such place. There isn’t even nothing “out there”: there is no “out there.”
This view of the universe places God in an untenable position. If He exists, then he is part of the universe and therefore not God by definition. So, logically, we are meant to conclude He does not exist. As with the question of epistemology, D’Souza may be tempted to get bogged down in arguing this point. However, his time will be better spent focused elsewhere.
3) Original Sin Falsely Indicts Man
We approach an area worth debate when we reflect upon the nature of man. Christianity indicts man as fallen from an original perfection in the image of God. We call this state and its subsequent behaviors sin.
The concept of sin is unceremoniously rejected by a metaphysics which denies the existence of any god we need to live up to. Rand regarded man as a noble being whose productive activity in pursuit of happiness is objectively virtuous. In fact, a Christian may find no title more abrasive among those authored by Rand than The Virtue of Selfishness which she introduces thus:
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
Rand’s appropriation of selfishness lays the groundwork from which we can not only reconcile certain aspects of Christianity and Objectivism, but actually understand Christ better. Let that be a tease for next week’s review of the debate.
2) Christianity Proves Immoral
Rand’s ideal man, characterized in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugs, lives by a selfish creed:
I swear -- by my life and my love of it -- that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
This oath summarizes the practical application of Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Man is a moral end unto himself, and not a means to the ends of others. Rational action proves to be the chief requirement of human life, so men must be free to act upon their own judgment and not be bound by the brute force of others. Furthermore, objective morality calls for men to act in their rational self-interest and not sacrifice their values.
This concept is ripe with potential confusion. The word “sacrifice” has a positive connotation in our culture and is often used to denote any deferment, denial, or donation which either benefits another person or contributes to a long-term investment. For instance, if a college student stays in on a Friday night in order to study for a big test on Monday, it may be said they are “sacrificing” their night out. More profoundly, if a parent gives their life in the process of saving their child’s or a solider throws himself on a grenade to save his squad, we call it a “sacrifice.” Rand bristled at such misnomers:
Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s selfish interests. If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a “sacrifice” for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies.
Any action that a man undertakes for the benefit of those he loves is not a sacrifice if, in the hierarchy of his values, in the total context of the choices open to him, it achieves that which is of greatest personal (and rational) importance to him. In the above example, his wife’s survival is of greater value to the husband than anything else that his money could buy, it is of greatest importance to his own happiness and, therefore, his action is not a sacrifice.
True sacrifice involves the trade of a greater value for a lesser one or nothing at all. When our politicians ask us to sacrifice, this is generally what they mean, not charity which serves a purpose the giver judges worthy, but giving for the sake of giving.
Thus Objectivism views Christianity as immoral since it appears to uplift sacrifice. God commanding Abraham to kill his son Isaac is frequently cited as an example of Judeo-Christian immorality, particularly egregious because no rational basis for the action is perceived. The episode serves as a test of faith, which Objectivism decries as a rejection of reason.
1) Church History Chronicles Death and Tyranny
Objectivists see the Christian affinity for sacrifice as enabling two thousand years of tyranny, slavery, and murder. From the Spanish Inquisition through the Crusades past the chattel slavery of the early American south right through the modern drive toward a global socialism, objectivists like Bernstein see the blood-soaked hands of the Church. As offensive as this may be to Christians, especially conservatives who regard themselves as champions of liberty, a certain degree of introspection remains appropriate.
Accepting that there exists some distance between the Church as a varied history of ecclesiastical institutions and biblical Christianity as a way of life, we must certainly recognize that atrocity has been justified in the name of Christ or by an appeal to alleged Christian principles. An examination of whether objective evils have been truly Christian or merely associated with Christ will have to wait for our review of the debate. Suffice it to say that objectivists and other critics of Christianity are understandably put off by Bible verses taken outside of context, and can hardly be blamed when the same error has been made by professing Christians over the centuries resulting in the atrocities cited.
Going into the debate this week, let us be content to establish that the Christian concept of sacrifice has been leveraged to promote a culture of altruism, which stands opposite the egoism which Rand argued to be man’s proper moral orientation. Again, we must combat connotation and understand that altruism is not merely caring for others and egoism is not merely caring for self. In Rand’s view, altruism is irrationally living for others at the expense of self, and egoism is living intentionally in service of rational long-term self-interest. State imposed redistribution of wealth or charity motivated by unearned guilt is altruistic. Caring for loved ones or charity in service of one’s values is not.
The preceding serves as a primer for this week’s debate between Andrew Bernstein and Dinesh D’Souza entitled “Christianity: Good or Bad for Mankind.” Next week, we will review the points raised throughout the debate and begin an ongoing introspective, both critiquing Christendom and defending Christianity. We will do so by viewing Rand’s moral discoveries through the lens of the Bible. What will emerge is a Christian virtue of selfishness, what Pastor John Piper controversially calls Christian hedonism.
One of the most important things that Walter does in this first part is explain how the Christian and Objectivist world-views differ in how they use terms. "Selfishness," "Virtue," "Sacrifice," "Self-interest" -- often times in dialogues and debates with those of opposing philosophical and political ideologies it will come down to arguing over dictionary definitions of terms.
How is it that we can overcome these barriers of language? "Freedom" means one thing to me, "God" means a half dozen things to you, and who's to say what counts as a legitimate "pursuit of happiness"? In his teaser at the end Walter points the linguistic direction, which is obviously one that I too share -- the blending of terms and ideologies.
Next, Part 2: A Reason for Faith: Christianity on Trial
A Reason for Faith: Christianity on Trial
Christianity is profoundly bad. So argued philosophy professor Dr. Andrew Bernstein in a recent debate sponsored by The Objective Standard and the University of Texas Objectivism Society. Countering Bernstein was Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza. They discussed whether Christianity is “good or bad for mankind.”
They spent a majority of their time debating more fundamental philosophical questions. What is the nature of reality? Does God exist? What is the proper source of morality? While many attendees commenting during the livestream chat saw these questions as diversions from the advertised topic, they were actually the crux of the matter. In order to discern whether Christianity is good or bad for mankind, “good” must first be defined.
Bernstein primarily accused Christianity of being irrational. To be irrational is to be immoral according to Objectivism, a philosophy advocated by Bernstein and best articulated by Ayn Rand in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. As Rand saw it, a proper morality arises only from the application of reason. Rand saw any assertion of faith as a rejection of reason. By parsing through Bernstein’s points, we examine not only whether Christianity is a fool’s errand, but whether faith of any kind is profoundly bad.
We begin at the foundation by first asking what we know and how we know it. Those questions are answered in the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. Objectivism holds that reason is the only means toward acquiring knowledge. In her essay Philosophy: Who Needs It? Rand argues:
Reason is the faculty which… identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses. Reason integrates man's perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man's knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.
Objectivist author William R. Thomas explains further:
The basis of our knowledge is the awareness we have through our physical senses. We see reality, hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it through touch. As babies, we discover the world through our senses. As our mental abilities develop, we become able to recall memories and we can form images in our minds.
Strict adherence to this means of acquiring knowledge precludes entertaining the supernatural. Like all religion, Christianity is a faith-based belief system which Objectivism rejects as nonsense.
How may Christians answer this view of knowledge? If the object of philosophy is to understand reality and access the whole truth of existence, then objectivist epistemology has an obvious limitation. Surely, applying logic to our perceptions is a solid method for discerning what is true. However, the amount of truth we can know through that process is capped by our perception.
How does a man born blind conceptualize the color red? He lacks the sensory ability necessary to perceive color. He thus has no perception to apply logic to. He may accept on the authority of others that something called “red” exists. However, to him individually, the concept will only ever be what Rand called a “floating abstraction.” From Objectivism Wiki:
The fallacy of the "floating abstraction" is Ayn Rand's term for concepts detached from existents, concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote.
As we consider our hypothetical blind man, we recognize that a strict application of objectivist epistemology leaves him unable to claim that he knows there is a color red. Yet the color exists, not just as a concept but as a metaphysical reality. So we may conclude that reality, or that which exists, is not limited to that which can be perceived.
D’Souza made this point in his debate with Bernstein, noting that a person of the 5th century B.C. could only be aware of a fraction of the stars that we know of today. Our perception has been expanded by technology, increasing our range of knowledge. Yet all the stars exist whether we perceive them or not.
In fairness, Objectivism does not deny the existence of the unknown. It merely claims that knowing occurs through a rational process of applying logic to perception. Since the supernatural cannot be perceived, it cannot be known to exist. However, Objectivism does not stop at an agnostic skepticism. It claims to prove through logic that there is no god or supernatural realm of any kind. Bernstein spent the bulk of his speaking time on this point, offering up two fascinating arguments.
The first centered around the relationship between existence and consciousness. Bernstein reminded the UT audience that “existence exists,” which is the Aristotelian law of identity. A thing is what it is. He next evoked the law of causality, which says that a thing acts according to what it is. A glass of water behaves as a glass of water, and not as sulfuric acid. Bernstein then pointed out that consciousness is the faculty which perceives existence, and therefore is dependent upon existing. On the other hand, existence is independent of consciousness. A rock exists without knowing it.
Bernstein asserted that Christianity violates this basic principle known as the primacy of existence. Christianity starts with an all-knowing consciousness without existence, he claimed, pointing out that consciousness cannot create anything. “What does God create the universe from?” he asked. “If you start with nothing, you end with nothing? There is no God. There is no creation. The universe is eternal.”
This final statement, that the universe is eternal, has particular relevance to the discussion because it highlights a slim point of agreement. Eternity is real. There exists an infinite past and an infinite future. What distinguishes the concept of eternity in both worldviews is that which is thought of as eternal. Christianity sees eternity as a characteristic of the supernatural realm while Objectivism sees it as a characteristic of a “metaphysically given” universe. As Bernstein put it, the universe is not the product of creation or chance but of causal laws based in the nature of reality. Water behaves as water, not because it was designed that way, but simply because it is that way.
Here we bump up against the epistemological wall Objectivism builds around itself. While the concept of eternity is induced from our observation of cause and effect, Objectivism defaults to the only inductive conclusion it can make -- that the universe is somehow eternal -- because it is incapable of reaching beyond what a thing is to address how it got that way. Like a rat in a maze, we are meant to content ourselves with having cheese, and not question from whence it came. D’Souza put it another way. “Faith goes where evidence [and therefore Objectivism] can’t reach.”
In truth, Bernstein’s characterization of Christianity as violating the primacy of existence is a strawman. The Christian worldview does not regard God as a consciousness independent of existence. The Christian God has always existed and always will exist. His is the eternity which Objectivism ascribes to the universe. What’s more, the primacy of existence goes further to suggest that God does exists than to prove He does not.
There is another primacy to consider, the primacy of consciousness over information. It takes a mind to conceive of language. We behold language in every aspect of our world, from the biological blueprints of DNA to the mathematical precision of physics. To regard the vast amount of information contained in a pair of microscopic cells, adequate to direct the formation of a new human being, as nothing more than a “metaphysically given” is to regard the Library of Alexandria as a curious bit of rubble. As the ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) will attest, information from an alien source is a sure sign of an alien consciousness. Just as archeology properly regards an ancient text as evidence of an ancient people, the language written within us is evidence of a consciousness which conceived it.
To this point Bernstein would argue that we must account for who designed the Designer. That question proceeds from a false premise, that everything has a cause. In truth, only effects have causes. The First Cause is eternal. In any case, it seems odd for Bernstein to assert that the universe is eternal while insisting a creator god would require a cause.
Bernstein’s second fascinating argument was an answer to Pascal’s Wager. As readers may recall, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal posited that it was safer to bet that God exists than to assume He does not, because the eternal consequences of guessing wrong are infinitely disproportionate.
Bernstein argued that, if God exists, he clearly designed the world to accommodate a rational being. So God would appreciate those who use their rational minds to promote human life on earth. After all, if God designed reason, would he not expect us to use it? Bernstein posited that those who use faith to suppress reason are thus guilty of terrible sin and ought to burn in hell. Therefore, it is safer to wager on rational atheism, knowing that God would reward it if He existed.
Bernstein earns points for creativity. Indeed, despite the insincerity of the notion, his insight that God designed a world in which we live by taking rational action in support of our life and happiness is correct. That point will become a pillar upon which we build a bridge between Christianity and Objectivism in future articles. For the time being, suffice it to say the Author of Reason is hardly irrational.
What does all this have to do with morality? As it turns out, the existence or non-existence of God and the true nature of reality have everything to do with how we distinguish right from wrong. If there is a supernatural realm, its reality provides context within which our decisions are made. Likewise, if there is nothing beyond our objective universe, it stands alone as the context for our choices.
Consider the morality which Objectivism presents. In a context where this life on Earth is all there is, the standard of moral value is that life. We must be alive to conceive of and pursue values, and the values we obtain and keep serve to perpetuate and enhance our life. This is the objective good. Rand’s ideal man demonstrates virtue by acting upon his own judgment in pursuit of rationally conceived values which serve his life and long-term happiness.
Bernstein regards Christianity as antithetical to such objective morality, and thus profoundly bad for mankind. It’s easy to see why. First, there is the essence of Christianity as a faith-based worldview. Actions taken on faith cannot by definition be rationally conceived. Bernstein views Christianity as “subordinating reason to faith,” denying what is objectively true in favor of a fantasy. (This is untrue, but the refutation will have to be the subject of a later article.) Confined to an individual, such faith is distasteful to objectivists, but tolerable insomuch as it does not encroach upon the rights of others. Bernstein points out that Christians do not confine their faith to their own lives and use it as a basis for dictating how others should live.
On this point, Bernstein is unfortunately correct. Too many professing Christians, perhaps an overwhelming majority, believe their faith to be a sovereign consideration in civil law. For most of the past two thousand years, some form of “Christian” theocracy has reigned in some part of the world. However, the history of such institutions is more accurately called Christendom, and stands properly differentiated from biblical Christianity. While Christendom is guilty of the many atrocities frequently cited by critics - the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the burning of heretics and pagans at the stake, etc. – Christianity does not support them.
Consider the exchange between Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ which took place shortly before the crucifixion. From John 18:33-38:
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
Here Pilate contends with the same question debated by Bernstein and D’Souza. What is truth? While Pilate was certainly no objectivist, the worldview he brought to this exchange was limited to the objective universe. When he asks if Jesus is the king of the Jews, he is concerned with a claim to civil authority. Christ clarifies that his kingdom is not of this world. He emphasizes that if his kingdom were of this world, his disciples would have fought to protect him from those seeking his death.
Indeed, the Jews of Christ’s time were expecting a messiah to liberate them from Roman occupation and take up a crown in Jerusalem. Jesus’ own disciples, even those closest to him counted as apostles, expected an earthly reign. They were devastated when Christ was instead crucified. To their minds, their movement was ended. It was only upon Christ’s resurrection that they began to comprehend a kingdom not of this world, and it emboldened them to preach of that kingdom even in the face of persecution and death.
One need not be a Christian or believe in the historicity of the Gospel to perceive that true Christianity -- as exemplified by the biblical Christ -- does not advocate earthly tyranny. The Great Commission of Christianity was not to conduct the Spanish Inquisition, or engage in the Crusades, or burn heretics at the stake. Rather Christ instructed in Matthew 28:19-20:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Consent lies at the heart of the Christian life, consent to an offer of salvation through grace, and consent to obey God’s commandments. It is impossible to spread Christianity by the sword. To the extent men have tried, they have succeeded only in compelling false conversion and distorting what Christianity is.
Acknowledging the primacy of consent in the Christian life prepares us for the discovery that a world governed by objectivist principles is not only fully compatible with Christian living but as ideal an environment as possible this side of glory. We’ll explore how these seemingly irreconcilable worldviews may coexist in peace as we continue our review of the debate between Andrew Bernstein and Dinesh D’Souza in future articles.
One of the most important ideas that Walter articulated in this article (and there were many!) was the distinction between the religion Christianity and the institutions of kings and dictators from the middle ages and through the Renaissance one could describe as Christendom. There's another way to understand Christendom too. Why is it that so many Christian dissidents, Pilgrims, and Puritans fled Europe to colonize America? Because many of the "Christian" institutions of Europe had grown tyrannical and oppressive. The term I have for this is "Christian idolatry." It's entirely possible to call oneself a Christian and talk the talk but to really just be using the rituals and symbols of Christ as a false idol to make you feel better. The great crimes committed by Christians throughout history were not done in imitation of Christ or a holistic reading of the Bible. They were done by slicing verses out of context and perverting scripture to justify evil acts.
Next in Part 3: A Reason For Faith: 6 Fatal Misconceptions
The title of the talk, “Capitalism: The Only Moral Social System,” was irresistible to a newborn activist bred from the Tea Party. As a lifelong conservative, I had always felt as though capitalism was morally superior to any alternative, but had not encountered a claim as bold as this. The speaker was Craig Biddle, editor of The Objective Standard. His thesis was not that capitalism was the best social system, or the most efficient, or the most tolerable among acceptable choices. His claim was that capitalism is the one true good, the only way to go, and that any other system proves profoundly bad.
Biddle’s argument was compelling, built upon observation of reality and application of reason. He took us through the mind’s eye to a far-flung island where we were marooned alone without a single piece of technology. He asked us how such a castaway would survive. What would have to be done? Through what means would it be done? What could prevent it?
In order to survive and thrive, human beings must act rationally to obtain and keep values. A castaway requires food, shelter, sanitation, recreation, and a means to escape or attract rescue. To obtain these things, the castaway cannot rely upon instinct like an animal. Rather, he must apply his mind to the task at hand. He must discern what can be safely eaten, how to fashion tools, how to construct shelter, how to trap and kill animals, how to effectively use the raw materials around him to affect his survival. Ultimately, the only thing which could prevent the castaway from doing these things, aside from his willingness and ability, is brute force from another human being.
Therein lies the objectivist ethic. What human beings need in order to survive and thrive is not provision, but the liberty to act upon their own judgment. Put another way, liberty is life. To deprive a man of his liberty is to deprive him of his life, to drain or contain him. Therefore, the recognition and protection of individual rights are essential.
Hearing this for the first time, I felt as though I had found the Holy Grail of conservative apology. While natural law evoked a Creator which secular leftists could simply deny, this objectivist argument stood firmly upon reason and the uncontestable facts of reality. How is it that this was not being echoed across conservative media, I asked myself. Then I got my answer.
Biddle concluded his talk by turning a critical eye toward faith, religion, and Christianity in particular. He argued that Christianity promotes altruism, which is the opposite of the egoism required for human survival. A castaway employs egoism, living for himself, seeking that which perpetuates and improves his life. An altruist lives for others – for the poor, for the tribe, for the state, for God. The path of altruistic sacrifice leads to destruction, Biddle argued. With that, he lost me. As a Christian, I was not about to renounce my faith in support of a compelling political argument.
It was roughly a year from that first exposure to objectivist philosophy that I was confronted with it again, this time in a breakout session at the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit in Phoenix, Arizona. Yaron Brook, president and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, offered a presentation on how morality informs the cultural battles in our political discourse. Like Biddle, he laid out the case for the objectivist ethic. Unlike Biddle, he avoided the topic of religion. That was until I rained on the parade by asking him about God during the Q & A. Forced to disclose his atheism, he lost most of his audience.
After his talk, I approached Brook and told him that I thought the arguments he and other objectivists were making in support of individual rights were fantastic, but doomed to obscurity so long as they were tied to criticism of religion. When you come after Jesus, you turn off a huge segment of your audience. Brook shrugged and unapologetically declared that, as an atheist, reconciling faith with reason was not his job. It is up to the Christian to examine their faith and determine whether it makes any logical sense.
That exchange stuck with me and motivated a study of Objectivism and a review of Christian apologetics. What I found was, far more often than not, Christian critics of Ayn Rand do not understand what Objectivism really is. Likewise, far more often than not, Objectivist critics of Christianity do not discern between what professing Christians have said or done and what the Bible actually teaches. Here are 6 fatal misconceptions which prevent an essential dialogue.
6) Selfishness Is Bad
In our culture, selfishness gets a bum rap. We hurl the word in spite, and receive it defensively. We have been taught from a young age that the fundamental difference between heroes and villains is that the former live for others while the latter think only of themselves.
In her non-fiction follow-up to Atlas Shrugged provocatively titled The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand reclaimed the word to advocate egoism. She explained:
The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
Rand expounded upon the importance of applying reason to the question of what is in one’s own interest:
There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level (see “The Objectivist Ethics”).
An example frequently touted by advocates of Objectivism is the graft of Bernie Madoff. His crimes are conventionally thought of as selfish, since he sought profit by victimizing others. However, a rational assessment of Madoff’s scheme concludes that it was not in his rational long-term self-interest. Look at his life today. Where is he? What is his reputation? Who loves him? On what can he rest any sense of pride? His crimes were not in service of a rational ego.
Even so, an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs who has stolen nothing from anyone is nonetheless regarded as selfish for not being as charitable as Bill Gates. Yet Jobs’ pursuit of his rational long-term self-interest provided a higher quality of life for billions of people living today and yet unborn. While Gates’ pursuit of his own interest has also benefited billions of people, his willingness to give his money away has earned him far more accolades.
Selfishness, concern with one’s one interests, is the well-spring of life on Earth. If we never acted selfishly, if we never concerned ourselves with our own interests, we would surely die.
5) Being Selfish Precludes Charity, Kindness, and Love
Christians tend toward disgust when first encountering Ayn Rand’s description of selfishness as virtue, perceiving concern with one’s own values as disregard for everyone else. Commentator Tom Hoefling responds typically:
According to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the firefighters who went up the stairs of the World Trade Center on 9-11-2001 were fools. The men who rushed the cockpit on Flight 93 to stop the plane from being crashed into the Capitol or the White House were idiots. The soldier who gives his life for his buddies or for his country is to be scorned for his ignorance of Ayn Rand's immoral "morality."
An objectivist friend of mine, a fellow Tea Party traveler, recently bid farewell to her only son as he shipped out to become a Marine. She does not think her son a fool.
Rational egoism does not produce a short-sighted self-centeredness which ignores all context. On the contrary, true selfishness recognizes the value of relationships and takes joy in rational giving. The sentiment that giving is better than receiving recognizes the selfish gain which occurs through gifting. Why else would we watch our loved ones open presents on Christmas morning? If it was just for them and did nothing for us, what would be the point?
Firefighters do not run into burning buildings in order to die. They run into burning buildings in order to more fully live. Soldiers do not enlist to die for their country. They enlist to live free. No one throws their body on top of a live grenade because they seek to die for their friends. They do it to protect those whom they value.
The use of the word “sacrifice” in our language distorts the true motivation behind service. It is not a sacrifice for a parent to divert time from other interests to invest in raising their child. It is not a sacrifice for a police officer to run toward gunfire in an effort to restore the peace. It is not a sacrifice for a husband to spend his life savings on a desperate effort to cure his sick wife. These actions, commonly thought of as sacrifices, are actually winning value trades. Raising your child is worth more than indulging a hobby. A chance at curing your spouse is worth more than money. Neutralizing a threat to the public is worth risking grave injury or death, because life can only be truly lived if free from brute tyranny.
4) Atheism Leads Inexorably to Communism or Fascism
In his recent debate with objectivist advocate Dr. Andrew Bernstein on the question of whether Christianity is “good or bad for mankind,” Dinesh D’Souza fell back upon a tried but not so true equivocation. If Christians are to share responsibility for the historical atrocities of Christendom, D’Souza argued atheists must share responsibility for the historical atrocities of atheistic regimes. It was atheism which enabled the rise of communism and fascism, he claimed, casting objectivists like Ayn Rand alongside tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
D’Souza proves half right. Not all Christians, nor Christianity itself, can be blamed for the crimes of Christendom. As an objectivist, Bernstein ought to appreciate the fallacy of guilt by association. However, it hardly serves D’Souza to point out that fallacy only to turn around and use it against objectivists. Atheism is not the distinguishing characteristic between capitalism and communism. Capitalism distinguishes itself through its recognition of individual rights.
Ayn Rand was born in Russia and raised in the Soviet Union. She despised the statists in her midst and was thrilled at the chance to immigrate to America. There was likely no greater critic of communism in her day. She put native-born American intellectuals to shame as she decried the tyranny from which she had escaped, even as her American critics admired it. Rand was way ahead of the curve when it came to recognizing the threat posed by the Soviets and their sympathizers in the West. To equate her philosophy with communism or fascism is to admit utter ignorance of what she advocated.
Rand’s philosophical accomplishment is so earth-shattering and counter-intuitive that it has yet to be widely perceived. Prior to Rand, natural law or the notion of God-given rights was the only alternative to the statist claims of the Left. This perceived dichotomy informs the view that Judeo-Christian values square off against atheism in a contest between liberty and tyranny. Rand tipped the scales of that battle by proving the dichotomy false. She demonstrated through reason that liberty is -- objectively -- the only moral condition for man. She proved that men are not properly regarded as the means to the ends of others, that they own their own life, and that they must be free to pursue their own happiness. Though an atheist, Rand bolstered the audacious claims of the Declaration of Independence by solidifying them in the facts of reality.
If objectivists “took over the world,” Christians would enjoy unprecedented religious freedom. Though atheistic, Objectivism could never result in the tyranny of communism or fascism.
3) Christianity Suppresses Reason
Having considered three crucial misconceptions of Objectivism, let us now turn to misconceptions of Christianity. We should note that objectivists generally know how their philosophy is misunderstood. Christians, on the other hand, frequently contribute to misconceptions of their faith because many are sadly unsure why they believe what they believe. For that reason, these last points may be as enlightening to professing Christians as they are intended to be for non-believers.
I cringe whenever I hear Christians concede that reason is antithetical to Christianity. The sufficiency of scripture stands among the central doctrines of biblical Christianity. So some professing Christians attest that any appeal to reason somehow rejects sola scriptura. To be frank, this is nonsense. Holding to the sufficiency of scripture limits the scope of supernatural revelation, not the scope of human knowledge. The Bible does not tell us how to grow crops or build homes or fashion automobiles or generate electricity. With apologies to the Amish, utilizing technology is not an extra-biblical conceit. To violate the sola scriptura doctrine, a Christian must turn to an extra-biblical source for supernatural revelation. Reason is not a means toward supernatural revelation. So the Christian need not reject reason as an idol.
While it is true that Christendom -- the history of human institutions professing ecclesiastical authority in the name of Christ -- has suppressed reason by persecuting heretics and resisting science, biblical Christianity advocates individual conscience (Romans 14) and freedom of thought. It is actually unbiblical to suppress reason.
Furthermore, an entire branch of Christian ministry known as “discernment” specializes in applying reason to determine whether emergent teaching from professing Christian pastors and authors is consistent with scripture. If it were true that you could believe anything under Christian premises, as Andrew Bernstein asserted in his debate with Dinesh D’Souza, then discernment would be an exercise in futility.
The difference between Christians and objectivists is not that the latter apply reason while the former reject it. The difference is the epistemological context in which each operate. While objectivists maintain that human knowledge is limited to the observable, Christians accept evidence of divine revelation. Contrary to Bernstein’s characterization, believing in biblical revelation does not open a Pandora’s Box of unlimited fantasy. Christians do not believe a burning bush can speak. They believe an all-powerful God can speak through any means He chooses to employ. Christians do not believe that the dead can come back to life. They believe that God can resurrect that which He created in the first place. Christian doctrine is logical in the context of Christian epistemology.
2) Christianity Is Altruistic
To achieve understanding, we must define our terms. We have considered how selfishness is defined in mainstream culture, as opposed to how Ayn Rand defined it. We touched upon a similar distinction regarding sacrifice. While giving your life for something you value more -- like the life of your child -- makes rational sense, giving it for something you do not value is a true sacrifice.
Altruism must also be defined, as it stands opposite the egoism Rand advocated. Like sacrifice, altruism holds a sacred place in our cultural discourse. Yet, as we explored while considering the true meaning of selfishness, many of the acts we regard as altruistic are profoundly self-serving. While we think of our armed forces as serving the country, they actually serve their own vital interest -- a free nation in which to live in peace and pursue happiness. While those of us who have not served benefit immensely from the actions of those who have, imagine the conceit required to assume any given solider weathered his or her duty with you personally in mind. It’s a fair bet they think of their own life, of their friends and family.
Objectivism defines altruism as living for others at the expense of your own interests. Think of depriving your child of desperately needed medicine in order to give it to a stranger, or taking your life savings to pay for the care of someone else’s sick spouse while neglecting your own.
Objectivists like Andrew Bernstein accuse Christianity of advocating such altruism. They point to the teachings of Jesus Christ, such as those regarding the care of the poor, and the atoning death of Christ on behalf of sinners as examples. Yet, again, we must consider context in order to understand what the Bible actually teaches. Christ’s death on the cross was not a sacrifice in the objectivist sense, but a willing trade of his earthly life for something He valued more -- the eternal lives of human beings he loves. Like a parent giving their life to save their children, Christ served his own interest.
Likewise, what may appear to be an altruistic Christian lifestyle is actually self-serving. Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis has generated controversy with his concept of Christian hedonism. What may sound like an oxymoron makes sense once explained. Piper demonstrates from scripture that “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him.” In other words, the purpose of life is to achieve eternal satisfaction. It’s a cosmic win-win where obedience results in complete fulfillment, much in the same way a child heeding his father’s warning to stay out of a busy street results in safety. God knows what we need. We need Him. When we surrender to that, we are fulfilled. It is entirely about Him, but nonetheless serves our interests. It's an arrangement Ayn Rand might have appreciated, where a self-existent God created men to glorify himself.
1) Christianity Condones Theocracy
In his debate with Dinesh D’Souza, Andrew Bernstein claimed that whenever Christianity has been the dominant philosophy in a culture, theocracy has followed. He chronicled the well-known history of the church and its incestuous relationship with the state.
While the history of the church cannot be denied, it is hardly fair to single out Christianity when the vast majority of human history is a chronicle of irrational tyranny. Classical liberalism based in Enlightenment reasoning is the brief experimental exception.
Biblical Christianity does not prescribe an earthly theocracy. As explored previously, Jesus claimed a kingdom not of this world. First-century Christians did not seek civil authority to force their worldview upon their neighbors. The apostle Paul instructed the Roman congregation to submit to earthly authorities when it would not compromise their faith. Christian politics can be summed up simply – Christ is King no matter who is president. The minutiae of human government may remain the realm of human reason without offering threat to the Kingdom of God.
We must pause here to acknowledge that many professing Christians believe otherwise, subscribing to various forms of dominion theology spanning the ideological spectrum from Jim Wallis’s Sojourners on the Left to the Seven Mountain Mandate on the Right. However, the authority for what is Christian remains Jesus Christ and his Word revealed in scripture. Such efforts toward a kind of theocracy are not advocated in the Bible. Rather, Christ commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all the nations.” Far from promising earthly dominion this side of glory, our Lord warned that true Christians would be scattered amidst a sea of pretenders. Matthew 17:13-23:
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness."
Therefore, judge Christianity not by the actions of any who claim to be Christian, but by the doctrine found in scripture. By that standard, non-believers need not fear a Christian theocracy, and can be assured that true Christians will stand alongside them in condemnation of any attempt to impose tyranny.
Having given much consideration to the content of the recent debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Andrew Bernstein, and having knocked down some major barriers to understanding, we will wrap up next week with a vision of how Christians and objectivists can ally politically despite their fundamentally different worldviews.
The case for belief in God and the practice of a religion is very simple: doing so will make you happier. :-)
Part 4, the Conclusion: A Reason for Faith: Onward Christian Egoist
A Reason for Faith: Onward Christian Egoist
Previous articles in this series:
- 5 Common Accusations Leveled at Christianity
- A Reason for Faith: Christianity on Trial
- A Reason for Faith: 6 Fatal Misconceptions
When Abraham Lincoln needed to rally the nation toward unity, he referenced Matthew 12:25:
But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand…”
That principle proves timeless. Divide and conquer remains an effective tactic. Perhaps that informs the many writers on the Left who have strived to drive a wedge between followers of Jesus Christ and adherents to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Consider Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero, who once wrote that “marrying Ayn Rand to Jesus Christ is like trying to interest Lady Gaga in Donny Osmond.” He cautioned Republican readers against conflating them:
Rand's trinity is "I me mine." Christianity's is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So take your pick. Or say no to both. It's a free country. Just don't tell me you are both a card-carrying Objectivist and a Bible-believing Christian. Even Rand knew that just wasn't possible.
Truthfully, one cannot be both a Christian and an Objectivist. As covered throughout this series, Objectivist epistemology does not allow for any acknowledgement of the supernatural. However, one can be a Christian and recognize many of the objective truths which Ayn Rand articulated. After all, Christians do not deny objective reality. We merely recognize an eternal context. Worldviews need not align to overlap.
Prothero employs the typical objection to any alliance between Christians and objectivists:
Real conservatism is also about sacrifice, as is authentic Christianity. President Kennedy was liberal in many ways, but, "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country" was classic conservatism. Rand, however, will brook no such sacrifice. Serve yourself, she tells us, and save yourself as well. There is no higher good than individual self-satisfaction.
Here, both Christianity and Objectivism are misrepresented. True, Rand deplored Kennedy’s classic inaugural exhortation, perceiving it to subordinate the individual to the collective (although it could be argued Kennedy intended the opposite). However, she never presented “individual self-satisfaction” as the standard of value. One can be fully satisfied in any given moment without serving their rational long-term self-interest.
As considered in this series, Rand’s standard of value was life. She recognized that each individual either acts in service of his own life, survives by feeding on the life of his neighbor, or withers and dies. Regardless of whatever method Professor Prothero uses to discern “authentic Christianity,” the apostle Paul made it clear that individuals are responsible for their own lives. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10:
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
That apostolic rule is conveniently forgotten by a religious Left which seeks to cast Christ as a socialist. The Bible has very little to say about civil government, its focus being an emphatic invitation to the kingdom of God. It certainly does not call for Christians to initiate force and pass it off as charity.
Sacrifice is the wedge used by the Left to drive Christians and Objectivists apart. Prothero demonstrates the tactic, presenting Rand’s aversion to sacrifice as fundamentally anti-Christian. It hardly fosters understanding when Objectivists echo this sentiment. Objectivists and Christians are not necessarily talking about the same thing, despite using the same word. As previously explored, much of what the mainstream Judeo-Christian culture considers sacrifice qualifies as rational self-interest in Objectivism. Our armed forces serve to maintain a free world in which they intend to live and pursue happiness. They do not seek to die for someone else. Yet their service is commonly regarded as sacrifice. Regardless of such semantics, both Christians and Objectivists value action taken in service of life.
Despite adhering to fundamentally different worldviews, Christians and Objectivists can find common ground on the primacy of the individual in public policy. Consider Ayn Rand’s vision for government:
A society that robs an individual of the product of his effort, or enslaves him, or attempts to limit the freedom of his mind, or compels him to act against his own rational judgment-a society that sets up a conflict between its edicts and the requirements of man’s nature—is not, strictly speaking, a society, but a mob held together by institutionalized gang-rule. Such a society destroys all the values of human coexistence, has no possible justification and represents, not a source of benefits, but the deadliest threat to man’s survival. Life on a desert island is safer than and incomparably preferable to existence in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany.
If men are to live together in a peaceful, productive, rational society and deal with one another to mutual benefit, they must accept the basic social principle without which no moral or civilized society is possible: the principle of individual rights.
To recognize individual rights means to recognize and accept the conditions required by man’s nature for his proper survival.
Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.
The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.
What part of that conflicts with Christianity? On virtually every issue facing the nation today, Objectivists may conceivably stand alongside Christians in common cause. Though opposed to religion, the Objectivist's affirmation of conscience guarantees religious freedom. At Tea Party rallies across the country, signs asking “Who is John Galt?” were held alongside others reading “God only asks for 10%.” While differing greatly on philosophical particulars, each contingent seeks limited government tasked with upholding individual rights.
There are some prominent areas of irreconcilable disagreement, such as the issue of abortion. As Prothero eagerly highlights, Ayn Rand claimed the unborn have no rights to recognize. Nevertheless, such differences stand out as exceptions among shared goals. Also noteworthy, the disagreement over abortion pivots on the interpretation of individual rights rather than recognition of those rights.
Bottom line: the Left has much to lose from a coalition between Christians and Objectivists. An alliance of secular and religious activists in support of individual rights would stabilize one of the major fault lines commonly exploited to disrupt Republican unity.
That said, we would be remiss without acknowledging professing Christian theocrats who have as much to lose from a mainstreaming of Objectivist principles as the Left does. If you expect government to compel Christian living, to punish sin and subsidize faith, then you prove as statist as any leftist. Recall that the progressive era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries birthed the nationwide prohibition of alcohol, advocated primarily by Christian moralists. In so doing, those Christians broke from their forebears who sought no such control over individual lives, yet were just as religious.
It is one thing to preach the reality of sin, and quite another to claim an earthly authority to codify religious judgments into civil law. While the often abused phrase "separation of church and state" is found nowhere in the Constitution, the guarantee of religious freedom requires compartmentalizing civil and ecclesiastical authority. Religion cannot properly be the basis for civil law.
Whether we believe our nature is God-given or merely “a metaphysical given,” our rights are derived from that nature. We shall either recognize and protect them, or sanction their violation. As God knew from eternity past, the endowment of rights enables sin. If He, in his infinite wisdom, cannot be properly credited with sin for enabling it through creation, surely we cannot be properly credited with sin for enabling it through legislation. God made us free and has dealt with our sin in his way on his timetable. It is not for us to feebly add to his finished work through state-enforced legalism. God’s got sin covered. When dealing with each other here on Earth, let reason prevail.
Have any ideas for future philosophical and ideological mash-ups you would like to see explored at PJ Lifestyle? What subjects would you like to see Walter explore in the future? Please leave your ideas in the comments. -DMS
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