Rebirth of Reason


Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and Religion (Part 3 of 4)
by Neil Parille


Attila Versus The Witch Doctor

In "For the New Intellectual" Rand set forth her philosophy of history, using two terms: "witch doctor" and "Attila." These appear to be identical to the "mystics of the spirit" and "mystics of the muscle" of the Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged.

These two figures-the man of faith and the man of force-are philosophical archetypes, psychological symbols and historical reality. As philosophical archetypes, they embody two variants of a certain view of man and of existence. As psychological symbols, they represent the basic motivation of a great many men who exist in any era, culture or society. As historical reality, they are the actual rulers of most of mankind's societies, who rise to power whenever men abandon reason. [Rand, FNI, p. 14.]

As Greg Nyquist notes, like many intellectuals Rand overestimated the role of ideas in shaping history. [Nyquist, ARHN, pp. 92-94.] Her analysis of history downplays economic, geographical, environmental, and cultural forces.13 Hence, it is not surprising that to Rand it is the witch doctor who is of greater historical significance. Attila is the destroyer whose goal is instant gratification; his range of the moment thinking is unable to give rise to a coherent philosophy. "Who, then, provides Attila with values? The Witch Doctor." [Rand, FNI, p. 16.]

Many readers even those sympathetic to Rand are surprised that she considers Immanuel Kant "the most evil man in mankind's history." [Binswanger, ARL, p. 242.] Normally political leaders such as Hitler and Stalin vie for this distinction. Yet these Attilas were only following the path set forth by their Witch Doctor mentors. Kant was the supreme Witch Doctor, since he was a fundamentally religious and "mystical" thinker. [Rand, FNI, p. 31.] Peikoff states: "One of Kant's major goals was to save religion (including the essence of religious morality) from the onslaughts of science." [Peikoff, OPAR, p. 31.]14

In her philosophy of history, only three "brief periods" of history were "culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century." [Binswanger, ARL, p. 326.] This is odd, considering her identification of reason with the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotelianism was only one strand of Greek thought. Her view of the Renaissance is even stranger, given that the dominant philosophy of the Renaissance was neo-Platonism.15 Her belief that the nineteenth century was also "dominated" by a philosophy of reason is problematic as well, given the rise of Romanticism and other forms of "mysticism" in the years following Kant. In addition, there was a strong revival of religion among the masses in various nations. A possible suggestion is that because these were years of economic progress and relative individual freedom it "must have been" dominated by a philosophy of reason.


In light of the above discussion, we can better understand Rand's objections to religious belief. To the question: what is wrong with religion?, Rand's answer is "everything." Yet, most fundamentally, the problem is that religion is "anti-man." Rand states in "Requiem for Man":

The dominant chord of the encyclical's sense of life is hatred for man's mind hence hatred for man hence hatred for life and for earth hence hatred for man's enjoyment of his life on earth and hence, as a last and least consequence, hatred for the only social system that makes all these values possible in practice: capitalism. [Rand, CUI, p. 304.]

Religion is anti-man, anti-reason, and ultimately anti-freedom. Religion is responsible for altruism, irrationality, and collectivism.

Anthropology and Ethics

Rand's view of man is somewhat conventional. Man is a "rational animal" who possesses "free will." This is true in spite of man's mind and body are parts of nature. [Rand, PWNI, p. 26.] Man's reason is "volitional." Man must choose to think. According to Rand, man should be an "integrated whole." Man's reason and his emotion should work together. When man's approach to life is one of "evasion" or "lethargy" man is split in two. He becomes, "a soul like a shapeless piece of clay stamped by footprints going in all directions." [Rand, RM, p. 26.] Rand goes into some discussion of what she considers the "anti-man" nature of religion in her critique of Humanae Vitae. Implicitly, the encyclical accepts the idea that man is not an "integrated entity, but a being torn apart by two opposite, antagonistic elements: his body . . . and his soul . . . ." [Rand, VOR, p. 47.]

Like many who have an optimistic view of human nature, Rand rejects the Christian doctrine of original sin, which she calls a "monstrous evil." [Rand, FNI, p. 136.]

Your code begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice. It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accept his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start, not with a standard of value, but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good: the good becomes which he is not. . . . A sin without volition is a slap at morality and is an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If a man is evil by birth, he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man's sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man's nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. . . . Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a "tendency" to evil. A free will saddles with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice.

Rand's understanding and critique of the doctrine of original sin is open to a number of criticisms. [See Robbins, WAP, pp. 113-16.] In any event, her opposition to original sin is hardly unique. As McGrath notes, it was "vigorously opposed" in the Enlightenment, naming Voltaire and Rousseau as two examples. [McGrath, CT, p. 84.]

The rejection of the doctrine of original sin was of considerable importance, as the Christian doctrine of redemption rested upon the assumption that humanity required to be liberated from bondage to original sin. For the Enlightenment, it was the idea of original sin itself which was oppressive and from which humanity required liberation. [Id.]

Not only in the doctrine of original sin, but in other "legends" of religion did Rand see religion as degrading to man. In the stories of the Tower of Babel, Phaeton, Icarus and Arachne she sees an attempt to keep man "small." [Schwartz, ROP, p. 138.] This is a good example of Rand's one-sided analysis. Many of the "legends" of religion are in fact attempts to elevate man. The belief that God created man in his image is a testament to man's uniqueness. The pre-Copernican view placed man at, quite literally, the center of the universe. [Greenspan & Andersson, ROR, pp. 132-33.]

Rand's view that religion tends to debase man has parallels with other writers. As Henri De Lubac explains:

As a matter of fact, Christian ethics had never been free from adversaries of that kind. Without going back to the earliest centuries, one may recall, for instance, the pagan surge of the Renaissance, with a Machiavelli setting up against "our religion," for which "the highest happiness lies in humility, abasement and contempt for things human", the old religion that "found the supreme good in greatness of soul, strength of body and the qualities that make man formidable". In the eighteenth century, in the group of publicists revolving round Diderot and Baron d'Holbach, there were several who professed an equal decided anti-Christianism: Grimm, for instance, called Christian dogma a "base and ignoble mythology", reproached it with exercising "the most sinister influences" and teaching "abjectness, ignominy, slavery", vilified "the spirit of Christian charity" and declared that "the spirit of the Gospel has never been able to go hand in hand with the principles of good government." [De Lubac, DAH, pp. 117-18.]

13 Chris Sciabarra presents a more detailed and sympathetic description of Rand's sociology and philosophy of history in Part III of ARRR. Rand's discussion of the interrelatedness of philosophy, psychology, economics and culture is more sophisticated than one would glean from reading one of her essays in isolation. She even realized that her own philosophy could not have been fully articulated in a preindustrial society. [Sciabarra, ARRR, p. 362.]

14 It should be noted that Rand's reading of Kant is controversial, even among philosophers sympathetic to Objectivism. George Walsh critiqued Rand's understanding of Kant in "Ayn Rand and the Metaphysics of Kant" published in the Fall 2000 JARS. Among non-Objectivists, the disagreement is more pronounced. Austrian economist Hans-Herman Hoppe considers her reading of Kant "arrogant nonsense." He cites the work of the libertarian philosopher Bruce Goldberg, who launched a particularly scathing attack on "For the New Intellectual" in The New Individualist Review. [Hoppe, ESAM, pp. 19-20 n. 14.]

15 I am unaware of a single Renaissance figure that Rand ever discussed, even in passing. Hence it is unclear how she determined that the Renaissance was the rebirth of reason and, therefore, Aristotle. She does, however, state that mysticism's hold over man was broken during this period. [Rand, FNI, p. 24.]

Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (66 messages)

User ID Password reminder or create account.