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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Curious Popularity of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was an objectivist philosopher (she essentially founded this philosophical school) who held that reality exists independent of consciousness, that we have direct contact with reality through the perception of our senses, that we can attain objective knowledge through the process of concept formation and inductive and deductive logic, that the proper moral purpose of our lives is the pursuit of our own happiness (i.e., rational self-interest) and that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that fully respects individual rights, which we find embodied in laissez faire capitalism.

Thus, it isn't surprising that she is popular among libertarians, including many Tea Party activists. As I've noted in earlier posts (see "Wealthy GOP (Libertarian) Donors Backing Same-Sex Marriage" and "What Do We Mean By Justice?"), libertarians believe in limited government. They favor free markets and oppose most government regulation. They believe that each of us has a fundamental right to do whatever we want with the things we own as long as we respect the rights of others to do exactly the same thing. That is why they oppose (a) paternalistic legislation -- that is, laws that protect people from themselves (e.g., seatbelt laws), (b) moral legislation -- laws that promote virtue or express the moral convictions of the majority (e.g., pro-life anti-gay rights legislation), and (c) economic legislation that redistributes income and/or wealth (e.g., income taxes used to help the poor in some respect).

What is surprising is Rand's popularity among (primarily) conservative Christians (e.g., Republican Representative Paul Ryan from Wisconsin), because she was so hostile toward religion and people of faith. Rand held that the existence of God and the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice were unacceptable ideas and believed that religion was for the feebleminded masses. She once remarked, "I am against God for the reason that I don't want to destroy reason."

Not all conservative Christians look upon Rand with favor. Former Nixon aide, Charles Colson, certainly isn't. He has warned Christians to beware of Rand's "idolatry of self and selfishness. I am no big fan of big government, but there are far better ways to critique it than Rand's godless nonsense, especially for Christians" (quoted in The Christian Century, June 28, 2011, p. 14).

All this makes one wonder how many people who claim to be influenced by Rand have actually read her  writings. My guess is that very few actually have. And of those Christians who have, I guess they are what Roman Catholic Jay W. Richards (author of, "Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and the Not the Problem") calls "cafeteria Randians," choosing those aspects of her thought with which they agree and discarding the rest.


  1. I also find her quasi personality cult status a bit odd (either among Christians or anyone else that isn't rightfully serving a long prison sentence). However if we leave the personality out of it, I think it is alright for people to partially agree with another person’s philosophy without adopting/agreeing with all of it. Rand’s philosophy makes huge assumptions to maintain its coherence, but like most philosophical positions is not entirely without merit. I feel like I am playing devil’s advocate here because there is very little about her philosophy that I find agreeable. And as a person she is even less agreeable. As far as Christians go, I don't know how Rand’s morality, and however inappropriately Rand herself, could possibly trump Kant's categorical imperative as a better philosophical expression of Christian morality. I agree that self-professed Christians that hold up Rand's philosophy (or Rand herself) as resonant with Jesus's teachings are almost completely ignorant of either Rand or Jesus.

  2. Well, I don't think people have much excuse for misunderstanding Rand, but even those seek to understand what Jesus taught will have difficulty if they are forced to depend mainly on the canonic gospels for their understanding.