Weekly Link Roundup

There are couple of news items this week that I thought merited a brief mention.

First, in the New Yorker, James Wood provides another piece of evidence for my theory that the only kind of atheists considered “respectable” are the ones who wish they were religious:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.

And while we’re on the topic of concern trolling, here’s a superb example from the masters of the tactic, the Discovery Institute:

Coyne is an evolutionary biologist of the first rank, but that is where his competence ends. His arguments against the existence of God are embarrassing, and, like the arguments of Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists, are eliciting a backlash among intellectuals who have at least a modicum of philosophical and theological education.

…The damage that Coyne and other New Atheists are doing to their own atheist cause is incalculable.

One would think that if we New Atheists are hurting our own cause so much, creationist kooks like this one would stay quiet and let us self-destruct, rather than issuing us dire warnings about how we’re ruining the cause of atheism by being all outspoken and passionate and articulate and such. It’s a fairly safe bet that whatever ID advocates urge us not to do, that’s the thing we should be doing more of.

Lastly, this made my day – an article from the New Republic about Ayn Rand and her cultish right-wing political philosophy. I recommend reading the whole thing if you have the time, but here are some highlights to give you a taste:

The young, especially young men, thrill to Rand’s black-and-white ethics and her veneration of the alienated outsider, shunned by a world that does not understand his gifts.

She wrote of one of the protagonists of her stories that “he does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people”; and she meant this as praise.

Her political worldview began to crystallize during the New Deal, which she immediately interpreted as a straight imitation of Bolshevism. Rand threw herself into advocacy for Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential nominee in 1940, and after Wilkie’s defeat she bitterly predicted “a Totalitarian America, a world of slavery, of starvation, of concentration camps and of firing squads.” [Editor's Note: Does this remind you of anything in the news lately?]

Rand’s inner circle turned quickly and viciously on their former superior. Alan Greenspan, a cherished Rand confidant, signed a letter eschewing any future contact with Branden or his wife. Objectivist students were forced to sign loyalty oaths, which included the promise never to contact Branden, or to buy his forthcoming book or any future books that he might write. Rand’s loyalists expelled those who refused these orders, and also expelled anyone who complained about the tactics used against dissidents.

Rand held up her own meteoric rise from penniless immigrant to wealthy author as a case study of the individualist ethos. “No one helped me,” she wrote, “nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”

But this was false. Rand spent her first months in this country subsisting on loans from relatives in Chicago, which she promised to repay lavishly when she struck it rich. (She reneged, never speaking to her Chicago family again.)

and a pitch-perfect summation of the whole movement:

Ultimately the Objectivist movement failed for the same reason that communism failed: it tried to make its people live by the dictates of a totalizing ideology that failed to honor the realities of human existence.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • valhar2000

    Ayn Rand, a very good example of why no-one should lump all atheists together. Right there, in her life, you have an example of an atheistic religion.

    Sure, the lack of an actual god will be a deal breaker for any theists, for whom that particular feature of religion is of critical importance; but for someone like me, for whom a god is just one feature among others of a belief system, Randism has more than enough markers (as did, by the way, the Communism she so virulently hated).

    Sam Harris was right, no country has ever suffered because its people became too reasonable. Not a single one.

  • 2-D Man

    One would think that if we New Atheists are hurting our own cause so much, creationist kooks like this one would stay quiet and let us self-destruct…

    Meh, I still call out creationists even though I think creationism is directly harmful to religion (I know at least one Christian gave it all up because of creationism ;) ). What’s more odd is to see an institution that claims to do scientific research give a rat’s ass about people having a “modicum of philosophical and theological education.” It wouldn’t be odd at all if this were on someone’s personal blog, but at a “science” website, it seems out of place.

  • Ritchie

    What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.

    ‘disappointed belief’? What on Earth would that be like? Cynical world-weariness? Embittered disenchantment? These are things we should ASPIRE to?

    Also, what IS a ‘theologically engaged’ atheist? An atheist that spends all his time arguing with theists? Most of the people who post here are extremely clued-up on theological issues and doctrine – more so than many self-proclaimed theists. Does that mean we are theologically-engaged atheists?

  • http://www.wayofthemind.org Pedro Timóteo

    One small mistake, Ebon: the link to the Rand article links to the 3rd and final page, not to the beginning of the article as it should. I found it strange that most of what you quoted wasn’t there… :)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Ayn Rand’s politics were twisted, but you can’t question her intelligence. She figured out that she wasn’t going to get rich by telling poor people that it is morally meritorious to be poor. Now, telling rich people that it is morally meritorious to be rich, that’s a paying proposition.

    Perhaps Rand’s worst fault is that her books are boring. Aspiring authors: do not allow your characters to monologue for tens of pages at a time.

  • Dave

    She wrote of one of the protagonists of her stories that “he does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people”; and she meant this as praise.

    Seems to me to describe some aspects of an autistic person.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Perhaps Rand’s worst fault is that her books are boring. Aspiring authors: do not allow your characters to monologue for tens of pages at a time.

    Reginald–

    “Dry” isn’t quite the word for it, now is it? Just goes to show that art should exist for its own sake alone. Anything else isn’t art; it’s screed.

  • konrad_arflane

    It’s a fairly safe bet that whatever ID advocates urge us not to do, that’s the thing we should be doing more of.

    That assumes competence on their part.

  • konrad_arflane

    And now I’ve read the article on Rand. Good piece, but there was little in it I hadn’t seen elsewhere. Some of that little was this:

    Objectivism was premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavors. Emotion and taste had no place. When Rand condemned a piece of literature, art, or music (she favored Romantic Russian melodies from her youth and detested Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms), her followers adopted the judgment.

    I am flabbergasted that one can place logic as the central virtue, and then argue for the Russian Romantics over Bach and Brahms. That in itself ought to make you a laughing-stock (and “detesting” Bach, Mozart and Brahms would already place you outside the set “people I want to have conversations with”).

  • Justin

    Oh, I don’t think it’s fair to say Rand’s work is boring. I mean, have you ever read Kant? Aristotle?

    If you read her books as novels, they’re not exactly thrilling. But if you read them as a philosophical screed, they’re pretty good. I don’t think I’ve found more engrossing philosophy outside of Plato’s dialogues, and perhaps some of Nietzsche’s more enraged monologues.

    I mean, who can’t enjoy a tale where a bunch of robber barons get so angry about paying taxes that they all quit their jobs and take up field labor in the mountains? Oh the schadenfreud! If only republicans would do the same…

  • barnetto

    I think the philosophy is still fatally flawed in places, but “open” objectivists have made revisions to the original source (Rand) that help bring it more in line with reality. Not to a point that I would subscribe to it, but actually acknowledging human emotions and having compassion is a good start.

  • Siamang

    “I mean, who can’t enjoy a tale where a bunch of robber barons get so angry about paying taxes that they all quit their jobs and take up field labor in the mountains? Oh the schadenfreud! ”

    You know, I would pay good money to see a movie version of that. One that wasn’t a screed, but where the characters were realistic and found out that it’s fucking hard work doing something other than watching numbers roll by on a ticker-tape.

    Yes, PLEASE Republican fuckwits, Go GALT! Then I can take your job.

  • Alex, FCD

    Oh, I don’t think it’s fair to say Rand’s work is boring. I mean, have you ever read Kant? Aristotle?

    Kant and Aristotle were smart.

  • jemand

    @ Alex

    Rand was at least as smart as Marx. I’d say both of them don’t hold a candle to Kant, but it’s at least something.

  • Dark Jaguar

    “You know, I would pay good money to see a movie version of that. One that wasn’t a screed, but where the characters were realistic and found out that it’s fucking hard work doing something other than watching numbers roll by on a ticker-tape.”

    Bioshock. It’s a game rather than a movie, but it makes the point rather clearly. It’s a dystopian take on a man who thinks exactly like Rand, but it all goes completely wrong for extremely obvious reasons. Instead of the mountains, they take up residence in an underwater city called “Rapture”.

    Just to give you an idea, the very first boss you fight is a crazed plastic surgeon who believes beauty is a moral necessity (also, he’s a fan of picasso).

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Wait, wait, are we seriously trying to compare the intelligence and entertainment value of different persons living in different cultures at different times and arguing for different positions? I have a shortcut to where this is going: “My favorite philosopher’s dick is bigger than your favorite philosopher’s dick!”

    As for my own contribution to the dick-waving contest, I think Rand’s main problem was her exaltation of the ego; she had a pathological inability to get over her bad self. Everybody’s a mixed bag, but Ayn seems to have put herself into her own god-spot, and… well, that’ll drive you a little nuts, I think.

    Also, @ Dark Jaguar, I loved BioShock and I’m looking forward to the sequel (the System Shock games established a good pedigree). I played that game into the wee hours with friends from the philosophy department – we felt dirty, but gleeful. I also like how the only worthwhile character in the game is the one who tries to help other people out of the goodness of her heart – she’s the only one to never initiate or threaten force against another.

  • Brian

    I have the same problem with Rand’s system of morals that I have with any absolute system of morals—it denies where human beings came from and creates an unnatural kind of world that the human psyche can’t handle.

    Marx’s system failed for the same reason. Some of the moral tenets in communism are theoretically great, but when you implement it on human beings who were designed for the ancient world, it falls apart.

    As for Rand’s fiction, I can take it or leave it. It has some pedagogical purposes, but overall, it’s not enduring like Orwell’s. As for her philosophy, she seems to claim that certain axioms are metaphysically true. Why? Well… they just are. I’ve pressed Objectivists on this point and the response is frequently cryptic (eg: read more of her writing, you just don’t understand, etc).

    barnetto,

    You’re right that some Objectivists have revised her philosophy, but when it comes to moral issues, where Objectivism is claimed to excell, it falls short. For example, what rights do children have in an Objectivist society? I’ve read numerous blogs and debates about this issue, and it seems that Objectivism fails to be objective! Another absolute moral system bites the dust, imo.

  • XPK

    @D -

    You stated: “I also like how the only worthwhile character in the game is the one who tries to help other people out of the goodness of her heart – she’s the only one to never initiate or threaten force against another.”

    Dr. Tennenbaum (I believe that is the name of the character in Bioshock you are referring to) does threaten violence when your character encounters the first Little Sister. This character also worked in german prison camps doing genetic experiments during WWII before coming to Rapture. I just got done reading the post about including more diversity in the atheist movement, so I’m going to hijack a little and go off on a tangent about sexism in Bioshock.

    Little Sisters collect Adam (which is the most important item in all of Rapture) but Eve is scattered everywhere and can be purchased from vending machines. Ultimately, women (Little Sisters) hold the maleness (Adam) for all of Rapture, and the only way to get it is to defeat the ultimate Male (Big Daddies). Then it is the males decision regarding what to do with the disposable female (Little Sisters) to get at the maleness (Adam). Even at the end of the game, the male protagonist BECOMES the ultimate Male (Big Daddy) where he is charged with protecting the females (Little Sisters). But if the first Little Sister you get dies, you can just get another one to crawl out of the wall for you.

    Where is this going? Well, ultimately my point is that because Dr. Tennebaum is female, she is powerless in Rapture. Therefore she can only influence Rapture by appealing to you as the male protagonist to take down the ultra-mega male nemesis, Fontaine. Sexist rant about Bioshock over.

    Back to the actual topic in the OP…not all atheists argue against the existence of god, but more that the lack of evidence for god makes his existence highly suspect. That line of reasoning is a very difficult stance for people with black & white thinking to grasp, and something I have had a very difficult time trying to explain to my liberal, Christian friends.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @ Brian: You see, the axioms are self-evident, and if you don’t get that, then you’re just not being rational. Tee-hee!

    In all seriousness, that’s the actual explanation for a lot of Objectards. Even I perceived such strong agreement with the axioms that I thought they required no explanation (and even Aristotle said we should be careful of asking for demonstrations of all things). What it took me a while to learn – and I actually learned it by being yelled at by a philosophy professor advocating the opposite position – is that there is no such thing as being “rational, full stop.” Rationality requires context, and though all belief systems are ultimately circular, some are prettier and happier circles than others and they all touch on at least a couple key points.

    @ XPK: Ooh! Can we play ambiguous interpretation? I love this game!

    TL;DR version: Your binary heteronormative paradigm bores The Letter D! But it’s OK, you’re still groovy. Behold as I show that symbols may mean a great many things, painting BioShock as a metaphorical “trial by fire” instruction book for social cohesion!

    OK, so Adam is this profoundly dangerous substance when unregulated, much like testosterone – and it also gives a drive to do things, which when focused on constructive ends, is actually good. Fortunately, it can only be used by expending Eve, which while plentiful, is not infinite and puts an upper limit on how much Adamancy one may engage in (not to mention making it more expensive as you indulge your Adamantic impulses). This interaction is where the flashy, exciting powers come from: it’s like sex – it’s fun, it’s an outlet for Adam (or testosterone), and while Eve (or females) are willing participants in quite a bit of what goes on, Adam (or males) is always hungry for more and never satisfied on its own.

    Enter the little sisters, innocent children who know nothing of the temptations that testosterone, I mean “Adam,” engenders in its parasitized hosts. These children, ironically, are best-equipped to deal with the parasite-like Adam because of a separate parasite (the slug), which could be seen as causing CAIS in its hosts. They’re female-typical children only for the simple reason that all children, whether XX or XY, start out female-typical until testosterone changes them – being children prevents them from developing secondary sex characteristics and confusing the audience even further. So the little sisters are best prepared to handle Adam because they simply have no use for it. It can’t corrupt them, but they must be broken in what are perhaps even more tragic ways in order to be inoculated against its harmful effects.

    This incites the Adam-&-Eve-crazed populace, male and female, to be jealous over the fact that this “Adam” stuff, which is so tied up in all of their senses of self-worth and personal efficacy, is more or less squandered by the sexless little ingrates who know not the wonder they hold in their hands. And so they must be guarded by the equally sexless but horribly mutilated Rosies and Mr. Bs of the world, who have eschewed all human contact for the sole purpose of protecting the little sisters from the mindless sex-crazed masses. And so the little sisters and big daddies serve as the noble self-sacrificing conscience of society, making Adam-&-Eve-based research (and thus the benefits that brings) possible by abstaining from indulging in it (unlike the general populace who lack all self-control). They are the true engine of progress, the faceless collective giant on whose shoulders the small individual innovators may stand. They do not lift a finger against those who leave them be – but should you raise a hand against them, they will come at you with everything they have to protect the society they’ve made possible for everyone else.

    Tenenbaum stands at the head of this endeavor, walled off from the world and relatively powerless over it, but for one important thing: the innovations she makes go a long way towards shaping the society in which the unwashed masses live. She is for her part a paragon of all that it is to be human. Humans are sexed – and so, by arbitrary happenstance, she is female – and they are messy and have a messy history and occasionally treat each other in messy ways. She embodies all of this, and more: at some level, she is a good person, and she also embodies the good that it is in all of us to do, no matter how messy we each individually may be. Remember that she cures Jack of the “Would you kindly” conditioning that has been so weaponized against him throughout the story, and makes her case to him for why he should go along with her plan, but ultimately leaves the decision for how to live his own life in his own hands. She is, in all these ways, supremely human.

    Ryan is the absolutist par excellence, the man who sees the world in black and white and, most ironic of all, recognizes that the world only makes sense when you force it to (I’d like to thank Frank Miller…). What he cannot see is that the world does not fit black-and-white sense, it can only be made to fit color-and-nuance sense. And so, despite his best efforts, his most ingenious machinations, his most manipulative schemes and his most paranoid precautions, it all comes tumbling down around him. It must, for within him are the seeds of his own destruction (personified in Jack, the player), as his efforts to force the world to fit his absolutist paradigm cause the world itself to bite back at him, ruining him completely. Ever the fearless man, he accepts his fate and at least embraces it gracefully, no matter the trauma it causes others to see him stubbornly cling to his poise. (“Would you kindly… beat me to death?”) And so, for doing his damnedest to at least stay principled to the end, he is the true tragic figure.

    Fontaine, the villain, is our animal impulses in fancy dress; acting like he helps us get things done, he manipulates the player from behind the scenes for his own ends which are ultimately alien from ours. As a gangster and an Adam-&-Eve junkie, he is fueled by all that ruined the society in which he had thrived, and similarly we are all guilty of abusing and enabling each other throughout our histories for no better reason than that we could not rise above our base instincts. Seeking for either side to dominate the other is bound to result in this sort of tragic conflict; we see it again and again in every conflict in the game, no matter who the opponents are. It is ultimately only those who work together instead of against each other, i.e. Jack and Tenenbaum, forgiving their flaws and continuously striving to make the partnership work in spite of their messiness, who survive to see a brighter future. (I can’t remember if Tenenbaum dies – if she does, then Jack works with the little sisters [or not] and the moral of the story depends on the player’s choice – “cooperation is the best,” or “people are all filthy jerks.”)

    Put that in your pope and smike it! Ooh, and then lemme know what you think! I honestly came up with this off the top of my head at work just now, and wanted to see if I could pull off something like The Myth of Penetrative Sex over at Anti-Misandry (I’m not pulling that up at work, not even to link it, so Google it – it’s a great quick read!).

    (Side Note: You’re right about Tenenbaum – I hadn’t been regarding the player as a person and forgot about her WWII stuff. Still – most worthwhile character in the game.)

  • XPK

    D;
    I read The Myth of Penetrative Sex and a bunch of other stuff from that website. Thank you for the referral as I now have a great deal to mentally masticate.

    I also enjoyed your analysis of Bioshock as it critiques the society as a whole. I am curious how many times you have played through the game, because you analyzed various themes quite thoroughly. I also agree that Tenenbaum is the only worthwhile person simply because she sees how horrible things have become and does what she can to change it. In fact, she is one of the few people who does not appear to be spliced (I might be wrong about that…I know Mr Ryan was not spliced up) which could explain her reluctance to take any active role herself (as she would be considerably less powerful than her opposition).

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    XPK,
    I’m glad you enjoyed my perspective! As for your curiosity… I actually only played through the game once, with friends, and we were drinking at the time (most of the time, anyway – it took a few sessions). But I’m very familiar with Rand’s work (I’ve read Anthem, The Foundainhead, Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, and Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand in my late teens), so it was easy to fit all the story bits into that preexisting framework as they unfolded. All I did was try to “step sideways” and see what the story looked like “from over there.” A couple of my friends who read the above had some corrections for me, but nothing worth getting into. Point being, unless the author actually intends to say something in subtext, symbols are fundamentally ambiguous and can be interpreted in various ways, and no unintended interpretation necessarily says anything about the thing being interpreted.