Can you be an atheist without being a Randian objectivist?

Can you be an atheist without being a Randian objectivist? January 18, 2014

(For H.M. and D.M., who are usually better than this.)

Ayn Rand claimed that her philosophy was the One True Faith for anyone who does not subscribe to religious faith. She said that what she called “Objectivism” — the “virtue of selfishness” and a vehement rejection of altruism — was the only Real, True Atheism. Anyone who claimed to be an atheist, but refused to follow her particular program, therefore, wasn’t the genuine article.

That’s malarkey, though.

And it would be dreadfully foolish for me, as a Christian, to accept this Randian assertion as the One True Definition of Atheism. It would be foolish and wrong for me to think that I could turn around and use this definition in the same way that Rand’s Randiest disciples do — as a means of separating the wheat from the chaff and of making pronouncements about who is and who is not really, truly a legitimate atheist, or about what atheism really entails, or what all real atheists do and must really believe.

Ayn Rand claimed to represent the only legitimate form of atheism, and that all atheists must reject altrusim. She was wrong. For a Christian to swallow that claim would be like an atheist getting bamboozled by white Southern fundamentalists’ claim that their modern American invention of biblical literalism is the only legitimate expression of Real, True Christianity.

Foolish and wrong. It would be factually wrong, for one thing, because it would deny the reality of the full expanse, breadth, depth and diversity of atheism. It would require me to ignore the existence of atheist altruism, which is real and impressive. Ignoring is ignorant. Denying the existence and the agency of millions of people is ignorant (and also rudely disrespectful to those people). Any theory about Real, True Atheism that requires me to pretend that millions of people and their views do not exist is clearly a false theory. As a wise friend of mine recently said, when your theory makes you deny facts, it’s harmful.

The claim that Objectivism is the purest, truest, and only legitimate form of atheism would also be historically obtuse. Ayn Rand wasn’t even born until the 20th century. Atheism and atheists had thrived for thousands of years before her take on atheism had even been invented. But apparently none of those atheists — Paine, Voltaire, none of them — really counts as a legitimate RTA. If something has existed all over the world for centuries, you can’t claim that it’s only true and legitimate form was something that arose in America in the 20th century as something particular to America in the 20th century.

It would also be logically wrong. Rand was sure that Objectivism was the only rational and logical philosophy for anyone who did not believe in a God or in Gods. But the arithmetic of her logic didn’t add up. She would say that anyone claiming to be an atheist who failed to embrace Objectivism was being unreasonable. She believed that freethinkers were not free to think otherwise. Yet millions of atheists have concluded otherwise — reasonably and rationally arguing that atheism entails no such strict set of Objectivist beliefs. They point out that atheism throughout history has never required such beliefs, and that nothing Rand argued has changed that for today. And they seem to be right on the merits of the question.

It would be illogical in another way as well — or at least inconsistent. I haven’t abandoned my Christian faith and converted to Randian Objectivism because I believe Rand was wrong. I believe Ayn Rand was wholly, utterly and often stupidly wrong. It would be inconsistent, then for me to insist that Rand was wrong about everything except for the definition of Real, True Atheism — wrong about everything except for one thing, about which she must be regarded as the sole correct authority whose pronouncements overrule those of every so-called atheist who says any different.

That would be like … like … oh, let’s say like recognizing the delusional dishonesty of everything Ken Ham has to say about science and history, but then turning around and declaring him to be correct and authoritative when it comes to biblical interpretation and hermeneutics.

So, again, it would be really, really dumb for me to get bamboozled by Rand and her claim to have represented the definition of Real, True Atheism. It would be factually ignorant for me to get duped like that. It would be anti-historical. And it would be illogical.

It would also be kind of dickish. In at least two ways. First, it would involve a laughably misplaced condescension. I would need to look down my nose at all non-Objectivist atheists and Randsplain to them that it doesn’t matter what they say or what they think — they’re not really atheists at all — not Real, True Atheists. I would be arrogating to myself, as an outsider, a competence I could not possibly justify claiming. And I would be denying to them any such competence.

And it would also be kind of dickish because Randian Objectivism is an ugly, stunted, disreputable “philosophy.” By holding up this hideous thing as the epitome of all Real, True, Atheism, I would be tarring all atheists with an ugly Randian brush. I would be telling every atheist in the world “You’re either a selfish Randian, and you’re just too stupid to realize it yet, or else you’re not really an atheist at all, and you’re too stupid to realize that yet. But either way, it’s not for you to say. It’s for me to say, on the basis of this parochial, disreputable fringe character and her flimsy indefensible assertions.”  That would be kind of dickish.

Facts matter. History and the bigger, global context matters. Logic matters. And not being condescending and insulting matters. These things are all important. They are values I share with many of my fellow Christians and with many of my atheist neighbors.

So let’s value those values. OK?

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