With the recent “Atlas Shrugged Part 2” movie out, and Paul Ryan mentioning that he has read and enjoys Ayn Rand’s books, it may be timely to discuss one of Ayn Rand’s weaknesses in her philosophy. As an admirer of Ayn Rand and an individual who has read most all of her works, I agree with much that Ayn Rand has to offer with her unique philosophy of Objectivism. I particularly appreciate her thoughts on individualism, her ardent defense of capitalism, and her open challenge that altruism should be the supreme virtue for mankind (even though in reality it is not even practiced by its advocates). Where she went wrong with her philosophy of individualism, in my opinion, was her refusal to acknowledge that as individuals we have a spiritual dimension, and her insistence that religion cannot play any part of being a true individual.
To begin with, reason does not deny the existence of G-d or our own spirituality. Human beings have a spiritual nature which is difficult for anyone using reason to deny – and it is not based on lack of knowledge or understanding. It is not the “opium of the masses” as Karl Marx described it. It is a very tangible part of being a rational human being to question where we came from and our purpose in life. Reason alone cannot completely answer these questions for us. Ayn Rand believed that reason was the only source of understanding but denied it allowed for a spiritual dimension.
Ayn Rand was an atheist. She grew up in an atheistic society (the former Soviet Union), a secular household, and believed that religion was simply “mysticism.” If you could not see it, touch it, measure it, then it did not exist according to Rand. Objectivism, her philosophy, was based on what she perceived as reality and nothing else. The supernatural did not exist for Rand, only nature existed. Since G-d is a supernatural being, then G-d could not exist, and any allegiance or devotion to such a G-d was a denial of reality.
If my premise is correct that reason will demonstrate to almost anyone that human beings have a spiritual side, then Ayn Rand’s statements denying human spirituality as nonsense would be incorrect. It is also a denial of individualism. If individuals are free to pursue their own happiness, in whatever way they choose to find it, how can religion be “nonsense” if it truly fulfills an individual? How can Ayn Rand deny a path to happiness for everyone based on her concept of individualism which does not include religion? This appears to be a biased and artificial constraint that should not be part of an individualistic philosophy.
Rand justifies her constraint on individualism by saying that if you believe that G-d commands you to do certain things, you are not a true individual if you simply follow his commands. Religion also tends to elevate altruism as one of the highest ethical values, and Rand considers altruism to be an attempt to coerce individuals to make their own needs subservient to others. Between G-d’s commands and a philosophy of serving others, how does an individual reach their personal highest potential?
Religion and free will are not mutually exclusive. Man can strive to be the best architect or sculptor while at the same time believing in G-d. Capitalism may be laissez-faire being practiced by religious business owners. We can achieve our highest potential as human beings while still recognizing our creator. In fact, many of the greatest intellectual achievements by mankind have come from religious individuals. Are these original thinkers and doers not practicing true individualism?
True individualism and religion may be combined to create a happy life. Ayn Rand was wrong to exclude this possibility and was mistaken to exclude faith as a rational part of the human intellectual experience. I will always enjoy her writings and learn much from them, but her denial of faith is inconsistent with a true individualistic philosophy. We cannot put constraints on free will simply because we don’t share the belief of other individuals. You may be a complete individual while recognizing your dual obligations to society and to G-d.
[Editor's note: it is a Jewish concept to use the word G-d to show respect]