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Of Christians and Ayn Rand

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

There have been a number of articles recently discussing Ayn Rand and her Christian supporters and (supposed) followers. One of these is by Sheila Kennedy, who doesn’t do all that bad, though I still see things differently.

Key Questions which I Might not Answer

The key issues I encounter are:

  • How can a Christian enjoy or appreciate Ayn Rand, who is very vigorously atheist?
  • Can Ayn Rand’s philosophy be reconciled with a Christian worldview and way of life?
  • Why do so many young Christians and other conservatives get so excited by Rand’s writing?
  • Is Rand a good writer, enjoyable apart from her philosophy?
  • Rand was not tolerant of any form of disagreement. It was all or nothing. Can one appreciate her writing while rejecting some or even most of her philosophical conclusions?

My Experience

First, for full disclosure, I went through almost all of the views of Rand that I’ve ever heard over the course of some years. I first rejected the very notion of reading her when an undergraduate professor suggested I read The Virtue of Selfishness. After some time, I read her novels, starting with Atlas Shrugged, and as I was searching for a place to be at the time, attempted being a follower. This didn’t work either, though I spent some time at it, so I set her aside. Then I found a different form of appreciation that was not entirely approval, that comes from me as an editor and publisher.

Thus my question becomes why people do like her, and how to understand and discuss the related issues.

I’m not going to structure this according to my list of questions, but I’m going to try to answer these questions in the course of my response.

Is Ayn Rand a Good Writer?

My first issue is with those who say that Ayn Rand is a bad writer. The label “bad writer” is always problematic. As a publisher, I can use it occasionally, such as for the individual who wanted me to publish his novel which he had hand written on lined paper in a scribble I could not read. I think I can safely refer to that as bad writing.

Beyond that, the issue becomes a bit more difficult. I don’t like reading Dostoevsky, but he is very well-liked and read, and in fact produces quite a number of quotable items. My dislike for reading that particular style does not make it bad literature. It just makes it literature I don’t like. I use someone that literati tend to believe must be appreciated in order to emphasize my point.

Then there are elements of popular literature that many of the literary elite, taking elite here in a positive sense, do not appreciate. I’ve encountered this attitude toward science fiction. It’s not really literature. You need to read something serious, like Dostoevsky! So here we have literature which is read by many, but is not as much appreciated in academia. I think graphic novels and superhero literature would qualify as well. The academic says it’s not good, but the public consumes it with delight.

One of my top five favorite authors in science fiction is David Weber. He can illustrate both sides. There are actually things I don’t like about Weber’s writing, such as his tendency to rehash history, rather than allow his readers to either fill in the blanks or go back and read previous books in the series. He can hammer a theme to death, and then beat on it for some time afterward. Each element is, however, good writing in itself, and Weber is popular in science fiction. Does the critic/editor in me win out, or the relaxed reader? Definitely the latter.

I take a non-prescriptivist approach to literature as I do in linguistics. A word’s (or expression’s) meaning is derived from its usage. A book’s value is determined by readers. Not a particular set of readers! Those readers who are influencers of the specific reader. You may argue, even correctly, that one book is of more value than another, but those arguments become part of your effort to influence.

Note that I refer here to fiction. A non-fiction book can be judged on more objective, agreed standards, such as the accuracy and referencing of information, the clarity of the presentation, and so forth. Even here, however, the audience’s appreciation is a key. I’ve seen reviewers criticize a short book for not covering more ground. For example, books in my company’s Topical Line Drives series, in which the authors are limited to 44 pages, or a bit less than 13,000 words. Various reviewers have commented that the author should have covered some aspect of the topic. Well, blame the publisher — me!

So I don’t see the question of whether Ayn Rand is a good writer or not as terribly relevant. The complaint amounts to “I don’t like her style.” There are a number of elements of it that I don’t like. That didn’t prevent me from reading her books, and I doubt it will dent her popularity.

Rand and Her Christian Followers

Let’s look at her Christian followers. Is there a way to reconcile Rand’s philosophy with Christianity? I would say there is not. What one can do is take certain aspects of her philosophy, and her political and economic views, and reconcile them with certain versions of Christianity.

Therein lies the problem. There is no single Christianity to which one can compare Rand’s philosophy. My own view of Christianity and of what it means to follow Jesus is not compatible. But I am not the only person wearing the label “Christian.” It’s worthwhile to note that Rand is not the only person wearing the label “atheist” either. I’d hope that was obvious. I know a few atheists who despise Rand in a way few others can.

It might be better to ask whether one can extract ideas of value from her writing without also accepting her strident atheism; indeed, her strident everything. Yes, one can. I did.

My problem with what I did was simply that I found that the things I extracted were available from other sources. During this same period I read Ludwig von Mises, especially his book Human Action. Pretty much everything I found of value in terms of economic and political ideas in Rand was derived from von Mises, and is much better explained in his works. (Note here the value judgment, in my opinion, von Mises does the better job of presentation.)

A Note on Economics

I can’t leave this subject without noting an issue regarding current economic controversies. Conservatives of my acquaintance are opposed to government efforts at caring for the poor, or of income redistribution (as they see it). Liberals of my acquaintance consider this opposition heartless. As I talk to these two groups, and the wide spectrum of views around them, I rarely hear someone who truly does not care. Doubtless there are some such. The issue for most is how do you accomplish the goal of making life better for people?

What I see is that we have people primarily concerned with production and others primarily concerned with distribution. To truly help the most people and make lives better, we need to bring these two elements together. How can we be more productive, and how can more people benefit? Wealth is not actually static. It can be produced. Distribution doesn’t always occur in an effective manner, despite capitalist claims to the contrary. (This is partially because nobody is immune from seeking control, so capitalists try to arrange the government not according to capitalist principles of supply and demand, success and failure, but rather to make the playing field better for them.)

What’s Left?

So what’s left for me of Rand is the story of the constructive cultural rebel who is not impressed by the standards of those around him, but who makes his or her own choices according to what seems best by his or her own standards. Note here that I like The Fountainhead better than Atlas Shrugged.

But what makes people like these novels, works that deride the values of the faith they claim? If nothing else, one must accept that Ayn Rand’s atheism is contrary to any form of Christianity, and this atheism is pervasive, vigorous, and unyielding.

I believe the core of this liking is the same as the reason people like Star Wars in the modern era and liked apocalyptic literature in ancient times. In the story, you get to be one of the beleaguered good guys clearly differentiated from the bad guys, with extremely clear moral standards. Gray is eliminated. It must choose one side or the other. It’s very easy to identify with the good guys.

In the way this sort of literature progresses, one is constantly pressured to see that there is no good on the other side, and thus any tendency to compromise is suppressed. There will be a battle. Either good or evil will win. In the biblical book of Revelation, either God or Satan will win. One goes in the lake of fire; the other rules forever. There is no thought that there might be a compromise solution.

Many of us are attracted to this. We’re tired of working in gray areas, and we’d like to always know precisely what is right and what is wrong. The more that has gone into a project, the less likely we are to accept that it might not be pristine.

The more people who die in a war, the harder it is to get people to admit that the war might have been ambiguous at the start. People will divide into supporters of one side or the other, or at least into vigorous supporters vs. vigorous opponents of a side. “We presided over the death of thousands for an ambiguous goal,” doesn’t sit that well.

God and Satan

Rand, like Revelation, presents us with a god and satan scenario. She’s an atheist, yet she has “God the producer” as the ultimate good guy, the one to whom undivided loyalty is due. Idolatry is giving anything to the non-producers. On the other hand there is Satan the Moocher, who must die in the death the producer creates by withdrawing his producing power. It’s a powerful metaphor that tends to draw the reader onto the good side, produce hate for the bad side, draw a sharp distinction, and eliminate the grays.

Is this type of literature good or bad? In this question we come full circle. I’m not going to decide whether literature is good or bad. I’m not certain things would be much different of Rand didn’t exist. I think the tendency is there in the human heart, and it’s going to find it’s justification. Certainty attracts, even when wrong. The morally clear and certain is always going to find a following, no matter how flawed the line of division is.

For I too believe that good will win and evil will fail. But for me good encompasses a very broad spectrum, that the good involves the ability to respect and appreciate differences and ambiguity, and to use them to learn and to grow. And that happens, in my view, only with God.

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Book Extract: Interpreting Experience

Book Extract: Interpreting Experience

The following is an extract from Philosophy for Believers by Edward W. H. Vick, pp. 122-123. I’m the publisher. I was reading this section as I was thinking about my study in According to John tonight (Jan. 22, 2015). How does experience relate to the development of religions doctrine?

8   Experience and Interpretation

Question: How shall we decide between interpretations of something that happened, whether unique public experiences e.g. a thunderstorm, or private ones e.g. visions, inner voices?

You and your friends are given a sheet of paper on which a lot of lines have been drawn. You are each asked what it is you see in the jumble. Replies will be different. One will see a horse drinking. Another will see cloud formation. Yet another will see the lines as a jumble of graffiti. We see things differently.

There has been murder in the town. Those people who are aware of it will have very different experiences. The relative, the detective, the editor of the sensational newspaper, each has his different view point of the event based on his unique experience of the event. Since they each experience the same event in different ways, let us call the phenomenon ‘experiencing as’. One experiences it as a personal loss, another as a case for investigation, another as the prospect of sensational front page headline and report.

Now think of different ways of experiencing the same events. As the Chaldeans approached Jerusalem and threatened its destruction, the Jews in the city experienced it as intense fear of coming catastrophe. The prophet experienced the events as the prospective judgment of God on the city. The Chaldean soldier experienced it as prospect for slaughter and booty. The experiences are different because each brings their own immediate background into the process of interpreting the meaning of the event.

So there is an analogy between ‘seeing-as’ and ‘experiencing-as’. Believers see the world as a world where God is present. Non-believers see the world as a series of purely natural events. We must consider that (a) there can be alternative characterisations of the event of ‘seeing’, ‘experiencing’. (b) Something more than the fact that I experience X as Y is required to establish the validity of my interpretation. For when I try to establish my belief in its significance I must explain both what the experience was and in addition contend that it has the significance I give it. This means that I must make explanations, use arguments, give reasons. When others have similar experiences to mine and do not interpret them as I do, it appears that it is the argument I produce to support my interpretation that is the important thing. So the notion of the existence of God can collapse into something that looks like the notion of being convinced by an argument. But the argument is to be seen as the instrument leading to an interpretation. That interpretation makes possible the belief in and so the assertion of the reality of God. It also, when articulated, enables the believer to give some account of his belief.

Quote: Philosophers Talk in Obscure Ways

Quote: Philosophers Talk in Obscure Ways

9781938434549I thought of this quote as I was preparing for my study on John tonight:

Philosophers sometimes appear to talk in obscure ways. They do so because they take into consideration what people often overlook. If a poet (Longfellow) can say, ‘things are not what they seem’, the philosopher will give reasons why. The fact is that we do not always make a correct judgment about what we sense. Perception may mislead. So, taking this into account, the philosopher says, ‘I seem to see a red pencil.’ By using the expression ‘I seem to’ he suggests that what he sees may not be what it seems to him to be.

In spite of this allowance for doubt, it is usually the case that what seems to us to be so in our ordinary experience is probably so. So we quite reasonably judge that the way things seem is the way they are. So in our ordinary course of life we do not say, ‘I seem to see a pigeon’, ‘I seem to hear a loud noise’, ‘I seem to be touching a tennis ball’. We only use the term ‘seem’ when we have some doubt about what we are perceiving.

The question is whether there is an analogy from such ordinaryexperience to religious experience.… (Edward W. H. Vick, Philosophy for Believers, p. 119)

I was thinking of the first two sentences in connection with the use of definitions. Philosophers tend to spend more time defining, and often those who are not philosophers get rather impatient with this. But I was working with the word “significant” in connection with textual criticism.

One of the great arguments in textual criticism and its application to Christian faith and understanding of the Bible involves what are significant variants. So one person says that there are many significant variants in the New Testament text, meaning, perhaps, that the variant could impact a translation in some way. Another says that there are less significant variants, but still a fair number, considering only those variants which would impact the exegesis of the particular verse as significant. Yet another says that there are very few or even no significant variants at all, considering as significant only those variants that would impact a Christian doctrine.

Thus we have great, and sometimes angry debates, which might go back to what we think is significant.

Perhaps getting a bit more pedantic about the definitions would help!

Unseemly Glee at the Unknown

Unseemly Glee at the Unknown

What is it that makes Christians frequently rejoice when told that something is unknown?

I received an e-mail today from Breaking Christian News, which discusses odd coincidences or perhaps weird happenings amongst organ transplant recipients. Now bluntly I don’t see that there is enough here to get excited about. I think the writers grossly underestimate the potential for personality change when one undergoes a traumatic experience, such as a major surgery. The illness before, the concern, and then the effort of recovery all make a very large impact. If one assumes changes in the personality of recipients, it would then not be all that unlikely that in some cases these changes would find some connection to the organ donor.

But all of that could be studied. My hunch that this isn’t outside of the range of reasonable probability could be proven right or wrong. If proven wrong, one could study the process and the potential exists to determine just what is going on and how it works. In other words, this set of observations might either prove not to be significant, or could provide the basis for further research.

The BCN article cites Dr. Danny Penman:

In his article entitled, Can We Really Transplant a Human Soul? Penman writes, “Virtually every doctor and scientist will tell you the heart is a mere pump.” But now, “A few brave scientists have started claiming that our memories and characters are encoded not just in our brain, but throughout our entire body. Consciousness, they claim, is created by every living cell in the body acting in concert…Our whole body, they believe, is the seat of the soul; not just the brain. (BCN source is this article in the Daily Mail

Now my point is not my personal feeling about this, which is admittedly not an educated opinion. I know very little about this field. My secondary point is that a scientist with one of the proper specialties, when confronted by this information would either use his existing knowledge to dismiss it if that was proper (for example, he knows the broader statistical picture, and thus knows that this is not significant) or he would find it significant, and then ask, “How does this work?”

My primary point, however, is that many Christians, represented here by Breaking Christian News, have quite a different reaction. They don’t seem to think of the possibility that this represents a question to be answered. Rather, they hope it’s a mystery that science cannot solve.

While as Christians we know how God created man in His image, it is nevertheless fascinating to see the scientific world confront the mysteries of life in a way that points to the power of an Almighty God.

But this article doesn’t describe science confronting anything. It reveals speculation. At best, it would reveal questions that research ought to answer. This is the attitude that lies behind the God-in-the-gaps argument. It puts spirituality and religion where our ignorance lies. There is little reason to complain when skeptics describe religion as anti-knowledge if we place our most important ideas in areas of ignorance.

This particular case is only an example. I’m confronted regularly with claims that science cannot possibly discover some particular thing, such as a natural explanation for the origin of life. These claims are not made in a neutral tone, nor are they made with disappointment that there is a boundary to knowledge. They are made with glee. Those who make them are glad that they have found something that science cannot do.

I think there is a ignorance, fear, and envy represented by this type of claim.

Ignorance, because people don’t understand what science does. Science explores the natural world. As long as something is in the natural world, don’t put up a stop sign. It won’t work. But science is not the study of everything. Excluding the supernatural, science cannot, as such, tell us what our ethical goals and standards should be. It can enlighten us as to the side effects of our decisions, and thus help us make ethical decisions. Science is also not designed to study the supernatural.

Fear, because people don’t understand science. Scientists constantly discover and explain things that appear to the uninformed to be things that ought to be true mysteries. Ignorance reacts to what it does not know with fear. This is a good example of the difference between “is” and “ought.” We ought to investigate the unknown rather than cower away from it with fear. The instinct of many people is to avoid the danger as long as possible, a course of action that often results is greater disaster later.

Envy, in that science explains things that used to be in the field of religion. Now they appear to be the province of very intelligent people. I see this type of rejoicing whenever people perceive that religion has “gotten a point” against science.

The bottom line here is that ignorance is, well, ignorance, and thus is in constant danger of being overthrown. If we, as people of faith, truly believe that God is the ultimate creator of everything, that reason behind all the reasons, the “uncaused cause,” then we ought to rejoice at those who use their divinely created brains to discover more and more about God’s creation.

I’m certain that God isn’t threatened. If he’s big enough to be the final cause, he can handle people figuring out where the seat of consciousness is in one species of creature on one planet in one solar system in one rather unexceptional galaxy. So it must be that some people of faith feel threatened. That, I suspect, can only come from not trusting God to be God, in other words, from seeing God as less than the creator of everything, as someone who might be dethroned by the next discovery.

Or perhaps it’s just personal envy that someone else knows more than we do. Could be!

Plantinga on The God Delusion

Plantinga on The God Delusion

Ben Witherington alerted me to Plantinga’s review of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion on Christianity Today. Now I must be frank (well, no, I don’t have to, but I will!) and say that I find philosophers provide the most annoying of reading. They seem to me to be the world’s best rationalizers, providing excellent reasons to believe what they already believe. I have previously commented on some other work by Plantinga in my post An Evolutionary Understanding of Kinds, and I found his arguments in favor of a theistic science pretty seriously unconvincing. Other philosophers regard him as a heavyweight, however, so I suppose he must be.

In this case, I haven’t read The God Delusion because I suspect it’s largely going to annoy me. I truly love Dawkins when he is writing about scientific topics, and I note that Plantinga expresses much the same sentiment for many passages on biology. Dawkins is a gifted science writer. But I find his hostility toward theism, and particularly liberal theism as kind of gratuitous. Having discovered that complexity can come from simplicity without any demonstrable guidance (a point on which Plantinga disagrees with him), Dawkins seems anxious to move forward and make claims about things he can’t possibly know.

Of course, making claims about things you can’t possibly know is a time honored religious tradition. So if Dawkins were to admit that he is speculating, I would generally have no problem with what he does. As it is, I just avoid reading those portions of his writing. I’ve already heard the argument. I’m still a theist. I shrug my shoulders and go on.

Now I’m not going to quote more than a few lines of the lengthy review. You really should read the whole thing to get the flavor. But Plantinga seems to believe that the evidence is solid for his viewpoint, and Dawkins is on thin ice. I think they’re both well past the ice, and just waiting, like cartoon characters, for the law of gravity to notice. As a theist, I look back at the chasm over which I have leapt in a classic leap of faith, and I have great understanding for those who shake their heads and call me an idiot. I think my concept of God works well with the universe as it is, but I know the evidence I see admits of other explanations.

Arguments like fine-tuning sound so good in philosophy classrooms, but when it comes right down to it, I know I have to start my argument from the point of view of a universe that was capable of producing me to think about it. In practical terms, astronomical odds against my being here are irrelevant. I’m here, after all. (Yes, I know, philosphers don’t think that’s a good answer, but I think it’s a real answer.) Even more, though, all arguments about the probability of one type of universe existing over another are founded on nothing. Nobody knows just how a universe comes into existence at all, nor at this point whether there is one universe or many, or if many, in what relationship they are to one another. We cannot even imagine what creatures might inhabit a universe substantially different from ours, and who might speculate on the existence of God because their universe was precisely designed for them.

The thing that really gets me about Plantinga’s argument, and Dawkins’s, if Plantinga has characterized it accurately, is that it places both Dawkins and Plantinga in the position of claiming their own position is true, because it hasn’t been disproven. In other words, Plantinga wants us to default to his position, Dawkins to his. Plantinga summarizes what he thinks Dawkins’s argument amounts to:

We know of no irrefutable objections to its being possible that p;
p is true.

But to me, both arguments push beyond the bounds of science, and both questions should be answered with a form of “I don’t know.” And here Plantinga has the upper hand. He is a philosopher, and is thus doing the stuff he is supposed to be doing. When he starts talking about theistic science elsewhere, I think he transgresses in the other direction, but here he is on the ground appropriate to his field. (I am an interloper in either direction, but it’s my blog and I get to interlope!) Dawkins, on the other hand, whether he intends it or not, is seen as a spokesman for science saying that there is no God, no supernatural. And science is simply not capable of testing that. It can see the effects, but it can’t track them back.

All of this leaves me in pretty much the same place I was when I started. But Plantinga’s review is interesting and well worth reading.