Thursday, January 10, 2013

Ayn, Atlas and Adonai

Many people have tried to hang the "hypocrite" label on those who claim to be a Christian AND a fan of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged at the same time.  They point out that Ayn was an atheist, and her books leave no room for religion at all.  While this is undeniable, what is debatable is whether or not liking Atlas has to be an "all or nothing" prospect.

What attracts Christians to Atlas is its reflection of our beliefs about human nature in general.  It shows how people WILL act in certain situations.  Whether or not this is how they SHOULD act is another matter entirely.  This aspect cannot be overlooked or glossed over. The Bible tells us, whether by direct fiat or by implication, how we should respond in various situations, but people in general, even Christians, frequently do not follow the Biblical model.

My usual response to the critics uses the "Baby and Bathwater" argument, that there are aspects of Ayn's philosophy, Objectivism, that have value.  The other parts can be thrown out along with any other ideas that do not conform to the Biblical standard.

First, let us consider the faulty parts of her philosophy, i.e. the "bathwater."

1)  Extramarital sex.  A key component of Objectivism, "pursue whatever makes you happy," sounds eerily similar to the mantra of the 60s, "If it feels good, do it."  Rand paints Hank Reardon's affair with Dagny Taggart as a beautiful thing, contrasting it with the pathetic relationship he has with his wife.  Rather than encourage the reader to pursue and maintain fidelity, Rand instead offers the possibility of looking for love elsewhere.  Furthermore, Dagny, the protagonist, has no fewer than 3 affairs, and never marries any of the men. Ludicrously, her first lover is of Latin descent, but once their relationship ends, he has no feelings of jealousy toward either of the following lovers.  This strains credulity.

2)  Rejection of Religion.  To treat this subject thoroughly, I would have to bore you and me both with talk of "metaphysics" and "epistemology."  Suffice it to say that Rand considered religion as a crutch for the weak.  Also, since Objectivism holds that we can know reality only through the senses, the existence of God cannot proved, and therefore is not a valid option.  My response to this is that there are many things that we do not understand about our world and the universe, and therefore we should follow the only guidebook that makes sense of it all, the Bible.  It tells us where we came from (Creation), how things came to be the way they are (History), why we are here (Purpose), how we should live (Wisdom) and what is going to happen in the future (Prophecy).  To ignore all of this is to be foolish.

3)  Lack of concern for fellow man.  As the plot progresses, various people disappear.  They make the decision to stop producing, since in the end the government will just take it all away anyway.  They end up in a place called Galt's Gulch, named after the founder, John Galt.  There they bide their time until society falls apart, waiting for the day when they can once again form a society that will allow them to produce without being punished for it.  Up to this point, I guess I don't have any problem. After all, though we are commanded to treat servants (read "employees") well once we have hired them, even the Bible does not REQUIRE us to open businesses to employ people.  However, the producers in Atlas are so calloused that they do not step in to help even AFTER society breaks down and chaos reigns.  They just don't care.  This does not jive with the injunction to "Look after orphans and widows in their distress . . . " (James 1.27). As Christians, we are to be concerned with those who cannot - not WILL not - take care of themselves, such as the handicapped.  

4)  Worshipping money.  Hank Reardon, on a couple of occasions, donates money to a cause.  However, his motive seems to be more of getting the solicitor out of his office than one of altruism.  Doesn't God love a cheerful giver?

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to infer that making money is the only thing that the protagonists are interested in. This leads us to the "Baby" section.  What does Rand advocate that a Christian can agree with?

1)  Keep your word.  More than once, Hank Reardon severed ties with one of his suppliers or customers because they promised to deliver a product on a certain date but failed to do so, or said they would deal exclusively with him and then did business with the competition.  Hank's response was along the lines of "You are free to do business with whomever you choose, but if you break your word, it will not be with me."  This brings to mind Ecclesiastes 5.5, "It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it."  This, of course, is true in every aspect of life, not just business.

2)  Work hard.  A verse that frequently gets overlooked by the socially conscious is the one that says "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat."  (II Thess. 3.10)  Apparently, laziness has been a problem for at least 2,000 years.  Giving people free handouts will not change human behaviour.  It will amplify it.  People who get freebies become dependent, not independent.

Throughout Atlas, Rand profiles people who are worthy of respect.  Contrary to popular belief, not all of them are wealthy. In fact, few of them are.  There are many unnamed characters who put their best effort into their work, no matter how lowly the job is.  This contrasts sharply with what Rand calls the "moochers."  These are the people who do not pull their weight. Even some of the wealthy protagonists fall into this category, getting their money through government largesse rather than through a superior product.  

In summary, what Atlas Shrugged does is reveal the contrasts between two worldviews.  On one side is the producers, the ones who have the great ideas and find the people who will work hard to make those ideas a reality.  On the other is one I will euphemtistically call the "socially conscious," those who want to help people, all people, whether or not those people have the slightest interest in contributing to the society in which they live.  

Perhaps the clearest example of the failure of this second worldview is found in one section of Atlas.  Dagny is travelling on a train and begins a conversation with a fellow passenger.  He is a common worker, not a mover and shaker.  The conversation turns to something that happened in the factory where he used to work.  The managers told the employees they were going to implement a new system of rewards, requiring everyone to do their best and giving to everybody whatever they needed to live. Yes, a thinly veiled version of Communism.  The man explained that the first few months went all right, and production increased slightly.  This was mainly due to a few people who eagerly accepted the new system and were determined to make it work.

However, once those initial months passed, these "producers" began criticizing their coworkers who were not putting in the same effort.  The slackers were still getting just as much money and goods as the producers.  Obviously, this put a huge damper on the ones who were working hard, so they slacked off, as did production.  As things got worse, the company was forced to start rationing health care.  The culmination came when one employee's mother fell ill with a serious disease.  She was going to require a lot of medical care, the doctors said.  Everyone, including the man on the train, secretly hoped that the woman would just die, so the money could be used for people who had lesser maladies.

This is what Communism and its little brother, Socialism, does to people.  It makes them work less, produce less, and care less. You cannot change human nature on a grand scale using laws and regulations.  You cannot force them to take care of their neighbour.  Only God can do that, by changing hearts of individuals.  This message is preached thousands of times every week in churches around the world.  Ironically, Rand herself did not recognize this, and so wrote God out of her novels.