At the age of thirteen, Ayn Rand decided she was an atheist. Her reason: “the concept of God is degrading to man.” One major form of this degradation is religion’s effect on genuine values, including sacred values. This idea is prominent in her early writings and continues to be featured in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as well as in her nonfiction.
In this lecture and Q&A, recorded at Objectivist Summer Conference 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada, philosophy professor Robert Mayhew examines this aspect of Ayn Rand’s distinctive approach to atheism.
In the introduction to Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith remarks that what he is offering in his book is essentially a “minority viewpoint.” But in his sobering thesis he builds a solid case against some popularly accepted theistic ideas, and therein lies much of the book’s value.
While it may not be possible to persuade those who are deeply religious, anyone else, even those who have mixed feelings on god, cannot come away from this book without reexamining their basic convictions on not just god and religion, but also on issues related to morality.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Smith’s thesis is the broad intellectual territory that he covers while refuting the concept god. Along with religious ideas, the fields that he traverses include science, ethics, epistemology, history, and psychology.
It is noteworthy that he uses “god” with lower case “g” to refer to the generic idea of god. He uses “God” only when he is referring specifically to the God of Christianity.
Smith points out that atheism is the absence of theistic belief and therefore what it represents is not a belief, but the lack of a belief. A person is an atheist, because he is not a theist. The word atheist will not tell you why the person is not a theist, or what else he believes in.
The theists use terms such as “immaterial” or “incorporeal” to explain the attributes of god. But Smith argues that “immaterial” or “incorporeal” tell us what god is not (that he is not made out of any material substance; that he is not physical)—these words don’t tell us what god is. He says that anything that exists must have a specific nature, and it must be created from some material.
According to Smith, the “unknowable” is the central tenet of theism, and that is why it is imperative for the religions to declare war on reason. “If faith is to gain a foothold, reason must be attacked, which brings us to the issue of epistemological skepticism.” The theists are skeptics; they deny knowledge; they believe that facts can’t be known with certainty and it is not possible for men to perceive and understand reality.
But there is a contradiction in the claim that god is unknowable. Smith argues that if god is unknowable, then we can’t know that he exists, but to assert that a god exists is equivalent to claiming knowledge of god. “Insofar as faith is possible, it is irrational; insofar as faith is rational, it is impossible.”
In his critique of the skeptic ideas of the theists, Smith has made a good use of the theory of epistemology that has been proposed by Ayn Rand in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and other works. His discussion of Rand’s theory of concepts and the contextual nature of knowledge is particularly interesting.
The theists often claim that it is the fear of god’s wrath that inspires people to be moral. But Smith says that the concept god has had a disastrous effect on the idea of mortality—it has led to a situation where people think that morality has nothing to do with reality, and that in order to be moral one must shun reason and blindly follow the dictates of religion.
By destroying the idea of supernatural morality, atheism brings morality to the realm of reality, so that the moral ideal becomes reachable to man’s mind. The course of action that a man takes in his life is a matter of his personal choice. If he discards reason in favor of nihilism and pessimism, then the issue is with his own mind. Atheism cannot be blamed for the choices that men make.
The idea that God is a supernatural being with much greater powers than man is soundly refuted by Smith. He asks the readers to consider a hypothetical situation where an alien form of life, much superior to man, is discovered in some other solar system. “These advanced creatures have an immense life span, superior strength, agility and mobility, and a superior capacity for memory and abstract thought. Does it follow, in virtue of these superior capacities, that these creatures should be designated as gods?”
Smith points out that if we refer to these superior creatures as “god,” then we will face a very absurd situation where any creature that is superior to another creature will get designated as a “god.”
He demolishes the standard theistic idea of god being omniscient and omnipotent. He points out that omniscience contradicts the attribute of omnipotence. “If God knows the future with infallible certainty, he cannot change it—in which case he cannot be omnipotent. If God can change the future, however, he cannot have infallible knowledge of it prior to its actual happening—in which case he cannot be omniscient.”
In this context, he also cites the problem of evil. “If God does not know there is evil, he is not omniscient. If God knows there is evil but cannot prevent it, he is not omnipotent. If God knows there is evil and can prevent it but desires not to, he is not omnibenevolent.”
Many theologians claim that there is no conflict between science and religion, as these are concerned with different spheres of human existence. But as science is dedicated to understanding reality, it rests on the premise that existence exists and reality is knowable. Theology, on the other hand, rests on faith; it rejects reason, which is the primary means for understanding realty, and it propagates that what we see as reality is simply a creation of god’s will and it can never be understood. Therefore the conflict between science and theology is irreconcilable.
“Reason and faith are opposites, two mutually exclusive terms: there is no reconciliation or common ground. Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason.”
Overall, Atheism: The Case Against God is a hard-hitting book against the irrational belief in god. Smith’s writing is clear, colorful, and well organized. If you are person of reason, the book will make you feel good about it.
Attacks like the one on January 7, 2015, against the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris are becoming all too common. Threats by Islamic terrorists and dictatorial regimes have been happening since Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. In this talk, Ayn Rand Institute senior fellow Onkar Ghate discusses how to defend freedom of speech in the face of religious attacks. This talk was recorded on Saturday, July 4, 2015, at the Objectivist Summer Conference 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
What psychological purpose, if any, does belief in the supernatural serve?
Clay Routledge Ph.D., researcher on the subject and author of “More Than Mortal” thinks it’s about meaning in life:
My research lab studies how religious beliefs contribute to perceptions of meaning in life. Not surprisingly, we and other researchers reliably find that religious beliefs help people find and maintain meaning. In general, the more religious people are, the more they believe their lives are meaningful. Religious beliefs make people feel like their existence is purposeful (i.e., God has a plan for them), that they are being watched over by benevolent supernatural agents (God, guardian angels), and that they are part of a larger and meaningful cosmic drama (i.e., God intentionally created the world). Not surprisingly then, when people are struggling with difficult life challenges that make them feel uncertain, stressed, or scared, religious beliefs serve an important psychological function. They restore and protect a sense of meaning in life.
Actually, I have noticed two different types of religious people. One, those who believe what they believe and are largely at peace with it. When reason/common sense and religion conflict, the religious person tells him- or herself, in essence, “Have faith,” or finds some idea or principle in religious documents (e.g., the Bible) to support the basis for faith.
The other types are in a continuing state of psychological crisis, either because they’re questioning or they’re using logic and reason to try and make sense of their religious beliefs. On the one hand, they believe, or at least feel they should. On the other hand, they’re questioning and thinking, and that tends to get in the way of the belief.
Consider a conversation like this one:
“I’m angry that my life has turned out this way. I’m angry and hurt that my mother was so unloving. I’m angry that I didn’t get the jobs I should have got, or found the romantic love I wanted.”
“Who are you angry at?”
“I’m angry at God. Why would God allow this kind of suffering? I realize there’s greater suffering than what I endured. But if God is so wise and just, why all the problems?”
“But aren’t you applying reason, logic and standards of human justice to something that’s faith based? Doesn’t your religion tell you to simply believe and accept, uncritically?”
The question answers itself because faith, by definition, does not involve reason, logic, proof or sense. It’s something different, as I think either a faith-based or non-faith-based person will tell you.
In such cases, the psychological conflict arises because of a contradiction, the basis for many psychological conflicts and problems.
It makes sense that religious beliefs that involve loving and protective supernatural agents such as God and guardian angels would help people feel like their lives are meaningful and purposeful.
Most people assume that the only way to find meaning and purpose in life is through some kind of a religious perspective.
Yet what about meaning and purpose to be found in other ways? Through the development of one’s mind; through some kind of purposeful or meaningful work involving the use of reason and leading to concrete results like the building of a house, the building of a business, the discovery of a computer microchip, electricity or a cure for cancer? Through the pursuit and achievement of values in the context of a verifiable, time-limited period of existence on earth?
Two things are apparent. The religious person who also resolves to live a meaningful, secular life to the fullest can experience a sense of happiness. But so can the person who is not religious, who resolves to live a meaningful, secular life to the fullest pursuing productive results and/or rationally happy experiences. In fact, one might argue that the nonreligious person could be even happier because — on the premise that this is all there is — one should make the most of it.
In one study, we administered questionnaires assessing religiosity and perceptions of meaning in life. We then presented research participants with a task that involved reading a profile of a young man who murdered his sister and responding to questions concerning the causes of his actions. These questions specifically assessed the extent to which participants attributed his actions to non-supernatural causes (e.g., having an abusive father) or supernatural causes involving evil forces (e.g., having an evil spirit).
Here is what we found. Highly religious participants who reported feeling like their lives lacked meaning were the most likely to believe that evil supernatural forces influenced the murderer’s actions. In other words, it was the people who needed meaning (those lacking it) and who derive meaning from supernatural beliefs (highly religious people) who were most attracted to a supernatural explanation of a horrible crime. These individuals were more likely to believe that the murderer had a dark soul. They were less likely to attribute his actions to non-supernatural causes such as growing up in an abusive household.
What is a “spirit” anyway? Most of us have left it to believers in the supernatural to define this term. Either you believe in spirits, which makes you supernatural or religious in some sense; or you don’t believe in spirits, which makes you a hard-nosed, stone cold material behaviorist.
But if you define a spirit objectively and concretely, you can avoid this false alternative. I define a “spirit” as a consciousness. A consciousness refers to one’s mind, concepts, emotions and all that pertain to a state of conscious awareness. These, in unison with the body and the biological composition of a person, make the individual who he or she is. If the body dies, the spirit is gone too, and the body quickly decays.
Body and mind/consciousness. There is not one without the other. If you believe there is, then you believe that the spirit goes somewhere “else” after the body dies, and that’s the point where religious belief takes over. But you do not have to be a religious believer to observe that there is something called a consciousness, something you might (if you choose) refer to as one’s spirit.
As for the study cited above, notice how both types — the religious believer and nonreligious believer — tend to assume something else made the criminal a criminal. If you’re religious, you might think that supernatural forces contributed to the person becoming a serial killer. If you’re not religious, then you will assume it’s the abusive father, “society,” lack of government funding, the legality of guns or something other than the criminal himself.
This is significant, because nobody on the religious or nonreligious side of the spectrum appears to recognize the power and relevance of individual choice. More than that, what actually creates individual choice?
When I assert the validity and importance of individual choice, I generally find that religious people — who are usually more conservative — agree with me, while more educated people will look to external factors such as biology, society, parents, and so forth.
Yet a person can have a “bad spirit” or a “sick spirit” with “spirit” being rationally and objectively defined. It’s up to the field of psychology (which studies the mind, particularly the subconscious mind) and the fields of neurology and biology/medicine (which study the body) to sort it all out. And this requires reason, not religion, as probably some religious people will acknowledge.
Does life require meaning and purpose? Yes. Can reason and purpose involve rational, objective, concretely identifiable things such as career, family, productive work, personal relationships, satisfying and joyful experiences — all in this life, here and now, on earth? No question.
People who disagree with me (on any subject) will often write me with hostile, deliberately rhetorical questions designed to be intimidating or insulting. I find these amusing, but also rather fascinating.
One question I get from a lot of religious people who dislike what they see as my criticism of religion is, “Well what do you believe in, Dr. Hurd? If not God, then what?”
I find such a question astonishing. On the one hand, I recognize that it’s supposed to intimidate a questioner or thinker into bowing his head and saying, in shame, “Nothing.” It’s a “shaming” question from one who has no rational response to a point so defaults to his only weapon, i.e. shame.
Yet my immediate, emotionally integrated and absolute answer to this question is nothing more than, “Life…and my love of it.” What else is there to believe in, act upon, think about or anything else? By what stretch could this ever be shameful?
Such subjects might seem a little abstract and profound. But realize it or not, you probably hold a position of some kind on these issues. And where your mind stands — even subconsciously — will determine, to a great extent, how happy you really are.
“At the age of thirteen, Ayn Rand decided she was an atheist. Her reason: “the concept of God is degrading to man.” One major form of this degradation is religion’s effect on genuine values, including sacred values. This idea is prominent in her early writings and continues to be featured in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as well as in her nonfiction. In this lecture and Q&A, recorded at Objectivist Summer Conference 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada, philosophy professor Robert Mayhew examines this aspect of Ayn Rand’s distinctive approach to atheism.”
“‘No, bro, I don’t believe there’s a God, why would I believe there’s a devil?’
With that, he displays his talent as a master of the eloquent shrug and leans back in an office chair in a back bedroom that he’s turned into a recording and writing studio. The house, a rental, is modest for a man working on a five-year, $43.5 million contract. There’s a Range Rover in the driveway but no fleet. “I don’t want or need much,” he says. “Just something fairly safe for the kids to grow up around, and that’s about it, really. The rest is luxury, fluff. I’ve saved about 80 percent of what I’ve made, and I will continue that. I won’t have to work when I’m done — live off the interest, put my kids through college, let them have the money when I’m in a box and call it a day, man.”
“Every once in a while she’ll mention Jesus or God,” he says. “One time she likened God and Jesus to Zeus and Hercules. She did it on her own. She said something along the lines of, ‘They’re the same. They’re both stories.’ I thought it was brilliant on her part to be able to distinguish it.”
Foster stops short of calling himself an atheist, not because he isn’t — his language is the language of the atheist — but because someday he might not be. “I have an open mind,” he says. “I’m not a picket-sign atheist. I just want to be a happy human being and continue to learn.” He also has a visceral dislike of labels. (On June 28 he tweeted, “hop in the uber and the driver immediately turns it to the rap station. he’s absolutely correct, but don’t judge me, yo.”) “If I tell you I’m a Republican, your mind immediately starts telling you all the things I must believe,” he says. “Same with the word ‘atheist,’ and I don’t like people making assumptions about me.
The two running backs communicate almost daily, and when Forsett ends a conversation or text exchange with “I’ll pray for you” — as he often does — Foster responds with “And I’ll think for you.”