Rand and Religion

October 21, 2009

I still aim to come back to the question about religion from earlier posts (also here), but here’s Jon Stewart interviewing Jennifer Burns on Ayn Rand’s atheism.

Also interesting is this link from Brian Leiter referencing a comment by Donald Hubin, political and moral philosopher at Ohio State University.

I’ll quote in full here, since the quote is relatively short…

Writes Hubin:

Many years ago, in the early 80s, I think, I taught an honors class that I think of as having the title:  “It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand”.  (That’s the title of a now-back-in-print book by Jerome Tuccille.  I haven’t read it since the 70s but, as I recall, it’s a pretty entertaining romp through the lunatic fringe movements of an earlier era.  Since I see it’s now back in print with a 25th anniversary edition, I might have to pick up a copy and read it again to see if my memory serves me well.)  My working assumption was that many of the high school students who were intrigued by Ayn Rand were both smart and independent thinkers.  Some of them, I thought, were drawn to Rand because they didn’t know what good philosophy was.  So, I thought I’d try to grab some of these students and bring them into the light.

I assigned Atlas Shrugged to be read in the first week.  (Yep, all 900 or so pages.)  Then I took her arguments (presented there and in a number of essays I assigned for the next week) seriously and critiqued them in the way we would a serious philosopher’s arguments.  I tried to be respectful of her rather than dismissive because I didn’t want the students who thought of themselves as Randians to “put up the shields”.  But, of course, even a charitable interpretation doesn’t turn out to be very plausible.  But I used her for a springboard into Murray Rothbard (we read his For a New Liberty).  We spent a little time on him and other libertarian economists.  Then we went to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which we read closely along with some of the early criticisms of it.

It was actually a great course to teach—a lot of fun.  I have a soft spot for those who went through a Randian phase, provided they were fairly young when they did it and they are now fully recovered.

What I like about Hubin’s course is that he takes up legitimate questions about libertarianism by beginning with, and then handily debunking, Rand. Some readers think that because many philosophers do not like writing of Ayn Rand, that therefore they must be completely wrong politically, or that therefore they are entirely hostile to libertarian views. I think you’ll find, however, that there are many strong libertarians who also object to the sloppiness of Rand’s so-called philosophy. It’s the sloppiness that’s the problem for philosophers, among maybe a few other things.

As it turns out, many also disagree with Rand’s conclusions, so that is also a problem… but I think that disagreement with conclusions alone isn’t a problem for most philosophers. No, the problem is that Rand doesn’t write good philosophy. If you’re interested in defending Rand-like views, it would behoove you to read not her acolytes, but those who can actually defend those views in a cogent way.  Robert Nozick is the obvious go-to guy here, and I strongly recommend his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Later this semester the philosophy department at CU will host a Think! lecture by my colleague David Boonin titled “Atlas Mugged: Rand on Punishment.”  The event will be held in Old Main Chapel on December 1, 2009, from 7:30-9:00 pm.  It is open to the public.


  1. Hey, be careful here! I had a mouthful of food when I read that last paragraph.

  2. Property is theft pretty much sums up the case against Rand.

  3. Ah, Proudhon, how he confuses my students.

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