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I very much appreciate John Craig’s interesting comment. He is correct in pointing out that Ayn Rand has a kind of following precisely because of her avowed and passionate atheism and not because she is a gifted fiction writer. But she also has a following, even among some Latter-day Saints, especially those with little knowledge of our scriptures (or of the history of militant atheism). The reason, it seems, is that some of the Saints have a need for a political ideology such as the one she offers. I don’t have such a need. A few of the Saints may see her opinions as consonant with their own ideological worldview. I discovered this, much to my surprise, when I first began teaching at BYU in 1960 (which is now fifty-three years ago). I am confident that even now there are some at BYU who recommend Ayn Rand’s opinions. Those with such a need do not, of course, trouble themselves with the atheist roots of the ideology they otherwise entertain.
And there are good reasons for this. We all learn from and appropriate bits and pieces from authors whose worldview is without God as understood in the Christian tradition. There are vast numbers of people who live by a morality that they have given themselves or acquired from sources they may not even recognize. They also are often quite obedient to what they consider their moral duty. Even street gangs have their own kind of moral rules and hence morality. No one wakes up in the morning and decides that henceforth they are going to be evil. We all see behavior as fitting a moral order even as we plot to sell dangerous or damaging “goods”or steal from our neighbors. The question is not whether there is a right and wrong but what those words actually identify for both individuals and nations.
Paul, in the second chapter of Romans, talks about the advantage those who do not have the law of God have over those who have it and then disobey and dishonor it. The Gentiles, who follow rules they give themselves, and hence do what they believe to be right, will find favor with God, while those who know what God commands and do not obey will not be justified. It is doers and not merely hearers who please God.
Christianity in all its vast variety has, at least until the rise of a very limp version of liberal Protestantism, always been more than merely a common human effort at making the best of things here below. The reasons is that Christianity, even in its creedal and confessional manifestations, has been for the believers really good news about the mighty works of God, under Pontius Pilot, in which a victory over both death and, on conditions, from sin was made available to human beings. This message is more than merely good advice on how best to avoid evil both as individuals and as peoples, as important as those kinds of things have always been for Christians.
I have long believed that a social Darwinism has profound problems setting out a theory of moral sentiments that matches human experience. So I tend to agree with John’s reservations about the Dawkins version of atheism as an account of right and wrong or good and evil, or the noble and the base. The idea that there is nothing about which human beings ought to be ashamed, reduces everything to the level of the gutter. I am, of course, paraphrasing Leo Strauss, who was not exactly one inclined to belief in God. Again paraphrasing Strauss, much of what militant atheist ideologues have had to say, seem Neronian. Like Nero, who is said to have fiddled while Rome burned, the popular New Atheists, as well as some of the older ones, can be forgiven because they neither know that they fiddle nor that Rome burns.
One of the more obvious atheism-as-religion groups is the disciples of Ayn Rand. I had a boss for a while who was a devote Objectivist (the name Rand gave to her philosophy); he kept one or two copies of Atlas Shrugged in his office to give to anyone interested (as an LDS person might with a Book of Mormon). Atlas Shrugged, incidentally is full of “sermons” which illucidate Rand’s beliefs. She never makes a point with what you might call literary subtlty. (I digress.)
But despite our different religions, my boss and I became good friends. And while he and I mutually thought the other naive in some of our respective beliefs, I enjoyed my discussions with him. I definitely preferred his respect for me (and his insistence on my right to promote my ideas, as misguided as he saw them) to what I hear from the contemporary god-killers, like Dawkins. My former boss had what I thought was an intriguing test for whether something was moral (and he definitely had quite clear morals–honesty [to the point of rudeness] being one; freedom of speech, another). His test for whether an action was moral included not only the primacy of freedom (which is clearly the objectivist first commandment), but this question: “How would society be affected if everyone in it behaved in the way in question?” Of course, he had his own absolutes by which to measure whether the effects would be positive or negative. But he did not believe that “every man prospered according to his strength.”
Interestingly, he commented on a number of occasions that although the roots of our beliefs were planted in different soil, some of the important leaves overlapped. When it came to morality his opinions often coincided with mine, but there were as often subtle differences. My opinions about chastity before marriage he thought without merit (as long as the parties were consenting), but he took his marital vows completely seriously (having made a promise, he felt obliged to keep it).
It seems to me that Dawkins and Company are not so clear about their foundational beliefs upon which they build their moral framework. And they certainly are a lot less respectful of those who disagree with them. I don’t think that makes them any less religious in those beliefs.
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