In his new memoir, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan reminds us that author Ayn Rand is still influencing the world. He credits her with turning him into something more than a “math junkie.”
Greenspan is not alone. A 1991 Book-of-the-Month Club and Library of Congress survey asked members which book had most influenced their lives. As expected, the Bible finished first. Unexpectedly, Rand’s most famous book, the novel Atlas Shrugged, finished second.
Fifty years after its publication and 25 years after Rand’s death, Atlas Shrugged is still read everywhere from college campuses to Wall Street. Given its popularity and its impact, Christians ought to be acquainted with Rand’s work and, especially, her worldview.
As theologian John Piper puts it, Rand’s work manifests a “complete rejection of a divine or supernatural dimension to reality.” The absence of God causes Rand to get human nature wrong as well.
In Atlas Shrugged and her other writings, Rand articulated a philosophy she called “objectivism.” Among other things, objectivism teaches that man’s “highest value” and “moral purpose” is his own happiness.
By “happiness” Rand meant “rational self-interest.” For her, “virtue” consisted of doing what “secured” your life and well-being.
Where did that leave altruism and self-sacrifice? As vices. For Rand, altruism and self-sacrifice represented a betrayal of what should be a person’s “highest values,” that is, his life and well-being. Similarly, justice would be possible only where you never sought for nor granted unearned or undeserved results, “neither in matter nor in spirit . . .”
But without altruism and self-sacrifice, how do people relate to one another? Ayn Rand says through exchanges that promote mutual advantage, what she called a “trade.” In other words, as if each of the parties were businesses, not people.
Rand’s inversion of biblical norms had predictable results: Scott Ryan, who wrote a book on Rand’s philosophy, called objectivism a “psychologically totalitarian personality cult that allowed Rand . . . to exercise personal power over [her] unwitting victims.” He cites, for example, the way she manipulated “her own unemployed and dependent husband” to get him to agree for her to have “an adulterous sexual affair.”
We’re not talking here about personal flaws or merely human weaknesses. As Ryan puts it, these abuses are “demonstrably connected to Rand’s own ‘philosophical’ premises”—that is, her worldview.
Rand and her followers, you see, lived in a way consistent with her worldview. But you can hardly regard a philosophy that exalts selfishness and condemns altruism as the basis for a good society.
That’s why it is so important for us as Christians to understand our Christian worldview and to be able to contend for it, because it gets God right, and it gets human nature right, as well. You can find that worldview in the one book that out-ranked Atlas Shrugged.