I wrote the first version of "Objectivism as a Religion" during my final year at the University of Arizona and delivered it as a lecture for the UA Students of Objectivism in 1970. After moving to California in 1971, I expanded the piece considerably and published it, in three parts, in the O'ist zine Invictus (published by Lou Rollins) in 1972.
When looking over previously published articles to include in Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies, I decided that the published version of "Objectivism as a Religion" was much too long, so I cut it down by around half. Throughout these numerous revisions, however, the sections on "The Objectivist Pedant" and "The Objectivist Martyr" remained substantially unchanged. So what you see here is virtually identical to my first version of the essay, written in 1970.
This essay -- and these two sections in particular -- grew out of my many college experiences with Objectivists. You need to keep in mind that I became interested in freethought and atheism during my second year of high school (1964), and that I didn't become interested in Rand until around 2 years later. The first book I read by Rand was The Virtue of Selfishness. Having been a fundamentalist Christian for most of my youth, prior to my interest in freethought, I naturally viewed Rand from the perspective of a young freethinker, and (unlike some readers) I experienced her ethics as extremely liberating. Rand's ethical theory, for me, was a welcome antidote to the suffocating ethics of Christianity, especially its focus on guilt and sin.
Not until I entered college and rubbed shoulders with fellow students who called themselves "Objectivists" did I discover how the Objectivist ethics was used by many people as a secularized version, in effect, of Christian ethics. This attitude came as a real shock to me, and I frankly could not understand it at first. I therefore talked to a lot of people and thought about this problem for around two years before writing "Objectivism as a Religion."
The Objectivist Pedant
Perhaps the most common type of religious Objectivist is the moral pedant -- the Objectivist who passes moral judgment for the purpose of intimidation. This type is easily identified by his incessant use of the terms "moral" and "immoral."
When the pedant is asked, "Why should I do x?" he replies, "Because it is the moral thing to do." He is asked, "Why is it moral?" He answers, "Because it is in man's interest qua man." He is asked, "But even if that is true, why should I do it?" He replies, in effect, "Because if you don't, you are sub-human." Or: "Because if you don't, you are morally degenerate." Or: "Because if you don't, you betray your status as a human being."
The pedant rarely concretizes moral abstractions and so fails to forge a link between "man's life" and real humans. Moral principles, in the hands of the pedant, acquire the characteristics of religious rules.
The pedant observes how Rand argues for certain kinds of action (such as productive work) as conducive to happiness, and he then transforms these actions into rules backed by moral sanctions. He defines an immoral action as one that falls outside the prescribed limits, and he defines an immoral person as one who breaks the rules.
If ever the pedant encounters a person who does not fit his preconceived mold -- even if that person appears happy -- the pedant will condemn that person as immoral. This judgment is supposed to evoke guilt and shame, which will then motivate the nonconformist to snap into line with prescribed rules. Thus, as used by the pedant, the term "immoral" is nothing more than a secularization of "sin." This can be illustrated with a few examples.
(1) For a Christian, to call a person sinful is a blanket condemnation. The is equally true of the pedant's use of "immoral." When this Objectivist says, "You are immoral" -- with that tone of indignation and disgust that only he can muster -- he might just as well say, "You are a worthless person." The religious Objectivist seeks to demote the condemned to a sub-human species, and, in doing so, he hopes to instill guilt.
(2) "Sin" does not leave room for moral innocence; neither does "immoral" as used by the pedant. This becomes evident when the religious Objectivist searches for the most vicious motives imaginable to explain what he regards as immoral behavior. It is not uncommon to find such Objectivists gleefully relating tales of the vile motives they have uncovered in other people; seemingly insignificant actions are interpreted as devastating insights into the characters of the condemned.
This is sadly apparent in the denunciations of Nathaniel Branden by some Objectivists after his split with Ayn Rand. Rand has pronounced Branden immoral. What else does the upright Objectivist need to know? Branden, we are told, should be shunned; moral people do not read his books or attend his lectures. Such ex cathedra thinking would turn the Pope green with envy.
(3) The idea of sin apply not only to actions, but to thoughts and feelings as well. So does the pedant's use of "immoral." For example, the religious Objectivist observes another Objectivist who responds romantically to someone who doesn't agree with Rand's ideas. Is it necessary to elaborate on the conclusions he will draw?
Examples like this could be multiplied endlessly, but they share a common theme rooted in what Objectivist writers call "psycho-epistemology." One's emotions are said to be morally significant because they flow from and reveal one's values. Thus emotions themselves become subject to praise or condemnation. To feel an "irrational" emotion is to display a flawed value premise, which suggests that one may be an immoral person.
(4) Christians may feel guilt because they think that God is always watching them. Surely there can be no comparable fear in the religious Objectivist (who is, after all, an atheist).
Although there is no literal parallel here, there is an important psychological one. Some Objectivists seem to feel that John Galt is hovering overhead, peering at them during every moment of their lives. Would John Galt approve of what I am saying? Would John Galt make the same decision I made? Would John Galt become upset with what I am feeling? In other words, the pedant is afflicted with an acute case of moral perfectionism.
The pedant is always out to prove something, even when alone. He will prove that, however miserable he may be, he is a good Objectivist, that he follows the rules faithfully. What of those non-Objectivists who enjoy their lives? Their "mindless pleasure," as the pedant is apt to call it, is not philosophically pure (as if anyone cares about this except the pedant).
The pedant, wound up like a spring, is a walking caricature of moral rigor -- rather like Mencken's puritan who is obsessed with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy. The pedant, like the puritan, is sure that he has the key to happiness, even though it doesn't unlock any doors. So the pedant takes his pleasure from possessing the key itself. He is a pious gatekeeper who is unable to pass through his own gate.
I will post "The Objectivist Martyr" shortly.