I made the mistake of reading Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead before her more celebrated work Atlas Shrugged that supposedly provides the clearest articulation of her philosophy of objectivism. After a promising start, The Fountainhead degenerated into a dreary polemic, with two-dimensional stereotypical characters behaving in utterly predictable ways, the whole thing written in melodramatic style. Although I completed it, it was such a bad novel that I simply could not bear the thought of reading another 1000 pages by the same writer and so never read Atlas Shrugged.
It is not that I am averse to long novels. After all, I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and was then inspired to immediately read Anna Karenina by the same novelist. But I am highly allergic to bad novelists.
Ayn Rand is currently enjoying a resurgence amongst the members of the Tea Party Christian right. While many of them happily carry the Bible in one hand while holding Atlas Shrugged in the other, they seem either unaware of Rand’s outspoken atheism or dismiss it as a mere quirk in their idol’s otherwise impeccable ideology.
Gore Vidal wrote an essay in 1961 where he expressed his own puzzlement with the popularity of Rand, “who writes novels I have never been able to read.” But more importantly, he points out why her philosophy that selfishness is good required her to reject both Marx and Jesus, resulting in her brand of right-wing atheism. He writes:
This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.
She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other’s money openly. She is in legitimate company here. There is a reactionary position which has many valid attractions, among them lean, sinewy, regular-guy Barry Goldwater. But it is Miss Rand’s second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which ahs figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race.
Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.
You cannot be a fan of Rand’s philosophy without rejecting the main ethical principles of Jesus and of almost all the major religious leaders. At least Rand was consistent on this score and rejected religion altogether. Many of her followers try to have it both ways.