Monday, December 01, 2008

Objectivism and Religion

[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]

Ayn Rand and her followers have a bee in their bonnet when it comes to religion. In particular, contemporary Objectivists often fret about the influence on the Religious Right on politics. It doesn’t appear, however, that they have spent much time studying the topic of religion because the same old chestnuts keep popping up again and again. Here I’ll discuss a couple quotes that appear frequently in Objectivist literature and an additional claim made by Leonard Peikoff.

“Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged”

This is from Matthew 7:1 and is part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. It first entered the Objectivist lexicon with Rand herself:

The precept: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

It is mentioned most recently in Andrew Bernstein’s just published Objectivism in One Lesson.

The full quote (KJV) is:

“(1) Judge not, that ye be not judged. (2) For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

Objectivists, proud of Rand’s moralism, see in Christianity a precursor to the non-judgmentalism present in the post-modern world. (Objectivism must be one of the few philosophies in history which finds Christianity insufficiently judgmental.)

But does Jesus prohibit judging? This appears unlikely, if for no other reason than that Jesus was quite judgmental and judging is a part of life. A couple standard commentaries might help. According to Craig Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 240-41):
As noted above, the issue is not failure to discern, but hypocrisy in judging others for one’s own faults. Later rabbis declared that one should ‘remove [one’s] own blemish first,’ giving the example of a rabbi who deferred a case to correct his own behavior before he ruled that another must do the same. Greek and Roman sages offered similar wisdom: for example, one must solve one’s own problems, and only then in turn to criticize others accurately; we see others’ faults more quickly than our own. Likewise, ‘Practice nothing in your deeds for which you condemn other in your words’ which seems to have become part of the common moral wisdom. (Citations omitted.)

Donald Hagner (Matthew 1-13, p. 169) agrees: “[T]he way one judges others will be the way one is judged by God . . . .”

Rand says that, in judging, one must “possess an unimpeachable character,” so perhaps Rand is saying something similar to Jesus and the ancients.

“I Believe It Because It is Absurd”

This is another chestnut appearing in, among other places, Leonard Peikoff’s Religion Versus America.
What if a dogma cannot be clarified? So much the better, answered an earlier Church father, Tertullian. The truly religious man, he said, delights in thwarting his reason; that shows his commitment to faith. Thus, Tertullian's famous answer, when asked about the dogma of God's self-sacrifice on the cross: ‘Credo quia absurdum’ (‘I believe it because it is absurd’).

Tertullian didn’t say “credo quia absurdum.” (Peikoff is not the most accurate of intellectual historians.) As one writer puts it:

Credo quia absurdum is, of course, a misquote. Tertullian's words are credibile est, quia ineptum est (De carne Christi 5.4). The difference between the imputed and actual words is striking and important. James Moffatt in a sadly neglected article of a half-century ago discovered the clue to the interpretation of the words in observing that here Tertullian ‘follows in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle.’ In Rhetoric 2.23.22 Aristotle shows that an argument from probability can be drawn from the sheer improbability of a story: some stories are so improbable that it is reasonable to believe them. On this view, the words presuppose a tidy correlation between faith and reason, and a consideration of Tertullian's aims in the treatise in which they are found supports this interpretation.
Tertullian recognizes, however, that in spite of its distortions, pagan philosophy has often enjoyed glimpses of the truth. In recalling his quotable strictures against philosophy, we must not forget his equally quotable Seneca saepe noster (De anima 20.1). In the Ad nationes, an early work, Socrates becomes a forerunner of the Christian martyrs, because he suffered, as they suffer, on behalf of the truth at the hands of those ignorant of it (1.4.6-7). If there is a change of tone in the more artful Apologeticum, Tertullian still grants that Socrates aliquid de veritate sapiebat deos negans (46.5).
Those Secular Greeks

Leonard Peikoff, again in Religion Versus America, makes the following claim:

Ancient Greece was not a religious civilization, not on any of the counts I mentioned. The Gods of Mount Olympus were like a race of elder brothers to man, mischievous brothers with rather limited powers; they were closer to Steven Spielberg's extra-terrestrial visitor than to anything we would call ‘God.’ They did not create the universe or shape its laws or leave any message of revelations or demand a life of sacrifice. Nor were they taken very seriously by the leading voices of culture, such as Plato and Aristotle. From start to finish, the Greek thinkers recognized no sacred texts, no infallible priesthood and no intellectual authority beyond the human mind; they allowed no room for faith. Epistemologically, most were staunch individualists who expected each man to grasp the truth by his own powers of sensory observation and logical thought. For detail, I refer you to Aristotle, the preeminent representative of the Greek spirit.

Even though Peikoff qualifies his statement somewhat, it is still more than a little misleading. As a leading scholar of ancient Greek religion explains:

The paradox is that, although Greek religion seems to lack so many of the things which characterize modern religions and which require degrees of personal commitment and faith from their followers, Greeks were involved with religion to a degree which is very hard nowadays to understand. . . . The Greek household had its shrine to Hestia or to Zeus Ktesios . . . . At a meal a libation or drink-offering to the gods was an automatic custom . . . . The great landmarks of human life – birth, coming of age, marriage and death – were all marked by rituals with religious significance. . . . it is against this background of a way of life interpenetrated by an enormous variety of religious ritual, practice and belief . . . that the questioning of religion was seen as a dangerous threat. (J.V. Muir, “Religion and the New Education” in P.E. Easterling and J.V. Muir, Greek Religion and Society, pp. 194-95.)

Even the supposedly enlightened Athenians consulted the oracle at the shrine dedicated to Apollo at Delphi and made military decisions based on what they were told.