The claim that Objectivism is a religion goes back to Albert Ellis’s 1968 book Is Objectivism a Religion? Calling Objectivism a religion seems upon first glance quite odd, given its atheism and anti-supernaturalism. At the same time, many critics of Objectivism have noted quite a few “ominous parallels” between Rand’s writings and religion, and between the Objectivist movement and established religious bodies. I’ll review a few here, more in this spirit of provoking conversation than in coming to any definite conclusions. (My reference to Objectivism is limited to those Objectivists associated with Leonard Peikoff’s Ayn Rand Institute.)
1. Rand saw herself as something of a secular prophet. In the first edition of Anthem, published in 1936, she wrote, “I have broken the tables of my brothers, and my own tables do I now write with my own spirit.” Rand’s writing is frequently apocalyptic as well. She begins John Galt’s sermon in Atlas Shrugged with an Old Testament-like rebuke of a sinful world facing judgment. “I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing—you who dread knowledge—I am the one who will now tell you . . . .”
2. Orthodox Objectivism has its official canon of scripture. As Harry Binswanger says to those who consider joining his email list:
"It is understood that Objectivism is limited to the philosophic principles expounded by Ayn Rand in the writings published during her lifetime plus those articles by other authors that she published in her own periodicals (e.g., The Objectivist) or included in her anthologies."Pride of place goes to Atlas Shrugged, which Rand had the unfortunate tendency of quoting as if it were the Bible. Like a pastor using characters from the Bible, Rand and her followers constantly refer to characters in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to draw moral lessons.
3. Like religions, Orthodox Objectivism has the tendency to turn disagreements about doctrine into moral issues. For example, Leonard Peikoff once said to Rand,
"You are suffering the fate of a genius trapped in a rotten culture," I would begin. 'My distinctive attribute," she would retort, "is not genius, but intellectual honesty." "That is part of it," I would concede, "but after all I am intellectually honest, too, and it doesn't make me the kind of epochal mind who can write Atlas Shrugged or discover Objectivism." "One can't look at oneself that way," she would answer me. "No one can say: 'Ah me! the genius of the ages.' My perspective as a creator has to be not 'How great I am' but 'How true this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough to face the truth.'" So, for understandable reasons, we reached an impasse. She kept hoping to meet an equal; I knew that she never would. For once, I felt, I had the broad historical perspective, the perspective on her, that in the nature of the case she could not have. (Peikoff, "My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir," The Objectivist Forum, 1987, pg. 12-13.)
4. As can be seen from the above quote, adulation of the group’s founder is paramount in Orthodox Objectivist circles. In particular, Rand’s sacred name is given great reverence by her followers. Rarely is she referred to as just “Rand.” She may be called “Ayn Rand,” “Miss Rand,” or “AR.” Leonard Peikoff is now commonly called “Leonard Peikoff” and “LP.”
5. Also, like many religious people, Orthodox Objectivists abhor the “backslider,” the person who appears to give assent to the truth but is working behind the scenes to circumvent it. Leonard Peikoff mentions the type of people Rand attracted in the above article:
"They absorbed the surface features of Ayn Rand's intellectual style and viewpoint as though by osmosis and then mimicked them. Often, because she was so open, they knew what she wanted them to say and they said it convincingly. Though uninterested in philosophy and even contemptuous of fundamentals, they could put on an expert act to the contrary, most often an act for themselves first of all. Ayn Rand was not the only person to be taken in by it. I knew most of these people well and, to be fair here, I must admit that I was even more deluded about them than she was."
6. Orthodox Objectivism has its official villains and heretics of the type described by Peikoff. The two most evil figures in this pantheon are, of course, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. There are lesser fallen angels, such as David Kelley.
7. Orthodox Objectivism has its official church, the Ayn Rand Institute, which proselytizes on behalf of Objectivism. Leonard Peikoff and his small college of cardinals (Harry Binswanger and Peter Schwartz) supervise the movement. Peikoff occasionally speaks ex cathedra, as he did at the time of the Kelley break.
"Now I wish to make a request to any unadmitted anti-Objectivists reading this piece, a request that I make as Ayn Rand's intellectual and legal heir. If you reject the concept of "objectivity" and the necessity of moral judgment, if you sunder fact and value, mind and body, concepts and percepts, if you agree with the Branden or Kelley viewpoint or anything resembling it — please drop out of our movement: drop Ayn Rand, leave Objectivism alone."
Unlike many religions, however, Objectivists are intent on charging high prices for their material, which would seem to run counter to their movement’s aim. Objectivist retreats, called "Objectivist Conferences,” are quite expensive to attend.
8. Those who are associated with the ARI must take care that they do not demonstrate their “worldliness” by fraternizing with Kelleyites and other deviationists. No member of the Objectivist movement may associate with Kelley’s Atlas Center, for example. While an Objectivist might be permitted to publish in a mainstream philosophical journal (notwithstanding the fact that such journals routinely publish articles devoted to the destruction of man’s mind), no Objectivist may publish in Chris Sciabarra’s Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. No word yet on whether the lapsed may be restored to a state of grace.
9. It is unclear whether Orthodox Objectivism will develop an iconography of its departed saints, but at least one Objectivist artist has done so.