Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Atlas Loved

I have a confession to make: I've been reading Atlas Shrugged.

When I started it, I wasn't looking to be convinced or to be able to easily refute it. Knowing that it's a controversial book for many reasons, all I really planned for was to learn. And I did!

One particular fact I noticed throughout the book is the complete irrelevance of the arguments most commonly brought up against it. Before reading it,  I had already seen it dismissed many times. But the dismissals all invariably depended on a fairly undefined sense of morality that Rand actively speaks out against in her book. What use is decrying it as evil if she is working from a different definition of evil? Not only that, but she takes great care to both define her morality (something her detractors often fail to do), and to show that it works.

Even though I agree with Rand on some economic policy, I am not fully convinced yet, for a few reasons. First is that the characters are ridiculously black and white. The world of Atlas Shrugged, and the characters within, are polarized to a frankly preposterous degree. While her core principles may hold true regardless, it's kind of hard to think of it as an accurate representation of humanity when literally every conversation is a long and detailed speech on morality and economics (though technically, she considers them the same thing). That doesn't disprove the novel at all: one can assume that the characters are merely representative of the two sides of human natures she presents, and divided in that way for illustrative purposes. It does make the characters' struggles rather less believable, though.

That is mostly an issue of presentation, but there is an issue I disagree with her on almost entirely: that of morality. There is an important distinction that needs to be made here: I do not disagree with her morality simply because I dislike it. It's not an issue of "that doesn't feel right", or "everyone knows that sort of thing is evil". Any effective disagreement on this matter must be defined, clear, and grounded in a rational philosophy/worldview. It cannot depend on an emotional response, because Rand has thoroughly refuted the validity of that kind of action. With that said, the basis for my disagreement is, of course, Christianity. The Bible presents a clear and defined moral standard that is very different from Rand's philosophy, based on the authority of God. She argues for selfishness and the pursuit of happiness as the highest moral virtues, while Christianity explicitly states that we must live for others, and work for the glory of God. But, while I disagree with her moral code, I actually agree - for the most part - with her standards. And here is how that fits in with Christianity.

I've stressed in the past that the most important attribute of Christianity is that it is true. Rand openly rejected this belief, claiming at one point that religion is a tool used to control the masses. However, truth isn't determined by how nice a belief is, or by how it is used by people who claim to hold to it. So I want to talk about how Christianity impacts Rand's beliefs by their own standards, assuming that it is true.

First of all, regardless of whether or not God is evil by her standards, it is very clear that He should be followed and obeyed, based on the profit motive alone. God promises an eternal and perfect bliss in exchange for obeying Him. Ayn Rand believed strongly in the gold standard. She believed it to be the best objective measure of value. But God uses a standard that cannot be competed with. He promises rewards in heaven based on service to Him. With a reward like that, there should be no question about devoting your life to Him, based on selfishness alone.

But God isn't actually evil based on her standards, anyway! Rand believes that societal position and wealth should be based on competence and production, and this is where God throws the scales completely off of balance. Not only is He infinitely competent, He has created everything! He controls all resources and production by His own right, having created them entirely on His own. This in itself wouldn't entitle Him to command us - Rand would have been harshly opposed to the idea that more productive members of society have an inherent right to command the less productive. Rather, as He owns everything completely by rights of creation, we can only use these things according to how He allows us. He even created our lives! In this case, He is only exercising His rights as property owner and landlord, and His control of us is fully justified.

This is where it gets seriously off the scale, though. Because by Rand's own standards, our continued existence on Earth is based entirely on God's undeserved mercy and love. That is diametrically opposed to what she would believe to be right, but it's true. We have absolutely no claim to anything God has created, and we can provide no services to Him that are worth what He gives us in return, be it our continued existence or the promised eternity in heaven. The scale is not just tipped in God's favour, it is entirely and completely owned by God. By Rand's standards, we have no right to exist. And this is where I remember one particular Bible verse: "We love because He first loved us." (1 John 4:19) If there is no other reason to love others and show mercy, this would be it: that God did so first, though we did nothing to earn it, nothing to deserve it, and never could. By right of ownership and by right of production, we have no right to exist, or to ask anything of God.

"Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders-what would you tell him to do?"
"I . . . don't know.  What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?"
"To shrug."

We are held up by an Atlas who will not shrug. One who owns us completely, and yet loves us regardless. How can we do anything but try to show the same love He showed us?

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