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My Take: Christianity and Ayn Rand's philosophy are 2 distinct religions
Ayn Rand's book "The Fountainhead" and the Bible.
August 15th, 2012
11:29 AM ET

My Take: Christianity and Ayn Rand's philosophy are 2 distinct religions

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Now that one of the Republican Party’s least ideological men (Mitt Romney) has christened one of the GOP’s most ideological men (Paul Ryan) as his running mate, Ayn Rand is back in the news.

Ryan, who used to give away Rand’s novel "Atlas Shrugged" for Christmas, once described this Russian-born preacher of heroic individualism as "the reason I got into public service.” “There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism," he told the pro-Rand Atlas Society in 2005, "than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works."

Ryan’s religious conservatism obviously distinguishes him from Rand, an atheist who despised efforts by Ronald Reagan and others to marry church and state. And recently Ryan has tried to distance himself from her.

In an April interview with the National Review, he rooted his controversial budget plan, not in Rand’s laissez-faire philosophizing, but in Catholic values. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he said. “Give me Thomas Aquinas.”

Which makes me wonder just how these two influences on Ryan stack up against one another. Is it possible to love Aquinas and Rand at the same time? About as possible as loving God and mammon since Christianity and Randism are, in my view, two competing religions.

I know that Rand was an atheist, so it may seem like a stretch to call Randism a religion. But there are plenty of religions (Buddhism, for example) that have rejected God. And like Christianity, Randism has its founder, its scriptures and its miracles (since in the Gospel of Ayn Rand there isn't anything laissez-faire capitalism and its secular saints cannot do).

Randism also has its committed devotees, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and conservative talk-show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, not to mention the myriad commenters (see below) who will no doubt object to my efforts to brand her atheism a religion.

Here are five big differences I see between the  theologies of Christianity and Randism:

1. Jesus preached the virtue of selflessness; Rand wrote a book called "The Virtue of Selfishness" (1964). Altruism is evil, she argued, and egoism the only true ethics.

2. The Apostle Paul called the love of money the root of all evil. Rand wore a dollar sign brooch and saw to it that a florid dollar sign stood guard by her casket at her funeral. She also put a love letter to the almighty dollar on the lips of one of her "Atlas Shrugged" heroes, copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia (a speech Ryan has said he returns to repeatedly when pondering monetary policy). There d’Anconia calls money “the root of all good."

3. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke. And he says in the Gospel of Matthew that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” In the Gospel according to Ayn Rand, however, it is the “traders” (“job creators” in modern parlance) who like Atlas carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, while the poor are denounced as “moochers” and “looters."

4. The hope of the Christian gospel is the kingdom of God, but Rand's objectivist philosophy opposes "collectivism" at every turn. “Man - every man - is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake,” the inventor John Galt proclaims in "Atlas Shrugged," “and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”

5. The ultimate concern of Christianity is God. The ultimate concern of Randism is the unfettered freedom of the individual. While the Christian Trinity comprise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Rand’s Trinity is I, me, mine.

For years, Ryan and other conservative Republicans have been trying to have their Jesus Christ and their Ayn Rand,  too. But the two clash at least as much as an Obama/Ryan ticket.

Conservative icon William F. Buckley rightly recognized this fundamental incompatibility, running a blistering review of "Atlas Shrugged"in his National Review and denouncing that novel himself in a Charlie Rose interview as "a thousand pages of ideological fabulism.”

Evangelical leader Chuck Colson was equally critical, referring to Rand’s “idolatry of self and selfishness” as “the antithesis of Christianity.”

To his credit, Ryan seems to be acknowledging the gap between Randism and Christianity by attempting in recent months to distance himself from an intellectual mentor and emphasizing instead the Catholic roots of his budget plan.

But as Jesus once said, “By your fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16), and I for one still see much more Rand than Jesus in Ryan’s Robin Hood budget.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece said that Jesus called the love of money the root of all evil. The statement should have been attributed to the Apostle Paul.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Atheism • Christianity • Economy • Paul Ryan • Politics • United States

soundoff (1,069 Responses)
  1. bob

    author has obviously not read Atlas Shrugged – Barney Frank is a representative moocher. Not the poor. In the book, moocher means exactly what you expect – one who lives off the work of others.

    Also, with selfishness, I think most people misunderstand the usage. Selfish means looking out for ones best interests(shouldn't we all do that?) and can and does include charity and helping others, but at your own choice. Not altruism, which means you must live/work for the sake of another (e.g. communism).

    August 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Joe

      There is actually a phrase for the definition you describe 'self-interested'. If Ayn Rand was as intelligent as her followers make her out to be it seems odd that she used 'selfish' when she meant 'self-interested', particularly when her explanation of her intent left little doubt that she was intending to use 'selfish'.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • El Flaco

      Remember that Rand was a native Russian speaker. English was her second or third language.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • El Flaco

      Don't make excuses for Rand. There is nothing in her writing that encourages helping others or even suggests that doing so is good. It is a selfish philosophy. It says that humans are not a group, they are individuals. This is a ridiculous denial of an obvious reality.

      We are apes. Apes live in groups. The meaning of our lives is derived from our society and our relationships with others. The welfare of the group is as important as the welfare of the individual. The accomplishment of the individual is very much an accomplishment of the group at the same time.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  2. freddo

    I'd say you're comparing a book of fables with someone's philosophical point of view.

    Elevating Rand's books to the level of religions is a bit absurd ... people may view it that way, but then, Scientologists claim their world view is a "religion". I guess if you "believe" strongly enough, some fool will call it a religion.

    Everyone should believe in something ... I believe I'll have another drink.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  3. Bible Clown©

    Half the 'conservatives' running today are actually Randite anarchists. Go figure.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  4. Peter

    I am an atheist and I find Rand to be one of the greatest hypocrites every to gain fame. I put her next Paris Hilton in that department.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Ebenezer Scrooge

      Mankind is my business, and to heck with the workhouses and prisons. Do the right thing, don't wait.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  5. Cal

    The intresting about altruism, is that when you annalyze your motives for being altruistic, it is inherently selfish. We only do good things, because we feel bad for not doing good things. You pass a bum on the street, don't give him any change. Later you feel bad about it, so the next time you face the same situation you give him some change so you don't feel bad later.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Tim

      Not entirely true. Studies show that people who have low altruistic values do altruistic actions for selfish reasons while those who have high altruistic values do them for non-selfish reasons.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Cal

      That's kind of what getting at. A person who likes to help others will feel bad for not doing so. Doing something so you don't feel bad would be selfish. But you can't accurately measure a persons intent. But if people do good things, awesome.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Tim

      Hmm...I am not sure you understood what I was saying. Using your example above...there are many people who act and feel exactly how you describe but they tend to be the people who consider altruistic values to be not that worthwhile. People who consider altruistic values to be worthwhile will make a greater effort to give money initially but if they don't give at that time guilt will not influence their actions in future like events.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Tim

      also...what is truly interesting. Is that the first group is only likely to change their actions if observed by a third party, even if the third party is unaware of their previous actions.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  6. Rationalist

    "I don't want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if
    there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political
    right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it."

    — Rev. Billy Graham

    I have not always agreed with the Rev. Graham but in this he is correct. There is no connection between the Republican, "I've got mine; screw you" philosophy and any religion that I am familiar with.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Rationalist,

      well Karl Rove presided over that wedding 12 years ago. Of course Nixon introduced them to each other and they had been living together since Reagan but Karl got them properly hitched.

      If 8 years of G.W.Bush wasn't bad enough, we are still paying for that wedding in this election cycle. The only thing they really have in common are the wedge issues – gays and abortion, ironically neither of which are on the political agenda this year.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  7. Rahul

    Buddhism and the Buddha never rejected God. 1. The Buddha himself declined to speak to that topic whenever asked. That's not rejection. His answer was always, "I teach the release from suffering." 2. Later Buddhist branches especially Mahayana did make the Buddha into a god of sorts so that is hardly a rejection. People should not speak about other religions if they don't know what they're talking about.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Henry

      Use of the capitalized form of the noun 'god' in English refers almost exclusively to the Christian deity. If this is your intent your statement can not be true since Buddha died 400 years before Christianity emerged. If you were not referring to the Christian deity in your statement you should clarify it further.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  8. Marc Perkel

    CNN completely avoids reality based religions like Humanism and the church of Reality. It's a shame that there is so much discrimination against the concept of objective reality.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Ebenezer Scrooge

      Atheists never burn a cross in your yard.

      August 16, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  9. ArthurP

    Well I guess that settles it then. Ryan will now only ever be interviewed by FoxNews and right wing talk radio.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  10. Jake

    So I don't understand why conservatives are against abortion. If it makes me happy and the unborn fetus doesn't have the power to stand up against my decision as a person in poverty has against a wealthy individual when that same wealthy individual decides to make them homeless by kicking them out of a rented appartment so they could convert it into a shopping mall, according to Rand I should go and do what I want...you know....do-me. In fact, why do we help out the Katrina victims or oil spill in the gulf for? I didn't choose to live there-they did. Why should I pay to help rebuild? In fact, who cares if our soldiers get killed in wars, it's a "volunteer force" isn't it? I didn't volunteer why should I care what happens to those that do? AHHH you see they hypocrisy in that lilttle notion that we should just be selfish? Selfishness, is the very fundamental foundation to anarchy. Laws are created because we want "fairness". Fairness is the anti-individuality for you are not free as an individual....to not be fair.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  11. Rosslaw

    No conflict for Ryan or any of his ilk. Ryan and Co. have declared every single federal subsidy, bar none, as untouchable during the artificially concocted debt ceiling crisis. So much for a man standing on his own two feet. And everybody gets a nickel for each of the budget busting, unpaid for, deficit exploding bills, wars and tax cuts passed during the Bush administration and into the Obama adminsration such as the deficity expanding extension of the still unpaid for Bush tax cuts that Ryan voted against (hint: nobody gets a nickel).. Ryan doesn't believe his own bs so why should you?

    August 15, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  12. lathebiosas

    I am an atheist and altruist. I think Jesus would think I'm more of a Christian than your average GOP politician.....

    August 15, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • RCC

      I think you are absolutely correct but don't give them dems any more credut that than the GOP – they are all criminals.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      I agree RCC, I totally agree.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Dave

      To the extent I am (sometimes) altruistic, I think it's because I'm a Christian. Why would an atheist be altruistic? I don't mean to be rude or sarcastic. I just don't understand.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Keith

      This is what I have always said that even though I reject completely the concept of a god, if I am wrong and there is a god then surely it would consider the way I have conducted my life as being FAR more important than just professing a belief in it.
      But the religious looney tunes will quote there book of fantasy and say "you can only enter the kingdom of god through JC", well that's their funeral.
      Who would want to spend eternity around the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell any way, give me HELL any day.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Dave,
      " Why would an atheist be altruistic?"

      If you would have no empathy, sympathy, positive feelings of good will, nor desire for cooperation without your ancient rule book's promises of pie in the sky, I guess you'd better stick with it.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Dave,

      because atheism does not imply amorality.

      Altruism is generally considered 'good', whether you are theist or atheists. (Objectivists of course disagree.)

      Morality is not God-given. It is the societal consensus of conscience. It is not absolute and it changes with time but it is present in all societies. Humans are social creatures and we need guidelines on how to interact as a society – so we come up with them.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      Because this atheist believes that the cosmos does not care if mankind lives or dies, the fate of man depends only on man and if (when) he screws it up for good no one or thing is coming to save us. So, it's US or perish, not ME or perish. If we'd all get over the religious, race, social dividisions we could finally make a go of it and this whole life on earth thing could be a pretty good gig for all. I know, it'll never happen.

      August 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      " Why would an atheist be altruistic? " Why would any human being be altruistic, especially a Christian? You intend to exult from on high as we burn in a pit, right? Laughing the whole time and enjoying our pain? Me, I wouldn't laugh. I'd lower a rope.

      August 16, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  13. El Flaco

    So the Christian credentials of the Republican nominees are pretty shabby.

    Romney is a non-Christian. Ryan is a Catholic who sends copies of atheistic books to his friends at Christmas.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  14. Because

    Catholics follow the Pope, not Christ.
    Mormons follow the teachings of Joseph Smith, not Christ.
    There are no Christians on the Republican Presidential ballot.

    Obama is the only Christian on either ticket.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • RCC

      Your coment proves your lack of intellect and your lack of reality.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • r

      Who cares? Time for an atheist leader.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Keith

      RCC your response shows that you have been very successfully brain washed at your local MADRASSA, sorry I meant bible school.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  15. sonny chapman

    According to my plain reading of the Four Gospels of Jesus, it's hard to reconcile Repub. ideology as following the His Teachings.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Dave

      As a Christian and a reluctant Republican, I sort of agree with you – but not completely. In my view, anyone who questions whether the poor should be given food or the homeless given shelter or the sick given care – such a person is not following the teachings of Jesus. However, I think that there is a reasonable discussion to be had around the role of government providing these things, as opposed to individuals or non-governmental organizations. If the Church were doing its job (including me doing mine), the government wouldn't be forced to tend to these needs. While I instinctively prefer smaller government, I support an expansion of its role to make up for what we are failing to do outside government.

      August 15, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  16. RCC

    Whatever his beliefs – they are the same as every other politician – personal gain. Politicians use whatever label suits them at the time.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  17. Opkode

    Religion is the root of all evil.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • RCC

      Arrogance and self declared omnipotence is the root of all evil

      August 15, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @RCC

      Then the god of the bible really is an evil prick. Thanks for clearing that up for us.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • RCC

      Brah, you don't bible story. You go beach and talk your meth stories

      August 15, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @RCC

      Awww did the poor little Catholic get their feelings hurt? Perhaps to the point of making a complete ass of yourself in attempting to type in pidgeon? How sad that you have so little confidence in your beliefs.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • flk

      i think youd be surprised at how many things can be classified as religion.. including your own belief system..

      August 15, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • RCC

      Brah – don't be an angry atheist troll. No need to be angry, just go away little troll to your lazy meth head island. When you have something inspiring to say, maybe we listen to you lazy boyz

      August 15, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @RCC

      LOL oh calling me a troll when you're the one attempting to ellicit an angry response from me through pure idiocy. Sounds like you're the troll.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Al

      I'll take the word of a Hawaiian over a Bible belter any day.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Bugmenot

      JUST STAND ON YOUR HEAD AND SOIL YER PANTS AWREADY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      August 15, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Keith

      Your are completely correct RCC RELIGION is not only the root of all evil it is evil in itself. You just proved it.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  18. Byteme

    Wow. It's just more tap dancing by the GOP. They'll do or say anything to get elected.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • DRPace

      And the Democrats don't?? Please. Both parties are guilty.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  19. oconp88

    The problem with this thought process is that it assumes that anyone who like an author or, in the perspective of the author, religion, must believe everything said by the author or in the name of the religion. I am sure there are some things in Leviticus that plenty of good Catholics would like to ignore. It is the difference between being moderate and fanatical.

    Also, keep in mind one HUGE difference between Christianity and "Randism". One speaks to how we, as individuals, should treat others, while the others speaks directly to how government should treat us. There is nothing stopping an individualist from giving their entire fortune to the poor, it is their choice. It should NOT be the choice of the government which charities I donate to.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Rationalist

      You obviously haven't read The Virtue of Selfishness. Please refrain from making comments about which you know almost nothing.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • TKO

      One can and does, I suppose, cherry pick any philosophy or religion to some degree. But the challenge of following Christian thought (and I am not a Christian) is to ascertain what the main thrust of that religion is. In the gospels it is clear that Jesus returns again and again to a single theme–that one must be willing to give up self in order to serve God by serving others. The gospels are not just about altruism, they are about an altruism so radical as to defy most people's abilities to follow: "If you wish to be complete, sell all you own and give it to the poor, and follow me." How many rich GOPers are willing to go there?

      August 15, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  20. JAB62

    As an atheist I totally agree with the author. For years now I've complained about the hypocracy of the Christian Right. Jesus would never have been as selfish as they. To all you Republican Christians I say, who would Jesus vote for?

    August 15, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • RCC

      You vote for the one that does you the least harm since we all know full well that both parties are out to do harm.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Rationalist

      "I don't want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if
      there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political
      right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it."

      — Rev. Billy Graham

      August 15, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Horus

      @Rationalist – yet Graham had no problem combining the two and using his influence to codify hate into law in NC – (marriage ammendment). Graham is a hypocrite too.....

      August 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Keith

      The word is "HYPOCRISY" not "hypocracy", please use correct spelling and good grammar or people will think that you're a REPUBLICAN.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.