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. Barn

    The Republicans are tying like hell to make Obama into a Marxist.
    So apparently this is election really comes down to Ayn Rand vs. Karl Marx.
    What is the more evil atheist philosophy?

    August 15, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Is it evil because it's atheist? Are you saying atheists and their thoughts are evil?

      August 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • sybaris

      You are an atheist in your lack of belief of other gods.

      Who is evil?

      August 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  2. KAS

    "But there are plenty of religions (Buddhism, for example) that have rejected God"

    You are assuming there is a god in the first place to reject. That's your first strike.

    You are also assuming that since people such as Buddhists or atheists "reject" a god, that they are somehow less worthy than a Catholic or one of the many versions of Christianity. That's strike two.

    Finally, eh, what's the point. I'll just give you your third strike because trying to equate a religion with a philosophical movement is just plain stupid. At least the movement can be evaluated against reality.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • hcd

      one of the longest parts of any class on "world religions" or "comparative theology" is deciding what is a religion and what is a philo. honestly most of them are so close to another, or contain the other, you might as well lump them together.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Dr.C.R.Keller

      Well reasoned...and well written.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  3. QS

    Is Rand the reason so many self-righteous religious people think that atheists are all like her?

    I'm an atheist but I reject outright Rand's philosophy's of selfishness and self, as well as her severely irrational take on capitalism and the wealthy.

    Religion and morality are not synonymous. One can reject the concept of a god and still be a good, moral person....but from my perspective, one cannot condone selfishness and greed and remain a good, moral person.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Uniquitous

      out of pure curiosity, what is moral? As a Christian I know the standard, but as an atheist, I would not expect you to subscribe to it. So, what is morality in the eyes of an atheist?

      August 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Dan M

      One needs a philosophy to determine right/wrong & good/evil. You properly reject religion but replace it with ???. Like most atheists, you are halfway there... You saw through one lie of collectivism but fell into another lie. You have simply replaced the Bible's "Thou shall" with "You ought". You rejected belonging to a mystical God but are rejecting Ayn Rand's individualism... so who do you belong to? "Society?" Your neighbor?

      August 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  4. Bob

    Rand does not fit within a Christian worldview, but who cares? She was an angry woman who was filled with loathing by her experience of the collectivism where she came from. The real question is whether free market capitalism is consistent with Christianity. In fact, it is the only system which is. All others are by defintion systems where a few people exercise power and coercion over others. Free markets minimizes this and thereby gives worth and freedom to individuals. Capitalism is simply the economic manifestation of liberty. Jesus said "Give to the poor". The crticis of capitalism say "Give what your neighbor has to the poor (and then take moral credit for it yourself)".

    August 15, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      So now rich people are good and decent and "share the wealth" for the good of humankind.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Robyn

      This is a great response. I believe this is why you find many Christians feel an attraction to Rand's works and philosophy (particularly the economic side), in spite of Rand's atheism and many opposing views. Christianity is one of the few (maybe the only?) religion that holds the individual to be of immense importance and value. Rand does too, fundamentally. The difference is that Christians believe the individual receives their value from God (his love for them, personally), while Rand believes it is inherent value. I'm not trying to say that Rand's philosophy isn't super opposed to Christianity in other ways, but I feel that the core of each are quite similar. Also, I agree with Bob in that free-market capitalism holds individual worth as its core as well. That is why you find these three oftentimes contrary systems coming together- they all come down to the value and worth of the individual.

      August 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  5. Peikoffi

    Atheism is a religion just like bald is a hair color. If a man insists that all forms of knowledge are fundamentally mystical, that makes everything a religion according to him. The man is incorrect, and he can't understand where he went wrong.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • CNN Reader

      Atheism of the modern type (but not of the old) is a religion. It has all the features of a religion: a cosmology, prophets, proselytizing, a moral code. It is a secular (i.e., non-mystic) sect of Christianity, as all modern atheists come from Christian societies, and adopt many of its moral teachings.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Robyn

      CNN Reader is right. You even get the extremist zealots too. Just go to reddit's atheism subreddit. That is the very definition of fanaticism.

      August 30, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  6. therealbartonfunk

    Ryan said that other than Ayn Rand's books there is "no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism." Well, is any Christian still wants to vote for him – or any person of any religion then you need to renounce your religion right off the bat. You can't believe in any religion and then follow the atheist morals of Randian capitalism and individualism.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • DER

      He's referring to the hypothetical one that Jesus intended.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  7. Steve

    "Here are five big differences I see between the theologies of Christianity and Randism:" No Christian I know lives by those 5 things and all are in fact "Randian" whether they admit it or not. I'm not sure what obscure Christian sect the author is referring to.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  8. ej76az

    Next time you write an article, spend more than 47 seconds researching it. "Randism" is a nonexistent term. Ayn Rand's philosphy is Objectivism.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • FYI

      Ayn Rand died in 1982.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • FYI

      * sorry, was for edsr

      August 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Dan M

      Exactly, this is yet another "straw man" CNN op-ed. Objectivism is a philosophy the author clearly doesn't understand. I don't even know why I read CNN editorials anymore... they are filled with vacant babble. Everyone attacks Ayn Rand because attacking the philosophy is a fool's errand. It's like attacking Newton because you don't believe in gravity. The bonus is a lot of people will be exposed to Ayn's brilliant philosophy.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  9. edsr of Dallas

    Who REALLY gives a damned about Ayn Rand or her books except for Ayn Rand and her publisher and her bank? As for the author....each time I see his photo I want to hurl! He looks like Satan!

    August 15, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • FYI


      Ayn Rand died in 1982.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  10. Karm99

    You have clearly outlined the true religion of the Conservative Right movement.

    A perversion that is made possible only by the perpetuation of fear and hate.

    It is analogous to Oil and Water, the only way to combine the two is put it in a bottle and shake it as hard as you can.....

    August 15, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Kingfisher

      @Karm99....One will have to shake the bottle with oil and water as long as one wants the two to be together.... the moment you stop the shaking, they will part ways.... 😉

      August 15, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  11. Bill C

    Seriously CNN. Have you lost even an attempt at objectivity? Why not just shut your doors and let the DNC print all or your supposed stories?

    August 15, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • jonbradley

      "have you lost all objectivity" OMG that is so funny...because the philosophy of Ayn Rand is called Objectivism...but I'm sure you knew that...right.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • fofojan

      the truth hurts really bad.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Nellibly

      Uh, this is an opinion column in the opinion section. Of course it's biased. That's the point.

      August 15, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  12. Steve

    He is the poster child of republican hypocrisy. At least the democrats are truthful in their tragic delusion that government can solve all problems. But republicans like Ryan claim the "small government" mantra but what they mean is "specific programs I don't like are small." Expensive foreign interventions, foreign aid, military buildups, moral code laws such as marriage and personal drug use laws, Patriot acts, farm subsidies, are all big government examples that republicans including Ryan love. Of course Ryan is distancing himself from Rand now. To embrace her he would have look objectively at his own party's desires to spend and grow government. And Republicans represent huge government.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

      @Steve 1:12PM, Get back to work at The Daily Bail.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  13. Barn

    Christians and liberals in America have such phony altruism. How is it altruism to just say the rich should take care of the poor? No sacrifice at all on their part, just words about what other people should sacrifice.
    Ayn Rand was for charity if you feel the recipient deserves it. The phony charity most people have doesn't solve the problems that cause poverty. It only creates dependency.
    Alan Greenspan was not following Ayn Rand's philosophy. She would find the idea of a Federal Reserve government run bank abhorrent.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Dan M

      Yes, this is two op-eds in two days that have cited Greenspan as being a follower of Objectivism. It's true Greenspan had influence from her but Ayn was a proponent of the gold standard so it's completely absurd to think he represented an Objectivist view on running the "Federal Reserve." So much for CNN's reputation on such topics.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Fred Keyes

      What are you talking about? Taxes are assessed equally–there's no question on a 1040 that asks whether you are liberal or conservative before you apply the tax rates.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  14. Colin

    I have never understood the whole "love God" thing to be honest. I cannot fathom loving something that you never see, hear from or have any real evidence for the existence of. Even if I could manage to "love" such a concept, if the ultimate goal is simply to gain entry to heaven so that I can continue this adoration in perpetuity, there seems little point. Also, it seems an odd thing for a god to require (unless of course, we created that god).

    However, I do think the early Christians were on to something. It seems Christianity offered two things then absent from Pagan beliefs. First, it taught that poverty was good and that the meek would inherit the Earth etc. Until then, Pagan beliefs pretty much shunned and disdained the poor, rather than lionized poverty. All of a sudden, the great unwashed masses were being told "it's all about you." You can see why it was attractive.

    Second, they taught these ignorant, illiterate souls that unless they believed, they would burn for all time. They were condemned unless they took on the Christian faith. Talk about reversing the onus of proof!! Very adroit.

    I suspect these two factors (carrot and stick) were very effective marketing tools to pre-Dark Age people who lived, short, violence and fear filled lives.

    What amazes me is that it still survives today in an age where putting a man on the moon is, well, passé.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Barn

      If it is "blessed to be poor", then if you give the poor welfare and charity, they'll no longer be blessed, right?
      So maybe Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan don't want them to loose their blessings. So they are compatible with Christianity.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • BH

      That is why it's called faith Colin. One definition of that word is: unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence. Although all Christians sometimes doubt because we are all imperfect. And the point is not to gain entry into heaven, but to accept that all of our sins were paid for by the body and blood of Jesus Christ. By accepting that as truth, we also accept the salvation that comes along with it. How does one obtain faith? God gave you the tools – your ears and eyes are only required to hear or read the word of God! Faith springs forth from that simple act!

      As for Mr. Prothero, one of your mistakes is a flawed interpretation of the Gospel. Referring to point #3, yes it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God – of the rich man's own accord. What is impossible for man is possible for God. That is, to provide salvation even for the rich and the greedy. Kindness is a fruit of the spirit which should occur on a personal level – not via coercion.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Kingfisher

      @Colin, very well put! First there was a big bang, and then some big lumps of very hot gases, and then they formed into very hot and very large balls which cooled to form what we call planets. Then life emerged from simple combinations of chemicals and sustaining conditions. When man came along and realized that he needed to control the masses, and that the masses were fearful of something unknown, God was created by the imagination of man!

      In short, religion (and God) is nothing but a mechanism created by man to control masses and give structure to otherwise uncivilized and uneducated society at that time. Irony that people in today's day and age cannot understand the simple truth...they would rather depend on a book full of unsubstantiated stories and includes incest, debauchery, human sacrifice and a lot of evil in itself. David was righteous even when he stole someone's woman and committed adultery – because he was the king!!! Go figure!

      August 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  15. RRMON

    “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave” -Hotel California.
    So make out of this eternal bliss the best as you can, either by selling your soul for a few crumbs or distribute those crumbs to the soulless. Or, remain whole and fly above the BS, forever.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  16. Ayn of Nazareth

    It is clear to anyone that konws anything about either that Objectivism and Christianity are fundimentally incompatable. Any one claiming adherence to both is a liar.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Barn

      They are compatible with Christianity!

      If it is "blessed to be poor", then if you give the poor welfare and charity, they'll no longer be blessed, right?
      So Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan don't want them to loose their blessings.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  17. Steve Horwitz

    Rand DID NOT call the poor "moochers and looters." Those groups were anyone who chose to live at the expense of others. The poor who worked hard to provide for their families were not moochers or looters and the rich who got that way by getting favors from government or by using force directly against others WERE. It's not about rich and poor, it's about the way in which people choose to interact.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Please Grow Up

      Steve: You are right! You obviously have waded your way through "Atlas Shrugged." People that produce something are not the moochers and looters. As so many have failed to notice – it is the corporate lackeys and "yes men" that Rand abhorred. The capitalists like Romney and Jamie Dimon and Tim Geithner would have been her targets, had she lived through the Reagan years.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  18. Marc

    Recall that, in the plot of Atlas Shrugged, the protagnists all build their own commune, away from the rest of us, and leave society to crumble. I am all for that – let 'em have Alaska. I think the rest of us atruistic "collectivists" can do just fine with what we like to call "society." Maybe theses gullible bozos should have picked a country without "e pluribus unum" as a motto. Immature dolts, trying to justify greed and selfishness as somthing to emulate. And, besides, if they really believe in Rand, how the heck is it that we are to pretend that seeking office, for these liars and creeps, is, by definition SELF-SERVING? They can't represent ANYONE, according to their own beliefs! It would make their heads explode, if only there wasn't still a huge crebral vacancy even after the expansion.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  19. HA25

    The article is a thinly veiled political attack. One that holds up only if one accepts that the root of morality is religion. For this is how Mr. Prothero ties them. But if we believe one can be moral and atheist, that morals existed before Christianity and before God, that Morals are indeed self-serving and universal (whereas belief in God is clearly not universal), then we see that Randism is, of course, not a Religion nor even a word. Sure, both "Randism" and Religion may get you to a set of beliefs in behavior and morality – but a bicycle and a Camry can both transport you – yet both are not automobiles.
    My attack piece allegation is confirmed especially by Mr. Prothero's use of the Trinity – which he should know is not a Christian concept but a Catholic one. To try to establish a comparison with Ayn Rand's economic and moral teachings using this is to stretch the curtain too far and reveal what is behind it.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "One that holds up only if one accepts that the root of morality is religion."

      Which Catholic Ryan does. Thats the point he is making. Ryan can either be a good catholic or a rand supporter, he cannot be both because they oppose each other.

      "My attack piece allegation is confirmed especially by Mr. Prothero's use of the Trinity – which he should know is not a Christian concept but a Catholic one. "

      And ryan is catholic.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • HA25

      I disagree – you presume that Ryan accepts the author's arguments merely because Ryan is catholic. Hardly convincing.
      I was more referring to readers. I think the author is aiming this more at CNN readers than actually trying to convince Ryan that his belief system is incompatible with itself.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • BlondPhD

      The attack is not veiled at all. I think the author is calling out the hypocrisy of Ryan embracing the "philosophies" of Rand that are largely incompatible with the teachings of Christ, then conveniently distancing himself from those beliefs so core to his formative years in politics, when pandering to the religious right for votes

      Trinity is not just a just a Roman Catholic concept. Cant speak for every flavor of Christianity, but it is Protestant as well.

      ps. This is the most interesting string of CNN comments I have ever read, largely free from the string of vulgar insults that the ultra right and left wing (mostly right I'm afraid) post here. I guess Fox News junkies would not be attracted to so cerebral a discussion.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  20. Lenny Pincus

    Whether Ryan is a Randian or not is hardly for us to decide. A full reading of Ryan's quotes over the last 15 years makes it obvious he considers her work as important as the Bible. No one here (nor he) can spin this any other way. What is important here is why he thinks he has to run away from his literary love as he enters the national stage.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • hcd

      yet he is trying quite hard to spin those quotes and saying he just "studied" her ideas, not that he believes them.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
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