Alma Shrugged: Mormons and Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand has long had a intense following among a certain segment of the population. However, it now seems that prooftexts from Rand have transcended the masturbatory fantasies of adolescent boys and are now to be found in the Facebook timelines of adult people with families, jobs, and real-world responsibilities. It is not entirely clear to me why adult people with responsibilities have Facebook timelines, but since I do as well, I'm not going to focus my critique there. Rather, I am going to discuss the reverence some Latter-day Saints (or Mormons) feel towards Ayn Rand and her Objectivist philosophy. Of course, plenty of people have written about how Objectivism is explicitly incompatible with the Bible or with Christianity—indeed, Rand made no bones about her contempt for the core doctrines of Christianity or even the idea of faith. However, I find the fascination of many LDS conservatives and libertarians regarding Ayn Rand to be even more peculiar.

The distinctively Mormon books of scripture—the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price—are internally diverse but are far more homogenous (as a corpus) than the Bible. This relatively homogenous message harkens back to the early history of Mormonism and the time when most of these books were written. At this time, and for many years afterward, Mormonism was a communitarian movement with utopian aspirations. Mormon practice centered around creating a community like the early Christian community implied by the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles or the society described in opening of 4 Nephi (a book towards the end of the Book of Mormon). Mormons felt that if and only if they established such a society, they would be worthy to dwell in the presence of God, and the Lord would manifest his glory to them on earth. They worked towards humility, unselfishness, and economic equality. They cooperated to build temples so that they could enter the divine presence as a community. The distinctively Mormon books of scripture reflect this early history, and with the exception of a few subdivisions of the Doctrine and Covenants, these books were all written while Mormon communitarianism was strong.

How does a religious community transition from one that focuses on equality, self-restraint, and self-sacrifice to one in which the extreme ideas of Ayn Rand—for example, self-interest above all—are acceptable or even normative? This is a complex story, which I can only tell here, but which is a story worth telling. I want to address this, but first I want to show why it is problematic—though not uncommon in social media I consume—for the same individual to share slickly produced memes with quotations from the Mormon scriptures intermingled with other slickly produced memes emblazoned with quotes from Ayn Rand (or characters from novels by Rand).

Ayn Rand as a Book of Mormon Antichrist

In the Book of Mormon, there are a class of leaders typically described as antichrists. These are not to be confused the with Antichrist, a non-scriptural future being posited by various Catholic and Protestant writers since the Middle Ages (on the basis of several unrelated passages from the New Testament which have been imaginatively read so that they appear to address the same topic). A Book of Mormon antichrists are more like the antichrists described in the Johannine epistles (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John): multiple doctrinal opponents who deny that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate and so forth. The three undisputed antichrists in the Book of Mormon are listed here:

  • Sherem. A rhetorically skilled fellow who argued that the Christ would not come and insisted on a doctrine resembling sola scriptura.
  • Nehor A tall, strong universalist who argued against the coming of the Messiah and in favor of a paid, professional clergy.
  • Korihor A rhetorically gifted atheist and positivist who denied the coming of the Messiah (Christ), denied the need for atonement, and promoted antinomianism and iconoclasm (in the broad sense). He was particularly insistent that one's worldly state was a just result of one's judgement, intelligence, and exertion. He promoted doctrines of self-interest and self-esteem.

Of these, the most relevant to the issue at hand is Korihor, who is explicitly designated an Anti-Christ in the Book of Mormon (Alma 30:12). My contention is that, given Korihor as an exemplar, Ayn Rand is an anti-Christ in the Book of Mormon sense. If she were a Book of Mormon character, she would have been given this designation explicitly. Consider a few of the ways in which Rand's philosophy no only parallels Korihor's teaching, but parallel's exactly those parts of Korihor's teaching that are singled out for criticism:

  • Soteriology. Korihor denies the possibility and the necessity of atonement and therefore of a Christ, who he understands to be a make of atonement (Alma 30:17). Rand also denies the possibility of an atonement, characterizing it as absurd and grotesque. In a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine, Rand asserted:

Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the nonideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the nonideal, or virtue to vice. And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used.

In other words, a substitutionary atonement where the superior sacrifices himself for an inferior is inconceivable and the very concept is a fountain of evil. Not only does she deny that Jesus of Nazareth atoned for the sins of mankind, she argues that the very idea is hideous. She further argues that Jesus Christ is a bad example for other humans, since he would lead them to “sacrifice themselves for their inferiors.”

  • Epistemology. Korihor asserts that the means by which human beings can know about the universe are limited to sensory experience. He says, “ye cannot know of things which ye do not see” (Alma 30:15), though he seems to allow for higher-level inferences based on sensory phenomena. He purports to believe that knowledge of this sort is wholly adequate for understanding the physical and moral universe. Korihor argues that no supernatural event or transcendent phenomenon is possible because no such thing can be known through his epistemology. As part of her Objectivist philosophy, Rand proposed a similar, but not identical, epistemology. Like Korihor, she held that sensory perception is the root of all knowledge. Likewise, both philosophical systems deny the possibility of a priori knowledge. And while Rand differed from Korihor in explicitly discussing the role of reason, applied to sensory percepts, as a means of achieving knowledge, both agree that all faith claims (“mysticism”) are categorically false since they cannot be arrived at through the senses (or reason). Both have what seems to me to be a flawed approach to metaphysics based upon a unnecessarily limited epistemology.

  • Metaphysics. Ayn Rand stressed that the universe exists separate from any consciousness that might perceive it. She also opposed determinism and claimed that humans have free will. We cannot know exactly what Korihor would believe about these subjects, since this is not spelled out in the relatively short exposition of his teachings that is available to us. However, there is one aspect of metaphysics about which Rand and Korihor clearly agree: there is not spiritual or divine dimension to reality separate from the mundane existence that we perceive from day to day. This is evident in Korihor's claim that any belief in forgiveness of sins (or sin itself) was “the effect of a frenzied mind,” and Rand's widely distributed assertions that any mystical claims—and therefore, any supernatural claims—were the product of irrationality.

  • Ethics. Korihor makes it clear that self-interest is the sole ethical imperative:

    And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.

    Nature, in Korihor's world, favors the wily, the intelligent, and the strong. He asserts that it is the prerogative of such individuals to employ such advantages to promote their self-interest (without limitations). Certainly, some of Rand's adherents will object that this goes beyond her doctrine, which (in later formulations, at least) stopped short of countenancing violence against other individuals. Korihor, on the other hand, seems to allow this. However, it is helpful to note that Ayn Rand had an unusually strong admiration for serial killer William Edward Hickman, based on whose killing spree she drafted an early novel called The Little Street. Of Hickman, she wrote in her notebooks, “Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” She further elaborated her reasons for admiring Hickman, saying, “[He has] no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.’” In other words, he was a man who believed that, “whatsoever [he] did [to others] was no crime.” Rand's interest in Hickman was not a passing phase and her subsequent “ideal men” have the same sociopathic traits that he did. This is most famously manifest in the implied rapes by the protagonists of Rand's two most influential novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Whether or not Rand places limits on human selfishness that Korihor does not—and, for reasons that I have already mentioned, I believe this is doubtful—it is clearly true that both figures exult in the worship of the self and the glorification of self-interest.

In fact, the alignment between the sympathies of Ayn Rand and Korihor is so close that it is unclear to me why Mormon Ayn Rand fans need Rand at all. They could get all the justification for unbounded individualism that they need in just a few verses from Alma 30. Compare this to Ayn Rand's several ponderous tomes of tedious fiction and philosophical writing. Readers will find that Alma 30 is better written (in snappy quasi-Jacobean English, no less!) and gets to the point immediately rather than repeatedly beating readers over the head with ideological pontifications while meandering through an uninteresting plot designed primarily to provide lead characters with multiple opportunities to lecture them.

Ayn Rand as Pornographer of Political Theory

I have to admit that my attempts to finish The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have never succeeded. I started reading The Fountainhead when I was in high school and hoped to participate in an Objectivist essay contest. Although I sympathized with many of the ideas in the book at the time, I did not find Rand's prose stylings or flat characters compelling. Humbly, I decided that if anti-statists were going to be heirs of a novelistic masterpiece, I was going to have to write it myself. This masterpiece is still unfinished and I have long since moved on to a very moderate anarchism. I attempted to read Atlas Shrugged much later (just a few years ago) on a challenge from my libertarian younger brother. I plowed through much of the book, but at some point I realized that Rand was having difficulty writing it and, true to her ethic, was unwilling to accept advice from me about how to complete it. I do not think I have ever encountered a less convincing portrait of human behavior than the one I met in Atlas Shrugged. Its male heroes, Hank Rearden, John Galt, etc., are so lacking in redeeming characteristics than any sensible associate or family member would—at the first convenient opportunity—have abandoned them to be devoured by wolves. One gets the impression that the lone obstacle that prevents them from outright slaughtering other characters after the manner of William Edward Hickman is the all-consuming nature of their quests for wealth and power. The female protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is in no respect preferable. Also, I cannot help but mention my passionate convicition that “Rearden” should only be anglicized as “Riordan”. Unless the last half of the book was written by a different author than the first, Atlas Shrugged is not worth reading.

If Rand's novels are, as so many have pointed out, badly written books full of implausible characters that lambaste the generosity of spirit that makes family, community, and social life possible, why do people still read them? The answer, I think, is that there is a whole class of literature, photography, film, and media, generally, the appeal of which depends on its falsehood. I am speaking, of course, of pornography. Sexually-oriented pornography depends, for its appeal, on the cultivation of a fantasy. If these fantasies were realistic, there would be no need for the associated pornography. And just as sexually-oriented pornography appeals to fantasies about power, attractiveness, transgressiveness, fetishistic interests, and so forth, Ayn Rand's novels appeal to fantasies about nearly unconstrained power and transgression without constraint by any standard of human decency. In my experience, the typical devotee of Ayn Rand (who is most likely to be male and to have incompletely myelinated axons) fantasizes about being an “indispensable person”—a solitary genius whose contributions are so important that the wheels of civilization will stop turning without his continued cooperation. He fantasizes that he can use this indispensable status to extract unlimited wealth and advantage from the lesser beings that surround him (if only the state did not interfere) and—most importantly—that this extortion would not be a sin but a virtue. This is the same type of dimestore Raskolnikov who idolizes Nietzsche because he does not understand him. Of course, there is a pornographic sexual element to Ayn Rand's novels as well, particularly reflected in the rape episodes that I have already mentioned. Readers of Rand's novels—male and female—who have left Rand's philosophy behind sometimes still value the pornographic effect of these passages.

I believe that pornography is damaging, and that it is damaging because it populates the consumer's mind with false information. In the case of sexual pornography, this false information regards facts such as how sexual relationships work. As a result, pornography makes it difficult for many people, especially men, to successfully participate in such relationships. It also encourages the cultivation of one-dimensional fantasies that belie the complexity of actual human life and sex. It presents sex as something wholly separate from love and the sacrifice and negotiation that love always involves. Ayn Rand's novels are rather like this. Their portrayal of a moral universe where only self-gratification is significant—where other people are objects who need only be “loved” when such love gives pleasure to the giver of “love”—parallels pornography exactly. Dependence on Objectivist ideas make it difficult to function as a contributing member of a body politic just as addiction to porn can make it difficult to cultivate a romantic relationship. A popular anti-pornography website urges viewers to “Fight the New Drug;” in point of fact, sexual pornography has existed for thousands of years, and Ayn Rand's political and economic pornography has been around since the 1930s; neither is new. While literature of value grapples with the complexities and contradictions of human existence, Ayn Rand and porn present only the puerile and facile, like the seductive trash of the ages.

I do not believe that Ayn Rand's philosophy and novels are compatible with the highest aspirations of Mormonism. This does not mean I believe that conservatism is incompatible with Mormonism, or even that libertarianism is incompatible with Mormonism. Certainly, when I was a conservative and when I was a libertarian, I believed that these ideologies could be stated in Mormon terms. But both conservatism and libertarianism have had a life independent of Rand, and I am convinced that both of them could be stated in a stronger, richer, more compelling fashion if their adherent would throw the easy answers and adolescent fantasies of Rand away. If you want a conservative novel, read The Brother's Karamazov by Dostoevsky (for example). Although Rand inexplicably admired Dostoevsky, he differed from her in almost every way imaginable (aside from the fact that both shared a distrust of socialism and a degree of personal nastiness). Dostoevsky presents life as a fabric of irreducible paradoxes and society as something that cannot be re-engineered or made anew by human ideologies. Unlike Atlas or Fountainhead, The Brothers Karamazov is a deeply religious book that confronts head-on the problem and allure of unbelief, the nature of moral responsibility, and simultaneous holiness and depravity of human beings. While many cannot accept the conclusions of Brothers K, all who read it have to acknowledge its significance, while only readers of Ayn Rand's books who are afflicted with the right paraphilia will find them engaging or meaningful.

To my brothers and sisters in the Latter-day Saint community who are entranced by Ayn Rand's doctrines, I hope you will give a careful and historically-informed reading to the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. If you get the chance, read Leviticus and Deuteronomy as well. Adding the gospels certain would not hurt. Consider whether the values and priorities reflected in these texts resonate with those from Ayn Rand's novels and philosophical works. I believe you will find that any reconciliation can only be wrought by selective reading and special pleading. Decide whether seeking your self-interest is more important to you than building a “Zion” society. Decide whether you need the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ—and the associated principles of the Christian message—or whether you are adequate unto yourself. There still may be time for you to be rescued from your addiction to politerotica.

David R. Mortensen

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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