In 1970 I presented a lengthy lecture for the University of Arizona Students of Objectivism. Titled “Objectivism as a Religion”; this lecture was in part a reply to a book published two years earlier by the famous psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis, Is Objectivism a Religion? Ellis had no doubt about the answer to his rhetorical question. Objectivism, he claimed, is indeed a religion; it is a "dogmatic, fanatical, absolutist, anti-empirical, people-condemning creed" which is based on the assumption that "some higher power or order of the universe demands that their views are right and that all serious dissenters to their views are for all time wrong."
Needless to say, I didn’t like Ellis’s treatment of Objectivism. Rand’s ideas, as Ellis portrayed them, bore no resemblance to those I had gotten from reading Rand’s works over the previous four years. Nevertheless, the identification of Objectivism with religion struck an emotional chord with me. During my time with the UA Students of Objectivism I associated mainly with admirers of Ayn Rand, and some of those people treated Objectivism as if it were a religion.
My interest in freethought, which preceded my interest in Rand by nearly three years, had made me extremely sensitive to the influence of Christian morality on my own development, especially in the realm of sexual beliefs and desires. Guilt was a dominant feature of my youth—guilt provoked by nothing more than “sinful” desires—and I consciously attempted to rid myself of this vicious emotional reaction. By the time I began reading Ayn Rand in high school, I understood, on an intellectual level, the problem of “religious morality,” though purging my emotional system of guilt took much longer. I welcomed Rand’s philosophy partly because it insisted that emotions should be based on rational beliefs and that morality is a set of principles that should promote one’s own happiness.
Given the liberating influence that Rand’s ethics had on me, I was surprised to find that it had a different influence on some of my college friends, who tended to treat Rand’s ethics as a system of religious rules that must be strictly obeyed. These attitudes existed on a continuum. In my 1970 lecture “Objectivism as a Religion” (a somewhat revised version may be found in my 1991 book, Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies), I described the extreme type of religious Objectivist as follows:
The most extreme form of religious Objectivism occurs in those evangelical, intolerant, true-believing Randians who, through some quirk of fate, missed their true calling as Christian missionaries. This kind of religiosity is easy to detect and explain. Some people find Jesus Christ, others find Karl Marx, and still others find Ayn Rand—but true believers everywhere, whatever the object of their belief, are unwilling to criticize their deity. Thinking for oneself is hard work, so true believers recite catechisms and denounce heretics instead.
This was no caricature. I knew people like this during the late 1960s and early 1970s, though they were relatively rare. (How common they are today I cannot say.) But this breed was not very interesting to me. Far more interesting were admirers of Rand who were more moderate—those who understood the general implications of Rand’s ethics but who brought conventional religious concepts to bear when interpreting her moral principles. Contrary to the outlandish claims of Albert Ellis, there was nothing religious about Rand’s moral theory. Rather, the problem was that some people imported a religious perspective when attempting to translate her abstract theory into a practical guide to action.
...to be continued.