Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Give Me That Old Time Religion," or, Dagny Goes To Church in ATLAS SHRUGGED, PT. 3

Art by Joe Maurone
So, even as Andrew Bernstein debates Dinesh D'Souza over the good and evil in religion, John Aglialoro surprises the objectivish community with his announcement that Dagny will visit a priest in the third installment of his Atlas Shrugged movie. From Forbes magazine: "Atlas Shrugged Producer Shares Insights and a Surprise That Awaits in Atlas III."
"And here is where Aglialoro plans his surprise, a scene that does not exist in the book that he nonetheless hopes to include in the third part of the film trilogy. He believes that our troubled times require an alliance between champions of reason and free market capitalism and conservative religious practitioners, for without such an alliance both causes will be lost."

Aglialoro explains: 

“Most people have a respect for spirituality, maybe even a yearning. There must be room in Objectivism for charity and benevolence. Remember, Rand struggled with the character of the priest, who appeared in early drafts of Atlas Shrugged but didn’t make the final cut. I am going to put him back.”
The article continues:
It will be a mere nod, maybe 30 seconds. Most of the audience will miss it, along with the olive branch it represents. But Aglialoro hopes to get shooting permission from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for a scene that will open with a wide shot from above and behind the iconic statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Center. The camera will follow Dagny into a quiet courtyard, consumed in silent mental struggle. The sound of a choir will break the night, a beautiful inspiring sound that will stop Dagny in her tracks. She turns and sees a man of the cloth who has been watching her struggle. “Good evening, my child, can I help you?” “Oh no, father, I was just listening to the lovely music.” “Are you sure there is nothing I can help you with?” A long pause. “No, father. I have to do this on my own.”

It’s not much. But it will be a gentle repudiation of the militant atheism that characterizes many Objectivists. Will purists raise a ruckus? Will religious conservatives respond to the invitation, realizing that if liberty is allowed to perish leaving socialism triumphant, religious freedom will be next? Perhaps Aglialoro shared this preview to float a trial balloon. In either case, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Some people have reacted positively towards this announcement, with others saying "dafuq?" And not without good reason. While there is a contingent of objectivish, today, who would try to break bread with the conservative/religious right over the common ground of the need for morality and a "spiritual" approach towards life, based on Rand's own comments, others would side with the Progressive Left when it comes to religion, and opt for science over faith, based on...well, Rand's own comments. (Indeed, there are attempts being made, today, to "break bread" with the left, such as both Yaron Brook and Leonard Peikoff being published in The Huffington the dismay of leftists and Objectivists alike...) The takeway is the same: Objectivists trying to make common cause with opponents, when Rand called for them to break away from the culture as it is...

My opinion?

My first impulse was to also quote Toohey: "Don't bother to examine a folly; ask what it accomplishes." But I'd be lying to myself if I believed it were that simple... This requires more than a knee-jerk reaction; intellectual honesty demands that both sides of the story be examined. So, what are these comments? The following, while not exhaustive, is a comprehensive collection of statements of Rand on the matter of religion, as a resource for  even-handedness in further discussions of this development, even as I offer my own conclusions...

First, and foremost, is Rand's claim that Atlas was a challenge to "2000 years of Christianity", and that Objectivism was meant to be a "philosophy for living on Earth." Not only was it anti-supernatural, it was anti-altruistic, against self-sacrifice, and rejected original sin, and that's just for starters...

The first controversy revolves around Atlas itself; the priest character planned for the movie is based on Father Amadeus, a character cut from Rand's working script, as revealed in The Journals of Ayn Rand. The priest was meant to originally join the strike, but Rand cut him for the following reason:

I wanted to illustrate the evil of the morality of forgiveness. Also, I wanted to illustrate that the power of religion consists of the power of morality, the power of setting values and ideals, and that is what holds people to religion—and that this is what belongs to philosophy, not to religion. As a type, I wanted [the priest] to be my most glamorized projection of a Thomist philosopher, of a man who thought he could combine reason with religion. Through his relationship with James Taggart I wanted to show the way in which he realized that he was sanctioning evil. And the drama of him refusing to sanction Taggart at the end appealed to me very much.
But it did not take me very long to realize that it would be an impossible confusion. Since all the other strikers in the story can be taken literally, [since] they are all representatives of rational, valuable professions, to include a priest among them would be to sanction religion.]

This, enough, is alone to cast doubt on Aglialoro's decision. But then there's the story Peikoff relates to us, in his essay "My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir" from The Voice of Reason, of the wealthy Texas oilman who offered Rand a million dollars if she would just add an "element of religion" to the story. She refused on principle:

"She knew too clearly how she had reached her ideas, why they were true, and what their opposites were doing to mankind. Nor, like Howard Roark, could she ever be tempted to betray her convictions. Since she had integrated her principles into a consistent system, she knew that to violate a single one would be to discard the totality. A Texas oil man once offered her up to a million dollars to use in spreading her philosophy, if she would only add a religious element to it to make it more popular. She threw his proposal into the wastebasket. 'What would I do with his money,' she asked me indignantly, 'if I have to give up my mind in order to get it?'"
And let's not forget the split between Rand and William F. Buckley, when she said to him that he was much too intelligent to believe in God. There was also the split with her former mentor, Isabel Paterson, over the latter's religious convictions. In The Letters of Ayn Rand, we find Rand railing at the idea of "breaking bread" with the religious: 

Now, to the question of God-where your presentation of what you assume to be my position simply made me sick. You state my assumption as: "If God exists, man is a slave," and you proceed to say: "Why? Your assumption there is actually that a creative mind necessarily makes a slave of any person less creative who also happens to exist. Does it? My main argument is that the conception of God-or such as I have ever heard or read-denies every conception of the human mind. What is omnipotence? What is infinity? What is a being which is limitless-when the basic conception of existence in man's form of consciousness is the conception of an entity-which means a limit? An entity is that which other entities are not. What is an entity which is everything?

So, not only is Rand emotionally opposed to the matter, she is metaphysically opposed to it.

(Incidentally, I related the Paterson/Rand split over this on a previous thread about a post at Objectivist Living, over an similar attempt to relate Libertarianism to Islam by related the Muslim idea of "submission to Allah" to Rand's idea of "submission to reality.")

Rand would go on to write against religion in essays as "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World", and her denouncement of the Pope's decrees against abortion (see her essay, "Of Living Death" in The Voice of Reason.) And yet, despite her vitriol in her discussion with Paterson, all of this has to be considered against Rand's defense of certain elements and thinkers of religious thought. For starters, there is her appearance on the Tom Snyder show, where she reciprocates his farewell to her, "God Bless You". As told by Barbara Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand:

At one point, he asked her, "Would you say 'Thank God' for this country?" Ayn replied, smiling broadly, "Yes. I like what that expression means: it means the highest possible." As the interview came to an end, Snyder said, "God bless you"-and Ayn responded, "Thank you. The same to you."

Rand was also known to defend religion as a "primitive form of philosophy," and singled-out Christianity for its proto-individualism. And the parallels between Roark and Jesus Christ were not lost on Rand. See Rand's letter to Sylvia Austin, also in Letters, in 1946, where she notes the different moral ideals they represent, even as she admits "that both...are held as embodiments of the perfect man." Also, in her early draft of Roark's courtroom speech in The Fountainhead, as revealed in research by Shoshana Milgram of Ayn Rand's manuscripts, Jesus Christ is name-dropped, along with other historical figures, as examples of martyrs who brought value to humanity and suffered for it. (Ayn Rand Manuscripts, box 20, folder 5, 570, quoted in Milgram 2001a, 17.) Rand also writes that Christ "come[s] close to the truth," even as his ideal is inverted. She claims that "Christ proclaims the untouchable integrity of Man's spirit [stating] the first rights of the Ego. He placed the salvation of one's own soul above all other concerns. But men distorted it into altruism."

On this note, it should also be noted that Rand appropriates religious symbols and metaphors throughout The Fountainhead. Despite being an atheist, Toohey notices: "He will tell you that he doesn't believe in God...Don't believe him. He's a profoundly religious man-in his own way. You can see that in his buildings. She remarks in the twenty-fifth anniversary introduction of the book that "Religion's monopoly in the field of ethics had made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life." Even the title of Anthem alludes to a religious hymn. As Peikoff states in the introduction: "Anthem is a religiously toned word...[meaning] 'a piece of sacred vocal music, usually with words taken from the Scriptures.'"

Since Rand mentioned that Father Amadeus was a Thomist priest, let's consider her letter to an anonymous Catholic priest, as documented in The Letters of Ayn Rand. In it, she shows respect to the priest and certain ideas, answering his letter that she had no desire to tear his letter up "in disgust", nor to "have a good laugh at an enemy." Rather, she found it "profoundly interesting," and sincerely appreciated it. While Rand disagree with many of the priest's positions, and flat-out said so, she added that she was "an intransigent atheist, but not a militant one":
This means that I am an uncompromising advocate of reason and that I am fighting for reason, not against religion. I must also mention that I do respect religion in its philosophical aspects, in the sense that it represents an early form of philosophy."

That said, she concluded with a finality that illustrates the ultimate divide between the two philosophies:

I have the impression that you are a follower of Thomas Aquinas, whose position, in essence, is that since reason is a gift of God, man must use it. I regard this as the best of all attempts to reconcile reason and religion-but it is only an attempt, which cannot succeed. It may work in a limited way in a given individual's life, but it cannot cannot be validated philosophically. However, I regard Aquinas as the greatest philosopher next to Aristotle, in the purely philosophical, not theological, aspects of his work. If you are a Thomist, we may have a great deal in common, but we would still have an irreconcilable basic conflict which is, primarily, an epistemological conflict.

And, in a very personal moment for Rand, there's her appearance on Donahue, after her husband's death. In a test of her own spirit, something of an "atheist in a foxhole moment", Rand talks about her momentary wish for an afterlife, if only to be reunited with Frank O'Conner. When asked, by Phil Donuhue, if she hoped "for a reunion with the person you loved?", she responded:

"I've asked myself just that-and then I thought that if I really believed it, I'd commit suicide immediately, to go to him...I've asked myself how I'd feel if I thought he were on trial before God or St. Peter-and I'm not with him. My first desire would be to run to help him, to say how good he was."

Ultimately, though, when it comes to the restoration of the priest character in the Atlas movie, it should be judged against the reason for cutting him in the first place.

So, there we have Rand's own words. Despite her description of Roark as "religious" in The Fountainhead, she consciously chose not to include the priest in Atlas. To the critic who might say the fact that she did describe Roark as religious just goes to support Aglialoro's choice, it must be remembered that The Fountainhead was pre-Objectivism (or proto-Objectivist), with Rand's mature philosophical statement only having been started proper with Atlas. And because of that, adding the priest into the movie is more akin to a regression.

With that, let's re-consider Aglialoro's intentions:
“Most people have a respect for spirituality, maybe even a yearning. There must be room in Objectivism for charity and benevolence. Remember, Rand struggled with the character of the priest, who appeared in early drafts of Atlas Shrugged but didn’t make the final cut. I am going to put him back.”

But as the scene is described in the article, is he really "putting him back," in the way Rand originally intended? After all, as described, 

It will be a mere nod, maybe 30 seconds...She turns and sees a man of the cloth who has been watching her struggle. “Good evening, my child, can I help you?” “Oh no, father, I was just listening to the lovely music.” “Are you sure there is nothing I can help you with?” A long pause. “No, father. I have to do this on my own.”

There is none of the development of the priest from the outlines in Rand's journals. The scene is rather abstract; relying on an informed viewer to fill in the blanks. But what about the non-informed? The economy of words, as presented in the article, when combined with Rand's various statements on religion, suggests that Dagny is appreciating the same overlap, while rejecting the overall arching theme of religion. She is reaffirming the Christian idea, as described by Rand, of Christ as a messenger of individual salvation. But will the moviegoer, ignorant of all this back story, understand the implications? Assuming the scene is aimed at the Christians who would otherwise agree with Rand, will they get Rand's ultimate rejection of religion? Despite Rand's own defense, at times, of Christianity and religion in general, Aglialoro is subverting Rand's story, and philosophy, by restoring the priest, and the religious element, into the movie in his attempt at outreach between Objectivists and Christians. (This also ignores Rand's insistence that literature is first and foremost art, not propaganda.) But, because Rand is on record, pre-and-post Atlas, making a limited defense of religion that could justify the scene, Aglialoro is not saying anything, as the scene is currently described, that Rand already hasn't. The problem that's left is that by relying on implication, in such a brief scene. Where the novelist took great pains to explain her view, he is relying on the viewer to fill in the backstory.

Aglialoro is a taking a major risk here, and he is sure to be judged mightily. Some will say it's a gimmick, a misguided ploy, a misunderstanding of the philosophy itself, or just plain outright hijacking. And then there's the issue of reciprocity; will such an outreach be appreciated? A cynic (or an opportunist) might say that the outreach is an attempt to "lure away" the Christians,  while it may be the worst-case scenario of Objectivist taking to groveling for sanction from a larger, more powerful competitor. But even if this is meant in the spirit of outreach, it would be naive to ignore the larger history of antagonism of Christians and the religious right towards Rand and her secular philosophy, an antagonism that persists to this day, from the backlash of William F. Buckley and the hit piece by Whittaker Chambers in The National Review againt Atlas Shrugged ("All that needed to be said about it had already been said in The Sermon on the Mount"), to the accusations by libertarians of the usurption of the Tea Party by the religious right, to the appreciation of Rand by the likes of Glenn Beck and Paul Ryan followed by the denunciation when Beck's religious audience and Ryan's constituents called them on it. Even among Christian libertarians, there is hostility; for what it's worth, witness the New Zealand, Eternal Vigilance, and the sidebar biographies of its writers:

Tim: Christianity, libertarianism, and keeping it real. Slaggin' socialists and bangin' atheist heads!

Richard: An intoxicating mix of heretical Christianity, libertarianism and death metal. Slaggin' socialists and headbangin'!

Wow. "Can't we all just get along?" For some, on both sides, the answer may be a resounding "No!" Granted, there is animosity on both sides, but I'd say that the Objectivist is the one on the defensive, as Christianity has much more power and influence.

And that is not to diminish those individual Christians, or others of religious faith, who have taken a friendlier tone towards Objectivists; even the extreme Christian, atheist-hostile Ann Barnhardt has expressed admiration for Ayn Rand, with her article "Reconciling Rand With the Gospel." Then there is blogger, Jon Venlet, and his recent post about the idea that  "Christianity is NOT Religion, it is a most powerful self improvement tool, and using the teachings of Jesus Christ for any other purpose than self improvement leads to problems.") That is not too unlike Galt's oath from Atlas Shrugged: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

I personally sympathize with Venlet's post, and Galt's oath. But as we are social creatures, social interactions will always be influenced by competing individual beliefs, and to the extent that "we" are interdependent, there is the concern about the conduct of others and the impact it has on ourselves.
And there are simply, as of now, too many competing ideologies for a great number of people to be truly united, let alone ready to call a truce (Objectivists believe in "objective" rule of law, and as for the religious, a great many more WANT to use religion to improve others, whether they like it, or not...). Individuals aside, regarding the ideas, the danger remains that the outreach from both sides, instead of being a chance to understand and appreciate the best both have to offer, instead turns into a contest to see who can usurp or influence the power of the other. The fact remains that Christianity, as a whole, simply has more power in the culture and that the atheist qua atheist has long been vilified as amoral or immoral, sometimes with justification in certain cases, and not helped from associations with communism, either...not all atheists have the moral leanings of Objectivism...

So, the question, from the Objectivist point-of-view, remains: Is Aglialoro's gambit worth the risk, or, like Toohey, should we ask what this potential folly might accomplish?

The best I could hope for Aglialoro to accomplish is an honest discussion of the divide that exists between Objectivism and Christianity. Unlike Christianity vs. paganism, or Jesus vs. Satan, or freedom vs. communism, this is not a battle of moral vs. immoral, but of two competing moralities. Maybe individuals on each side can listen to the best both have to offer, and like Rand expressed to the Catholic priest, find something profound to appreciate.
 But despite the overlap in places, and even ignoring the more hostile exchanges between the two, Objectivism and Christianity are, and will remain, in moral competition with each other against what they see as immoral, offering two similar at times, but widely divergent answers. Of course, both might not see the other as "moral"; Christians will denounce the Objectivist's stance on matters like selfishness and abortion, while Objectivist will point to organized religion's history of transgressions. The two sides cannot interact honestly by repressing or evading that fact. That means that some Objectivists will have to examine their own religious leanings in their motives to "break bread" with Christians, or conversely, their own motives towards militant atheism, and that Christians have to examine how the Objectivist ideas of private property and political freedom contradict their own metaphysical and moral beliefs. It all comes down to how one approaches the "open" and "closed" system approach to Objectivism, and the "fundamentalist/orthodox" teachings of religion vs. the "heretical", and how integrated ones beliefs are with their actions.

If an were to advise Aglialoro on his attempt at outreach, I would simply quote to him Rand's take, from the essay "What Can One Do?" in Philosophy: Who Needs It:

Above all, do not join the wrong ideological groups or movements, in order to “do something.” By “ideological” (in this context), I mean groups or movements proclaiming some vaguely generalized, undefined (and, usually, contradictory) political goals...The only groups one may properly join today are ad hoc committees, i.e., groups organized to achieve a single, specific, clearly defined goal, on which men of differing views can agree. In such cases, no one may attempt to ascribe his views to the entire membership, or to use the group to serve some hidden ideological purpose (and this has to be watched very, very vigilantly).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"Raggedy Ayn Rand", or, "I wear a fez, now..."

From the Simpsons short, "The Longest Daycare", that was shown in movie theaters, and just aired on prime-time Sunday, Feb. 17. (Set, of course, in the now-infamous Ayn Rand School for Tots, from the "A Streetcar Named Marge" episode from, well, back in the days when the show was still riotously funny...)

(And yes, for those not in the know, those dolls are based on a real picture of Rand.)

(And before someone gets all snarky, Rand was rockin' the fez before Doctor Who...because she wore a fez, then....fezzes were cool...and she didn't have Amy Pond to smash it, or River Song to shoot it off her head...or, as Steely Dan sang, "never gonna do it without the fez on...")