While I await at least a TV miniseries version of the Rand story, at least I have a first edition, first printing of Atlas Shrugged (alas, without the dust jacket, so better to keep the copy than to make a few hundred on eBay) given to me by hippie-ish organic farmer and former Berkeley-dweller Valerie Jackson, ironically enough. (The one I’ve been lugging around reading lately, though, is a paperback edition kindly provided to studio audience members after the Stossel episode about the book.)
Comparably ironic, perhaps, is the fact that although libertarians like the Institute for Humane Studies folk I’ll see tonight still gather on the lower floors of the Empire State Building — where Rand had her headquarters decades ago — libertarians now gather there thanks to the hospitality of the very-Christian institution King’s College (and they don’t mean “king of freight trains”). This is no weirder, of course, than the fusionist combo of traditionalists and free-marketeers that makes up the broader conservative movement — but let’s not exaggerate the long-term logical necessity of the religious element of that coalition, regardless of its short-term electoral necessity.
I’ll grant that the most efficient four-word libertarian message in all of history was probably “Thou shalt not steal,” but I am not as convinced as one of my interlocutors at my Yale speech last week was that religious folk will always tend to be the anti-totalitarians and atheists (such as the Communists) to be the totalitarians. Indeed, it strikes me that, in what should be a relief to secular conservatives everywhere, the time for making that generalization has clearly passed.
After all, authoritarian as China and Russia may be, the nastiest totalitarian regimes on the planet in this century arguably are motivated by faith. The West threatens them precisely because it is secular, not, as one might have halfway-plausibly argued in the twentieth century, because the West is mostly-Christian. If we were still in the midst of the Cold War, I’d almost sympathize with the view of some Straussians that intellectuals should “play along” with religion for the sake of its broader social effects — but I’d say that time is over.
Further, the stats apparently suggest that atheists (real ones, not, crucially, people who believe in God but mistakenly call themselves “atheists” because they have become estranged from their churches, an odd but apparently common American linguistic practice) are in fact the best-behaved, most law-abiding segment of the population, whether religionists like it or not.
(An aside: My wise young interlocutor made the important point that some things labeled “faith” are believed due to a proven, empirically-verifiable track record — such as a long-term tendency for church hierarchies to dispense moral advice or encourage charity — but that’s precisely why, as I responded, it’s important not to bundle together under the single label “faith” things proven and things believed without any evidence at all. I may know from long experience that my neighbor is good at billiards, but that doesn’t mean I also have to trust him when he says he’s convinced his dreams about the world coming to an end in 2012 are true. In philosophy class, if people refused to use two different words for these things — such as “trust” and “faith” — we’d simply refer to faith-sub-1 and faith-sub-2 to make sure we separated the reliable from the made-up and didn’t let the reputation of one falsely enhance the rep of the other.)
Of course, even if one were not a Straussian but instead a Burkean — generally a good thing, in my book — one might argue that we simply can’t be in the business of trying to prise apart different aspects of religion, saying this part’s bunk and that part’s socially valuable and worth emulating and risking misidentifying which parts are which. But are we so sure of that? Would doing that really be that much weirder than all the other mind-boggling and often beneficial social transformations America has undergone over the past two centuries? I predict we can handle it and that the experienced-vs.-imagined distinction suggested above is the obvious place to start — though those least able to cope with (or imagine) the resulting social transformations will of course be the first to declare such sorting unworkable and forbidden. (Luckily, we can discuss some of this at Lolita Bar next Wednesday on the occasion of our Richard Spencer vs. Helen Rittelmeyer debate on the question “Is Christianity for Wimps?”)
P.S. As a reminder of where a life guided by supernatural fears can lead when they are not functioning as a productive goad to law-abiding and proper behavior, here are the Muppets in the terrifying video clip “Bear Wit Project” — though I think Rand would have been more troubled by the hint of anti-industrialism in the 1970s TV-movie thriller Killdozer.