Ayn Rand’s Non-Religious Conception of Morality

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In our parents’ generation, academia was a bastion of secularism, and a threat to religion. Amid peace and love, political activism, one small step for man and several giant leaps in science and technology, college campuses had little room for faith.

The picture today is quite different. Religion has returned full force into American colleges, as can been seen in the dramatic growth of faith-based campus clubs, increasing enrollment in courses investigating religion, and an accelerated creation and funding of religious programs across departments. Professor Peter G. Gomes, Harvard University’s resident preacher, tells us that on his campus “[t]here is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years.”

It’s hard to argue with Professor Gomes when one can no longer leave classes in the evening without being invited to Bible study. Rather than work hard, play hard, the fashionable attitude now seems to be work hard, pray harder. Whether in abstinence clubs or Christian socials, students are affirming their faith in droves. Somehow, in a few short decades, it’s become hip to deny the flesh and fix one’s gaze on high.

Where did this religious resurgence come from? What is it religion offers that is appealing to so many of today’s students?

Man at Pew

Simply put, religion offers the promise of answers.

College students, by virtue of the coming-of-age transition that is postsecondary education, face deeply personal questions about the events of the world and their own lives. For the first time, they are free to make fully independent choices. How should they make such choices, and why? Religion has something fundamental to say in response.

The Effect of Religion on the Non-Religious: The Erosion of Morality

Many of us have encountered the idea that a lack of religion leads to an erosion of morality. In fact, however, the opposite is true. It is the ubiquity of religion that causes so many people to stop taking morality seriously.

Even in rejecting religion as an actual life guide, many of us accept the underlying religious conception of morality—altruism. We decide not to practice the mores of religion, but grant that practicing those mores is what it would actually mean to be concerned with morality. When someone goes around denouncing all sexual pleasure as corrupt, we dismiss him—but also identify him as a moral puritan. When someone insists on censorship of “indecent” movies, or accuses us of devoting too little time and money to charities, or tries to squeeze all the fun out of life by telling us not to be selfish—we again dismiss him, but think of such a person as too concerned with morality, and grant that we ourselves are less concerned.

People who try to live up to the moral ideals of religion are regarded as hopelessly idealistic. The example left by Mother Teresa is revered by many, but notice that she is admired from afar. Few parents would encourage their children to follow in her footsteps. Her life is not for them—and yet, nobody questions the propriety of regarding her as a moral ideal.

Is it any wonder then that the majority of people feel that morality is best approached in moderation? They see that those who try to practice religious moral ideals usually crack under the pressure of their sex drives, the tightness of their wallets, or their simple desire to enjoy themselves—and they recognize that such ideals cannot really be practiced. But look at the common consequence: rather than question the ideals themselves, most people continue assuming that the ideals are valid, and instead come to treat “idealistic” and “unrealistic” as synonyms.

The consequence, in other words, is a loss of genuine moral idealism and ambition. What begins as skepticism towards the dictates of some God on high, turns into a suspicion of moral values and principles as such. The desire to be good is gradually replaced with a muted, “practical,” value-neutral approach to life—with an accompanying feeling that something real and important is missing. This approach and feeling is the insidious indirect effect of religion in our lives and our culture.

To reject religion without rejecting morality, we must first consider the question of whether there is an alternative moral compass to religion—a standard of morality that is secular, focused on and derived from the facts on the ground, and aimed at helping us achieve the noble and worthwhile here and now, in our own lives.

And today, religion seems to be the only source of such guidance. Academia once held out the promise that a mind dedicated to learning could come to know profound truths about man, life, nature, science, art and love, but over the decades it has failed to deliver on that promise. Academia has instead come to pride itself on the fact that it offers no claim to truth, and particularly no moral guidance. The modern scholar is dedicated to the proposition that moral clarity does not exist. Truth is subjective; moral certainty, juvenile; equivocation, enlightenment.

Students interested in morality are confronted by a choice: follow a secular approach empty of moral guidance or a religious approach that promises fundamental moral direction. We can either capriciously do whatever feels good, without guidance, standards, or meaning, or we can seek a “higher calling,” which we are told is the only way to achieve a life of purpose and fulfillment.

In the long run, such a contest can only be won by religion. The decent among us care too much about being decent to actually remain indifferent to morality. Over time, the desire to be good will trump other motivations because moral goodness matters to most people, people who want to do right by themselves and their world.

So does that mean religion will continue to grow?

Not necessarily. We at The Undercurrent agree that moral questions are important, but we think that morality is possible without religion. As you probably know, we have made it our purpose to promote just such a secular ethical system: the morality expressed in the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Rand, a 20th century writer and philosopher, is most well known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s fiction dramatizes her philosophical ideas, which include a secular conception of moral heroism. In creating her protagonists, Rand dispenses with the usual archetypes one typically finds in literature: chaste “Christ figures” who die for a noble cause; hopelessly deluded Don Quixotes who live in their own moral dream world; Heathcliffs who recklessly sow destruction to achieve their misguided ends. Her heroes instead turn out to be business executives, architects, scientists, and students who, rather than martyring themselves to save mankind or sacrificing their ambitions to preserve the rainforest, are heroic because they refuse to surrender claim to their independent judgment, their personal values, and their lives.

In direct contrast to the Christian conceptions of a hero, Rand’s protagonists are motivated fundamentally by a commitment to their own happiness. (Discovering the proper means of achieving true happiness turns out to require more thought than a Heathcliff would be capable of exercising.) Through those protagonists, Rand gives readers an opportunity to project a non-religious, non-altruistic image of a moral man. She shows, and then in her non-fiction explains, that morality does not require God.

Morality is a code of principles that guide human choices and actions. The purpose of morality, in Rand’s view, is to identify those principles that an individual must follow not to please God, but to achieve happiness in life. Morality is the science of living well, with life on this earth as an end in itself.

Rand advocates a morality of rational egoism. Most people assume that egoism, i.e. self-interest, is automatic, and morality’s purpose is to act as a check and limit on selfish behavior. Rand’s view is through and through the opposite—no human value is automatic, and morality’s purpose is therefore to identify precisely how to be self-interested, how to live and make choices in such a way as to achieve long-term fulfillment. In Rand’s ethic, being good and everything implied by that—honesty, integrity, justice, courage—means being good at living.

When faced with the choice between a life devoid of moral certainty and a life of religious duty, The Undercurrent argues that one should deny the false alternative. We urge our readers to consider instead the third option: self-consciously taking principled action in pursuit of personal happiness and fulfillment. We urge our readers to be moral and of the world.

College Girl

If the presence of religion on our campuses and in our culture is to wane—if abortion is to remain a right, birth control legal, homosexuality free from persecution, evolution free to be taught, personal happiness free to be pursued—it will do so only because people have access to a different conception of morality, one that challenges religion’s monopoly on righteousness. That is what Ayn Rand’s fiction and nonfiction provides. It is the only substantive challenge to the steady and otherwise inevitable growth of religion in academia and beyond.

Posted by on February 23, 2009. Filed under Philosophy, Winter 2008-09. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • _mattias

    Great text, really interested in non-religious morality because I believe that it is the most correct one