From _Skeptic_ vol. 2, no. 2, 1993, pp. 74-81.
The following article is copyright (c) 1993 by the Skeptics Society,
2761 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119. Permission
has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this
articles in its entirety, including this notice. For information about
a special Internet introductory subscription rate, see the file
subscription-rates or contact Jim Lippard (email@example.com).
THE UNLIKELIEST CULT IN HISTORY
BY MICHAEL SHERMER
Freudian projection is the process of attributing one's own ideas,
feelings, or attitudes to other people or objects--the guilt-laden
adulterer accuses his spouse of adultery, the homophobe actually harbors
latent homosexual tendencies. A subtle form of projection can be seen in
the accusation by Christians that secular humanism and evolution are
"religions;" or by cultists and paranormalists that skeptics are
themselves a cult and that reason and science have cultic properties.
For skeptics, the idea that reason can lead to a cult is absurd. The
characteristics of a cult are 180 degrees out of phase with reason. But
as I will demonstrate, not only can it happen, it has happened, and to a
group that would have to be considered the unlikeliest cult in history.
It is a lesson in what happens when the truth becomes more important
than the _search_ for truth, when final results of inquiry become more
important than the _process_ of inquiry, and especially when reason
leads to an absolute certainty about one's beliefs such that those who
are not for the group are against it.
The story begins in 1943 when an obscure Russian immigrant published
her first successful novel after two consecutive failures. It was not an
instant success. In fact, the reviews were harsh and initial sales
sluggish. But slowly a following grew around the novel, word of mouth
became the most effective marketing tool, and the author began to
develop what could, with hindsight, be called a "cult following." The
initial print-run of 7,500 copies was followed by multiples of five and
10,000 until by 1950 half a million copies were circulating the country.
The book was _The Fountainhead_ and the author Ayn Rand. Her commercial
success allowed her the time and freedom to write her magnum opus,
_Atlas Shrugged_, published in 1957 after ten years in the making. It is
a murder mystery, not about the murder of a human body, but of the
murder of a human spirit. It is a broad and sweeping story of a man who
said he would stop the ideological motor of the world. When he did,
there was a panoramic collapse of civilization, with its flame kept
burning by a small handful of heroic individuals whose reason and morals
directed both the fall and the subsequent return of culture.
As they did to _The Fountainhead_, reviewers panned _Atlas_ with a
savage brutality that, incredibly, only seemed to reinforce followers'
belief in the book, its author, and her ideas. And, like _The
Fountainhead_, sales of _Atlas_ sputtered and clawed their way forward
as the following grew, to the point where the book presently sells over
300,000 copies a year. "In all my years of publishing," recalled Random
House's owner, Bennett Cerf, "I've never seen anything like it. To break
through against such enormous opposition!" (Branden, 1986, p. 298). Such
is the power of an individual hero . . . and a cult-like following.
What is it about Rand's philosophy that so emotionally stimulates
proponents and opponents alike? Before _Atlas Shrugged_ was published,
at a sales conference at Random House a salesman asked Rand if she could
summarize the essence of her philosophy, called Objectivism, while
standing on one foot. She did so as follows (1962):
1. _Metaphysics_: Objective Reality
2. _Epistemology_: Reason
3. _Ethics_: Self-interest
4. _Politics_: Capitalism
In other words, nature exists independent of human thought. Reason is
the only method of perceiving this reality. All humans seek personal
happiness and exist for their own sake, and should not sacrifice
themselves to or be sacrificed by others. And _laissez-faire_ capitalism
is the best political-economic system for the first three to flourish,
where "men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor
as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to
mutual benefit," and where "no man may initiate the use of physical
force against others" (p. 1). Ringing throughout Rand's works is the
philosophy of individualism, personal responsibility, the power of
reason, and the importance of morality. One should think for one's self
and never allow an authority to dictate truth, especially the authority
of government, religion, and other such groups. Success, happiness, and
unrestrained upward mobility will accrue to those who use reason to act
in the highest moral fashion, and who never demand favors or handouts.
Objectivism is the ultimate philosophy of unsullied reason and
unadulterated individualism, as expressed by Rand through her primary
character in _Atlas Shrugged_, John Galt:
Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is
his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives,
identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The
task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but
the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell
him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his
mind (p. 1012).
In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world
to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep
you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly,
the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his
title. Do not lose your knowledge that man's proper estate is an
upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels
unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by
irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate,
the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in
your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved,
but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature
of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is
real, it is possible, it's yours (p. 1069).
How, then, could such a philosophy become the basis of a cult, which
is the antithesis of reason and individualism? A cult, however it is
defined, depends on faith and deindividuation--that is, remove the power
of reason in followers and make them dependent upon the group and/or the
leader. The last thing a cult leader wants is for followers to think for
themselves and become individuals apart from the group.
The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not in the
use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief
that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is
the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute
knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore
there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and
immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been
discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion.
If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If
your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you
remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the
final step for such unreformed heretics.
If you find it hard to believe that such a line of reasoning could
lead a rational, well-intentioned group down the road to culthood,
history demonstrates how it can happen. The 1960s were years of anti-
establishment, anti-government, find-yourself individualism, so Rand's
philosophy exploded across the nation, particularly on college campuses.
_Atlas Shrugged_ became the book to read. Though it is a massive 1,168
pages long, readers devoured the characters, the plot, and most
importantly, the philosophy. It stirred emotions and evoked action. Ayn
Rand clubs were founded at hundreds of colleges. Professors taught
courses in the philosophy of Objectivism and the literary works of Rand.
Rand's inner circle of friends began to grow and one of them, Nathaniel
Branden, founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), sponsoring
lectures and courses on Objectivism, first in New York, and then
As the seminars increased in size and Rand's popularity shot skyward,
so too did the confidence in her philosophy, both for Rand and her
followers. Hundreds of people attended classes, thousands of letters
poured into the office, and millions of books were being sold. Movie
rights for _Atlas_ were being negotiated (_The Fountainhead_ had already
been made into a film). Her rise to intellectual power and influence was
nothing short of miraculous, and readers of her novels, especially
_Atlas Shrugged_, told Rand it had changed their lives and their way of
thinking. Their comments ring of the enthusiasm of the followers of a
religious cult (Branden, 1986, pp. 407-415):
--After reading _Atlas_ a young woman in the Peace Corps wrote: "I had
undergone the loneliest, most inspiring, and heartrending psycho-
intellectual transformation, and all my plans upon returning to the
United States had changed."
--A 24-year old "traditional housewife" (her own lable) read _Atlas_ and
said: "Dagny Taggart [the book's principle heroine] was an inspiration
to me; she is a great feminist role model. Ayn Rand's works gave me the
courage to be and to do what I had dreamed of."
--A businessman began reading _Atlas_ and said "Within a few hundred
pages I sensed clearly that I had ventured upon a lifetime of meaning.
The philosophy of Ayn Rand nurtured growth, stability and integrity in
my life. Her ideas permeated every aspect of my business, family and
--A law school graduate said of Objectivism: "Dealing with Ayn Rand was
like taking a post-doctoral course in mental functioning. The universe
she created in her work holds out hope, and appeals to the best in man.
Her lucidity and brilliance was a light so strong I don't think anything
will ever be able to put it out."
--An economics professor recalled: "After you read _Atlas Shrugged_ you
don't look at the world with the same perspective."
--A philosophy professor concluded: "Ayn Rand was one of the most
original thinkers I have ever met. There is no escape from facing the
issues she raised. . . . At a time in my life when I thought I had
learned at least the essentials of most philosophical views, being
confronted with her . . . suddenly changed the entire direction of my
intellectual life, and placed every other thinker in a new perspective."
--Another philosophy professor, this one disliking Rand and disagreeing
with Objectivism, recalled after an all-night discussion with the
philosopher-novelist: "She's found gaping holes in every philosophical
position I've maintained for the whole of my life--positions I teach my
students, positions on which I'm a recognized authority--and I can't
answer her arguments! I don't know what to do!" (p. 247).
There are thousands more just like these, many from people who are
now quite successful and well-known, and give credit to Rand. But to the
inner circle surrounding and protecting Rand (in ironic humor they
called themselves the "Collective"), their leader soon became more than
just extremely influential. She was venerated as their leader. Her
seemingly omniscient ideas were inerrant. The power of her personality
made her so persuasive that no one dared to challenge her. And her
philosophy of Objectivism, since it was derived through pure reason,
revealed final Truth and dictated absolute morality.
One of the closest to Rand was Nathaniel Branden, a young philosophy
student who joined the Collective in the early days before _Atlas
Shrugged_ was published. In his autobiographical memoirs entitled
_Judgment Day_ (1989), Branden recalled: "There were implicit premises
in our world to which everyone in our circle subscribed, and which we
transmitted to our students at NBI." Incredibly, and here is where the
philosophical movement became a cult, they came to believe that (pp.
--Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
--_Atlas Shrugged_ is the greatest human achievement in the history of
--Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme
arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or
appropriate to man's life on earth.
--Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and/or her work, the measure of
one's virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding
her and/or it.
--No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand
admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.
--No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn
Rand on any fundamental issue.
--Since Ayn Rand has designated Nathaniel Branden as her "intellectual
heir," and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her
philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn
--But it is best not to say most of these things explicitly (excepting,
perhaps, the first two items). One must always maintain that one arrives
at one's beliefs solely by reason.
It is important to note that my critique of Rand and Objectivism as a
cult is not original. Rand and her followers were, in their time,
accused of being a cult which, of course, they denied. "My following is
not a cult. I am not a cult figure," Rand once told an interviewer.
Barbara Branden, in her biography, _The Passion of Ayn Rand_, recalls:
"Although the Objectivist movement clearly had many of the trappings of
a cult--the aggrandizement of the person of Ayn Rand, the too ready
acceptance of her personal opinions on a host of subjects, the incessant
moralizing--it is nevertheless significant that the fundamental
attraction of Objectivism . . . was the precise opposite of religious
worship" (p. 371). And Nathaniel Branden addressed the issue this way:
"We were not a cult in the literal, dictionary sense of the word, but
certainly there was a cultish aspect to our world . . . . We were a
group organized around a charismatic leader, whose members judged one
another's character chiefly by loyalty to that leader and to her ideas"
But if you leave the "religious" component out of the definition,
thus broadening the word's usage, it becomes clear that Objectivism was
(and is) a cult, as are many other, non-religious groups. In this
context, then, a cult may be characterized by:
--_Veneration of the Leader_: Excessive glorification to the point of
virtual sainthood or divinity.
--_Inerrancy of the Leader: Belief that he or she cannot be wrong.
--Omniscience of the Leader_: Acceptance of beliefs and pronouncements
on virtually all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.
--_Persuasive Techniques_: Methods used to recruit new followers and
reinforce current beliefs.
--_Hidden Agendas_: Potential recruits and the public are not given a
full disclosure of the true nature of the group's beliefs and plans.
--_Deceit_: Recruits and followers are not told everything about the
leader and the group's inner circle, particularly flaws or potentially
embarrassing events or circumstances.
--_Financial and/or Sexual Exploitation_: Recruits and followers are
persuaded to invest in the group, and the leader may develop sexual
relations with one or more of the followers.
--_Absolute Truth_: Belief that the leader and/or group has a method of
discovering final knowledge on any number of subjects.
--_Absolute Morality_: Belief that the leader and/or the group have
developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to
members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code
may become and remain members, those who do not are dismissed or
The ultimate statement of Rand's absolute morality heads the title
page of Nathaniel Brandon's book. Says Rand:
The precept: "Judge not, that ye be not judged" . . . is an
abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives
to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.
There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so
long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values;
so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible.
To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the
torture and murder of his victims.
The moral principle to adopt . . . is: "Judge, and be prepared to be
The absurd lengths to which such thinking can go is demonstrated by
Rand's pronounced judgements on her followers of even the most trivial
things. Rand had argued, for example, that musical taste could not be
objectively defined, yet, as Barbara Branden observed, "if one of her
young friends responded as she did to Rachmaninoff . . . she attached
deep significance to their affinity." By contrast, if a friend did not
respond as she did to a certain piece or composer, Rand "left no doubt
that she considered that person morally and psychologically
reprehensible." Branden recalled an evening when a friend of Rand's
remarked that he enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss. "When he left at
the end of the evening, Ayn said, in a reaction becoming increasingly
typical, 'Now I understand why he and I can never be real soul mates.
The distance in our sense of life is too great.' Often, she did not wait
until a friend had left to make such remarks" (p. 268).
With this set of criteria it becomes possible to see that a rational
philosophy can become a cult when most or all of these are met. This is
true not only for philosophical movements, but in some scientific
schools of thought as well. Many founding scientists have become almost
deified in their own time, to the point where apprentices dare not
challenge the master. As Max Planck observed about science in general,
only after the founders and elder statesmen of a discipline are dead and
gone can real change occur and revolutionary new ideas be accepted.
In both Barbara's and Nathaniel Branden's assessment, then, we see
all the characteristics of a cult. But what about deceit and sexual
exploitation? In this case, "exploitation" may be too strong of a word,
but the act was present nonetheless, and deceit was rampant. In what has
become the most scandalous (and now oft-told) story in the brief history
of the Objectivist movement, starting in 1953 and lasting until 1958
(and on and off for another decade after), Ayn Rand and her
"intellectual heir" Nathaniel Branden, 25 years her junior, carried on a
secret love affair known only to their respective spouses. The falling
in love was not planned, but it was ultimately "reasonable" since the
two of them were, de facto, the two greatest humans on the planet. "By
the total logic of who we are--by the total logic of what love and sex
mean--we had to love each other," Rand told Barbara Branden and her own
husband, Frank O'Connor. It was a classic display of a brilliant mind
intellectualizing a purely emotional response, and another example of
reason carried to absurd heights. "Whatever the two of you may be
feeling," Rand rationalized, "I know your intelligence, I know you
recognize the rationality of what we feel for each other, and that you
hold no value higher than reason" (B. Brandon, p. 258).
Unbelievably, both Barbara and Frank accepted the affair, and agreed
to allow Ayn and Nathaniel an afternoon and evening of sex and love once
a week. "And so," Barbara explained, "we all careened toward disaster."
The "rational" justification and its consequences continued year after
year, as the tale of interpersonal and group deceit grew broader and
deeper. The disaster finally came in 1968 when it became known to Rand
that Branden had fallen in love with yet another woman, and had begun an
affair with her. Even though the affair between Rand and Branden had
long since dwindled, the master of the absolutist moral double-standard
would not tolerate such a breach of ethical conduct. "Get that bastard
down here!," Rand screamed upon hearing the news, "or I'll drag him here
myself!" Branden, according to Barbara, slunk into Rand's apartment to
face the judgment day. "It's finished, your whole act!" she told him.
"I'll tear down your facade as I built it up! I'll denounce you
publicly, I'll destroy you as I created you! I don't even care what it
does to me. You won't have the career I gave you, or the name, or the
wealth, or the prestige. You'll have nothing . . . ." The barrage
continued for several minutes until she pronounced her final curse: "If
you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological
health--you'll be impotent for the next twenty years!" (pp. 345-347).
Rand's verbal attack was followed by a six-page open letter to her
followers in her publication _The Objectivist_ (May, 1968). It was
entitled "To Whom It May Concern." After explaining that she had
completely broken with the Brandens, Rand continued the deceit through
lies of omission: "About two months ago . . . Mr. Branden presented me
with a written statement which was so irrational and so offensive to me
that I had to break my personal association with him." Without so much
as a hint of the nature of the offense Rand continued: "About two months
later Mrs. Branden suddenly confessed that Mr. Branden had been
concealing from me certain ugly actions and irrational behavior in his
private life, which was grossly contradictory to Objectivist morality .
. . . " Branden's second affair was judged immoral, his first was not.
This excommunication was followed by a reinforcing barrage from NBI's
Associate Lecturers that sounds all too ecclesiastical in its
denouncement (and written out of complete ignorance of what really
happened): "Because Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, in a series
of actions, have betrayed fundamental principles of Objectivism, we
condemn and repudiate these two persons irrevocably, and have terminated
all association with them . . . . " (Branden, 1986, pp. 353-354).
Confusion reigned supreme in both the Collective and in the rank-and-
file membership. Mail poured into the office, most of it supporting Rand
(naturally, since they knew nothing of the first affair). Nathaniel
received angry responses and even Barbara's broker, an Objectivist,
terminated her as his client. The group was in turmoil over the
incident. What were they to think with such a formidable condemnation of
unnamed sins? The ultimate extreme of such absolutist thinking was
revealed several months later when, in the words of Barbara, "a half-
demented former student of NBI had raised the question of whether or not
it would be morally appropriate to assassinate Nathaniel because of the
suffering he had caused Ayn; the man concluded that it should not be
done on practical grounds, but would be morally legitimate. Fortunately,
he was shouted down at once by a group of appalled students" (p. 356n).
It was the beginning of the long decline and fall of Rand's tight
grip over the Collective. One by one they sinned, the transgressions
becoming more minor as the condemnations grew in fierceness. And one by
one they left, or were asked to leave. In the end (Rand died in 1982)
there remained only a handful of friends, and the designated executor of
her estate, Leonard Peikoff (who presently carries on the cause through
the Southern California based Ayn Rand Institute, "The Center for the
Advancement of Objectivism"). While the cultic qualities of the group
sabotaged the inner circle, there remained (and remains) a huge
following of those who choose to ignore the indiscretions, infidelities,
and moral inconsistencies of the founder, and focus instead on the
positive aspects of the philosophy. There is much in it from which to
choose, if you do not have to accept the whole package. In this
analysis, then, there are three important caveats about cults,
skepticism, and reason:
1. _Criticism of the founder of a philosophy does not, by itself,
constitute a negation of any part of the philosophy_. The fact that
Christians have been some of the worst violators of their own moral
system does not mean that the ethical axioms of "thou shalt not kill,"
or "due unto others as you would have them do unto you," are negated.
The components of a philosophy must stand or fall on their own internal
consistency or empirical support, regardless of the founder's
personality quirks or moral inconsistencies. By most accounts Newton was
a cantankerous and relatively unpleasant person to be around. This fact
has nothing at all to do with his principles of natural philosophy. With
thinkers who proffer moral principles, as in the case of Rand, this
caveat is more difficult to apply, but it is true nonetheless. It is
good to know these things about Rand, but it does not nullify her
philosophy. I reject her principles of final Truth and absolute morality
not because Rand had feet of clay, but because I do not believe they are
either logically or empirically tenable.
2. _Criticism of part of a philosophy does not gainsay the whole_. In
a similar analogy as above, one may reject parts of the Christian
philosophy while embracing others. I might, for example, attempt to
treat others as I would have them treat me, while at the same time
renounce the belief that women should remain silent in church and be
obedient to their husbands. One may disavow Rand's absolute morality,
while accepting her metaphysics of objective reality, her epistemology
of reason, and her political philosophy of capitalism (though
Objectivists would say they all follow from her metaphysics). Which
leads me to the third caveat.
3. _The critic of part of a philosophy does not necessarily repudiate
the whole philosophy_. This is a personal caveat to Objectivists and
readers of _Skeptic_ alike. Rand critics come from all political
positions--left, right, and middle. Professional novelists generally
disdain her style. Professional philosophers generally refuse to take
her work seriously (both because she wrote for popular audiences and
because her work is not considered a complete philosophy). There are
more Rand critics than followers. I am not one of them. Ayn Rand has
probably influenced my thinking more than any other author. I have read
all of her works, including her newsletters, early works, and the two
major biographies. I have even read the Brobdingnagian _Atlas Shrugged_
no less than three times, plus once on audio tape for good measure. Thus
I am not a blind critic. (Some of Rand's critics have attacked _Atlas_
without ever reading it, and Objectivism, without ever knowing anything
about it. I have encountered many of these myself. Even the pompously
intellectual William Buckley spoke of the "desiccated philosophy" of
_Atlas_, "the essential aridity of Miss Rand's philosophy," and the tone
of _Atlas_ as "over-riding arrogance," yet later confessed: "I never
read the book. When I read the review of it and saw the length of the
book, I never picked it up." Nothing could be more irrational.) I accept
most of Rand's philosophy, but not all of it. And despite my life-long
commitment to many of Rand's most important beliefs, Objectivists would
no doubt reject me from their group for not accepting _all_ of her
precepts. This is ultimately what makes Objectivism a cult.
I believe (and here I speak strictly for myself and not for the
Skeptics Society or any of its members) that reality exists and that
reason and science are the best tools we have for understanding
causality in the real world. We can achieve an ever-greater
understanding of reality but we can never know if we have final Truth
with regard to nature. Since reason and science are human activities,
they will always be flawed and biased. I believe that humans are
primarily driven to seek greater happiness, but the definition of such
is _completely personal_ and cannot be dictated and should not be
controlled by any group. (Even so-called selfless acts of charity can be
perceived as directed toward self-fulfillment--the act of making someone
else feel good, makes us feel good. This is not a falsifiable statement,
but it is observable in people's actions and feelings.) I believe that
the free market--and the freer the better--is the best system yet
devised for allowing _all_ individuals to achieve greater levels of
happiness. (This is not a defensible statement in this forum. I am just
setting the stage for my critique of Rand.) I believe that individuals
should take personal responsibility for their actions, buck up and quit
whining when facing the usual array of life's problems, and cease this
endless disease-of-the-month victimization. Finally, I wholeheartedly
embrace Rand's passionate love of the heroic nature of humanity and of
the ability of the human spirit to triumph over nature.
So far so good. I might have even made it into the Rand inner circle.
But I would have been promptly excommunicated as an unreformed heretic
(the worst kind, since reformed heretics can at least be retrained and
forgiven), with my belief that no absolute morality is scientifically or
rationally tenable, even that which claims to have been derived through
pure reason, as in the case of Rand. The reason is straightforward.
Morals do not exist in nature and thus cannot be discovered. In nature
there are just actions--physical actions, biological actions, and human
actions. Human actors act to increase their happiness, however they
personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral when someone
else judges them as such. Thus, morality is a strictly human creation,
subject to all the cultural influences and social constructions as other
such human creations. Since virtually everyone and every group claims
they know what right and wrong human action is, and since virtually all
of these moralities are different from all others to a greater or lesser
extent, then reason alone tells us they cannot all be correct Just as
there is no absolute right type of human music, there is no absolute
right type of human action. The broad range of human action is a rich
continuum that precludes its pigeonholing into the unambiguous yeses and
noes that political laws and moral codes require.
Does this mean that all human actions are morally equal? No. Not any
more than all human music is equal. We create standards of what we like
and dislike, desire or not, and make judgments against these standards.
But the standards are themselves human creations and not discovered in
nature. One group prefers classical music, and so judges Mozart to be
superior to the Moody Blues. Similarly, one group prefers patriarchal
dominance, and so judges male privileges to be morally honorable.
Neither Mozart nor males are absolutely better, only so when compared to
the group's standards. Thus, male ownership of females was once moral
and is now immoral, not because we have discovered it as such, but
because our society has realized that women also seek greater happiness
and that they can achieve this more easily without being in bondage to
males.. A society that seeks greater happiness for its members by giving
them greater freedom, will judge a Hitler or a Stalin as morally
intolerable because his goal is the confiscation of human life, without
which one can have no happiness.
As long as it is understood that morality is a human construction
influenced by human cultures, one can become more tolerant of other
human belief systems, and thus other humans. But as soon as a group sets
itself up to be the final moral arbiter of other people's actions,
especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute
standards of right and wrong, it is the beginning of the end of
tolerance and thus, reason and rationality. It is this characteristic
more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any
other group, dangerous to individual freedom. This was (and is) the
biggest flaw in Ayn Rand's Objectivism, the unlikeliest cult in history.
The historical development and ultimate destruction of her group and
philosophy is the empirical evidence to support this logical analysis.
What separates science from all other human activities (and morality
has never been successfully placed on a scientific basis), is its belief
in the tentative nature of all conclusions. There are no final absolutes
in science, only varying degrees of probability. Even scientific "facts"
are just conclusions confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable
to offer temporary agreement, but never final assent. Science is not the
affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at
building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or
confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting.
That is the heart of its limitation. It is also its greatest strength.
Branden, B. 1986. _The Passion of Ayn Rand_. New York: Doubleday.
Branden, N. 1989. _Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand_. Boston:
Rand, A. 1943. _The Fountainhead_. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
_____. 1957. _Atlas Shrugged_. New York: Random House.
_____. 1962. "Introducing Objectivism." _Los Angeles Times_, June 17.
Michael Shermer is Publisher of _Skeptic_, Director of the Skeptics
Society, and Adjunct Professor of History of Science at Occidental
College. He has published _Teach Your Child Science_ and co-authored
_Teach Your Child Math_ and _Mathemagics_ with Dr. Arthur Benjamin. Dr.
Shermer has just finished two books, _Heretic-Scientist_, a biography of
Alfred Russell Wallace, and _The Chaos of History_, on the application
of chaos theory to human history. He has also written numerous cycling
books based on a ten year professional career as a ultra-marathon
cyclist and competitor in the transcontinental Race Across America.