Ayn Rand’s most adamant axiom forms the foundation of her Objectivist philosophy: “Contradictions do not exist.” But what about the contradiction between her philosophy and religion—one grounded in reason, the other in faith? Put another way: Can you love Atlas Shrugged and the Bible? Rand and Objectivist scholars say no, yet many of her followers disagree, and they should still be welcomed with open arms.
During the 2012 campaign, then-vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan told Fox News that he “really enjoyed Rand’s novels” and admired the writer’s ability to highlight the pitfalls of socialism. But the current House speaker, a practicing Roman Catholic, described Objectivism as “something that I completely disagree with. It’s an atheistic philosophy.” It’s a shame that Rand’s secularism prompts some to reject the rest of Objectivism, which she described as a philosophy based on “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
As a teenager in Soviet Russia, Rand decided “that the concept of God is degrading to man.” She added, “Since they say that God is perfect and man can never be that perfect then man is low and imperfect and there is something above him, which is wrong.” In a 1934 journal entry, she referred to faith as “the worst curse of mankind” and “the exact antithesis and enemy of thought.”
Though her atheism never wavered, Rand’s feelings toward religion weren’t simplistic. She admired the brilliance and impact of historical religious thinkers like Aquinas and respected religious freedom, even drafting a speech for Barry Goldwater that included ample references to God. And one account, if true, suggests that Rand understood the powerful appeal of spirituality during times of grief.
Steve Mariotti—an education entrepreneur whose grandfather, Lowell B. Mason, had been Rand’s friend—spoke with Rand as she was grieving the loss of her husband, Frank O’Connor. Hoping to comfort her, Mr. Mariotti suggested that she would see Frank again in a spiritual sense. He told me in a recent interview that Rand replied, “I hope you are right. Maybe you are. . . . I will find out soon enough.” Mr. Mariotti jokingly responded to let him know, prompting a laugh that lifted her mood.
More important, militant atheism doesn’t spring from the pages of Rand’s fiction. If she truly believed that religion was such a threat, where are the religious villains in her novels? Corrupt priests or hypocritical churchgoers are nowhere to be found. It’s possible to read Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, The Fountainhead and Anthem, cover-to-cover and have little idea what Rand thought about religion.
Andy Puzder, the CEO of CKE restaurants and a practicing Roman Catholic, finds nothing worrisome in that fact: “I encouraged my six children to read both The Fountainhead [by Ayn Rand] and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis,” he told me. Each child later read Atlas Shrugged. Mr. Puzder argued that “there’s no contradiction between raising my children in the church, and urging them to lead the kind of lives of achievement, integrity and independence that Ayn Rand celebrated in her novels.”
Randall Wallace, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of 1995’s “Braveheart,” and the director of 2014’s “Heaven Is for Real,” is such an admirer of Rand’s work that he wrote a screen adaptation of Atlas Shrugged. Mr. Wallace, a Southern Baptist, said, “My faith isn’t contradicted by her beliefs. We live in a world of labels, but God surely cares less about the labels we give ourselves than about how we live because of them.” Rand, Mr. Wallace feels, wrote fiercely and fearlessly about bold and brave characters. “I think it would contradictory to my own beliefs not to admire her.”
To Messrs. Puzder and Wallace, Ayn Rand’s rejection of her ancestors’ Judaism in favor of secularism has little bearing on her contributions to the canon of liberty. Part of why Rand loved America was because it allowed for diversity of conscience—including religion. I believe that her atheism closed her to many religious people who would benefit from her aspirational views. Her secular view has likely been overstated and used by those who want to marginalize her larger message of individualism and freedom.
The transformative power of Rand’s ideas is undeniable. Her fiction was for many an activator to learn more about economic and political liberty. Rep. Ryan said as much in the same interview in which he disavowed her atheism. For this reason, the vested interests Rand threatened—those dependent on a larger, more powerful regulatory state—knew they had to take that mother ship down. The best tactic to undermine her in God-fearing America would be to concentrate on her lack of belief.
And it has worked, to an extent, making some Rand fans tuck tail and forswear admiration. Yet as Americans become more secular, the atheism-smear tactic has become less effective. The world changes, but the genius and power of her words remain. As John Galt says in the closing lines of Atlas Shrugged: “The road is cleared.” It is up to us, believers and nonbelievers, to take up her message and spread the news.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.