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Fundamentalism (Non-Religious and Objectivist)

Fundamentalism (Non-Religious and Objectivist)

January 25, 2011

Question: What is Objectivism ’s stand on and definition of fundamentalism as it applies to non-religious movements and what is Objectivism ’s own fundamentalism?”

Answer: There is no “official” definition of fundamentalism as it relates to secular groups. The term itself is a little difficult to define. Take, for instance, the Dictionary.com entry on fundamentalism: “A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.” To stay focused on the question, I’ll ignore the part about “opposition to secularism.”

Now, relate that dictionary entry to your own ideas about the sky. You know the sky is blue, and I assume you adhere rather rigidly to that fact. If someone came up to you on the street and said, “The sky is actually yellow,” you wouldn’t be tolerant of that, and in fact you’d probably have a good laugh at his expense.

Fundamentalism must be something more than adherence to principles and “intolerance of other views.” As far as Objectivism is concerned, once you’ve identified a true principle, you absolutely should adhere to it stringently; there is no logical reason to act in any other way (that is, to act according to the truth some of the time and according to falsehood the rest of the time). One must always remain open to rational challenges to one’s convictions, but that doesn’t mean saying, “Maybe so,” to every statement, no matter how patently absurd.

If we are to apply it to secular ideas, a better definition of fundamentalism might be, “Adhering to a movement or point of view uncritically, as a matter of unquestioned faith or authority.” There have been secular movements, then, that one could call “fundamentalist.” Communism is an atheistic doctrine, yet throughout the 20th Century there were organizations that clung to a faith in Marxist dogma, despite its obvious failure to make good on its promises of material abundance and despite its tragic success in creating human misery and death.

One of the major virtues of Objectivism is independence. One should never accept the ideas and opinions of another on the basis of faith or authority. To validate or even understand a concept, we must subject it to critical inquiry and reason. This is not to say, however, that one should remain eternally skeptical and never even consider the new thoughts that others have to offer; acting that way, one would run the risk of discarding true and potentially valuable ideas.

The Atlas Society holds that for Objectivism to succeed as a philosophy and a movement, it must face and answer Rand’s critics.

Objectivists have sometimes been accused of developing a cultlike adoration for Ayn Rand and her ideas. Some of these charges reflect nothing but a crass suspicion of anyone who strongly adheres to a belief system. But unfortunately, there have also been some self-styled Objectivists who seemed to accept everything Ayn Rand said or wrote simply because she was Ayn Rand . In describing Rand’s closest followers in the 1960s, Nathaniel Branden wrote, “There were implicit premises in our world to which everyone in our circle subscribed. We transmitted these to our students at [the Nathaniel Branden Institute].” Among the premises he cites are, “Ayn Rand is the greatest human being that has ever lived,” and “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” ( My Years with Ayn Rand , Jossey-Bass, 1999, pp. 226–227).

Some of these premises persist today at the Ayn Rand Institute, whose leaders have suppressed, hindered, or ignored the scholarly work of many Objectivists and others sympathetic to Rand’s ideas. ARI has also whitewashed the history of the Objectivist movement and Rand’s personal life. Unlike ARI, The Atlas Society holds that for Objectivism to succeed as a philosophy and a movement, it must face and answer Rand’s critics—and look critically even at Ayn Rand herself.

So, if our unwavering commitment to these ideas makes us fundamentalists, then it is a label we wear with pride. The only outcome of adopting a “moderate” or “nuanced” view of reality is a grab-bag mix of facts and errors, truths and falsehoods. Objectivists, in contrast, pursue absolutely the discipline of reason and whatever truths it may uncover.

Andrew Bissell
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Andrew Bissell