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Is Religion Compatible with Objectivism?

Is Religion Compatible with Objectivism?

4 Mins
June 14, 2010

Question: Is Objectivism compatible with religion?

Answer: Most major religions have believed in the existence of a supernatural realm, a realm beyond the natural world of physical objects and bodies governed by causal laws, the world we perceive with our senses and can study by rational methods. Some religions posit a personal god (or gods); others believe in impersonal supernatural forces. (See George Walsh, The Role of Religion in History, chapter 1.) Objectivism rejects any notion of the supernatural as incompatible with the objectivity and regularity of nature as identified by reason. There is no credible evidence of miracles, magic, or other supernatural phenomena in nature.

The dominant forms of religion in our culture posit a personal god, a Supreme Being, who created the world, is omnipotent and omniscient, imposes moral duties on man, and expects worship. Those who accept this idea have the burden of showing why such a hypothesis is necessary. In this regard, Objectivists are atheists because the arguments for the existence of such a being are not sound. Objectivists reject the existence of God for the same reason they reject the existence of elves, leprechauns, and unicorns: because there is no credible evidence of such beings.

  • It is said that we need to posit God as a creator in order to explain the existence of the natural world. But there is no reason to think that the existence of this world requires an explanation by anything outside itself. While individual things in the natural world come and go, as a result of specific causes within that world, it does not follow that the world itself must have a cause.
  • It is said that we need to posit God as a designer in order to explain the complex order within the natural world, including the adaptation of living things to their environments. But the existence of order as such does not require an explanation. Any existing thing must have some identity and obey causal laws. It is only with the natural realm that we can explain how a particular type of order arises from natural causes. That includes the particular order we find among living things, for which the best current explanation is the operation of evolutionary processes.

Of course these brief summaries cannot do justice to the arguments, which have been discussed by philosophers for centuries. For further discussion and references, see George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God.

There is a profound difference, then, between Objectivism and traditional religions in their respective views of the world. But this is not the primary conflict. The primary conflict is reason versus faith as methods of adopting one's worldview in the first place.

Objectivism regards reason as an absolute. It holds that all knowledge is based on the evidence of the senses. It holds that all beliefs, conclusions, and convictions must be established by logical methods of inquiry and tested by logical methods of verification. In short, it holds that the scientific approach applies to all areas of knowledge. Blind faith, by contrast, consists in belief not based on evidence, or based on such spurious forms of "evidence" as revelation and authority. Faith is essentially an arbitrary exercise of the mind, a willful credulity based on subjective emotions rather than objective evidence, a desire for certainty without the scrupulous cognitive effort required to achieve rational certainty. Faith cannot substitute for reason as a means of knowledge, nor can it supplement reason. Reason is incompatible with arbitrary procedures of any kind.

If we accept reason as a method, then the substantive issues that differentiate Objectivism from most religions can be debated openly and rationally, and Objectivists can respect those who differ about what the evidence proves. But there can be no compromise about reason itself as a method.

For some people, religion is not primarily a belief about the world but rather a belief in spiritual values: a belief that a meaningful human life requires more than material possessions and achievements. Objectivism holds that "spiritual values" can be defined in secular terms, and on that basis agrees that they are of vital importance to fulfillment and happiness. Spiritual values are those pertaining to the needs of human consciousness, arising from the human capacity for reason, creativity, free will, and self-awareness. These needs include self-esteem, love, art, and philosophy (a comprehensive view of existence), among others. Achieving these values in one's life is no less important than providing for one's material needs and achieving worldly success.

Objectivism is an idealistic philosophy that affirms and celebrates the grandeur of the human capacity for achievement and heroism. In this respect, as Ayn Rand noted, it provides a secular meaning for such religious concepts as exaltation, worship, reverence, and the sacred. "Such concepts do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists; and these emotions are experienced as uplifting or ennobling.… What, then, is their source or referent in reality? It is the entire emotional realm of man's dedication to a moral ideal."

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.

Religion and Atheism