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.
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 is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.