We Can’t Shrug Off “Atlas Shrugged”
by Edwin Faust
April 12, 2011
Ayn Rand wrote novels that were intended to illustrate ideas rather than characters, and her work suffers from the literary shortcomings peculiar to that genre: the people she portrays are rather wooden, their dialogue stilted, the plots improbable, and always in the background is the not very well concealed face of the author who can barely contain her desire to forego novel writing and lecture directly.
So it is not surprising that reviews of the newly released and first-ever movie adaptation of Rand’s chief work, “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1” is proving an easy target for reviewers quick to judge the merits of a film on its merits as a film. But “Atlas Shrugged” is not just a film: it is a challenge to a generally accepted code of ethics rooted in the Christian counsels on fraternal charity. And Rand’s ideas transcend her literary faults or any failed attempt to make her novels into motion pictures.
Rand’s philosophy is called Objectivism. It maintains that human reason, based on sense perceptions, provide us with the only real knowledge we can have. It rejects faith as irrational. According to Ayn Rand, all existing things have identifiable attributes — limitations — and a deity lacking limitations is both impossible to conceive and its existence ridiculous to assert. God, according to Objectivism, is a negative, and logic cannot prove a negative.
In the realm of ethics, Objectivism counsels what it calls rational self-interest. We should use our reason to determine the course of action that will bring us the greatest happiness and then pursue that course of action. Any demands that we should live for others, or sacrifice ourselves for others — whether these demands be made by government, religion, ideology, social pressure or individuals — should be flatly rejected. In short, we have a rational moral duty to be selfish.
Those who want others to live for them are parasites, according to Rand, and religions and ideologies that exhort self-sacrifice are propagandists for the parasites. No man owes anything to another man, according to Rand. Each man owes it to himself to fulfill his own desires, living the life of an heroic individual, not the life of a slave to the masses who would exploit his efforts and productivity. “Atlas Shrugged” is a moral fable of what would happen if the productive individuals withdraw their labor and let the parasitic masses fend for themselves. The world, as the novel demonstrates, would collapse.
Rand may be judged a minor figure in American literature and contemporary thought, but she has a major ability to inspire her disciples with enduring zeal. Converts to Rand’s objectivist philosophy often remain zealots for life. And although Rand was demonized by the media throughout her life — she was an unabashed atheist and enemy of collectivism in any form — times have changed.
Militant atheists are on the offensive and it is believers who are now often demonized by the media. The continuing horrors of Islamic jihadism have allowed critics of religion to paint all faiths with a broad brush: belief is irrational and dangerous; reason and material reality should be our guides in determining truth and right conduct. Dogmatism of an other-worldly kind is becoming a hard sell.
The Church has been muting its dogmatic voice in recent years and speaking in the syrupy tone of ecumenism. This new tone has neither pleased the Church’s friends nor pacified its enemies. The more conciliatory the Church becomes, the more it sounds like a weak voice, uncertain of its own convictions and reluctant to press its claims on our attention.
Meanwhile, other voices are raised and are being heard. It is probable that more people have read books by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens than have read the encyclicals of Pope Benedict. The ascendancy of militant atheism, abetted by disgust over blood spilled in the name of Allah, may have prepared fertile ground in which the ideas of Ayn Rand may take root and flourish as never before. Perhaps this is why Hollywood, always seeking to read the signs of the times — and cash in on them — has decided on a big-budget production of “Atlas Shrugged.”
Rand’s ideas are simple, and this simplicity enhances and partly accounts for their appeal. They offer clarity in a world of confusion, and they provide a practical program — a code of ethics based on self-interest and personal happiness. And they offer something that Hitchens, Dawkins and company do not: a comprehensive creed.
The militant atheists have attacked the structures of religion and cleared the ground for something new to be built upon it. Rand’s Objectivism, popularized by Hollywood, could become the foundation of a new edifice. As Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest helped to provide a rationale for the depredations of laissez-faire capitalism, Ayn Rand’s objectivism may lend intellectual respectability to the preoccupation with personal gratification. Eat, drink and be merry — and to hell with everyone else — may be transformed from dereliction to moral duty.
This may not be what Rand had in mind — she respected solid achievement — but popularity has a way of reducing ideas to the lowest common denominator. The creed of personal happiness can easily be distorted into the creed of self-indulgence.
The Church since Vatican II has presented its teaching as something that can be useful in this world. Ecumenism has stressed cooperation with people of other faiths — or no faith — for the sake of social utility and peace. Much of what issues from national bishops’ conferences sounds like mildly sanctified socialism. It has little appeal and goes largely unnoticed. And as government entitlement programs become economically unsustainable, the appeal of socialism in all its gradations will weaken and a rationale will be needed for some rather harsh and jolting changes in policy.
What can the Church do to counter the growth of atheism and Objectivism? As “Atlas Shrugged” appears on the big screen, the cult of Ayn Rand may pose a new challenge. How can it be answered?
The Church has a rich intellectual patrimony, but interlocking syllogisms from the Summa Theologica lack mass appeal. And the current Pope, whose erudition is irrepressible, communicates with a subtlety and syntactical complexity that renders his thought inaccessible to a public acclimated to simple sound bytes.
The Church needs to communicate its teaching in a simple and compelling manner. It must capture the public imagination with a message as dramatic and memorable as any that Ayn Rand and Hollywood can produce. How can this be done? What about the Message of Fatima?
In Fatima, the Church has a dramatic story to tell: three shepherd children chosen by Heaven to receive prophetic revelations from the Blessed Mother. These revelations deal not only with what has transpired, but with what is to come. They affect all of mankind and the very future of the planet. Great blessings or terrible retribution will come to us very soon, depending upon how we respond to this message. And to verify the reality of this message, we were given the Miracle of the Sun.
Objectivists, who maintain that the evidence of our senses is not to be doubted, would have to concede that the thousands who witnessed this phenomenon offer incontrovertible proof that something occurred at the Cova da Iria in October 1917 that must be acknowledged.
It is time for the Church to stop temporizing by linking arms with left-wing governments that want to redistribute wealth through socialist programs. This is not the business of the Catholic Church. The Church has one business: to save souls.
Right now, at this time, the Church is in possession of a great prophecy from the Mother of God. Our Lady has asked that the Pope and the bishops consecrate Russia to Her Immaculate Heart so that Russia may be converted and peace be given to the world. Failing this consecration, untold suffering will fall upon the world. Nations will be annihilated.
This is the message the Church should be broadcasting. The Consecration of Russia is the action the Church must take at this time.
If Atlas shrugs, the world whose weight he bears will fall. If the Church shrugs, the salvation of countless souls will be lost forever.
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