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Abraham about to murder his son Isaac because God told him to.

Finding Morality and Happiness Without God

American popular culture is filled with pieces that gently mock, satirize and ridicule religion, especially Judeo-Christian beliefs. To cite but three instances, Stephen Colbert’s periodic Late Show conversations with God, the character of Ned Flanders on The Simpsons, and the musical The Book of Mormon.

At the same time, religion remains a highly respected force in American society, often regarded as an integral thread of American exceptionalism. This respect was on full display in the nation’s response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Here were trained fighters who flew airliners into New York City’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Virginia, and who declared they were doing so in the name of their faith. Yet few American leaders could even entertain the idea that these may have been religiously inspired attacks.

Six days after the Twin Towers fell, President Bush told the country that “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. . . . Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” He added a few days afterward that “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” President Obama echoed this language years later: “Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. . . . We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

To both presidents, religious faith is incontrovertibly a force for the good, which the 9/11 attackers and their many compatriots have, somehow, hijacked or perverted into its opposite.

The basic reason religion remains such an esteemed aspect of American society is that it is considered important, even indispensable, to morality. The strongest form this idea takes is that morality depends on religion—that without God, the distinction between good and evil loses meaning, and anything goes.

A concise version of this argument is offered by Dennis Prager in his video “If There Is No God, Murder Isn’t Wrong,” viewed at the time of this writing over three million times. “In a secular world,” Prager says, “there can only be opinions about morality. They may be personal opinions or society’s opinion. But only opinions.” To rise above mere opinion, we need a supernatural being: “only if there is a God who says murder is wrong, is murder wrong.” In other words, without a god “the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are just another way of saying ‘I like’ and ‘I don’t like.’ If there is no God, the statement ‘Murder is evil’ is the same as the statement ‘I don’t like murder.’”

Echoing another popular claim, Prager adds that it “is not a coincidence that the rejection of Judeo-Christian values in the Western world—by Nazism and Communism—led to the murder of all these innocent people.” (Prager switches back and forth from religious values to specifically Judeo-Christian values without argument.) He concludes: “whatever you believe about God or religion, here is a fact: Without a God who is the source of morality, morality is just a matter of opinion. So, if you want a good world, the death of Judeo-Christian values should frighten you.” (Notice again the switch.)

Should it?

The death of Judeo-Christian religion, and of religion more generally, is at best an exaggeration and at worst the opposite of the truth; worldwide, religion is arguably on the rise. We should put that point aside, however, because its significance depends on, and is overshadowed by, a much more important question. Does morality require religion? More particularly: Is God the source of good and evil? To answer this, we need to begin with a sketch of what a religion is, especially monotheistic religion, and then we need to consider what is the distinctively religious approach to ethics.

What is religion?

A religion is a worldview. It offers an account of the basic nature of the world and fundamental advice about what to aim at within it and how to navigate it. A religion and a philosophy thus address the same sorts of questions: Is this world all there is, or is reality split in two, with another dimension or realm existing beyond this one? Is reality firm and intelligible, or is it laced with the mysterious and the miraculous? Do we have the power to chart our own course in life, or are we manipulated by forces outside of our control? How do I know the answer to any of these questions? By reasoning? Intuition? Revelation? Some combination of these? Or are the answers beyond our reach? Are we often consigned to ignorance, uncertainty, and doubt? And then, given the nature of reality and our means of understanding it (or lack thereof), what should we do? Shun this world and pray for God’s love in the next? Strive for power? Pursue our own happiness? Love our neighbor? Suspend judgment, avoid extremes, and seek to compromise?

Both religion and philosophy address the most basic, life-shaping questions we face: What is my nature and the nature of the universe I inhabit? How do I know it? Why does it matter—that is, why should I act one way rather than another? But religion and philosophy differ in two crucial ways.

In terms of the content of the answers offered, although some philosophies accept the supernatural and others reject it, the supernatural is central to religion, especially to the major monotheistic religions. Essential to the religious worldview is the idea that there is a realm or dimension that “transcends” nature and its laws, and is in some sense the source or governing power of the natural world. Our primary orientation in life should be toward this higher power.

What most differentiates religion from philosophy, however, is how religion arrives at its answers. A philosophy seeks evidence and logical arguments for its conclusions. A religion, no matter how much theologians may argue back and forth about points of dogma, remains just that: dogma. A religion advocates its basic tenets on faith, which means in the absence of evidence and logical argument, and even in the face of counter-evidence and counter-arguments. This is why a synonym for a religion is a faith: we speak for instance interchangeably of the Jewish religion and the Jewish faith.

A religion is a worldview that espouses some version of the supernatural on faith.1

To claim that morality requires religion, therefore, is to claim that morality requires faith in the supernatural. Without belief in a being like God, who determines what is good and what is evil, a system of ethics is untenable. As Prager put the point: “Only if there is a God who says murder is wrong, is murder wrong.”

Moral absolutes

Now why do religionists think this approach yields what Prager calls “moral absolutes?

God, Prager says, orders us not to murder. To refrain from murder, therefore, is good; to engage in murder, evil. Period. End of story. Or to take another example, God, some religious sects say, has declared that a human embryo, even though it bears no resemblance to an actual human being, is sacred. God commands us to bring this divine creation of His to term. To do so, therefore, is good. To not do so, to abort an embryo a few days after conception, is evil. Period. No moral relativism here, because the opinions and personal interests of individuals are all entirely irrelevant. What could be more absolutist than that?

But suppose God commands us to murder an innocent person. Has the act of murder changed from being wrong to being right?2

A theist, faced with this kind of question, will often object that the imagined scenario is absurd. God would never command us to murder the innocent. But however much, morally and intellectually, we may welcome this reply on the part of the theist, the reply jettisons the religious approach to morality. For it means that murder is evil, and that we know this, independent of any divine decree. God isn’t the source of morality. Instead, we subject God to moral judgment: if God orders the murder of the innocent, He’s evil.

What makes murder wrong, according to religious morality, is only the fact that God currently forbids the act. If He commands murder, murder becomes good. In philosophy, this is called the Divine Command theory of ethics. This—and only this—is what the distinctively religious approach to morality means.

The true champions of religious morality understand this—and they offer the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis (22:1-18) to drive the point home.

In that story, God tells Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac to a mountaintop and sacrifice him. Does Abraham rebel at this command to murder the innocent, an innocent life so precious to him? Does he judge God to be evil for issuing it—and condemn God? No. He doesn’t argue. He obeys. As Abraham stands over Isaac, ready to plunge the knife into his son, God tells Abraham that he has passed the test.

The crucial point to grasp is that if God is the source of morality, then Abraham has passed the test. If God commands us to murder the innocent, then it becomes good to do so. To refrain from doing so, would be evil.

We can see here one important reason why faith is essential to religious morality. God gives Abraham no logical reason or argument for why he should sacrifice his son. And it would be impertinent for Abraham to demand this from God—to say to God: “Now wait a minute, this doesn’t make any sense to me. Please explain to me why I should murder my own son?”

For God to have to justify His actions, to explain to Abraham why His command to murder the innocent is in fact morally good—would mean that God is not the source of morality. God would have to offer reasons why his actions accord with the principles of morality, and Abraham would have to independently evaluate those reasons. Abraham would have to rely on his knowledge of moral principles to judge God’s commands. God’s commands, then, would not be the source of morality.

Thus, as a disciple of religious morality, Abraham must not demand reasons. He must believe and act on faith—that is, in defiance of his reason. His rational mind must scream out at him—“It’s monstrous to murder my own son!”—and yet he must nevertheless obediently perform the action.

It is far from an accident that Abraham has for centuries—in Judaism, in Christianity, and in Islam—been revered as the great exemplar of the man of faith, of the moral man, of the religious man. This is exactly what he is. He reveals the essence of what it means to accept the idea that God is the source of morality.

For all those who accept this approach, to quote Tennyson’s haunting words: “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.”

Observe how incredibly non-absolutist this approach to morality is. Theists like Prager decry moral relativism and subjectivism. Moral values, they correctly say, are not determined by personal or social opinion, that is, by whim. For example, if a person thinks it’s okay to have sex with children, his opinion doesn’t make the action right. And if a society disapproves of a woman working outside the home, that doesn’t make her action wrong. But what is the religious alternative to personal or social whim?

Supernatural whim.

In place of personal or social subjectivism, the religious approach substitutes supernatural subjectivism. An action is right not because of some individual’s or group’s opinion, say theists. It is right because of (an alleged) God’s opinion. Whatever God says, goes. If He says murder is evil, then it’s evil. If He changes his mind, and now says that murder is good, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac, then murder is good.

What could be more non-absolute than that? And of course, historically, religious sects have had their own incompatible lists of God’s commandments, lists which have themselves shifted over the centuries.

Nazism and Communism

Observe that this also means the claim, put forward by Prager and so many others, that the religious approach to morality is the opposite of the Nazi and Communist approaches is wrong. Nazism, Communism and similar ideologies are merely variants of the older, religious approach. “I was only following orders” is the moral defense offered by the Nazi killers at the Nuremburg trials and by Adolph Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem. “I was only following orders” is Abraham’s defense, too. Eichmann, under police examination, gave as proof of his devotion that he would have sent his own father to die, had he been ordered to do so. Abraham exhibits the same kind of devotion: he would have murdered his own son, had God not rescinded the order.

The religious, Nazi and Communist approaches all posit a higher power to whom we owe allegiance, call it God, the Fuhrer, the German Volk, or the Proletariat. All three claim that, intellectually, the central virtue is unquestioned allegiance to this higher power, which means: obedience. All three deride reason and logic and champion faith (though some, like Marxists with their dialectic, will dress this up as a new form of reasoning). In terms of action, all three demand self-sacrifice for the sake of a higher power. All three are fundamentally authoritarian.

Nazism, Communism and, more broadly, collectivism are, as Ayn Rand argued, secularizations of religion.3

Orini / Shutterstock

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they look similar—literally—when put into full, political practice. Observe the classrooms of students who are inculcated with dogma, whether it’s biblical sermons across the centuries, when the Bible was not translated into the vernacular; or the children today memorizing all the verses of the Koran in Arabic, a language they do not speak; or the Nazi rallies; or rows of Chinese youth made to memorize Mao’s little red book. Observe the omnipresent portraits of supernatural or secular saints, which people must hang in their homes and offices, from pictures of Jesus to the Virgin Mary to Marx, Lenin, Hitler and Mao. Observe the enormous churches, mosques and government palaces, designed to make the individual feel small. Observe the huge sculptures and busts, erected to never let the populace forget the higher authority to whom they owe faithful allegiance.

None of this is compatible with a proper approach to morality—or with American exceptionalism.

Religion versus religious people

This indictment of the distinctively religious approach to morality should not be read as an indictment of religious individuals. There are good people who are religious. But they are good despite the religious approach, not because of it. Authoritarianism, even in small doses, never produces positive results.

Indeed, there exists here a tragedy. Religious ethics undermines our understanding of and dedication to a proper morality. And it does this by means of something good within us: a desire to be moral and to live up to moral principles and standards.

There is no doubt that today in America some of us are attracted to religious teachings because they offer some valuable guidance. We sense that we should comport our lives by reference, not to our internal feelings, but to external fact. When we hear a religious teacher say that we should not murder, or that we should be honest and keep our promises, or that we should live with integrity, the advice makes sense and is welcomed because there are factual reasons to live this way. In today’s non-judgmental, morally agnostic age,4 religion is one of the few places we can find explicit, sustained discussion of good and evil.

But by telling us that we must accept such moral advice on faith, our desire to be moral is used against us. The result, in the field of morality, is to slowly incapacitate our rational judgment. How does this process of corruption work?

How religious morality undermines rational thought and moral idealism

Many religious sects offer in their teachings some reasonable moral advice about such things as murder, honesty and integrity. They count on the fact that we will recognize, at a common-sense level, that these moral principles are indeed reasonable, but that we will be unable to give anywhere near a philosophical account, justification or proof of the principles.

Theists then rush in, not to provide the missing arguments, but to tell us that moral principles by their very nature are incapable of rational defense or logical proof. Morality, we are told, rests on faith. Unless we believe that an alleged God exists and decrees murder to be wrong, we cannot know that murder is wrong. To be moral, we must not think, we must believe. This means that in the field of morality, our model should not be Darwin, who carefully gathered evidence and advanced arguments for his ideas, but Abraham.

So the religious approach presents us with some reasonable moral principles, which we implicitly accept on common-sense grounds, but which the approach explicitly instructs us to think of as resting on faith, things like: don’t murder, be honest, have integrity.

At the same time, the religious approach presents us with a bunch of moral rules that defy common sense and are incapable of rational justification. These rules are tossed in alongside the perfectly reasonable ones and claimed to have the same standing.

Religious teachers tell us, for instance, to love our enemy—or to give ten percent of what we earn to those who refuse to engage in the effort of earning anything—or to replace justice with mercy—or to have sex only if procreation is a possibility—or to not take pride in ourselves, our achievements, or our moral character since, thanks to Adam, we’re all born sinners.

Unlike the first set of rules about murder, honesty and integrity, none of these other moral rules make any sense. They are as unreasonable and unintelligible to us as God’s command to murder Isaac is to Abraham. They can only be accepted on faith. And, religious teachers quickly add, to reject these articles of faith is to reject every rule and principle that is grounded on faith; it is to reject that murder is evil, that honesty is good and that one should live with integrity. If we reject all of this, they declare, we become amoral monsters.

And some people do choose this option. They say, in effect, that the teachings of religion are too irrational to swallow, so to hell with religion, which means, in their crippled minds, to hell with morality and moral principles—I’m going to do whatever I feel like doing.

But what about those of us who still desire to be moral?

We want moral principles that prohibit murder and require honesty and integrity because we sense that these things make sense. But religious morality places these principles into one conceptual package with genuinely irrational rules like: don’t have sex without the possibility of procreation, and love your enemy. According to religion, these all rest on the same thing, faith, and therefore we must accept all of them or none of them.

So in the name of our desire to be moral, we close our eyes and swallow everything. To be sure, we may cheat on the more irrational of the rules. If someone deliberately injures our friend, for instance, we may demand justice, not mercy. Or, in the bedroom, we may choose to use contraception. But as a result of such cheating and to the extent we take our own moral views seriously, we will experience as a persistent feature of our lives one of the blackest of emotions: moral guilt. And we will be feeling guilty for doing what is in fact reasonable.

Now you might wonder, why don’t more followers of religious morality try to break apart the package? Why don’t we openly accept the principles of religious morality for which we see reasons, and openly reject the ones for which we don’t? Because, we’re taught, that would be immoral.

“Who are you to judge?”—religious teachers declare. The field of morality is not the province of reasons, evidence and arguments, it’s the province of faith. In morality, you don’t think or ask questions—like Abraham, you obey.

The number of intelligent people who believe, like Prager, that but for a supernatural stone tablet which happens to say “Don’t murder,” there would be no reason to refrain from killing the innocent, is shocking. But this is what religious morality does to a mind. By blending the rational and the faith-based into one conceptual package, religious morality makes every moral principle a matter of faith.

A further detrimental consequence is that without a rational understanding of moral principles, the principles cannot be rationally applied. “Don’t murder”—many religious moralities tells us. Properly understood and formulated, such an idea is capable of rational explanation and defense. But if no explanations or arguments are offered, if we are simply told that the principle rests on faith, then we can neither know what the principle means nor how to apply it properly.

Is, for instance, aborting a week-old human embryo murder? Is it the wrongful taking of innocent life? Or, when America dropped atomic bombs on Japan in World War II, incinerating innocent children, was that mass murder? The only way to answer such questions is by knowing the facts and reasons that lead to the conclusion that murder is wrong. It is these that will tell us under what conditions, and in what circumstances, killing is proper or improper.

The purpose here is not to debate the specifics of these examples. The point is deeper. As followers of religious morality, we cannot actually think about these examples—or any other moral issue. The out-of-context command “Don’t murder” is not a principle, which can be applied or misapplied. For example, Christian theologians have long “debated” when precisely a human embryo or fetus is injected by God with a supernatural soul. In some centuries aborting an embryo, though usually still considered wrong, is not murder; in other centuries, it is.5 As followers of religious morality, we don’t reason about the matter, gather facts, and carefully apply a principle to decide whether aborting an embryo is murder. We simply await further orders.

There must be a better way. And fortunately, there is.

A secular morality

Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

The staunchest modern opponent of the religious approach to morality—someone who understood the appeal of religion as a primitive form of philosophy, who knew that the moral emotions of exaltation, worship and reverence are real, but misconceived and misdirected by religion, and who worked to advance a conception of morality untainted in both content and structure by millennia of religious teachings—is Ayn Rand. She held that the task of philosophy is to formulate a rational, superior alternative to religion.

Consider briefly how her new approach to ethics strives to do this.

To begin with, people like Prager are correct that feelings are insufficient as a guide in life. We have all had the experience, usually beginning sometime in childhood, of following our emotions and ending up frustrated, dissatisfied, unhappy. Desperately wanting to hang out with the cool kids in school because we feel that this will make us confident and happy, doesn’t make it so. If we want to reach fulfillment and happiness, we need to learn to choose our goals and guide our actions by reference to an external, fixed point. But that external, fixed point is not some alleged supernatural being in whom we must have blind faith. It is reality.

A proper approach to morality begins by acknowledging that the facts of reality are absolute. The law of gravity is an absolute. The molecular composition of water is an absolute. The fact that we need water to live is an absolute. The nature of nature is non-negotiable. It is unalterable by any agency, and it sets the requirements of successful life and happiness.

There is, however, no commandment or duty to live and pursue our own happiness. Each of us as individuals must choose to embrace and cherish these—by choosing to embrace reality. To live, to succeed, to thrive and achieve the state of happiness that makes life worth living requires that we choose to enact the conditions necessary for these, conditions set by the nature of reality and our nature as living, human beings. “If he chooses to live,” Rand writes

a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. . . . Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional . . . “You must, if—” and the “if” stands for man’s choice: “—if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think—if you want to know what to do—if you want to know what goals to choose—if you want to know how to achieve them.6

Rand admired and often quoted Francis Bacon’s statement: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Notice Bacon’s use of the concept of “obedience.” It’s not Abraham’s blind obedience to the whims of a supernatural being. It’s the scientist’s profound obedience to the facts of reality, which he grasps by using his rational mind to the utmost.

To be moral means following reason

Think of mankind’s gradual rise from the cave to the moon. What made this rise possible? It was not accomplished by rain dances or prayers or attempts to slavishly obey the gods. It was not accomplished by faith. It was accomplished by those who devoted themselves to the study of nature: to carefully cataloging its properties, patiently learning its secrets, slowly discovering its laws, and eventually harnessing its powers. It was accomplished by the Aristotles, the Euclids, the Archimedeses, the Galileos, the Newtons, the Pasteurs, the Maxwells, and the Edisons.

The scientist’s devotion to nature, Rand holds, is the same devotion that all of us should have to reality and to our own lives and happiness within it. On this kind of approach, the principles of morality are as objective as, say, the principles of medicine.

The science of medicine is not subjective. If you had a cancerous tumor, and a doctor told you that he was going to give you whatever drugs he felt like giving you today or that he was going to take a vote among his neighbors to determine which drug you should take, you would run from this quack and find another doctor. Nor is the science of medicine supernatural. Disease is not caused by God’s anger with us, perhaps because we allow Jews to live among us.

Subjectivism—whether of the personal, social or supernatural variety—has no place in medicine. Medicine consists in carefully studying the causes and conditions of disease, like cancer, and then in developing and testing methods by which it can be combated. By investigating the nature and actions of cancerous cells, and what combinations of substances can impede their growth and even destroy them, researchers create whole classes of drugs.

The same basic structure holds true for morality. The purpose of morality, Rand argues, is to teach us how to live and achieve happiness. Happiness, the emotional expression and counterpart of the successful state of life, is not achieved by following stray opinions or pursuing random kicks. It is the effect of a complex cause. To achieve it, we must systematically investigate its cause. We must carefully examine the basic nature of reality, of human life, and of what is required from us to thrive in reality.

In the same way that medicine formulates causal principles by which we can combat disease and achieve physical health, so morality formulates causal principles by which, in mind and body, we can pursue happiness.

Because reason is how we understand and deal with reality, a proper approach to morality will be about teaching us how to follow reason on principle, without any concession to unexamined feelings or to faith. It will be about teaching us what it means to be purposeful, and what it means to hold, systematically and without compromise, our own happiness as our most sacred purpose. It will be about teaching us the virtues of character, the traits of soul, the mental attitudes and premises that we must cultivate to be at home in reality.

The aim of a proper morality is to teach the principles by means of which we can each become, in Rand’s words, a “worthy lover” of existence.7 The result will be happiness.

The subject matter of ethics, therefore, is the fundamental, life-shaping issues of human existence. Is independence possible in life, or is no man an island? Is honesty the best policy, or is it a trap for suckers? Is fame or power or money truly worth seeking? If so, how and under what conditions? Is it better to have loved and lost, or to never have loved at all? In life and in love, should we follow our head or our heart? What is the meaning of sex—and how should we pursue it? Is selflessness the key to virtue or does it undermine self-esteem? Is justice desirable, or does it leave one cold when not tempered by mercy? Should one morally judge others, or is the better policy “Judge not, lest ye be judged”? Is pride the worst of sins, or the crown of virtue? Is life meaningless—we’re all just specks of dust floating in a vast, impersonal cosmos—or is it the most precious of possessions? Should we live for the weekend, or is work the key to a meaningful life? Is a state of serenity possible in this world—and why does evil seem so powerful? Does a coward die a thousand deaths, and a courageous man of principle but once, or is life the art of compromise?

The great thinkers and artists of history—the Platos, the Aristotles, the Descartes, the Lockes, the Shakespeares, Michelangelos, the Beethovens and the Hugos—are considered great because they offer timeless insights on these and other questions of human existence. Rand too has profoundly new things to say about these issues: about the nature of reason, of thinking, of logical consistency and integration, of the self and of self-interest, of virtue, of honesty, of integrity, of independence, of money, of sex, of self-esteem, and of so much more.

But it would be worse than useless to try to give you the content of Rand’s (or any other thinker’s) ethics in a paragraph or two. Morality cannot give us a list of ten commandments and then say: “Okay, you’re ready to go out and achieve happiness”—anymore than medicine can give us a list of ten commands and then say: “Okay, you’re ready to heal the sick.”

Morality, like medicine, is a science. Which means that one must carefully and systematically study its principles, to see that they do indeed flow from the absolute nature of reality and the factual requirements of achieving success and happiness within it. Moral principles must be accepted because we understand firsthand that they are life-serving and happiness-promoting. And then they must be thoughtfully applied by each and all of us to the concrete, unique contours of our day-to-day existence—in the same way that a doctor should accept the principles of medicine because he understands firsthand why they are health-promoting, and then he, along with his patient, should carefully apply those principles to the concrete details of the patient’s illness.

A proper approach to morality demands constant learning about the nature of life and happiness, and about your own specific existence and goals.

“If I were to speak your kind of language,” Rand writes, “I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a ‘moral commandment’ is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.”8

Unlike in the religious approach, therefore, in a proper approach to ethics you do not check your mind at the door. On the contrary, you are passionately committed to, even worship, your rational mind because it is what enables you to chart your course through reality. And wider: you worship all of man’s life-giving traits. You worship logical thought—not blind obedience. You worship reason—not faith. You worship intelligence—not stupidity. You worship integrity—not compromise. You worship productive ability—not need.

Reclaiming moral idealism and the sacred

The moral emotions of worship and reverence, Rand argues, are real. But they have been misdirected. They don’t belong to some alleged supernatural being who demands our unquestioning obedience. They belong to man at his best. And they belong in the life of any individual who seriously attempts to achieve his own happiness, to achieve the best within his own soul and life.

Rand thought that the timeless appeal of her novel The Fountainhead comes from the fact that, properly understood, it is about man-worship.

Do not confuse “man-worship” with the many attempts, not to emancipate morality from religion and bring it into the realm of reason, but to substitute a secular meaning for the worst, the most profoundly irrational elements of religion. For instance, there are all the variants of modern collectivism (communist, fascist, Nazi, etc.), which preserve the religious-altruist ethics in full and merely substitute “society” for God as the beneficiary of man’s self-immolation. . . .

The man-worshipers, in my sense of the term, are those who see man’s highest potential and strive to actualize it. The man-haters are those who regard man as a helpless, depraved, contemptible creature—and struggle never to let him discover otherwise. . . .

More specifically, the essential division between these two camps is: those dedicated to the exaltation of man’s self-esteem and the sacredness of his happiness on earth—and those determined not to allow either to become possible.9

If the root of American exceptionalism is the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and if the root of the Declaration is the idea that, politically, the individual should no longer be made to serve king or pope or neighbor, but should be free to pursue his own happiness, then what America needs is not to return to the religious approach to morality.

What America needs is a morality that undergirds its political achievement, a morality that champions the individual’s moral right to live for himself, think for himself, and pursue his own happiness.

This—man-worship and a principled, sacred dedication to your own happiness—is what the Objectivist ethics offers.10

Learn more at ARI Campus by listening to Ayn Rand’s pathbreaking 1961 lecture “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World” and reading Leonard Peikoff’s essay “Religion Versus America.”

You can also join the discussion by sending in your questions and comments.

  1. See also Leonard Peikoff, “Religion Versus America,” in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, ed. Leonard Peikoff (New York: Meridian, 1989).
  2. This issue is raised, in slightly different form, by Plato in the Euthyphro.
  3. Ayn Rand, “The Soul of a Collectivist,” in Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition).
  4. See Ayn Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” and “The Cult of Moral Grayness,” in Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition).
  5. Here is a brief sampling.
  6. Ayn Rand, “Causality Versus Duty,” in Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984).
  7. Ayn Rand, “This Is John Galt Speaking,” in Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition).
  8. Rand, “This Is John Galt Speaking.”
  9. Ayn Rand, “Introduction,” The Fountainhead (New York: Signet, 1993 Centennial edition).
  10. For more on the nature of the Objectivist ethics, see Ayn Rand, “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, ed. Leonard Peikoff (New York: Meridian, 1989); Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition); Ayn Rand, “Causality Versus Duty,” in Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), and Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Plume, 1999).

Onkar Ghate

Onkar Ghate, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a senior fellow and chief content officer at the Ayn Rand Institute. A contributing author to many books on Rand’s ideas and philosophy, he is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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A Must-Read from Elan Journo

What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict defies conventional views on the issue and shows what’s at stake if you value freedom and progress.

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