John Calvin vs. Ayn Rand
Or, The Theological Theatrics of John Robbins
by Jim Peron
Ultra-Calvinist author John Robbins has penned a long, often boring, sometimes unintentionally amusing, attack on the ethical positions of Ayn Rand (Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System). Robbins promises readers that he will “demonstrate the errors of Objectivism” and will “reply to Ayn Rand in the name of Jesus Christ.” He will also “point the reader to the only logically competent defense of truth and freedom, Christian philosophy.” All this he will do without exaggerating or mis-stating Rand’s views, and without resorting to ad hominem attacks. Robbins doesn’t keep any of these promises.
For instance he attacks Leonard Peikoff saying his “scholarship suffers at the hands of an ill-educated man.” And he says Peikoff’s book The Ominous Parallels is “a poorly written, sophomoric attempt.” He also comes very close to engaging in good old fashioned Calvinist anti-Semitism. Peikoff, he says, “continues the Pharisees’ war against the Messiah.” He uses the term Messiah and Pharisees to specifically draw attention to the fact that Rand and Peikoff are of Jewish decent. He says that Rand “carried on her own war against the Messiah.” In fact he claims that Rand’s alleged hatred of the Messiah is her reason for writing her novels. “Like many other Jews , Rand could not accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, so she sought the Messiah elsewhere. Unlike many secular and religious Jews of the twentieth century, who thought the State of Israel was messiah, Rand found her messiah in her imagination, and expressed it in her fiction. Her messiah was not living; she imagined him; John Galt.”
Silence Is Golden
Robbins believes that the fact that Rand didn’t write a rebuttal to his first book attacking her somehow proves he was right. He says that Rand, “to my knowledge ... never made any attempt to respond to the criticisms of her philosophy made in that book. Nor, I might add, have any of her disciples, at least not explicitly. Imitating Rand’s rodomontade, her disciples continue to write as if there were no serious problems in her philosophy — and that anyone who dares to suggest there might be a problem is a whim-worshipping mystic. Rand’s silence — and her disciple’s silence — should cause anyone interested in these matters to ask why.” My immediate response is: Does the elephant notice the flea?
Robbins' argument is typical of extremists. Followers of Lyndon LaRouche claim Queen Elizabeth runs the world trade in illicit drugs. The Queen has not responded and this is taken as proof that the original claim must be true. It is a logical fallacy to assume that because you’ve been ignored that your arguments are unanswerable. A more likely reason is that people tend to ignore the ridiculous. It is likely that Rand never heard of Robbins or his book.
Robbins claims that when it comes to Objectivism one has a “package deal that must be accepted entire or rejected entire.” He is loading the dice. If a person disagrees with Rand on anything they are required to reject everything she has to say on everything else. This is, of course, absurd.
If Rand claimed to be a religious prophet revealing the word of God, then Robbins could claim it is an all or nothing deal. For instance, Robbins says the Bible is the “word of God” completely and accurately. He also says that God is logical. Thus if the Bible has even one contradiction in it then it would have to be rejected. It can not be the word of a logical God and contradict itself. But a philosophy that claims to be man-made needn’t be accepted as one infallible whole. Points can be debated, argued, revised, etc.
Robbins claims that Objectivism is a form of humanism. Now, any philosophy that makes humans the centerpiece of its system is humanistic. But Robbins assumes this nomenclature to be the greatest insult possible. To him humanism is a godless plot to destroy decency and mankind. The main problem with humanism, says Robbins, is that it teaches “the autonomy of reason.”
All Robbins Knows Is What God Told Him
Robbins opposes reason as a tool for gaining knowledge. The only method for gaining knowledge is through revelation from God. “Revelation is our only source of truth and knowledge. Neither science, nor history, nor archeology, nor philosophy can furnish us with truth,” he says. And this means revelation only given to a tiny band of true believers like himself. Robbins goes so far with his absurd logic as to claim that he has no reason to know that Clinton is President. That is is just an opinion. But he can “prove that Jesus Christ rose from the dead” because “that information is revealed to me, not by the daily newspaper or the evening news, but by the infallible Word of God.”
This just shows how ridiculous Robbins is when it comes to seeking truth. According to him all knowledge is impossible unless contained in the Bible. By claiming that everything is false except his interpretation of the Bible, Robbins puts himself in an infallible position. He cannot be argued out of his position because there is no way of proving him wrong. You can not even use the Bible to prove him wrong since it is only his interpretation of the Bible that is the correct one. When someone has a theory, which they say cannot be proven wrong, that means they have abandoned all attempts at the rational. Now, even if Rand had been aware of Robbins' previous book it would have been impossible to reply according to the new rules of logic which he has invented.
Robbins says that his readers should reject reason as a tool of gaining knowledge because various philosophers have different views on what reason is. He says, “If reason is the source of knowledge, it must of necessity speak with one voice.” The fact that various religious beliefs differ on the nature of faith and revelation is ignored. If reason is invalid because not everyone agrees on its nature then revelation stands equally convicted. While talking about revelation as the only means of learning what is truth, he pretends that “revelation speaks with one voice.” It doesn’t. Why should we accept the revelation of Jesus Christ as interpreted by John Calvin? Why not accept the revelations of Mary Baker Eddy or Joseph Smith? And why should we worry only about the alleged revelation of Jesus Christ. What’s wrong with Moses or Mohammed?
And the Truth Is What Robbins Says It Is
In each case, alternative revelations could use exactly the same arguments that Robbins uses to support their own claims. Since Robbins has excluded every means available to the human mind to test his claims, he in essence is asking us to simply take his word for it. The Buddhist, the Mormon, the Spiritualist, or New Ager can do exactly the same thing. Anyone seeking to find “truth” would be left with untestable, competing claims.
This, however doesn’t concern Robbins, since as a Calvinist he denies human beings free will anyway. In fact he says that, “one of the principal doctrines of the Christian faith is the sovereign election of God; that is, God chooses some people to be saved and predestines others to be damned.” In another spot he says, “If God determines a man to believe the truth, then that man does not believe falsehood.” But if this were true why did Robbins’ God even bother with a Bible? Since man’s religious opinions are put into his mind by an all-powerful being without his consent there is no need for a Bible. In fact, there is no need for Robbins’ book either. In the world of Calvinism we are all spiritual puppets manipulated by an authoritarian supreme being who decides for us whether we believe in Jesus Christ or not.
Calvinist don't live like they really believe in their own absurd Stalinist-like God. They continue to make decisions while denying their own ability to do so. They continue to write books to prove something that can’t be proven but only bestowed on the mind by God. The fact that Robbins wrote his book indicates that he isn’t entirely consistent in his belief that man is impotent to think for himself and that all thought comes from God. In fact he even says that “if a demonstration of the logical incoherence of Objectivism is not sufficient to make Objectivists abandon their system, then they are the very mystics they condemn.” In fact, we can’t assume anything about anyone because of what they believe — not if God determines who will and who won’t believe. One of the major proofs for Rand’s metaphysics and epistemology is that her opponents have to live as if she were correct. Just as anti-rationalists try and use rational arguments to prove their point, Robbins writes essays as if man has the ability to think freely. Those who say that objective reality doesn’t exist and that even if it did, it wouldn’t be understandable, constantly act as if existence does exist and is knowable. Robbins, like Rand’s other philosophical opponents, continue to live as if she were right and their own beliefs were nonsense.
Robbins' Not-So-Original Sins
One technique which Robbins uses is make a charge against someone and then simply claim, without supporting evidence, that if the person attacked disagrees with him that disagreement proves his point. He does the same thing when discussing the revolting doctrine of total depravity: which says that all humans are utterly and completely depraved and incapable of choosing anything good. In a response to an article by Nathaniel Branden on the psychological effects of belief in original sin, Robbins not only defends original sin but manages to make this doctrine even more revolting. He says:
“...the doctrine of total depravity does not teach that men feel guilty. It teaches the opposite: They are so depraved, they tend to think they are fine, upstanding, and good. They are confident of their abilities and brimming with self-esteem, never realizing that they are poor, miserable, nasty, and brutish. They imagine that they understand themselves and the world, when they are ignorant of both. The philosophers and philodoxers of the Enlightenment focused their energies on denying total depravity, thereby confirming it.”
Once again he creates a phony Catch-22 for his opponents. He claims that to disagree with him proves he is right, while agreeing with him also proves he is right This is the essence of his entire anti-Rand argument: I am right, if you disagree with me that proves I am right and I am not required to present evidence since all evidence is invalid.
Robbins argues that Objectivism will eventually lead to murder because Rand was an atheist. And, according to Robbins’ logic, since atheism “is the ideological underpinning of the French Revolution, Marxism and Objectivism ... there is reason to fear that the practical results of the last will be similar to those of the former, should an Objectivist government ever come to power.”
There are two obvious errors here. Contrary to the unsophisticated views of rabid fundamentalists, atheism is not a belief system — it is the absence of one specific belief; i.e. the belief in a god. The absence of a belief cannot serve as the “ideological underpinning” of any movement. The lack of a belief is not likely to be the rallying cry for anything. The a-theist is like the a-vampirist or the a-elfist. You are not going to have people flock to a cause based on the disbelief in tooth fairies. I dare say that the revolutionaries in France and the followers of Marx also discounted a belief in Santa Claus; a view I assume they share with Mr. Robbins. But the fact that Stalin and John Robbins both deny the existence of Santa Claus doesn’t mean we can pin the atrocities of Stalin on Robbins.
But this attack is typical of the underhanded and flagrantly dishonest arguments which Robbins uses throughout his book. He attempts to smear Rand by claiming that her belief system is similar to that of communism. This is done by quoting Rand on something and then quoting a communist saying something similar. Such comparisons might be valid if they regarded beliefs which distinguish communists from the rest of the world: for instance, if he could quote Rand saying she supported the dictatorship of the proletariat, the abolition of private property and money, and the principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” (But he can't, because she didn't support any of these ideas.) However Robbins only compares issues which are not uniquely Marxist.
For instance Rand speaks of the necessity of sensory experiences to determine reality. Marx said that sense experience “must be the basis of all science.” Robbins conclusion: Rand “could not admit that the greatest totalitarians the world has ever known were empiricists whose epistemology and metaphysics were her own. By abusing them as mystics, Rand avoided acknowledging their common ideas. Rand was educated in the Soviet Union. She physically escaped from the Communists in 1924. She never escaped from the Communists intellectually.” Such logic is simply dishonest. It assumes that Rand obtained her ideas regarding sensory perception from the Communists, that this idea originated with the Communists and doesn’t predate them, and finally, that the validity of the senses is what leads to totalitarianism. Each one of these implied arguments is equally ridiculous.
At another point Robbins quotes Friedrich Engels on the contradictory nature of a Divine Being. He then quotes Nathaniel Branden as making a similar point. His conclusion: “Actually, of course, it was Branden who was echoing Engels.” The implication is that Objectivist arguments are directly cribbed from the works of Communists. Of course, there are other logical reasons why they both said something similar. Elsewhere Robbins says, “Rather than being diametrically opposed, Objectivism and Communism share common premises, and attack a common foe, Christianity.” In an appendix to the book he crows, “I have shown by dozen of quotations in the body of this book, Marxism and Objectivism are quite similar.” In fact he doesn’t present one similarity regarding a defining characteristic of Marxism which is shared by Objectivism.
Is Robbins Simply a Kook?
Not only is Rand allegedly a Marxist, but according to Robbins, she is also a Kantian!! His proof: “Rand adopted one of Kant’s ethical ideas as her own: Man is an end in himself.” The irrationality of Robbins seems to know no bounds. This is like saying that Robbins adopted his views from the Koran—and then offering as proof that Mohammed said God is almighty and Robbins says God is almighty. Hitler liked dogs, but that doesn’t mean that if Robbins is a dog lover that he is actually a Nazi.
One odd aspect of Robbins’ book is that while he unfairly tries to tarnish Rand’s character by claiming that she is a particular type of Marxist or Kantian, he uses his bizarre form of logic to deny one label she happily attached to herself: atheist. In fact he tries to prove that atheism does not and can not exist. And the proof he offers is quite strange. He says that “philosophy is always the handmaid of theology —faith, if you wish — simply because unproved and indemonstrable axioms must be accepted for any philosophical system to begin.” What is dishonest here is that he uses two very different terms and makes them equivalents. We could say that the axiom “existence exists” is a form of faith in that anyone holding it believes it without being able to prove it. (Though I think there are certainly good reasons for holding this axiom. After all if existence didn’t exist what is all this around us?) But the term “faith” doesn’t mean a religious belief. Here it simply means an unproven belief. On the other hand theology means the study of God. To equate faith with theology in the way that Robbins does is simply dishonest. It is a word game which twists meanings so that he can prove a point. Robbins takes the odd position that one can only be an atheist in terms of the Christian concept of God. He says everyone believes in a god.
“Some readers may find it peculiar to include a chapter on Objectivist theology, since Rand was an atheist. The peculiarity disappears when one realizes that the concept “ atheism” is applicable in our culture to only one God, the God of the Bible. A person who disbelieves in this God may quite correctly be labeled an atheist. Atheism, however, in the sense of disbelieving in any and all gods is a logical impossibility. Every philosopher believes in some sort of supreme being and Rand was no exception. ...Some philosophers are monotheistic and some polytheistic. None is atheistic. They can be anti-theistic, that is, opposed to the God of the Bible; the history of philosophy is largely the history of such anti-theism.”
Robbins once again pulls his old bait-and-switch technique. He first talks about belief in a God, he then uses the term “ some sort of supreme being” as the equivalent for God. And since everyone believes in some sort of supreme being then everyone believes in God. But a supreme being is not necessarily a Supreme Being. If you take the view that Rand took, that the highest evolved being in nature is man you can say that man is the supreme being. This doesn’t mean you are claiming man is a God. If mankind vanished it would be proper to say that the apes are the supreme being but that doesn’t mean one is bestowing Godhood on monkeys. Even if humans vanished monkeys wouldn’t suddenly attain manhood, let alone divinity.
Robbins also makes the false claim that “the history of philosophy is largely the history of such anti-theism.” Certainly in western philosophy, which is what Robbins is referring to, the dominant belief about God is that one exists. But just as Robbins has defined Christianity to mean what he and a few other extremists believe he has also redefined “theist” in the same manner. If you aren’t an extreme Calvinist then you aren’t a Christian but an anti-theist. This is one reason he can claim, as he does, that the Pope, Mother Theresa, Billy Graham and Robert Schuller are not Christians.
Robbins says that Objectivism would lead to a dictatorial society and that Rand hated mankind, and wanted to destroy humanity. Rand, Robbins says, was a humanist and that “humanism is inherently murderous”. Where does he find evidence for this claim? He finds it in Rand’s short novel Anthem. Now the logic isn’t exactly linear so follow closely. The two main characters in Anthem abandon the numbers given to humans at birth by the authoritarian government and take names for themselves; Prometheus and Gaia. Prometheus was used by Rand because the mythical Prometheus took the fire from the gods and gave it to man. Gaia was used because she was the mother of all things. Robbins has a different twist on the symbolism. To him Prometheus “hates all gods” while Gaia “is the mother of gods.” According to Robbins: “Inadvertently Rand revealed the inevitable consequence of her humanism: the murder of man. By her symbols, she unwittingly instructed us that the new world that Prometheus had begun is as totalitarian as the world from which he 'escaped.' Rand’s heroes are supermen, ubermenschen, and their sovereignty results not in a free society but in a totalitarian society.”
If you didn’t follow the logic don’t feel too bad: this type of belief must only seem sensible if obtained by revelation.
There Are No Human Rights, Robbins Says
According to Robbins the concept of “human rights” is a lie. Rights don’t exist. Read what Robbins has to say:
“The distinction between right and wrong depends entirely upon the commands of God. There is no natural law th at makes some actions right and others wrong....”
“This may be seen very clearly in God’s command to Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Only the command of God made eating the fruit sin. It may also be seen in God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. God’s command alone made the sacrifice right, and Abraham hastened to obey. Strange as it may sound to modern ears used to hearing so much about the right to life, or the right to decent housing, or the right to choose, the Bible says that natural rights and wrongs do not exist: Only God’s command makes some things right and other things wrong.”
“...What makes murder wrong is not some presumed or pre-existing right to life, but the divine command itself.”
This isn’t too reassuring even assuming that “divine revelation” allegedly gives knowledge to Christians. First, Christians are human too. They can too easily interpret their own prejudices and biases as revelation and often do. And it doesn’t do much good to point to Scripture for comfort since Scripture too must be interpreted. Fellow Calvinist Rev. Bahnsen wants homosexuals put to death and he uses the Bible for his justification. Living in South Africa, I am aware that hundreds of innocent people are murdered every year because local tribes believe the Biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Robbins himself points out that when God commanded Abraham to kill his son, then murder becomes right. But how is anyone to know when God has spoken to someone else? The revelation which Robbins thinks solves all problems leads to the same abyss which he says is the result of reason. Mankind lived through ages when Biblical morality was enforced, where men, driven by God’s revelation piled up the bodies of those executed for heresy and perceived immoralities. A Stalinist-like God will simply create little Stalins everywhere. When a man tells you about God you, in fact, learn nothing about some diety. But God is like a giant canvass where man paints an image of himself writ large. The theology of John Robbins tells you nothing about God and everything about Robbins.
There is no hope for humanity in the Calvinist theocracy of John Robbins. When he denounces the “totalitarianism” of Rand, I pause to wonder. Perhaps he wasn’t looking at Rand at all, perhaps it was his own face in the mirror.
Note: Mr. Robbins argued that neither Rand nor any of Objectivist philosopher responded to his original attack on her. He implied that the reason for this was an inability to do so. This was done without any evidence that Rand ever saw his original book. And even if she had it would prove nothing. But it should be noted that Mr. Robbins did read this review of his book and his response was a short one indeed. He merely said that the he didn't think the book described in the review resembled the one he wrote. Surely what is good for the goose is good for the gander and his refusal to write a substantial reply to this essay must raise the same questions he asks about Rand's lack of a reply. The difference is we know he read this review we have zero evidence that Rand ever read his book. I should note that I do not think a lack of response to this review proves my case. That must stand on it's own. But Mr. Robbins seems to place some stock in such theories. By my standards this proves nothing. By his standards he seems to think it does.
Jim Peron is a South African journalist who was interviewed by Alberto Mingardi in a recent issue of The Laissez Faire City Times. He has recently finished a book entitled Two Masters: the Conflict Between Christianity and Capitalism.
from The Laissez Faire City Times, Vol 4, No 14, April 3, 2000