Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Confession of a Former Objectivist, part one

I owe a debt that I do not often acknowledge openly. At least some of what I have become as a philosopher, as a citizen, and, for that matter, as a human being can be traced back to a two-year period during which I was devoted to the writings and the thought of Ayn Rand.

That's right, I was an Objectivist.

In fact, reading Ayn Rand's books - nearly all of them, if you can believe it - was the reason I first decided to study philosophy. It was not, however, the reason I continued to study philosophy.

Let me start at the beginning.

I was raised as a Christian in the Lutheran Church. By the time I was finishing middle school, my brothers had both linked up with a kind of charismatic-evangelical undercurrent that ran through the various protestant churches in the Toledo area. They went to bible studies, prayer meetings, and concerts by Christian pop and rock musicians. They spoke in tongues.

I followed the same path, trying to become as fervent in my belief as they seemed to be, though always with some reserve, some critical distance. I did manage to speak in tongues myself, though I doubted at the time that any human being (or any other being, for that matter) would have understood.

(Glossolalia is a curious experience - and also not something I often acknowledge publicly.)

Within a few years, though, I was in the midst of a full-blown crisis of faith, all mixed up in the confused blur of adolescence. Old certainties were breaking up, leaving only questions behind.

I still went to church because that is what my parents expected of me. I even taught Sunday School, though my motives were mixed. Partly, I was just trying to avoid going to Sunday School myself. I had a hard enough time with my peers at high school during the week without seeing so many of them again on Sunday.

Then, during my senior year in high school, I learned of an essay contest sponsored by the Ayn Rand Institute, focusing on her novel The Fountainhead. I had never heard of Rand, and I had certainly never heard of the Institute, but I decided to read the book and see what I could make of it.

I was captivated. Here was a book that offered certainty about the world and affirmation of my own worth. As a bonus, it even offered validation of my doubts about Christianity.

I submitted an essay to the contest, which yielded nothing, but then spent the summer after graduation reading every book by Rand I could get my hands on. I decided that when I got to college, I would study philosophy. More than that, I would be self-sufficient, self-assured, independent, whole.

(As it happened, I mostly just became an insufferable pain in the ass for a couple of years. I blush to think of the people I alienated, the actual and possible friendships I sacrificed on the altar of Rational Egoism. That part of the story is complicated, though, and beside the point here.)

I would go on, in my first year and a half in college, to organize an Objectivist club on campus. By the mid-point of my sophomore year, though, doubt had set in once again. By that summer, I no longer thought of myself as on Objectivist. I abandoned the Objectivist club, and started reading and thinking more broadly.

What had happened, I soon came to see, was that I had taken Ayn Rand at her word. She occasionaly warned her readers not simply to believe what she wrote but to think it through for themselves. Of course, she was assuming that anyone who was really thinking, really being rational, would come to the same conclusions she had come to.

She was wrong. I thought for myself, and discovered not only that her conclusions were ill founded but that trying to live as an Objectivist was a sure-fire way to become a fully miserable human being.

After a while, though, I also came to the realization that Objectivism had served a very important purpose: it was the dogma of my youth, which served as a bridge between the dogma of my childhood and something else. The experience of embracing and then rejecting Objectivism taught me something about belief and doubt, and got me into the habit of overturning my own way of thinking from time to time.

In other words, the trajectory of my experience with Objectivism helped to make me into a skeptic. More about that in part two.

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