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May 31, 2019

John Gray and the Myth of the Ayn Rand Cult

John Gray’s discussion of Objectivism in Seven Types of Atheism, which is egregiously and inexcusably bad, relies on portraying Ayn Rand as a cult leader. 

                                                                                                                                          Image Courtesy of the Ayn Rand Institute. 

John Gray’s latest book, Seven Types of Atheism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), is a survey of different types of atheistic philosophers and philosophies. The division of atheism into seven categories (secular humanism, the God-Haters, etc.) may have served Gray’s purpose in writing this book, but beyond this they have no substantial value. Gray identifies himself as an atheist (which he correctly identifies as a person without belief in God), and the prospect of a prominent atheist analyzing and criticizing other atheists promises to be interesting. But some of Gray’s major points—such as his repeated claim that atheists are stuck in an essentially Christian view of progress—are so vague as to be of little or no value.

It is not my intention in this article to criticize Gray’s general points; I will comment on them in my next essay. Here I will focus on Gray’s egregious discussion of Ayn Rand. This discussion is not only bad, it is inexcusably bad. Before proceeding, I should note that I knew John decades ago, when we both lectured at summer seminars for the Institute for Human Studies. We spent quite a bit of time together, and I later served as John’s informal guide when he visited Hollywood.

John was a friendly and thoughtful companion. His efforts to earn a PhD from Oxford were partly financed by IHS scholarships, and he was viewed as a bright light with the potential to bring intellectual respectability to libertarian theory in Britain. This did not pan out, however. Shortly after earning an advanced degree, he began publishing critiques of libertarianism. I had lost contact with John by then, so I never had a chance to discuss the reasons for his changes of position. (It is possible that John held the same hostile views previously but had disguised them during his years with IHS.) Nor did I track his subsequent intellectual developments, other than reading his books on J.S. Mill and Voltaire. Gray has become known as a defender of environmentalism and for his critique of global free trade.

John is a retired academic, having taught at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics. Now, I have been around long enough not to expect a sympathetic treatment of Rand from academics, and I am familiar enough with Internet gossip not to be surprised by what I read about Rand. Recently, for example, one poster said that Ayn Rand was so poverty stricken in later life that she had little choice but to depend on Social Security to live. No one bothered to question this statement, even though it seems implausible on its face, given the substantial royalties Rand earned from Atlas Shrugged and other books. 

John Gray’s main purpose is to portray Rand as the leader of a “cult.” It is true that Objectivism had certain cultish features, but it is also true that unlike most cults, there was a solid core of philosophy at its center. I discussed this problem with Nathaniel Branden during the early 1970s. He insisted that the cultish features were largely his responsibility, not Rand’s. He said that he was overly protective of Rand, and that he went overboard in attempting to shield her from public hostility.

But what about Rand’s philosophy? Gray has no desire to discuss this. He asserts that to examine or explain her philosophic views “would be tedious, since they are thoroughly silly.” He prefers instead to present various tidbits that support his thesis that Objectivism was a cult. A major problem here is that some of his examples are pure fiction. Consider this claim:

Rand’s cult aimed to govern every aspect of life. She was a dedicated smoker, and her followers were instructed that they had to smoke as well. Not only did Rand smoke, she used a cigarette-holder—so that when she addressed large audiences of the faithful, a thousand cigarette-holders would move in unison.

I began reading Rand during the 1960s, and I thought I had heard every urban legend about her. But not this one. Gray credits a “former Randian believer” as his only source. Before dismissing Gray’s account as pure garbage, I thought I would consult David Kelley, who knew Rand and attended many of her lectures. He called the story “fake history.” He never saw the cigarette-holder tribute described by Gray, and he flatly denied the claim that Rand insisted that her followers smoke.

Another one of Gray’s claims is similarly absurd. He asserts that “officers of the cult were empowered to pair Rand’s disciples only with others who also subscribed to the faith. The marriage ceremony included pledging devotion to Rand, then opening Atlas Shrugged at random to read aloud a passage from the sacred text.”

The only backup Gray gives for this dubious claim is Murray Rothbard’s acerbic 1972 article, “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult.” But Gray bungles and misrepresents even this unreliable source. Rothbard does not support Gray’s allegation about “officers of the cult” and Objectivist marriages. Instead, he notes only one instance of a marriage ceremony that resembled Gray’s generalization. Rothbard wrote:

The Biblical nature of Atlas for many Randians is illustrated by the wedding of a Randian couple that took place in New York. At the ceremony, the couple pledged their joint devotion and fealty to Ayn Rand, and then supplemented it by opening Atlas – perhaps at random – to read aloud a passage from the sacred text.

Rothbard’s single example may have actually happened, but Gray unjustifiably transforms it into a general practice. Either Gray deliberately distorted Rothbard’s account or his obvious hatred of Rand made it impossible to read accurately. Gray apparently doesn’t know that Rothbard, prior to this split from the Ayn Rand circle, praised Rand effusively. In a long letter to Rand (Oct. 3, 1957), Rothbard wrote:

When, in the past, I heard your disciples refer to you in grandiloquent terms—as one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, as giving them a “round universe”—I confess I was repelled: surely this was the outpouring of a mystic cult. But now, upon reading Atlas Shrugged, I find I was wrong. This was not wild exaggeration but the perception of truth. You are one of the great geniuses of the ages, and I am proud that we are friends. And Atlas Shrugged is not merely the greatest novel ever written, it is one of the very greatest books ever written, fiction or nonfiction. Indeed, it is one of the greatest achievements the human mind has ever produced.

Rothbard later turned against Rand, and when Rothbard turned on someone, he turned with a vengeance. By 1972, Rothbard had demoted Atlas Shrugged from “the greatest novel ever written” to a novel in which “wooden, posturing, and one-dimensional heroes and heroines were explicitly supposed to serve as role models for every Randian.” But Gray shows not the least bit of skepticism about accepting Rothbard’s hostile account as gospel. He might as well have skimmed the Internet for false stories about Rand, where they are legion. I discuss some of Rothbard’s allegations against Nathaniel Branden and the “Rand cult” here. One of Rothbard’s claims that I didn’t mention—it was so ugly that I let it pass—was that Branden may have murdered his wife, who suffered an epileptic seizure and drowned in their swimming pool.

I frankly expected better—much better—from John Gray, who poses as a serious scholar and historian. His distortion and curt dismissal of Rand demolish the credibility of the entire book, which is actually decent in some other respects (even though I disagree with some of his analyses of classical liberalism). But his false stories about Rand pale in comparison to some of his other remarks, when he lowers himself to discuss her ideas. It is as if he had never read Rand but only her critics and their outrageous criticisms.

Given Gray’s opinion that Rand’s philosophical arguments are “thoroughly silly,” we might wonder why he bothers to discuss Rand at all in Seven Types of Atheism. He gives the following reason: “For all its absurdities or because of them, Rand’s version of atheism was one of the most widely disseminated in the second half of the twentieth century.”

It is not clear what Gray means by Rand’s version of atheism. By “atheism,” what Rand meant and many atheists have meant, namely, the absence of belief in a god or gods. This is essentially how Gray uses the term as well. But Rand placed little emphasis on atheism per se. She rarely mentioned it, and she expressly denied that atheism is an adequate description of her metaphysical position. In a letter to the humanist Martin Larson, Rand wrote:

You call yourself an Atheist; I do not prefer that appellation, for I consider it negativist, and I prefer something which is positive. I do not call myself an “Atheist” as an identification of my metaphysical position; I call myself an “Objectivist.” But I do use the term “Atheist” in the appropriate context, such as, for instance, in answer to the queries of religionists or of those who spread verbal confusion by claiming that “a belief in natural laws is a belief in God,” etc.

Of course. Rand was an atheistic philosopher, but she did not emphasize atheism, as did some other philosophers covered in Gray’s book. I assume that in speaking of Rand’s version of atheism, Gray means that Objectivism is a philosophy without God. This is true but not very significant.

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