Public Square & Theology 101

Ayn Rand and Christianity: An Interview with Mark David Henderson

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Mark David Henderson is the author of Soul of Atlas: Ayn Rand, Christianity, and a Quest for Common Ground, a review of which can be found here. Having grown up with a Christian father and atheist stepfather who adhered to Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, Henderson is passionate about reconciling the differences and concentrating on the unity between these two worldviews.

He will discuss his book this Saturday at the International Students for Liberty Conference this weekend in Washington, DC as part of an IFWE-sponsored panel that explores the similarities and differences between Ayn Rand’s philosophy and Christianity.

When did you first notice you were passionate to find a common ground between Ayn Rand’s philosophy and Christianity?

These two worldviews were thrown into my life by the two men who shaped me from an early age. From age eleven, I lived in the home of my stepfather, John, an atheist and devout follower of Ayn Rand. But I split time with my biological father, who became a Christian later in life.

These two men used to be best friends before the divorce, but they became estranged afterward. I suppose I lived out these two worldviews in parallel, but there were a lot of conflicts. In some way, finding common ground between these two disparate belief systems was vital for me to live a happy life.

What do you think are the top three differences between an Objectivist and a Christian worldview?

Finding differences has never been the problem. The differences are huge and loom over every conversation between these two.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is devoid of any supernatural reference. So the first difference is no God vs. God. The second flows from that. That is, Christians believe that God is the highest occupation of an individual’s mind, will, and emotions. Ayn Rand argues that the individual—one’s self—is his highest occupation.

If we’re just talking about three, I’d say that Ayn Rand elevates reason as the only valid means of knowledge for humans, whereas Christians throughout the ages have recognized God’s own revelation as a means of knowledge as well.

What do you think Christianity has in common with Ayn Rand?

While the foundations are fundamentally different, many of Ayn Rand’s ethical conclusions are consistent with Christian ethics. To value work and the exercise of human creativity and innovation is a virtue for the Christian and the follower of Ayn Rand. Individual liberty and personal responsibility flow from humans by nature (or, in the case of the Christian, by design) and are to be valued.

When we aggregate these areas of common ground, the question that follows is, “What kind of an environment is necessary for these things to flourish?” Christians agree with Ayn Rand that “freedom” is necessary. What kind of political system, role of government, and economic system allows these values to thrive?

It’s worth stopping to say that my two fathers don’t represent all flavors of Christianity at all times or all of Ayn Rand’s statements. Just as Objectivists have had differing political commitments over time (even in the US), so have Christians. But my two fathers have agreed on the role of government and the benefits of capitalism to preserve the “unalienable rights” that each of them values so strongly.

To paraphrase a Shakespearian analogy, each of our lives is a play. The Objectivist casts himself as the lead and all of his relationships are supporting actors that further his performance. Christians understand Jesus to be the lead and the performance succeeds when he takes center-stage.

In what other ways do you see economic ideas relating to your Christian beliefs?

I’m sure that my understanding of Objectivism is informed by my Christianity and vice versa. So I don’t presume to speak for everyone holding one or the other. My understanding of God and his creation have led me to embrace economic principles that allow for individual freedom, personal responsibility, rewards for achievement, the preservation of personal property, and incentives which promote creativity and innovation.

Like each of the chapters in The Soul of Atlas, the chapter in entitled “Capitalism” recreates the conversation that played out in my life on a variety of topics. John spoke to me from the Randian perspective and Dad spoke from the Christian viewpoint. Both of them concluded, as I have, that capitalism supports their values better than the collectivist alternatives. But they get there from a different logical progression.

John sees laissez-faire capitalism most closely aligned with the interests of the individual, promoting achievement and individual responsibility. Dad agrees and further states that “since free people will inevitably be selfish, we need a system that accommodates that. Socialism depends on humans acting voluntarily to benefit the group to their own detriment, which is one reason it’s doomed to fail unless it’s forced.”

Do you see your work as a speaker and author as “redemptive” or as part of God’s bigger plan? If so, how?

I really appreciate how IFWE incorporates the biblical narrative into its mission and message: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. I believe that God, in his beauty and symmetry, has arranged circumstances in my life that enable me to participate in that narrative.

I have enjoyed exploring the gospel in the context of what is going on in the world. The Soul of Atlas, and my other writing and speaking engagements, plus my relationships outside the Christian community have given rise to some “Mars Hill” moments where I have spoken to audiences that are skeptical and sometimes hostile. Finding common ground opens us up to a conversation. And conversations lead to understanding and working together. It’s in working alongside people that I am able to share my life, the gospel, and my devotion to Jesus.

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share with IFWE blog readers?

I think there is some reluctance, on the part of both Christians and atheists, to engage with each other. The challenges are different for atheists than they are for Christians, but I can understand both perspectives. If I could say one thing, I would encourage both groups to engage with one another. The Soul of Atlas is a good start at finding common ground in disparate worldviews. But the real work can’t begin until we engage in meaningful conversation. I’m all about that. Talk to me more. I want to get the ball rolling.

Are Objectivism and Christianity compatible philosophies? Leave your comments here.

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  • Dan Burke

    I enjoyed the interview and I would like to read the book. I am a Christian that discovered Austrian economics from non-christian sources. It always seemed to me that the methodology of the Austrian school comports very closely to what the Bible teaches about the nature of man. It seems that lots of my Christian friends associate free-markets with Rand’s religious objectivism. I see this association as forming an unfortunate prejudice toward free markets and individualism. This is why I don’t cite Rand to my friends, though I value her clear concise views of liberty, (Textbook of Americanism)

    • Davidseven

      So how does one uhpold reason and oppose all religious assumptions without being “religious”? Does Burke think that all pro-reason, anti-religious views are inherently “religious”? What then does he mean by “religion”? Does it entail faith or not? Does it assume the existence of a supernatural realm or not? Rand explicitly and in detail rejects both.

  • Neville Lamberti

    The Bible says, give because it will bring great joy and fulfilment for the giver. Ayn Rand says, do what is pleasing for oneself. These both seem rather consistent with eachother.

  • warrior

    Mark David Henderson, For a guy with two very biblical names – you seem so torn. Please contact Lee Strobel. Maybe ya’ll can go to lunch and talk about the Case for Christ. Change your life and your step-father’s life and eternity.

  • Davidseven

    Unless the one of the two philosophies opposed is nihilist through and through, it’s a truism that common ground can be found on carefully delimited issues. Do both Objectivists and Christians regard the murders at Charlie Hebdo as evil, for example? Sure. And doubtless there are many political issues on which Christians and Objectivists or left-wing atheists and Objectivists could make common cause. And have. This isn’t a new insight or hard-to-grasp fact. But a thoroughly objective approach to knowledge and ethics is fundamentally opposed to any subjectivist or mystical approach, and Objectivists have been properly wary of implying any kind of acquiescence in an opposite approach that they regard as destructive. Perhaps that acquiescence is implied less often by “engagement” than some Objectivists think, but it’s a legitimate concern.

    The author’s proposed rapproachment, glossing over these concerns at least in the interview, obviously comes down squarely on the side of endorsement Christian mysticism and rejecting and objective approach to knowledge and values. So his engagement and “understanding” of a rational, non-mystical approach to ideas goes only so far. Not far enough.

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