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Ayn Rand and Secular Morality

Here’s a short and sweet article on Ayn Rand in Forbes online. (hat tip: Rick Gaber) I think the authors are right that the time is ripe for a truly secular morality — a morality that celebrates this life, however fleeting.

Phil Donahue once questioned Ayn Rand about her atheism. At the time, she was still grieving the death of her husband. She answered that if for one minute she could truly believe in an afterlife where she could see her husband again, she would kill herself immediately. Of course, she could not and did not.

No one knows what happens after death, even though many people claim to know. Religionists have wielded great power over men with promises of “everlasting life.”

Religion is showing its dark side in the world again and dragging everyone down. I attended a lecture by J. Anderson Thompson last week on the psychology of suicide bombers. Dr. Thompson reported that these men — (mostly men) — who strap bombs to their bodies and detonate them to murderous ends will go to great lengths to protect their genitals during the explosions. They do this so they can enjoy “virgins” in an afterlife.

This is insanity. Enough of worshiping death to overcome our fear of it. If there is anything we know at this point in human evolution, it’s that religious theocracies are a bad and deadly idea. You can practice whatever religion you want on your own time, but leave others to believe or not believe as they will.

I think people want to be fully rational. They have both feet in a rational world that they can see, hear, taste, touch…yet, they cling to belief in the unknown and unknowable.

Sam Harris writes of our fear of death in End of Faith:

We are terrified of our creaturely insignificance, and much of what we do with our lives is a rather transparent attempt to keep this fear at bay…We doubt the one thing that is not open to any doubt at all.

What one believes happens after death dictates much of what one believes about life, and this is why faith-based religion, in presuming to fill in the blanks in our knowledge of the hereafter, does such heavy lifting for those who fall under its power. A single proposition—you will not die—once believed, determines a response to life that would be otherwise unthinkable.

It is paradoxical that believing you will not die can lead to hell on Earth. I’m sure many people will read this sentence and think Christianity is exempt from this statement.

But these same people conveniently ignore the deaths of tens of thousands “heretics” murdered by men of the cloth. They ignore the grisly symbol of a dead man on a cross. They ignore the anti-Semitism inherent in their religion—(Zechariah, 14: 1-9: Behold, a day of the Lord is coming, when…I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered…). Indeed, many Christians look forward to the destruction of Israel as a sign of the Second Coming of Christ.

Thankfully, the Founding Fathers went out of their way to use the vague term “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence and to build a wall between church and state.

Despite the Religious Right’s claims that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” the first Bill of Rights is clear:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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I briefly met Ayaan Hirsi Ali last week at a book signing event hosted by The Secular Coalition for America and The Atheist Alliance. She is a tall, beautiful, intelligent woman. I was saddened to see her shadowed by bodyguards.

Because she speaks out against Islam and religious oppression, she has to live with death threats from radical Islamists — like the one who murdered her friend, Theo van Gogh. She warns it will get worse here for everyone if we don’t have a New Enlightenment soon.

“Islam is coming,” she said almost matter-of-factly, before disappearing into the crowd.

She hopes her speaking out against Islam will give more people the courage to do the same and to fight for a rebirth of reason before it is too late.

I blog because I don’t think it’s too late. But, I do think when writers (and cartoonists) of our age have to live with death threats for speaking their minds, time is of the essence.

[Below, two paintings I fell in love with at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.]

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Cattelya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds (1871), Martin Johnson Heade, , 1819-1904.

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Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth, c. 1890, Martin Johnson Heade.

Author’s note: The title of this article was changed.

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