Ayn Rand has been in the news lately since Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan is on record as saying that his thoughts on government have been influenced by her.
I read Atlas Shrugged when I was in my late twenties and can honestly say I count it among the handful of books that truly shaped the way I live my life. Before reading Atlas Shrugged, I mostly described myself as an agnostic. People seemed more accepting of this than of outright atheism. Agnosticism seems to leave some wiggle room, saying, "I don't know if I'm right, and I can't say if you're wrong." Rand's forceful arguments against religion really knocked me off that fence into full-fledged public atheism. If it made other people like me less, so be it. What was important was that I was honest with myself and with others, which in the end made me happier than when I hid part of myself.
The fact I read Rand and came out a confident atheist is why I find it bizarre that so many of her biggest fans are right-wing Republicans. Yeah, she hated collectivism, and sure she was pro-capitalism, but most of all she was pro-reason. For her faith-based thinking was weak-minded failure. She was also strongly in favor of abortion rights, refusing to see how an unthinking mass of cells could have rights that trumped the rights of an adult woman. If she were still alive today, no Republican who dreamed of getting votes would ever dare be photographed shaking hands with her in public. But, it's okay to have her on a bookshelf, since then you can treat Atlas Shrugged like a second Bible, picking and choosing the parts you wish to live by, ignoring the rest.
Of course, I pick and choose from her writings as well. I love her defense of reason, and whole-heartedly agree that the individual's highest virtue is to pursue his own happiness. Some people denounce this as selfishness, but I've never found the conflict. I don't see how my happiness or success harms anyone else.
I also think that the brand of capitalism she presents in Atlas Shrugged is a virtuous one far removed from what's practiced today. And while a lot of people feel that she celebrated wealth, they ignore that many of her central characters pass up wealth to pursue their dreams. You don't have to read between the lines to see that she thought that the pursuit of wealth was not the same goal as the pursuit of happiness, and many of her villains are those whose lives are driven purely by material things.
Where I jump ship with Rand is, ultimately, her blind faith in reason. The worst parts of Atlas Shrugged are the romances, which unfold under the veneer of logic. When the heroine dumps one boyfriend for a different man, everyone involved agrees it's the rational, sensible thing to do, and there are no hurt feelings. Her happiness is a rational happiness, but real life happiness is often completely independent of logic. I may be an atheist, but I'm also a realist, and humans have evolved to operate more on faith and emotion than reason. Reason is often called in in the aftermath of a decision made on instinct in order to explain or justify it, but I believe it isn't a driving force behind most human activities.
Nor should it be. Reason is an intellectual tool that provides useful insights into the world and can help guide us in decisions. But, we are, deep in our DNA, mere animals, and plenty of good can come from following our animal instincts. For instance, right now, while writing this, I've started feeling hungry. So I'm going to eat a sandwich. And I'll be happy about it, even though there are people in the world who don't have sandwiches. Does that make me selfish?