From Ayn Rand to Penn Jillette, libertarian ideas and atheism are often paired. Penn Jillette claims that his atheism and his libertarianism both stem from his realization that no one really has all the answers to the tough questions.  Ayn Rand denounced all forms of “mysticism,” which she defined as basically anything a person experiences that cannot be objectively proven including “instinct,” “intuition,” and “perceptions of some other reality.” Just the other day, an anarchist friend shared an article about a girl who was mistreated for being an atheist, saying “Religion is a plague that needs to be eradicated…”

This is a common mistake that is made among all types of people. Whenever they see something that is taken too far or distorted in such a way to cause harm, they want to call for that thing to be eliminated. However, that logic is like eliminating all dessert food because it can be used to create obesity. The dessert food is only one vehicle leading to obesity. Without it, obesity will still exist.

Likewise, the root of the problem shown in the article above is not religion itself. I have seen both sides of religion up close and personal. I know that believing and obeying blindly out of fear can convince people to do bad things. I know that people with hate in their hearts can use religion as a powerful vehicle to do horrible things and convince those blind followers to help. However, even without religion, those people could still find followers who would accept their authority. Like dessert, religion can be used for harm, but it is not right to place the blame for that harm on all of religion.

It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of many of the forms religion takes. I have written before about how questioning all beliefs is an important aspect of liberty. It is true that many forms of religious experience advocate blind obedience and sometimes even hate. Religion in that form is very dangerous. However, it is important to remember that is not the way everyone approaches religion.

Some of the most wonderful and kind people I know are religious. One example is my former roommate, Maria, who is one of the most devout people I have ever met. She is also one of the most enlightened and wonderful people I have ever met…one of those rare people who has really thought out and considered her beliefs rather than going with what she was taught by authority. She and I will probably never agree on religion, but I have the utmost respect for her religious practice. In the same vein, the group of atheists I previously mentioned are also wonderful people who do great things for liberty.

Only those closest to me know that even I have a spiritual bent. I take bits and pieces from various religions I have learned along the way, but mostly I connect with a greater power when I am staring at the stars, on the side of a mountain, or watching the ocean waves. For me it is within myself and although it seems different, I don’t think it is that much different from Maria’s experience. I do perceive a reality beyond what I can objectively prove. If that makes me a mystic, then so be it, but neither my spirituality nor Maria’s religion are a threat to liberty or a plague to be eradicated.

There are some questions in the world that just can’t be objectively answered. Just like dessert, exploring the unknown and our spirituality as humans may be enjoyed in a healthy way. The plagues to be eradicated are blind obedience and hate within people which cause harm whether manifested through religion or otherwise.


  • As a mystic of the Western, occult (hidden) traditions, a little “L” libertarian and Anarchist, I find such oppression by the ignorant and agnostic troubling (gnosis is the Greek word for experiential knowledge, hence “ignorant” means no experiential knowledge and agnostic means a lack of experiential knowledge).

    Whenever anyone gives an opinion based on ignorance, it should be discarded immediately.

    The Boot-Strap Expat

    • Noah

      Great piece. Wish I could say the same about some comments.

      “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” This attempt argument from etymology is invalid. Not even PKD could save this.

      Agnostic does not mean “lack of experiential knowledge.” It might more closely be translated to “not believing.” Please consider the meaning of the prefix “a-” (not) and the root in “gnosis” (spiritual belief, generally separate from eidin or intellectual knowledge–these terms will get even more complicated as I progress, but they are certainly not as simple as “gnosis means experiential knowledge”)

      If agnostic meant “lack of experiential knowledge,” the implications that people who identify as agnostic are ignorant might work because agnosticism would exist on the same spectrum of quantity of knowledge (of a particular type), pretty close to “ignorant” as defined as “no experiential knowledge” (of the same type).

      However, this couldn’t be further from the reality. In a philosophical construction, gnosticism–a term often used in skeptical thought to refer to the beliefs of out-group members–refers to giving assent to beliefs or principles (in this case, neutral to the content of the beliefs or types of knowledge). For instance, “I believe (or know) God exists,” or the opposite.

      This stands in contradistinction to agnosticism, which withholds assent, often as a concession to the unknowable. For instance, “I can’t be certain that God exists or doesn’t because insufficient evidence exists to decide between the conflicting information available for alternatives, therefore I cannot act or prescribe one way or another.”

      Agnosticism is not a lack of knowledge as defined by intellectual understanding or quantity of information, as a lack of “experiential knowledge” might imply. It refers to the necessary withholding of belief one way or another given plural, conflicting pieces of experiential information.

      Perhaps the only lack is of some “clear” piece of evidence to decide–a subjective and easily flawed perception. Given the risks and likelihoods of individual experience being externally invalid, even if one might be tempted by “clear” evidence, and the great costs to acting or prescribing invalidly, as a libertarian or dogmatist might equally fear, withholding assent seems at least a reasonable position, especially if it avoid the social and personal costs of being wrong.

      This isn’t a mere semantic difference either. Knowledge, information, and belief are separate, but sometimes interrelated concepts. Knowledge is the critical link between disparate pieces of information and belief (intellectual, spiritual, etc.). In an agnostic view, knowledge is a rare commodity in a sea of information. A history of invalid “knowledge,” (geocentrism, etc.) warrants at least skepticism of such today.

      Withholding assent to belief does not demonstrate a lack of experiential information or even “knowledge” defined therefrom. It may even be an appropriate response and way of handling complexities in the world. It’s a concession tot he unknowable. Agnosticism, however, should not necessarily infringe on others’ beliefs or practices (caveat: so long as they do not infringe on others’).

      Since agnostics withhold assent on whether God exists or not, it would certainly be out of line to limit the practices of those who do because they might be right for as much as they might be wrong.

      I think an agnostic making prescriptions for public policy would also be careful to draw strict boundaries around some enforcing their beliefs on others. This kind of agnostic skepticism, then, leads to rather “libertarian” conclusions about “live and let live.”

      There are plenty of problems with strict agnosticism or pyrrhonian skepticism in all areas of life in practice. There may be inherent hypocrisy or tension in any action that effects an internal position one way or another externally in the world, perhaps a necessary component of making most decisions or taking actions in the world.

      I write all of this as a progressive and a dogmatists who has been bludgeoned with these ideas by pyrrhonian (or, other times, libertarian) friends and colleagues. It’s all the more ironic that I advocate for their position in this context.

      • Thanks for the great input Noah!
        I’m a bibliophile and word freak in my own way.

        There is a difference between etymology and how words are actually used, especially related to gnosis. For those of us with certain unusual experiences, experiences that provide us with knowledge that can only be replicated on a personal basis, proof has been provided, therefore “belief” or “faith” is not required.

        Given that Gnosticism (big G) was considered Heresy (originally meaning choice) was stamped out by the Church for its promulgation that only individuals can experience the divine themselves, rather than through the middlemen of the clergy and Church, it should not be surprising that gnosis, experiential knowledge remains derided today.

        I’ve kissed Death on the mouth and she’s totally hot, yet she remains and illusion. Until you share such an experience, you cannot claim any true knowledge of her.

      • Seems my original reply was censored. Pity.

        Suffice to say that etymology and bibliography do not reflect how words are actually used, especially in the Mystic community, where the “Green Language” prevented burning at the stake when the Church was the highest authority.

        I’ve experienced “Death,” kissed her on the mouth, acknowledged how “hot” she is, but kept breathing anyway.

        Gnosis is experience based. When you experience Death, and live to tell the tale your semantics and etymology will seem empty to you, just as they do to me.

        The Boot-Strap Expat

  • Chriswich

    The bigger issue is that religions are wrong regardless of whether they’re threats to liberty. That alone is enough of a reason to criticize religion and encourage people not to follow them.

  • Utopian

    You are confusing the word religion with beliefs. If you are a libertarian, you should definitely be against religion, because religion is organized institutions that dictate a certain set of beliefs and mandate that all followers believe them blindly.

    A libertarian could certainly hold individual beliefs about spiritual maters rather than being an atheist.

  • zardoz

    You didn’t state it explicitly, but one can come away with the idea that Rand also thought religion should be destroyed. I have not found this stated in her writings or interviews.
    She thought that the morality of most religions, altruism, was evil. She also thought that evil was impotent because it relies on the sanction of those who are victims of it in order to grow. In her view a proper government separated religion from government and therefore people would be free to believe whatever they wanted so long as they didn’t try to get the government to enforce their beliefs on others or to bail them out when reality finally came knocking on their door.
    In her view one does not need to battle religion, one needs to promote reason. The more reason prevails, the less adverse effects religion has on everyone.