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The Unlikeliest Cult in History
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I recently came across this essay by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, regarding Objectivism.

I agree with much of what he says. He's right in pointing out the peculiarity of Objectivism as a cult, since its precepts seem so at odds with cultism.

But when he lists the defining characteristics of a cult:

--Veneration of the Leader: Excessive glorification to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity.

--Inerrancy of the Leader: Belief that he or she cannot be wrong.

--Omniscience of the Leader: Acceptance of beliefs and pronouncements on virtually all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.

--Persuasive Techniques: Methods used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.

--Hidden Agendas: Potential recruits and the public are not given a full disclosure of the true nature of the group's beliefs and plans.

--Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything about the leader and the group's inner circle, particularly flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances.

--Financial and/or Sexual Exploitation: Recruits and followers are persuaded to invest in the group, and the leader may develop sexual relations with one or more of the followers.

--Absolute Truth: Belief that the leader and/or group has a method of discovering final knowledge on any number of subjects.

--Absolute Morality: Belief that the leader and/or the group have developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code may become and remain members, those who do not are dismissed or punished.

It's easy to see how even an unreligious, reason-based mode of philosophy could warp into a cult.

The first three have to do with effectively distorting a single person into an idealization beyond criticism. It's always important to keep in perspective that people you might revere are still people, ultimately humbled and flawed.

The next four have to do with tactics and motivations, and again, any group that was supposedly dedicated to science and reason as modes of thought would find hypocrisy in deceit and secretive behavior. Science only really flourishes with openness and cooperation, when ideas are put before peers for criticism and testing.

And the last two, Absolute Truth and Morality, are flawed, not in the sense of believing that such things exist (and here I part with Shermer...I do think there is ultimate Truth and Morality), but in believing that you (or your charismatic cult leader) have attained them, fully and completely.

Like Shermer, I agree with many of the precepts of Objectivism, but ultimately wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole because of its cultish properties. I agree that there is an objective reality, that observation and reason are the best ways to understand it, in individual liberty and innovation, and in the free marketplace (not only with economics, but with ideas).

But I think that strict egoism, rejecting all forms of altruism at any level, is ludicrous. And I reject the entrenched inflexibility of Objectivists, their insistence on the virtual flawlessness of Rand, and the inability to court self-criticism as a movement.

It's a shame, really, that a philosophy with so many promising attributes was couple with such virulently self-destructive ones.

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