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A theological basis for rank individualism in society and elsewhere

This essay is long- some 2,000 words.  But I think it is worth reading.  Print it out if you like if that makes it easier.


‘Individualism’ has a bad rap, even among Christians.  To be fair, there are things in ‘individualism’ that I think are unhealthy or even immoral, too, but the key thing to remember is that any opposite of ‘individualism’ is not necessarily preferable.  If we’re going to raise up ‘inter-connectedness’ (a neutral term, I hope) it must be done thoughtfully, and it cannot obliterate that which is moral or good in ‘individualism.’

The only folks that I’ve ever heard defend ‘individualism’ are the Objectivists- the offspring of Ayn Rand, that spunky atheist who escaped the clutches of communism.  Rand’s views on the individual seem to be expressed most succinctly, and passionately, in her little book Anthem, which is a favorite of mine.   There is a flaw in her book however:  the intrinsic value of the individual is assumed;  no basis for it is provided.

And no wonder.  In atheism, no basis for the value of the individual human can be provided.  At best, the individual human values himself, and then out of concern for his own interests forges a social compact with other individual humans not hurt him.  That is secular humanism at its core.  But this can only go so far.  Once ‘social compacts’ are on the table, the ‘good of society’ becomes an obvious next step.  “The most good for the most people.”

I won’t explore the inevitable progression from there (“Someone must decide what that good is”) and discuss the history of abuse that consistently emerged within these systems.  These are not the point of this post, but you can find comments on it on this blog and the issue is discussed in my fictional book series, Birth Pangs.

The point, here, is that within secular humanism and atheistic systems, the only thing that lasts from one generation to the next is the State.  Society and the State become the ‘highest’ level organism, and the individual a mere cell within it.   From the point of view of the State, the individual has as much value as a skin cell which can be scraped off and safely discarded.  Naturally, more valuable cells you want to keep around- while they have utility- but the ‘brain cells’ never lose sight of the fact that the cell’s value is strictly in what it can contribute to the ‘body.’

You don’t keep old, dying, disfigured, disabled, and dead cells around just for sentimental value.  If a ‘cell’ is to stick around and be embraced by the State, it must explain how it adds somehow to the health of the ‘body.’   For an illustration,  I have heard secular humanists recoil in horror at the prospect of eliminating expensive-to-society disabled children… but not because the disabled have some sort of intrinsic value.  Instead, you might hear something more aesthetic, something about how diversity within society (read:  within the State) is something valuable in itself.

This is lucky.  If instead the only thing the disabled could put on the table is the fact that they require massive investments of capital that could otherwise go to those with more ‘Quality-Adjusted Life Years‘ or that their genes are potentially a menace to the species, they’d probably be toast.

The value of the individual, when the State is the highest level ‘organism’ is judged exclusively against the interests of the State itself.

In Christianity, by contrast, concepts such as ‘individual’ and ‘community’ are evaluated differently.  There are occasionally overlaps, such as with Rand’s view of the individual and the genuine interest of many secular humanists for the down trodden within our society.  However, it is critical to understand how the different perspectives work when things get dicey.  For the secular humanist, there may come a point where one has to dispense with some individuals for the sake of the State.

True, the unborn are the best place to start, because they can in no way resist or speak out on behalf for their own existence, but as my link to Sanger’s document above illustrates, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking it is limited to them.

For the Christian, such an approach is impossible and unacceptable.  Each individual has intrinsic value and no other individual can deny it, or by declaration obliterate it.

When individuals must be sacrificed (say, in what is hopefully a just war), it is a tragedy of infinite proportions for any single person to die or to take a life.  A Christian ‘general’ who sends his men into certain death grieves for each one of them for what is lost was of momentous value, not because of what it contributed to society, but for its own sake.

Unlike the atheist who perceives that there is nothing apart from the world, the Christian understands that this is emphatically not the case.  Indeed, while the secular humanist behaves as though the only lasting institution is the transgenerational State, the raw fact is that even on their own view, the State is doomed.  This will be either by an asteroid strike, the death of the Sun, or universal heat death.

But the Christian knows that that the Individual will outlast it all.  Only the individual will survive the ultimate fate of the universe.

In the afterlife, there will be no Venezuela, Cuba, or Soviet Union.  There will not even be a United States of America.   These will all fail and fade,  as indeed many already have.  But not the individual.

Besides the fact that the Individual survives it all, unlike the Objectivists, the Christian can offer a robust basis for why the individual has the value it does.  First (in chronology) of all, humans are not the result of mindless processes bound up with the universe but rather are created by the Eternal Artisan.  Secondly, this Artisan has doubled down on the human race by redeeming it at great and painful cost and bestowing everlasting life on a New Earth.

We interact every day with immortals, not fodder for the machinations of the State.

Ironically, secular humanists try to portray themselves as the ones who are genuinely interested in mankind.   They believe with contempt that it is the Christian who cares little for the weak, the poor, the sick, the aging, and so on.  It is not so.  Given the high view of humanity that the Christian possesses which I have described, the real distinction is this:  The Christian understands that you cannot in good conscience work on the behalf of one individual at the expense of another individual.  Christians cannot engage in Malthusian trade offs.

In pursuit of the good for one individual or class of individuals you are not permitted to oppress another individual or class of individuals.  Not for the State.  Not even for ‘The Most Good for the Most People.’

The Christian must honor every human life, even the unborn human life, and in no ways can the Christian blissfully accept the proposition that it is ok to dispense with some in order to rescue others, and it is no use soothing your conscience by declaring that the ‘some’ simply aren’t persons.  When such decisions must be made, as is sometimes necessary, it is heart wrenching and tragic;  the people who most grapple with the problem of pain and suffering are not the atheists, but Christians.

If it is within the Christian’s power, he must advocate for the rights and value of all humans, even those it is easy to target (ie, in America, ‘the rich.’)  And he must oppose those other humans who would reduce them to utilitarian cogs in the machine.  Not those who believe that, per se, but those who actively attempt to implement that world view.

It should be clear from this that it does not follow that any given individual has the right to impose himself at the expense of other individuals, and certainly Christians cannot take that view.  One supposes, for example, that Rand, as an atheist who adopted the evolutionary framework, would have endorsed such a tactic if it was believed the individual could get away with it.  Survival of the fittest, and all.  The Christian Individualist is always conscience of the impact of his actions on others, and hopes very much that he can achieve his desires, but not at the expense of others.  The Way of the Survival of the Fittest is not open to him.

Moreover, the same source for our information about the Eternal Artisan’s creative and redemptive efforts tells us some important things about the nature and kinds of community that individuals should value.  The first and and most important institution is telling on many levels:  the family.

For the secular humanist (and even Plato) the family is really just an arbitrary social construct.  But for the Christian, it is recognized that the family is divinely constructed (Gen. 2:21-25, Malachi 2:13-16).

See how individualism is manifested within the family:  in this small society, there are different roles to be played and questions of sustainability are certainly considered.  And yet, a father- a good father, that is- would not dream of subjecting one child to a life of hard labor in order that another (or himself) could have a life of leisure.  True, especially in agrarian societies, a family has many children in order to survive on the land, but even here there is no avoiding the fact that the ‘investment’ in years while the child is helpless and a ‘liability’ is filled with its own pleasures; for indeed, the child himself is the result of a loving and pleasurable embrace.

In the Christian view, new life is begotten within a network of loving individuals that cherishes it for its own sake and not merely for what it can add to the family’s bottom line.  On the Christian view, the new life is added as much for the joy it adds to the community as anything else.  In the secularist view, it may as well be hatched.

Today, here in America, we live in a society where all roads currently lead to Society.  It is a society that has families in it;  it ought to be a society of families.

The family is constructed in just such a way, from beginning to end, that individualism is respected within proper boundaries.  It is no surprise that the attack on the family as an institution is so fierce and that the secularists so heartily embrace Family Planning and defend abortion so adamantly.   In the secularist mindset, to the extent that individuals are valued and welcomed, it is done so in consideration relative to the highest level organism as they perceive it, the Society.   Individuals should be spared the burden of unexpected pregnancies, and the expense that these may put on ‘society’ is to be avoided.

But in the family, the individual is not the sole measure of things.  The Christian, in fact, recognizes that most of us know- intuitively (after all, this is how we were made) that we simply are not complete and at peace in the world without little kids biting at our heels.  An ‘unexpected pregnancy’ is just one more unexpected event in a life that we know is already filled with unexpected events.  The people in our family enhance the satisfaction within the family, bringing new joys even as they bring new difficulties.

In this defense of the individual it should be evident, then, that the individualism is not an absolute.  More than that, it is recognized that the individual himself is not complete apart the community.  The community of family is threatened in many levels in our society, and it should not be believed that I think they are all intentional or deliberate.  The rise of the Automobile and the Interstate, for example, has delivered harsh blows against the institution of the Family, with parents and grand parents and aunts and uncles and cousins etc spread around to kingdom come.

The point, though, is that within the community of the family, the individual’s welfare is never pursued at the expense of some other individual’s welfare.  Indeed, when sacrifices are made (eg, by a parent working 2 shifts in order that all may eat), it is done willfully and deliberately by the parent, out of his or her own love for his family.  It is not done because the State has said, “Pay these taxes in order that these may eat.”  (and under its breath, “And so that we can fund this other program you know nothing about…”)

One further thing needs to be mentioned, and applies most specifically to other Christians:  the individual will outlive even the institution of family.  We already have clues:  in the afterlife, we will be like the angels, who do not marry.  But this is not without community:  only, the critical thing is that our communion is with Christ, in whom we are literally joined (Romans 6).  There isn’t even the promise in Scriptures that we will commune with others- this is sentimental myth.  We have no promise of seeing our loved ones in ‘heaven.’  We are assured only that we will be with Christ.

I say that not because I believe that we will be separated from our loved ones in the afterlife though joined with Christ, but because it is clear that when we relate to these, it will be in and through our relation in Christ.

So besides the Individual, there is in fact one other institution that will last forever:  the community of the Church.

It is a shame and a devastating tragedy that our churches are among the most fragmented and impersonal institutions that we interact with as Christians.  It could be so much more.  Attempts to focus on the importance of the community, in some quarters, is dismissed, and then with hostility.  The idea that you can present the Gospel and be indifferent to the need for genuine community is simply wrong.

Of course, it is critical to hasten to add that this is not saying you can have ‘community’ apart from the Gospel, as though the Gospel’s purpose is merely to bring about community, and you can bend the Gospel as necessary to facilitate that community.  It is the community in Christ that will last.  Obviously, then, it would be stupid to have community for the simple sake of having community, indifferent to the Gospel of Christ.    Let the secularists pursue that;  it is not for us.

In short, dear Christian, I contend that we already have in front of us all the ‘higher level organisms’ we need:  the community of the family and the community of the faithful.  Here and only here are individuals respected, welcomed, and free.  Here only are individuals understood to be forever, and here only do we see the context in which they will be forever- in community through Christ.

It is therefore with great caution that we must approach the efforts of the Statists.  True, very often they propose programs that we can in good conscience get behind.  However, even then they do not share our views about the individual, and so, they can, quite unexpectedly, change things.  They would only be acting on their own values, and so we should not be shocked.  Thus it should be evident that the more power we give them to help us the more power we give to them to hurt us.

As such, it is worth positing that we should give them no power at all, and the power that we do give them come with very robust checks and balances.  Our trust in their sincere intentions seems, increasingly, to be poised to do us all great harm- or at least, the weakest among us, and those who are the heaviest burden on society.  In the name of the “Most good for the most people” great evil is being inflicted, and history tells us a great deal more is possible.



    • Steven Wayne Lytle on September 5, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    You said: “The only folks that I’ve ever heard defend ‘individualism’ are the Objectivists- the progenitors of Ayn Rand,…”

    “Progenitor” means a forefather or predecessor, one who comes before. You surely meant the opposite, one who comes after.

    • Anthony on September 5, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Oops, you are absolutely right. Think I originally had that sentence structured the other way around. Appreciate the note.

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