We recently received the following question from Joel:
“Hi, I found your webpage in an effort to find if Rational Romanticism would be a new branch of philosophy. Since you cover certain philosophical themes in your blog I would like to ask: What are the philosophies you may empathize with (or who)?”
Thanks for the question, Joel! It occurs to me that we haven’t yet written about our philosophical and historical roots yet, so I’m glad this question came to my attention. Let’s start with the philosophies and people that have influenced our movement.
Anyone who had read the blog might be surprised to learn that I consider Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) to be one of our primary influences. The early members of Rational Romanticism are almost exclusively ex-Mormon. I myself served a mission to a foreign country, and believed that Joseph Smith was god’s prophet on earth. I was quite fond of saying I knew that the Book of Mormon was the word of god.
Much of my belief was based on feeling; I believed that god spoke to us through the spirit, and that you could feel the truth of a thing. After learning a bit about psychology, a question popped into my head: what if I feel good about this church simply because I already believe it? Within a month I was an atheist. I underwent a rapid transformation that shocked those who knew me as a religious fanatic.
In reaction to Mormonism’s faith and feeling-based beliefs, we now hold a strong conviction to evidence-based belief. We don’t consider beliefs to hold more weight if the belief is strongly felt, and we don’t put any value in uninformed opinion. We also have and will continue to fight against the codification of law to conform with religious belief as the church in Utah so often does. I’ll discuss this more later.
At the same time, we saw the good of Mormonism, particularly that of strong local communities. We believe – and studies have shown – that close long-time friends and extended social networks are vital to happiness. For this reason we often participate in local meetups with like-minded friends. We could be better about organizing and bringing these communities together, but it’s something we’re working on.
Objectivism – Ayn Rand’s philosophy – has certainly left its mark on Rational Romanticism. Objectivism makes many claims that we support absolutely and many that we support with qualifications. For all that we agree on, Rational Romantics differ from Objectivism in emphasis, language, and communication methods. We don’t think from the heart, but we do think of the heart – something that cannot always be said of Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand made the case that meaning is not innate to the universe: things only matter if there is a sentient being for whom things matter. Further, the only thing that has value are things that have value to us. Most religions and many philosophies attempt to impose value on us: to tell us what we should care about – whether we actually do or not. We also reject those notions entirely, as the statement on our home page makes clear. Rand’s novels are inspiring, if at times a little cheesy and one-sided.
Like Objectivists, Rational Romantics are ethical egoists and consequentialists. We also hold strong values of personal freedom, minimalist government, and reason. At the same time, we place great emphasis on the value of personal relationships, and little emphasis on wealth, especially beyond the necessary level of income required to live comfortable. The “Romantic” in Rational Romantic implies a love for life and a love for others that is at best underdeveloped in canonical Objectivism.
To my knowledge, no religious person currently refers to him/herself as a Rational Romantic. It would be possible and something we would certainly allow, but our beliefs clash with most religion’s teachings. For example, it’s not easy to believe in god and hold values of evidence-based belief. We don’t think we have any right to prevent consenting adults from being together, but religions somehow do.
As we do not believe in god(s), we have been somewhat influenced by people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Steven Pinker, and Sam Harris. We accept that religion can be and often is detrimental to our goal of individual freedom and happiness. While we agree almost uniformly with modern atheists, we also believe that atheism isn’t enough. The world may be a better place without religion, but it would be better still if everyone had the values of Rational Romanticism to enrich their lives.
In all philosophical discussion – and perhaps especially in discussions of god, atheism, and agnosticism – we find wisdom in a statement attributed to Voltaire: “If you want to converse with me, first define your terms.” Ignosticism is merely the belief that one should define what is meant by “god” before asking whether one believes in god. In all cases, we try to make sure we’re talking about the same thing before arguing over whether it is true or rational.
For example, to most non-philosophers, an atheist is someone who claims to know for certain that god doesn’t exist. A philosopher would call the same person a “strong atheist” or “positive atheist.” The definition of agnosticism varies wildly, meaning anything from someone who “just doesn’t know” to someone who “doesn’t claim to know for certain, but doesn’t believe in god for a lack of evidence.” The later may also be called a “weak atheist,” “negative atheist,” or in man instances a “strong agnostic.” There are also implicit and explicit atheists, and a million fuzzy definitions all around.
These definitions are confusing, but it gets worse. If god is defined as a vague force in the universe, I consider myself a strong agnostic or negative atheist. I don’t believe in such a force/being, and I see no good evidence for anyone to believe it exists. If god is the Mormon god, I am a strong or positive atheist. I believe logic and reason can prove the Mormon god does not exist as claimed in church doctrine. Indeed in this sense, many religious people are atheists with regards to the Mormon god, Zues, etc. In fact, I may be a theist if god is simply the non-mystical emotion of love. It seems odd to define god as an emotion and no more, but it’s been done before.
Hopefully it’s becoming clear that “atheism” isn’t a well-enough defined or understood term to apply to ourselves in every situation. We are ingostic in that we require a definition of god before saying whether where we stand on god’s existence. To most of the world’s way of thinking, we are some shade of atheist, and I may even define myself as such for the sake of time. It’s still wise to ask people what they mean by “god” before answering whether you believe in him/her/it; you may make yourself appear to flip-flop on whether you are atheist or agnostic if the person you are speaking to shifts from one definition of god to the other.
Rational Romanticism fits neatly as a Humanist philosophy in the very broadest sense of the word, and many of our members have at times frequented Universal Unitarian churches. Humanists and Unitarians are fantastic at finding wisdom wherever they can. They bring people together, and both regularly fight against the unjust imposition of one person’s moral code upon another. On social issues, we frequently find these groups to be our allies.
If a disagreement were to arise between a Humanist and a Rational Romantic, those disagreements would almost definitely find their roots in our individualism. Egoist Humanists aren’t unheard of, though: that’s what we are.
With Unitarians, our affinity for evidence-based belief and science can oftentimes be at odds with their generally pluralist mentality. In some Unitarian circles it is nearly taboo to disagree openly with a person’s beliefs. We hold that not all beliefs are equally logical, and we cannot be sure until we put them to an honest intellectual test. Further, we give no weight to beliefs that are based on poor or missing evidence, and we aren’t afraid to claim beliefs are either wrong or illogical. Challenging others’ beliefs and our own beliefs (kindly and with tact) is strongly encouraged in Rational Romanticism.
We have no set political doctrine or party, but we are explicitly in favor of an individual’s right to happiness, property, life, and the pursuit of happiness. As egoists and lovers of personal freedom, it should come as no surprise that Libertarianism and Anarcho-Capitalism have had some influence on Rational Romanticism. We believe that the role of a government (whether the state or not) is to protect these individual rights with as little intrusion as possible.
It is, for example, completely inappropriate for the government to prohibit same-sex marriages. In fact, the government should have no say in whether adults giving informed consent can or cannot be married. The marriage license itself is an unnecessary paternal government intrusion into private personal decisions. A just government would only prohibit marriages where one party is unable to give informed consent. (Examples include being drunk, disabled, an animal incapable of giving consent, or too young to understand the ramifications of marriage.) By the same logic, it is completely inappropriate for the government to regulate income redistribution, wages, or drug use and sales.
Rational Romantics may be financially-conservative Democrats, socially-liberal Republicans, or anarchists. Our variance in political policy is reflective of our individual opinions on how best to maximize personal freedom.
We have been heavily influenced by science and scientific values. Together with logic and reason, science forms the basis for everything we know for certain about the universe. A world without science would be a world of conflicting anecdotes and confused subjective opinion, where a claim of truth would be nearly impossible to prove. We believe science has answers to both normative and descriptive questions. Combined with egoism, science provides a powerful tool that has and will allow us to maximize our individual happiness and improve our lives.
How do we know our trust in the scientific process is not misguided? Because it works. Technology, for example, is a physical embodiment of science’s ability to discover and leverage truth into something useful. The device you are reading this text on now is an accomplishment only possible through science. Science does more than enhance our lives with useful technology: we believe that happier lives are also possible by applying the scientific method to questions of morality.
Thanks for the question, Joel. You’re probably sorry you asked, not. Joel also asked whether Rational Romanticism could be considered a new branch of philosophy. Given everything above, I guess you’ll have to decide that for yourself.