Ayn Rand devotees hug over 'Atlas Shrugged'

On the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Rand's seminal book, followers date using a website where romance is pursued selfishly and productively.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Ayn Rand might seem an unlikely matchmaker. In a 1964 Playboy interview, she famously said that a man who places friends and family above "productive work" is immoral, an "emotional parasite."

Yet as "Atlas Shrugged" turns 50 this week, Rand's iconic intellect presides over The Atlasphere (www.theatlasphere.com) – a dating, networking, and news website that has connected her admirers since 2003.

In many ways, of course, it's no different from the mix of pragmatism and love that tugs members of any group – Christians, Jews, ardent vegans, or home-schoolers – toward one another in their choice of mates. But to some – at least those who don't adhere to Objectivism, Rand's philosophy of rational self-interest as man's highest pursuit – her name evokes more cold capitalistic greed than candlelight dinners. On a 1999 commemorative stamp, Rand's features are sharp, her face a cold shade of moonlight, as she peers out from behind a skyscraper.

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For Joshua Zader, The Atlasphere's founder, the notion of Rand-inspired love makes perfect sense. "At a certain point in my 20s," he says, "I realized I had met all my closest friends through Rand club meetings, conferences, or book signings." He later met his wife that way, too.

Critics call Rand's work shrill, arrogant, dogmatic, and godless. And while her fans – from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey – talk about being inspired by her work, they don't necessarily use it as a dating manual.

That wasn't Francisco Villalobos's intention either. Rereading "Atlas Shrugged" in college, he loved the respect that Rand's industrialists and entrepreneurs show one another. "That was something very foreign to me in the neighborhood where I grew up," says Mr. Villalobos, referring to the Cypress Hills area of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Now, after two years on The Atlasphere, he's contacted well over 35 women. A trained philosopher, he's hoped for someone "who would want to talk about ideas and wouldn't get defensive in the process." With an Atlasphere mate, he figures, "I wouldn't have to go through the awkward phase of why I'm so passionate about Rand." But, so far, nothing. For now, Villalobos is pinning his hopes more on The Atlasphere's columnists than its calling cards.

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There's a popular game among Objectivists – Concepts in a Hat. Participants write philosophical terms on scraps of paper and drop them into a bowl, draw two or more at random, and explain the connections. The mood can be typical of Objectivist clubs and meetings, says Mr. Zader – impersonal and esoteric in a way "that isn't exactly a chick magnet."

The Atlasphere hasn't overcome the gender gap: Among its nearly 7,000 dating profiles, the ratio of male to female members is about 3.5 to 1. But Zader welcomes women who are tired of hairsplitting battles. For Charlotte Jarrett, an English major at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., the virtual tête-à-têtes have brought a kindred spirit to light. One lazy evening last summer, browsing Atlasphere profiles, she discovered an Atlanta man who soon became a close friend. "So often," she says, "we'll come to each other with something we realized while cooking dinner and want to share it, or a heavy question about life or love or work."

Like Ms. Jarrett, many of Rand's most fervent devotees discover her work in late adolescence or early adulthood. Michael Dickey first heard a recording of "Atlas Shrugged" in his early 20s. Nearly a decade later, he still listens to those 50-some double-sided cassettes every year.

Mr. Dickey has hobbies – a lot of them. In addition to a full-time job, he does 3-D rendering and animation, is building a motorcycle, and studies existential risks and the construction of space colonies. A lot of women, he says, "would want me to not do the things I'm doing – they'd want me to go pick apples or something like that." He's searching for someone so passionate about her own goals that she'll tolerate his, too.

Record producer John Brandt, like Dickey, is angling for a productive woman. His studio in Belleville, Mich., is a long way from Rand's Manhattan: On the corner, Ted's Deer Processing looks to be an at-home enterprise; a plastic sign nearby promises turkey shoots on Sundays. Across the street, neighbors have strung yellow caution tape around their Halloween crèche: a skeleton emerges from a wood coffin, a hand claws its way out of the ground, and a torso dangles from a low-hanging tree.

Inside the studio, in a preternatural quiet, Mr. Brandt says, "There's nothing more attractive ... than someone creative or productive." Although the bluejeaned Brandt has lived in Athens, Paris, Dallas, Kansas, Montana, and Nashville, he's still looking for his first truly productive girlfriend. So far, she's not on The Atlasphere, but he'll keep subscribing – if only for the articles.

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Objectively, the question arises: How did all this searching for a soul mate spring from a woman obsessed with the "I"? "Rand was famous for believing in the virtue of selfishness," says David Kelley, founder of The Atlas Society in Washington, D.C. "She meant living for your own highest potentiality and pursuit of long-term happiness." While few authors have become posthumous Cupids, Mr. Kelley says Rand is simply not like anyone else. " 'Atlas Shrugged,' however arresting a piece of literary work, also presents a philosophy, a view of ... what love means and why we need love as individuals."

For women, that need can be especially complicated. Rand saw the essence of femininity as a longing to look up to men – and went so far as to say that to be president would be "psychological torture" for a woman, and any woman who would covet the job must be too irrational to deserve it.

Yet in perusing The Atlasphere profiles, the confidence these women show – and seek – stands out. "We probably have more women than normal who say things like, 'I need a man who won't be intimidated,' " says Zader.

That gender equality certainly appeals to Annie Gilman, a graduate student at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. She sees relationships, in their simplest form, as "business transactions." "You have to have something to offer to somebody in a free market," she says.

Maybe Internet dating is courtship's free market. Villalobos suspects that Rand would delight in its entrepreneurialism: "In effect, she has spawned a virtual Galt's Gulch."

Galt's Gulch, the valley retreat of the chosen few in "Atlas Shrugged," is an Objectivist's utopia – full of industrious, virtuous people, working happily (and tax free). "She is very good at evoking the feeling that 'This is an exciting world and if you agree with my vision, you're a wonderful person and let's do work together,' " says Zader.

Let's do work together. It might be an epigraph for The Atlasphere, where productivity is integral to love. Rand and her characters "take love, romance, and sex seriously," says Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow at The Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. "Love is selfish and it is to be pursued selfishly."

Randophiles may soon have more to bond over. A long-delayed film of "Atlas Shrugged" is now in production, with Angelina Jolie as Dagny Taggart. Speculation has it that Brad Pitt will play John Galt or Hank Reardon. Rationality may be man's highest virtue, but in Hollywood, as in Rand's work, beauty doesn't hurt.

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