I once took the following oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine.” The oath was a line from the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn (rhymes with “mine”) Rand. It’s the oath that one must swear by in the novel in order to gain entry to the secret valley (heaven?). By swearing this oath one affirmed that he would live his life according to the principles of “rational self-interest,” i.e., for his own selfish purpose. Seven of us high school students took the oath. That oath came to define my relationships and my life for years to come.
Ayn Rand was an atheist. Her novels could be regarded as atheist manifestos, revealing what a world without God, what individuals without God, could look like. And I bought into the vision of such a world and such a person. For Rand (permit me to paraphrase and summarize, as I have read all of her fiction and nonfiction books), God is a figment of Man’s imagination, the result of Man’s irrational superstition and fear, his lowest vision of himself (weak and dependent) in the face of an irrational and inexplicable universe. For Rand, the theist (a believer in God) was at the same level as the scummiest politicians who line their own pockets with money stolen from citizens.
I was a Randian, a follower of Ayn Rand, until one day in college when I met Burt, a PhD student in computer science, who patiently explained to me the flaws in Randianism. At the top of Burt’s list of flaws of Randianism was that Rand and her movement were dogmatic.
After much “soul”-searching, I realized that Burt was right! The charge might have been hard to prove from Rand’s fiction writing alone (not so with her nonfiction). But in her public life, Rand was known to be merciless with interviewers, publishers, critics, and anyone else who crossed her path. Even among her followers she allowed no questioning, no doubt, no interpretation that was not sanctioned by the hierarchy of the Objectivist movement (the philosophical movement that she founded and led based on her brand of atheism and metaphysics). She was an angry woman, unforgiving and intolerant. While her novels are still popular and command a cult following, I’m sure she would hold most of her readers in low regard.
But dogmatism was for me also a primary criticism of Christianity. There are probably as many Christian dogmas as there are Christians. Christians hold dogmatic beliefs of many bizarre and unprovable notions, from the likes of purgatory, to God’s infinite power, to original sin, to my sinfulness for being an atheist (wouldn’t God be more forgiving?), to the primacy of Christianity over other religions, to all the rituals, and on and on. If you find yourself on the wrong side of a discussion on any of these points with a dogmatic Christian, you risk ostracism or worse.
So I found myself between two worlds, the dogmatic theistic world of Christianity and the dogmatic atheistic world envisioned by Rand. Thus began my search for meaning in life and for a possible role for spirit or the divine in my corporeal existence on this planet.
If I seem conflicted, or contradictory, or indecisive, or unwilling to commit, then maybe it’s just my unwillingness to become dogmatic. When it comes to religion, I don’t want to “finally have all the answers”, because that would mean I had finally settled into that dogmatic mode that I hate so much.