This essay is a slightly revised version of a chapter from Tibor Machan’s memoir, The Man Without a Hobby (Hamilton Books, 2006). It had an earlier life as an essay in Liberty Magazine, although in a much-shortened version.
BECOMING AN atheist was not an easy decision to live with, at least not at first.
I struggled with it for months. I had a hard time ridding myself of the habit of crossing myself when passing a church. I also felt obliged to purge all associations tainted by religion-for example, with family. I had already broken with my father by that time, so the chief if nominal victim of this attitude was my stepfather, who came to the United States in 1961 or thereabouts. This desire to cut myself off from such “tainted” associations was temporary and I never really acted on it, but it did afflict me for a while. Much of this grappling took place before I talked to anyone about my new ideas. But that came, too, after I had read The Fountainhead, which I discovered just when it could exert the greatest influence on me. I approached my Air Force buddies, Howard and Walter, and told them how much I liked the novel and how persuasive I found its ideas.
What had rubbed me the wrong way about much of the moralizing I was hearing as a Roman Catholic was the notion that others are important but somehow you yourself are not. Why on earth should this be the case? As a character in the Graham Greene novel Loser Takes All puts it: “None of us has a right to forget anyone. Except ourselves.” In The Fountainhead I recognized a clear expression of the conviction I had always had, the conviction that had made it possible for me to withstand the battering of life in Communist Hungary and in the home of my anti-Semitic father. Under such rule I had always heard how unimportant the individual is, how awful is selfishness, and how imperative it is to accept that one is nothing apart from the larger whole of humanity, society or tribe. It never made any sense to me.
Rand’s vision of individualism or rational egoism-the view that the morally good life is one that advances the flourishing of the human individual-was new to me in so vivid and articulate a form, though it had been intimated in much of the fiction I’d read as a kid. The heroes brought to life by Zane Grey, Max Brand and Erle Stanley Gardner were individualistic, but in an unselfconscious, implicit way. Although the clash between individualism and collectivism is age-old, it was Rand who first helped me see clearly what is at stake and why I was right to resist being belittled in the name of party, people, nation or God.
Not long ago I saw a program about the Hitler Youth which reminded me of just how widespread the athletic mania had been in Europe when I was growing up. The Nazis had their one-size-fits-all theology worked out to perfection, and their excuse, always, was that it benefited the holy motherland, Germany, das Volk…it was sacrifice all the way. This is one reason I came to value Rand’s teachings so much. She really hit the nail on the head with her analysis of altruism and what it allows people to get away with-how much power it generates for those clever enough to cash in on it.
Next I tackled her novel Atlas Shrugged, reading it in two sleepless days. The book was a great read and had great ideas, but it did take me only a single encounter with the protagonist John Galt-whom Eddie, one of his employees, periodically meets with in the Taggart Building’s underground cafeteria-to realize that the anonymous track worker is Galt. The larger mystery of the book, that of the role of the human mind in the affairs of the world, did not unfold quite so easily for me. I skipped Galt’s 56 page long lecture at first but cut it out and made it into its own little book so that I could study it later.
In fact Walter, Howard and I were soon staying up night after night, examining the speech for logical flaws. We scrutinized the discussions of the purpose of morality, the contradiction of original sin, the nature of free will, the inescapability of the law of identity and so forth. When finally we were unable-based on our admittedly meager education-to find anything drastically wrong with the logic, we started conjuring up motives why Rand might be trying to con the reader with these arguments. We even hypothesized that she had been sent by the Soviet Union to discredit capitalism in the eyes of mostly religious Americans by associating it with atheism. But no objection we could come up with, silly or not, could dispel our growing conviction that the ideas of this woman were well worth studying and perhaps even embracing and advocating.
In 1958, a year after Atlas Shrugged was published, Rand’s close associate Nathaniel Branden had founded a lecture organization to promote her ideas. This was the Nathaniel Branden Institute, or NBI. NBI was sponsoring lectures in the Washington area and I went to some of them. I met Branden, who seemed terribly aloof and snide, though what he was saying made good enough sense. The only series I attended all the way through was “Contemporary Theories of Neurosis,” which outlined competing schools of psychology. At a lecture in New York I had the chance to ask Branden some questions, but these were not exactly welcomed, which puzzled me. After all, what especially appealed to me about Objectivism was the idea of an independent mind, of the individual trying to answer questions and solve problems to his own rational satisfaction. But everyone has bad days so I never made much of this behavior. I did find it peculiar how cliquish the people listening to the taped lectures seemed to be. And how few of them seemed to laugh comfortably-most of the laughter was sarcastic and derisive. But I chalked it up to the hazards of going against the grain. Here was a group with very unusual views that fit nowhere on the standard ideological map. No wonder they were such a tense bunch. And if they felt strange and somewhat marginalized, so did I.
IN THE fall of 1962 I left the Air Force and entered college. I had read about Claremont McKenna College in National Review-in a column by Russell Kirk, who talked about how wonderful and independent the place was. So I contacted the admissions director, Emery Walker, and managed to gain admittance. But before starting school I also managed to gain a meeting with Ayn Rand. I went to New York and met with her for about half an hour at her office.
It was a wonderful experience. What stuck in my mind was how warm, calm, sensible and friendly Rand was. She showed none of the prickly traits I would later hear about. I remember saying to her that perhaps I liked her work because I, too, was a refugee from communism. She said she hoped this wasn’t the case, since her ideas were meant to have universal significance, not appeal only to those who shared her personal experiences. There was no badgering or finger wagging; she was like a sensible aunt or grandmother. I promised to send her a letter I had written to my friend the priest, concerning the struggles I had been having with religion, and when I got back to Washington I sent it off to her.
Rand replied with a wonderful letter commenting on how mine, to the priest, exemplified her principle of the sanction of the victim-which it did. In it I had expressed dismay about a book Father Novicky gave me, Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, with its denigration of the human desire to know (the desire that Aristotle, at the very beginning of his Metaphysics, states flatly is inherent in all of us). Rand wrote that she was
deeply impressed with the letter you wrote to the priest. If The Fountainhead has helped you to find a way out of such a terrible and tragic conflict, I am very happy to know it. Your letter to the priest projects, with startling accuracy, what an honest and intelligent young person would have to feel if he attempted to practice the altruist morality fully and conscientiously.
The most terrifying indictment of religious morality is contained in the following lines of yours: ‘The trouble is that I am always asking for the logic. And the more I will know the more I will want to know. What should I do[,] stop wanting to know?’ I hope that you realize fully to what extent you were on the premise which I call ‘the sanction of the victim.’ You were accepting as a sin the thing which was your greatest virtue and the greatest of all human virtues: your rationality, the desire to know and to understand. I am sure that you will never make that mistake again, but I want to stress, as the most important advice I can give you, that no matter what intellectual errors you may make in the future, do not ever accept the idea that rationality is evil or that it can ever be proper to discard your mind. So long as you hold this as an absolute, you will be safe, no matter what errors you make. But if one doubts or rejects one’s own mind, one commits an act of spiritual suicide and the greatest evil possible to man. I believe that you know it now.
I found her advice extremely sound and have tried my best to follow it.