Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Despairing grief

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope (1 Thes 4:13).


My father was the philosopher and political polemicist David Stove. During his undergraduate years, he fell under the spell of the militantly atheistic guru John Anderson of the University of Sydney's philosophy department.
Shortly before Christmas 1993, my mother—who for decades had drunk heavily, smoked compulsively, and eaten hardly at all—suffered a massive stroke. At first she was not expected to live. Gradually, the truth emerged: the stroke, while not powerful enough to have killed her, had robbed her of all speech and nearly all movement.
To watch an adult abruptly transformed before one's eyes into a paralyzed, whimpering vegetable, all too conscious (at least in a general fashion) of what had befallen her, yet as powerless to rectify anything as if she had been six months old, is in a way worse than losing a loved one to Alzheimer's. There, at least, the decay is gradual. This was as abrupt an assault on life as if it had been a homicide. But a homicide can instill in you justified wrath; how can you feel wrath against as impersonal a cutting-down as befell my mother?
From the day of her stroke to the day of her death, almost eight years afterwards, she was in twenty-four-hour-a-day nursing care. By that time my father had long since left the scene. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and convinced beyond all reason that his announcement of this diagnosis to Mum had brought about her stroke, Dad simply unraveled. So, to a lesser extent, did those watching him.
All Dad's elaborate atheist religion, with its sacred texts, its martyrs, its church militant; all his ostentatious tough- mindedness; all his intellectual machinery; all these things turned to dust. Convinced for decades of his stoicism, he now unwittingly demonstrated the truth of Clive James's cruel remark: "we would like to think we are stoic...but would prefer a version that didn't hurt."
Already an alcoholic, he now made a regular practice of threatening violence to himself and others. In hospital he wept like a child (I had never before seen him weep). He denounced the nurses for their insufficient knowledge of Socrates and Descartes. From time to time he wandered around the ward naked, in the pit of confused despair. The last time I visited him I found him, to my complete amazement, reading a small bedside Gideon Bible. I voiced surprise at this. He fixed on me the largest, most protuberant, most frightened, and most frightening pair of eyes I have ever seen: "I'll try anything now."
(Years later, I discovered—and was absolutely pole-axed by —the following passage in Bernard Shaw's Too True To Be Good, in which an old pagan, very obviously speaking for Shaw himself, sums up what I am convinced was Dad's attitude near the end. The passage runs: "The science to which I pinned my faith is bankrupt. Its counsels, which should have established the millennium, led, instead, directly to the suicide of Europe. I believed them once. In their name I helped to destroy the faith of millions of worshipers in the temples of a thousand creeds. And now look at me and witness the great tragedy of an atheist who has lost his faith.")
Eventually, through that gift for eloquence which seldom entirely deserted him, Dad convinced a psychiatrist that he should be released from the enforced hospital confinement which he had needed to endure ever since his threats had caused him to be scheduled. The psychiatrist defied the relevant magistrate's orders, and released my father.
Within twenty-four hours Dad had hanged himself in his own garden.


  1. Wow.

    I wonder how atheists would react if biblical Christians were to send them that story.

  2. What a fascinating read! I am currently reading Darwinian Fairytales by his dad and think it is one of the best philosophical/historical takedowns of Darwin that I have ever read. (Looking forward to reading Nagle and Fodor as well - now that some prominent atheists are leaving the Darwinian fold!). But the story of his dad and mom is so sad - it is a painful reminder of both the Imago Dei in humanity and the terrible brokenness of post-edenic humanity. I know that my own gifts from the Lord were being consumed by my own self-destructive lunacy until the Lord grabbed me and made me His child. I thank Him that like Augustine - I believed that I might think. All of a sudden the destruction was clearly seen for what it was - rebellion of the highest order against my Maker and Savior. Dr. Stove was very brilliant in some of his writing yet so broken in his life. What a paradigm for fallen us. I hope and pray others read this account and realize their need for a Savior, lest we find them in their gardens someday.

  3. ... and the moral of this story is what? That atheism can lead to existential despair and self-destruction? Let me set you straight. Atheism is not a faith system. It is non-belief in god(s). The fact that a particular world-view may be more optimistic than another (and that point can be debated between atheists and Christians) does not lend one iota to the truth of either.


    "... and the moral of this story is what? That atheism can lead to existential despair and self-destruction?"

    Carried to its logical conclusion.

    "Let me set you straight."

    I'm shaking in my boots at the prospect.

    "Atheism is not a faith system. It is non-belief in god(s)."

    So rocks, trees, and clams are atheists. After all, they lack belief in god(s).

    "The fact that a particular world-view may be more optimistic than another (and that point can be debated between atheists and Christians) does not lend one iota to the truth of either."

    Why is truth important to atheists?

  5. A.M. I am curious at your self description. You claim that atheists doesn't prosyletize and yet you also claim that one of your favorite writers is Richard Dawkins. He not only lives and breathes atheism (in all his glorious inconsistency) but he openly states his desires to free us all from our religious delusions.
    Irony alert going off here.
    If you truly don't want to proselytize, than why why do you bother with trolling sites like Triablogue and Constructive Curmudgeon? On you account they are probably just genetically determined to believe as you are genetically determined not to - so why bother? Or perhaps you do have a bit of the missionary in you after all?

  6. The Atheist Missionary said:

    "and the moral of this story is what? That atheism can lead to existential despair and self-destruction?...The fact that a particular world-view may be more optimistic than another (and that point can be debated between atheists and Christians) does not lend one iota to the truth of either."

    Let's say (arguendo) atheism is true. Some people are quite arguably more optimistic about life as a result of belief in God than they would have been had they disbelieved in God. In fact, some people might arguably have descended into "existential despair and self-destruction" as atheists, but instead they live a more optimistic life as theists. Perhaps it gives these people more peace of mind and general mental stability, lower blood pressure, less depression, etc. As such, belief in God has a positive outcome for these people. Belief in God would be beneficial in some measure to these people.

    Speaking for yourself as a humanitarian-minded atheist, why wouldn't you support the health and well-being of some subset of people for whom belief in God serves as a form of medicine to help keep such people from "existential despair and self-destruction" whether or not it's true?

  7. A.M., Everyone who thinks has an epistemic foundation, a set of presuppositions on which to process information. A blind belief in God can be one as well as the authentic indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Denial of the same is yet another.