My second favorite atheist philosopher is David Stove, primarily because of his trenchant attacks on my favorite atheist philosopher, Karl Popper. This is, perhaps, a bit unfair to Popper, as he had enough humility about the world we live in, and life in general, to rank as an agnostic fellow traveler. Stove, though, was an outright atheist (on which more in a moment).
See him at his finest, which is to say, his most characteristically caustic, hubristic, dismissive, and sneaky-evil in his essay “What is Wrong with Our Thoughts?”. The essay is long, but very worth reading. In a word, he cherry picks some crazy shit from Plotinus, Hegel, and Foucault, squeezes a bit, then paints all philosophers with the resulting ordure.
From an Enlightenment or Positivist point of view, which is Hume’s point of view, and mine, there is simply no avoiding the conclusion that the human race is mad. There are scarcely any human beings who do not have some lunatic beliefs or other to which they attach great importance. People are mostly sane enough, of course, in the affairs of common life: the getting of food, shelter, and so on. But the moment they attempt any depth or generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness, as naturally as they adopt the local dress. But the more powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic, such as Plato, or Augustine, or Comte, or Hegel, or Marx.
I encourage you to go read the essay before reading on. Pay no attention to the blockquote below the fold, until you have vanquished the wicked essay of the west.
Okay, ready? Here’s R. J. Stove writing about his father’s end:
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.
This was in June 1994. I cannot hope to convey the horror of this event. It dealt a mortal blow to the whole atheistic house of cards which constituted my own outlook. Was Dad in hell? If not, did he have the smallest hope of heaven, despite the manner of his death? If so, by what means? How much did my own evil contribute to his suicide? And how could I even begin to make amends? The story of the next eight years, until my own gruesomely belated baptism on August 11, 2002, is very much the story of how I writhed over—and wrestled with—such questions.
On a happier note, “gruesomely belated baptism” is one of the best phrases I have ever read.