When I was ten years old we actually found ourselves living next to a convent. Members of a German order, the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, built a religious house next to ours. Improbably enough in view of the above, my parents came to adore them. At considerable physical risk to himself, Dad would every year climb his own pine trees and chop off branches of them, so that they could be used as Christmas trees at the convent.
More and more my parents’ theoretical opposition to Catholicism became modified by such considerations as “Oh, of course, when we say Catholics are the enemies of free thought, we don’t mean you.” The sheer goodness- in-action (this is the least cumbersome description I can come up with) of the Schoenstatt Sisters modified not only my parents’ prejudices, but mine. Nevertheless my father certainly, and my mother probably, would have thought it grotesque in those days to believe that the nuns’ goodness had anything to do with their faith. No, somehow the nuns were good despite their faith. They presented to my father the same unlikely spectacle as an improbably obliging communist, or an improbably obliging telephone-vandal.
Notice that the actual experience of real Catholic human beings, versus the theoretical Catholics in this atheist family’s mind. And notice too, in these painful, startling paragraphs, what the experience of mortal illness did to R.J. Stove’s father:
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.”)
Read the whole thing, which is marvelous, especially the ending.