As all of us know the renowned scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking was a convinced atheist. Living with him for 25 years as a committed and believing wife was a challenge in itself.
Jane Wilde, a PhD holder in medieval Spanish poetry, married Hawking in 1965 after meeting him through his sister at a party when he was 23, a year after he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.” It was a challenge, but I believed that together we could beat the disease,” she recalls.
“I was very young, and when one is young, you do not think about death. Death can be overcome, and I was sure we would win the battle.” “We were in love, in a state of euphoria. We decided to get married, and didn’t really think much about the disease. We were still young enough to feel immortal.
“ Their marriage lasted for 30 years, with the couple separating in 1990 and then divorcing five years later.
Faith was my rock and a blessing because I believed that there was help and support for me in all the challenges I faced and that things would resolve themselves eventually. There were moments of pressure. “This was especially evident when we went on a trip to Israel for Stephen to receive a prize at the Knesset. He seemed to delight in telling the press that he was an atheist and this I found very hurtful and disrespectful. In Jerusalem, of all places, the most holy city in the world. So I visited the old city several times and found great inspiration there – but on my own.”
She recalled another incidence in 1985. Hawking was struck down by pneumonia while participating in research at CERN that left him in a coma. Wilde said that she received a phone call from the hospital in Switzerland letting her know that he was close to death.
“Please Lord, let Stephen live,” was her prayer. The doctors said that there was nothing else that they could do, and asked her for permission to turn off Hawking’s life support, but Wilde refused. Her faith response was instant: “Stephen should live.”
Due to the critical situation at hand, doctors had to perform a tracheotomy on Hawking, which succeeded in saving his life, but left him unable to speak and requiring the electronic voice synthesiser that the world now associates with him. While she ‘prayed to God’ for him he would live as he mocked her faith.
Apart from Hawking’s increasing devotion to “the goddess Physics” to the exclusion of his family, another reason for their strained marriage was tension rising from Hawking routinely making fun of Wilde’s Christian faith.
“I understand the reasons for Stephen’s atheist beliefs, because if at the age of 21 a person is diagnosed with a terrible disease, are you going to believe in God? I think not,” Wilde admits.
“But I needed my faith, because it gave me the support and comfort I needed to continue. Without my faith, I would have had nothing but the support from my parents and some friends. But through faith, I always thought it was going to overcome all the problems that arose me.”
Hawking claimed that “miracles are not compatible with science. “Wilde smiled.” Did he say that? Well it’s funny, because I think it’s a miracle that he’s still alive. It is a miracle of medical science, the determination of the human spirit – many miracles put altogether.”
Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen (first published in 1999 as Music to Move the Stars), suggests complexities in a relationship between a firm believer and a stanch atheist.
Kuruvilla Pandikattu SJ