Lenten Atheism and Agnostic Ignorance: Martin Amis Doesn’t Know (And Neither Do You?)

Our coverage of English atheism soldiers on! The tired beast gained a new stripe this […]

David Zahl / 4.26.11

Our coverage of English atheism soldiers on! The tired beast gained a new stripe this past week in The Observer, where writer Martin Amis saluted his good friend and colleague Christopher Hitchens. What could have simply been affectionate/witty hagiography takes an interesting turn at the end, when Amis confronts Hitchens’ non-belief, ht SMZ:

My dear Hitch: there has been much wild talk, among the believers, about your impending embrace of the sacred and the supernatural. This is of course insane. But I still hope to convert you, by sheer force of zealotry, to my own persuasion: agnosticism. In your seminal book, God Is Not Great, you put very little distance between the agnostic and the atheist; and what divides you and me (to quote Nabokov yet again) is a rut that any frog could straddle. “The measure of an education,” you write elsewhere, “is that you acquire some idea of the extent of your ignorance.” And that’s all that “agnosticism” really means: it is an acknowledgment of ignorance. Such a fractional shift (and I know you won’t make it) would seem to me consonant with your character – with your acceptance of inconsistencies and contradictions, with your intellectual romanticism, and with your love of life, which I have come to regard as superior to my own.

The atheistic position merits an adjective that no one would dream of applying to you: it is lenten. And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation – to the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being (hesitantly) called the multiverse. The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a “higher intelligence” – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

Of course, we on this site might suggest that Christianity – as opposed to mere religion – represents a deeper embrace of one’s limitations than agnosticism. We might even consider existential ignorance, that is, the subjectivity and fallibility that imprison us, to be our defining trait, that when this self-evident reality is compromised (in any way), the Gospel automatically sours. After all, what does it mean to be a sinner in need of a savior if not a confused, reactive citizen fearfully occupied by the attempt to establish one’s own truth and value? People, in other words, who have given up momentarily on summoning their own answers – both about themselves and their world – with senses occasionally pried open enough to perceive, or receive, the possibility of outside input. That this input might not only take into account the stubborn and vindictive ends at which we aim ourselves, but forgive it, and to do so without any requirement of certainty or piety other than that which has already been (objectively) accomplished, is good news indeed. Not that it’s always/ever presented that way… But who knows(!), perhaps this is why we call faith a gift.