Monday, April 25, 2011

The Sheer Logic Of Agnosticism

A moving appeal by novelist Martin Amis to his ailing friend, polemicist Christopher Hitchens:

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.

Hat tip to Hugh Hewitt


J.C. Marrero said...

Thanks for posting this. I think Mr. Hitchens has become, by virtue of his fierceness and brilliance, the ultimate "get". If he comes to accept even the possibility of a deity, then we believers might feel validation, if not vindication.

But, tying this to your recent post about Christ's directive to worship privately, it may well be that Mr. Hitchen's way may not be the conventional way--but who can say that it is not at least as valid. Radical denial may be close kin to uncompromising adherence.

My suspicion is that the religious impulse is hard-wired in some and lacking in others. Some folks just can't get enthused about spiritual subjects, try as they might, or not.

Heck, even to the devout, anyone else's religious affinity tends to look faintly ridiculous if not shared.

I admit to having had a good, albeit guilty, laugh at some of the more flamboyant TV evangelists. And, some of the funniest passages of "A Confederacy of Dunces" poke fun at New Orleans' Catholic-cum-voodoo practices.

The opposite to believers, atheists and agnostics are the indifferent. They are the ones that, if my hunch is correct, lack the religious "gene", for better or worse.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Juan. You may be right. But Hitchens' atheism is also, as you know, a piece with his a-authoritarianism. Sovereign, Lord, Almighty -- not his style, nor indeed that of most in the West, which is why so many proclaim Christ (or Allah) as Lord and then do whatever they want irrespective of their teachings and commandments. For many of us, God has about as much potency as Queen Elizabeth.

J.C. Marrero said...

Speaking of, let us say late in life conversions, you're probably familiar with the alleged exhange between the dying Voltaire and an importuning priest. The Cure asked him whether he renounced Satan, and Voltaire refused, saying that it was no time to be making new enemies.

Somewhat similarly, W.C. Fields was seen thumbing a Bible shortly before the end. Impressed by the unexpected show of piety, someone asked him what he was doing. He supposedly responded, "looking for a loophole".

I guess one dies as one lives!