Amis Tries to Convert Hitchens to Agnosticism

Andrew Sullivan posted this excerpt from Martin Amis’ foreword to The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism–The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens. Amis and Hitchens were very dear friends for nearly their entire lives. And while I think he here misunderstands the distinction between an agnostic and an atheist, I think his affection for his friend and the mastery of the written word that he shared with him shines through.

“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.

Anyway, we do not know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so brightly. The parent star, that steady-state H-bomb we call the sun, will eventually turn from yellow dwarf to red giant, and will swell out to consume what is left of us, about six billion years from now.”

Regardless of the disagreement over semantics, I’m just in awe of Amis, as I always was with Hitch, and his exceptional wordcraft.

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  • abb3w

    “Zealous agnostic”? My head hurts….

  • Chiroptera

    And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation….

    I wonder why people who claim that agnosticism is more logical, they don’t also seem to apply their agnosticism to the existence of werewolves and leprechauns.

  • colnago80

    Referring to the Sun as yellow dwarf is at odds with what we know about the nature of stars. In actuality, contrary to popular opinion, the Sun is rather larger and more luminous then the average star in the Milky Way galaxy. Hardly a dwarf.

  • Synfandel

    Gosh, it’s just so big and complex. Therefore, maybe there’s a god.

    We’ve all heard variations on this feeble apologia. Even Carl Sagan flirted with it. Meh.

  • doublereed

    It’s hard for me to appreciate just because I find that argument so annoying.

  • jws1

    Still like Aron Ra’s opinion on the atheist-agnostic question.

  • brucemartin

    Amis’s view would have been sensible if he lived in a world where many people were agnostic about unicorns, etc.

    While the word agnostic may have been invented by Huxley, and Amis and any one person can define it as they wish, in practice all words in a language are defined by the usage patterns of those who use that word. And most people do not use the word agnostic to describe their unicorn opinions. I know some who do, but not most people.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks…

    I had thought that most worker termites were female, as with ants, but the wikipfft fails to discuss this (not even using the word “female”once), and almost everything else a search returns has to do with killing ’em, not peering between their little legs.

    … the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

    By which logic a single cell in a cat’s tail is a higher intelligence than a human’s brain, even that of a leading cytologist.

    And colnago80 @ # 3 already beat me to the punch about that “yellow dwarf” boo-boo.

    I suppose Hitchens was willing to prioritize floweriness over factuality, at least when in the service of flattery.

  • hexidecima

    ” 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.”

    to chime in, this has to be the stupidest thing I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t understand something so magically It’s more intelligent than me. It’s the usual appeal to personal ignorance and hope that we will “never” understand something to preserve the baseless claim that there is anything supernatural about reality. No one can randomly decide to redefine a word, no more than anyone can decide they can have their own set of “facts”. It’s simply ridiculous and dishonest.

  • Nick Gotts

    I’m just in awe of Amis, as I always was with Hitch

    I’m not in awe of this pair of warmongering racist shitbags. Here’s Amis in 2006 (and it’s not an isolated example):

    There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children

    While Amis did not, unlike Hitchens, support the invasion of Iraq, he said “we” should not feel bad about having “helped Iraq scrape a draw with Iran” in the Iran–Iraq War – a war of aggression launched by Iraq, including the use of chemical weapons and leading to around a million deaths.

  • Michael Heath

    Martin Amis writes:

    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.

    I’m with hexidecima @ 9. In fact I’d argue Mr. Amis’ assertion descends to creationist-level idiocy. Somebody needs to let Mr. Amis in on the demonstrated existence of sentience and the working definition of intelligence.

  • justawriter

    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.

    In the same sense I can regard a tree as a marvelous conversationalist, in the sense that it is always willing to listen and never disagrees with me.

  • John Horstman

    @Pierce R. Butler #8: It looks like termites have both males and females serve as workers (they are eusocial to a degree, but the workers are immature organisms that may develop into e.g. reproductive caste members). Bees and ants, as you mention, use a haplodiploid sex-determination system, where ‘fertilization’ of the eggs determines sex, with females diploid and males haploid (though ‘fertilization’ is a bit of a misnomer in this case, as the eggs that are not exposed to sperm are still fertile and develop into haploid males). A Google search for “termite worker sex” produces a bunch of results.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

    Amis here proves that being a superb wordsmith is no protection against saying unutterably silly things.

  • http://drx.typepad.com Dr X

    To this non-writer’s ear, the man can write. That was often one of my reactions when I read Hitchens. I say that with more than a tinge of sadness that I’ll never have that remarkable way with words. So I can appreciate the writer’s admiration for that depth and velocity of talent.

    Another side of me understands the dismissive venom in this thread. I confess that I don’t have a strong opinion of Amis because I haven’t read much of him, only enough to recognize his talent as writer. I read and saw enough of Hitchens to dislike him as a mean, pretentious intellectual mediocrity. I never read or heard anything from Hitchens that challenged me intellectually. There was nothing that drew me into the tougher gray areas that deeply thoughtful people sometimes illuminate. He was a writer for the true believer, not a writer for the true thinker.

    Judging from the reactions to Amis in thread, I wonder if Amis like Hitchens had a sublime way with words masquerading as a sublime intellect.

    I suppose it’s fine to admire someone’s writing, even if their thoughts are ultimately pedestrian, but the problem I have with elevating someone like Hitchens to secular sainthood is that he wasn’t just intellectually benign and pedestrian. He was a pretentious, social-climbing bully, a gasbag drunk who attacked and destroyed with withering dexterity, anyone who dared to challenge the confident certainty of his drunken black and white world. Remember how wrong and how disgracefully denigrating he was of anyone who questioned his bombastic support for the Iraq invasion? The man lived in a binary world: on one side was Christopher Hitchens and everyone who fawned over his brilliance. On the other side, stupid people.

    Is there some point when we should withdraw our admiration for certain talents because the character of a person demands that we withhold praise? I’m all for seeing people as complicated and flawed. We’re all idiots in some respects and most of us are jerks sometimes, but I also think there are tipping points at which bad character overshadows talent. That’s how it is for me with Hitchens. I can’t look at his writing without also seeing a self-aggrandizing prig who rolled over more thoughtful people with the sheer largeness of his mean arrogance and his incredible way with words, even when he was very, very wrong.

  • Mobius

    Hitchens was a truly deep thinker. While I don’t agree with all of his positions (such as some of the things he said post 9-11), anything he wrote is worth considering at the very least.

    I am just now getting around to reading God Is Not Great. Hitchens brought together his personal experiences, his personal studies and a great deal of considered thought to make his case. Sadly, I think that most of the people that need to read this book never will. In my case, Hitchens’ book is preaching to the choir.

  • anubisprime

    Amis is just playing…”I am a reasonable doubter, not a dyed in the wool nasty one”

    In other words he is fluffing the powers that give him work in the Brit media, at least the ones that go all goose pimply and damp knickered at a delusion that they are convinced, for some vague reason, that pretending Agnosticism is a ‘better’ position to adopt then outright Atheism and that somehow Amis is really a theist but without the conviction, and therefore not controversial.

    Amis seems to be touting the position…

    ‘You see we don’t say god does not exist we are on the fence about it…he might or might not’.

    A far more digestible concept for the afflicted then claiming high octane Atheism, where sitting on any fence is not only unlikely but considered quite contemptible, Besides it is a philosophy which apparently the jeebus fans really hate and despise because it is a direct threat to their status quo as the only game in town..

    I rather get the impression that Amis is just ‘seeing to business’ it is nothing really to do with Hitch who no doubt would have ripped Amis a new one for such ribald, fatuous, mendacious nonsense.

    After all hitch has departed this mortal coil while Amis still has a bank account to tick over…Amis is just insuring income, that and no more!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dispatches Ed Brayton

    NIck Gotts provides an excellent example of quote-mining when he cites my statement that I am “in awe of Amis, as I always was with Hitch” while skipping the context: “and his exceptional wordcraft.” It’s absolutely clear in my post that I am talking about their extraordinary way with words, not their political views. You’d make a good creationist.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com Leo Buzalsky

    Regardless of the disagreement over semantics, I’m just in awe of Amis, as I always was with Hitch, and his exceptional wordcraft.

    One problem, perhaps. I would think exceptional wordcraft would require one be keen on semantics. Then again, it may be more of a keenness on the popular semantics. And Amis is using what seems to be the popular semantic, whereas we’re not so on board with popularity. I would guess he’s using the more popular definition of “atheist” as well, where one does not believe any gods exist with much certainty.

    Preaching to the choir, I’m sure, but the popular definitions fail to serve any useful purpose. The popular definition of “agnostic” is just way too broad and the popular definition of “atheist” too narrow.

    Also, thanks to other commenters, I see Amis also said, “It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a ‘higher intelligence’ – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence.” So much for that agnostic position being more logical.

  • doublereed

    Oh snap, Ed comes out swinging.

    I wonder who Dr X considers a ‘deep thinker.’

    Seriously, painting Hitchens a vulgar brute is frankly laughable, even if you disagree with his views.

  • corwyn

    ‘Agnosticism’ in the context of people trying to convince you is ‘the slightest doubt’. ‘Agnosticism’, in the context of people convincing others what you just conceded to, ‘50% likely’.

    ‘Agnosticism’ in its original context ‘unknowability’. Not whether you know for sure, but whether it is possible to ever know.

  • anubisprime

    Apparently Agnosticism is a way of pretending ‘turtles’ all the way down without really paying much notice to the concept behind the phrase or indeed actually ignoring the elephant in the room that the phrase addresses.

  • b8ovin

    @18 “You’d make a good creationist.” Really, Ed? When did quote mining become exclusive to the creationist community and no other? In your first post today you used a portion of a statement by Obama admitting the U.S. had tortured prisoners. The entire quote however, reveals Obama was making this admission in order to make the case that it was justifiable. Am I to denounce that as quote mining, or can I deduce that the portion you used was in order to show the disconnect between the President using the word torture as opposed to the elite media’s preference for obscuring euphemism?

  • AsqJames

    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.

    Would it be a semantic disagreement if I said that’s absolute bollocks?

    Cosmology aims to understand the entire breadth and 13.7 billion year history of the universe. It’s been going in earnest what, a couple of centuries? A last tiny fraction of a percentage of the time humans have existed and a blink of an eye compared to the age of the universe itself. Only a tiny fraction of people in only the very wealthiest of societies have had any opportunity to contribute to it…

    …and Amis judges the progress to date “embarrassingly incomplete and approximate”? I’d ask him to compare cosmology’s “humiliations” over the last 30 years with its discoveries and progress, but I doubt he could accurately name, describe and place in the correct category, a single one.

    Still the words go together nicely, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether the idea they communicate is consonant with reality.

  • sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Kingsley Amis, Martin’s father when asked “You atheist?” by Yevgeni Yevtushenko said “It’s more that I hate him.” He also put god as a character in his novel The Green Man. God isn’t portrayed as a very nice chap.

    There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.

    Surely the whole point of this is that Amis recognises the consequences of giving way to the urge and disapproves of it even if he recognises how tempting it is.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    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.

    How is being an atheist in any way like being a termite? This analogy is like Hitler at an ice-rink.

    Amis may be awesome, but this discourse of his seems to me to be just a more articulate restatement of that old trope about atheists being arrogant and unwilling to admit the limits of their knowledge. And it’s basically not true: denial of gods and the supernatural isn’t based on arrogance or an inflated notion of one’s own intellect; it’s just based on lack of evidence. There’s nothing arrogant about saying “I can’t believe an extraordinary claim when I see zero evidence to support it.”

    Or maybe I’m missing something?

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    The more I think about it, the more I think Amis was actually trying to get Hitchens to return to Christianity. Getting him to admit he couldn’t really be certain God didn’t exist was just the first step; and the next would have been either Pascal’s Wager or some variation of “You just admitted you were uncertain — but guess what — the Bible IS certain! Therefore the Bible wins! Checkmate, atheists!”

    I know next to nothing about Amis, but this letter of his just sounds like the standard manipulative evangelical script.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @20. doublereed : “Seriously, painting Hitchens a vulgar brute is frankly laughable, even if you disagree with his views.”

    Seconded by me and quoted for truth.

    There are those here on FTB who seek to wholly demonise those who disagree with them politically sometimes even onlyaona couple of issues and it is not fair or reasonable or ethical to do so. They know who they are.

  • anubisprime

    Raging Bee @ 27

    Absolutely agree with your opinion on this nonsense screed.

    However well it is written it does not disguise the strong and pungent stench of utter fatuous bullshit!

    If Hitch could comment on it…likelihood would not be beyond the realms to see Amis receiving an anal bodily modification resulting from this particular mediocrity.

  • freehand

    Huxley, IIRC, used “agnostic” to mean someone who acknowledges that it’s wrong to try to argue somebody into a position for which there is no good evidence. And atheist is, by a popular definition, somebody who lacks beliefs in gods. As said above, I lack belief in the existence of unicorns because 1. there is no persuasive evidence for them, and 2. there should be, if they existed. If somebody said, some scholars think the concept of “unicorn” came from stories of rhinocerouses which few Greeks had ever seen, so of course unicorns exist. To which I say “ppppbbttff!”. That assertion is another one entirely, and trivial. Unicorns as most people think of them do not exist; if you think otherwise provide a reason why I should think so.

    .

    Same with gods. If they are gods like Fundamentalists think of them, they don’t exist. If they are gods as Jefferson thought of them, there is no reason to think they do. If they or somebody else thinks I should believe they exist, they are welcome to provide evidence.

    .

    By the two common definitions used above, I am both agnostic and atheist. If agnostic means simply “doesn’t know”, then that’s a trivial observation. As chiroptera points out above, that includes an uncountable number of entities (most of which aren’t even supernatural). This should be so obvious that it’s not worth mentioning. We don’t know anything about the universe with certainty. Except for statements from closed system of logic like arithmetic, all assertions have a degree of uncertainty. That doesn’t mean that some assertions are more likely than others. Trying to get me to believe something which flies in the face of evidence (e.g. there is a god named Yahweh, and he cares about what kind of sex we have) is both risible and sad.

  • corwyn

    It occurs to me that all this marvelous word-smithing is really quite pointless. Put the propositions expressed into mathematics and the result is quite mundane.

    First, we acknowledge that theistic, agnostic (as used here), and atheistic, are levels of confidence in a single proposition (that of the existence of a god or two). Thus they can be translated (or assigned if one prefers) a single range of numbers. For simplicity, I suggest, -∞ to +∞ with agnostic position symmetrical about the 0 point, with a unit called ‘evidence’.

    So, either Amis is trying to persuade, Hitchens (posthumously) that Hitch’s range for the agnostic position is too narrow, or that Hitch’s confidence level needs to be moved in the positive direction. The latter would require evidence (let’s call it X units of evidence), and should thus move a rational Hitchens’ confidence level, X units in the positive direction. Since no evidence is provided by Amis, we can assume he doesn’t intend this interpretation.

    Amis can therefore be assumed to be extolling the virtues of Hitchens expanding the range encompassed by the term ‘agnostic’ without actually changing his confidence level in the proposition of the existence of a god. One of his arguments for this is that Hitchens’ position could be described as ‘lenten’ (which dictionary.com informs me means “suggesting Lent, as in austerity, frugality, or rigorousness; meager.”) Does he really mean that? Is Hitchens’ position on the agnosticism range, ‘rigorous’? ‘meager’? But hey, it sounds religious. Word-smithing or obfuscation?

    If we were to assign meaning to the evidence units, even this argument would likely go away. IF Hitchens were to describe his position as 1:1,000,00 against their being a god, I can imagine no one sensible claiming that that should be represented by an ‘agnostic’ label. On the other hand, 2:3 against could well be described by that label. No need to ask whether such a position is ‘decrous’ or ‘romantic’. And no arguments about “extent of your ignorance” need apply. The confidence level is solely determined by evidence, increased awareness of amount of ignorance has no bearing on the question. I somehow doubt that he would have spent his remaining days fighting against a proposition he gave only 2:3 odds against being true, but I will leave speculation as to his real confidence to those with more knowledge.

    The science of Cosmology has over the last 30 years added 3 orders of magnitude to the precision of its estimate for the age of the universe. It has discovered an entirely new aspect of its fate. Anyone who has recently lost confidence in the science of Cosmology just isn’t paying attention.

    One is also left wondering why Amis, “a dear friend for most of their lives”, waits until after Hitchens is dead to make this argument? Surely, they had time previous, and ample warning. He is not trying to lose this argument with Hitchens (which he admits he would), but rather to win it with us. To try to make us doubt what Hitchens would say in response. To change our memory of him. What a horrible thing to do to a friend.

  • anubisprime

    corwyn @ 31

    One is also left wondering why Amis, “a dear friend for most of their lives”, waits until after Hitchens is dead to make this argument? Surely, they had time previous, and ample warning. He is not trying to lose this argument with Hitchens (which he admits he would), but rather to win it with us. To try to make us doubt what Hitchens would say in response. To change our memory of him. What a horrible thing to do to a friend.

    By the shape it is a cowardly way to extol some totally fatuous position.

    Seems to be playing to some gallery here either touting for work or more probably the honours list council…a few bishops on that committee I would guess.

    No doubt there has been some similar debate between these two, one can only presume that Amis lost and probably often…how sad do you have to be to try and get the one win you were always destined to lose to the man by waiting for that man to die…?

    That subterfuge alone informs more then Amis must feel comfortable with because it is the behaviour of the theist, and as such is more then disingenuous it is tantamount to dancing on the man’s grave.

    He knew very well Hitch’s position, he did not make a secret of it after-all, to try and pretend, or at least suggest, that your own position is the one that Hitch might consider, if he had lived long enough, is just beyond contempt and Hitch would be more then disappointed in this fool’s analytical faculties.

  • Silentbob

    @ 28 StevoR

    Hitch was not adverse to showing contempt for those whose views he found morally reprehensible. I’m sure he would understand. (I’m very sure he wouldn’t be feeling sorry for himself or whining pathetically that people weren’t being nice enough to him.)

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    One is also left wondering why Amis, “a dear friend for most of their lives”, waits until after Hitchens is dead to make this argument? Surely, they had time previous, and ample warning. He is not trying to lose this argument with Hitchens (which he admits he would), but rather to win it with us. To try to make us doubt what Hitchens would say in response. To change our memory of him. What a horrible thing to do to a friend.

    Wait, he wrote that crap AFTER Hitchens died?! That makes it all the more creepy, manipulative, and sleazy. This is at least as bad as a self-righteous Christian saying “Well, he knows I’m right now!”