Amis to Hitchens: be an agnostic

Martin Amis hopes to convert his good friend Christopher Hitchens to agnosticism (hat tip: Jonathan Rowson). I remember Amis venturing the sensibility, and sensibleness, of not knowing in Hitchens’ presence somewhere before. After all, as Hitchens himself has written, ‘The measure of an education is that you acquire some idea of the extent of your ignorance.’ It’s the agnostic spirit that reaches back to Socrates, which I try to champion too.

Amis appeals to the ‘indecipherable grandeur’ of the cosmos that is, in a sense, a ‘higher intelligence’. If substantial advances in cosmological understanding have shown one thing, it is that we don’t actually understand the ways of the heavens well at all. And then, Amis continues, there’s the material spirituality of the stardust that is our origin and the destiny of our return. Set against such blazing thoughts, an individual declaring themselves atheist seems ‘lenten’, Amis respectfully suggests.

For me it’s as much, probably more, the immensity of our inner, rather than outer, space that makes agnosticism so appealing. We are the creature who can plunge into the depths of existence; life at its most real comes to us as a troubling, glorious excess. It’s why we suffer and love. It’s surely something of that energy that Hitchens so powerful channels too.

Hence, the elements in religion that Hitchens finds so objectionable, according to Amis – worship and obedience – actually make increasing sense to me. Of course, there’s the risk and actuality of abuse, as with all things of value. But worship can also be a kind of honouring that which sustains us, stardust or spirit. And obedience, at best, has to do with taking what we are given and, discovering how it works, finding the freedom to make something of it.

Which is also why death matters so much in religion, the third element that Hitchens loathes. Truly, it’s not death denying, but in facing death squarely – as the Good Friday liturgy enacts – is life affirming. For it’s only when you afford death its place in life that the grip of fear might ease, and you can afford life its place in life too. As Rilke notes, when we see death we ‘play our actual lives instead of the performance’.

‘What is your substance, whereof are you made?’, Shakespeare asks of the force that surges through us, surely with more vitality than the stardust – and hence surely, in its mystery, more worthy of honouring too.