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Amis to Hitchens on agnosticism

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.

From The Guardian here [h/t Jay Rosen]


  1. Thanks.

    That Guardian column was a good read. I pretty much agree with Amis on agnosticism. However, it is in Hitchens’ blood to be confrontational, and “agnostic” is probably not confrontational enough for him.

  2. David Williams David Williams

    He (Amis) goes on (the you refers to Hitchins):

    “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.”

    I’ve tried this several times but with no (limited) success: What does lenten mean in this context?

    • Barry Rountree Barry Rountree

      The OED definition will have to wait until I get into the lab, but the thefreedictionary dot com version will do for now: relating to Let; meager; e.g., “lenten fare.”

      • Barry Rountree Barry Rountree

        Sigh… posting before coffee error: s/Let/Lent/g.

        • David Williams David Williams

          Yes, well, I’ve looked the word up of course, in several places, and have an albeit meagre understanding of it and its use. But my question was: What does Amis mean? With respect to Hitchins.

  3. Presumably, Amis is referring to the religious practice during Lent of sacrificing a thing one wants or desires. One is thus lenten when he is undergoing a practice of “giving up” a thing for the month. This is how I’ve heard the term, at least. Amis may be asking Hitchens to “give up” his acrimonious antagonism.

    • I read it to mean something like the sort of ascetic monasticism one associates with Lent and the avoidance of pleasure. Hitch’s atheism does strike me as the sort of thing an ex-monk might adopt, John Knox without the deity.

  4. Glynn Woodbury Glynn Woodbury

    Lenten. The major traditional aspect of Lent is forgoing something one desires, usually some food or pleasurable activity. I’m supposing that Amis might mean that atheism, by giving up god, is forgoing something, – the possibility of being wrong perhaps? Perhaps just a possible debating position.

    • David Williams David Williams

      Glynn Woodbury: I’m supposing that Amis might mean that atheism, by giving up god, is forgoing something, – the possibility of being wrong perhaps?

      Ah, at last! My initial understanding. Yes, indeed. I agree. That is what I considered Amis’s point to be. And one worthy of reflection. (That is why he says Hitchins would not like the use of that word).

    • David Williams David Williams

      Ok, I’m going to leave this soon but this is of interest, from the pen of Amis himself (1999):

      “Jejune,” a much misused word, it has nothing to do with youth or naïveté. It means fast-like, scanty, Lenten.


      So…I’m back to confused…

  5. Oxford English Dictionary definition:

    2. Such as is appropriate to Lent; hence of provisions, diet, etc., such as may be used in Lent, meagre; of clothing, expression of countenance, etc., mournful-looking, dismal.

  6. Sam C Sam C

    Martin Amis is leaving Britain to go and live in the USA – America’s gain is the UK’s… gain. Apparently us UKians don’t meet Amis’s high standards. Our heads must hang in shame.

    When Amis complained a month or two ago that the queen didn’t listen to him when they met at Buck House, the sympathy of (normally republican) readers of The Grauniad seemed to be rather on the queen’s side than Amis’s.

  7. Please advise this Canadian, whose country no longer allows the conferring of titles on its citizens, the name of the “deservedly knighted columnist in London.”

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