This review appears in the May 2008 issue of The American Spectator.
There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind
Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese
(HarperOne, 256 pages, $24.95)
Antony Flew has long been my favorite atheist. That may be an odd thing for the son of a minister to say, but then again, Flew’s father was a minister also. For over 60 years, Flew has been a bugbear, a sort of John McCain maverick, defying theists and atheists alike. Flew, who began his career at Oxford, rejected the smug atheism of logical positivism that blithely dismissed all theological statements a priori as meaningless — neither true nor false. Flew opted for an atheism that stood on its own two feet; an atheism of reason and evidence.
Retaining his individualist philosophy and his Socratic commitment to “follow the evidence wherever it leads,” Antony Flew declared his “conversion” to deism in 2004. That is, he now believes in an “infinite Intelligence,” the source of life and the universe; but he does not believe in revealed religion or an afterlife. He recounts all this, along with co-author Roy Abraham Varghese, in There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
That subtitle may seem presumptuous, and Flew would have you know it was the publisher’s idea, but rest assured that it is accurate. From his positions at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele, and Reading, Antony Flew literally set the agenda for philosophical atheism in the latter half of the 20th century. In fact, his first paper, “Theology and Falsification,” delivered at C.S. Lewis’s Oxford Socratic Club just after WWII, is the most widely reprinted philosophical piece of the 20th century.
Unlike many atheist philosophers of the previous century — such as Bertrand Russell — Flew did more than write a few essays on his personal atheism. Rather, he improvised like a jazz musician, challenging theism with whole new lines of thought. As Varghese puts it in his introduction, “it was his reinvention of the frames of reference that changed the whole nature of the discussion.”
In “Theology and Falsification,” Flew challenged believers to not qualify their religious statements to death. In God and Philosophy, he disputed the coherence of the very concept of an omnipresent, omniscient being. And his The Presumption of Atheism argued that in an evidential tie, atheism should win by default.
Unlike dramatic religious conversions, Antony Flew’s change of heart seems based on sober assessment of science’s advance over his lifetime. As he puts it, his is “a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.” “This is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.”
By the 1980s, philosophy of religion was moving beyond discussing the meaningfulness of theological claims and the coherence of the concept of God, beyond discussing the burden of proof. The hot topic became the implications of Big Bang Cosmology. In 1976 Flew breezily declared, “I myself am inclined to believe that the universe was without beginning and will be without end.” But as the 20th century came to a close this grew increasingly difficult. Alternate cosmological models attempting to explain away the evidence for a beginning to the universe, such as the Steady State Model, repeatedly failed.
In biology, Flew is little impressed with Dawkins’s selfish gene theory — that “we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes” and so we should “teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” Replies the philosopher, “If any of this were true, it would be no use to go on…. No eloquence can move programmed robots. But in fact none of it is true — or even faintly sensible. Genes…. do not and cannot necessitate our conduct.”
Nor is Flew satisfied with zoologists like Desmond Morris who, in The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo, gives “a systematic denial of all that is most peculiar to our species…. He ignores or explains away the obvious differences between human beings and other species.”
But Flew thinks intelligence most evident in DNA. As he said in his first appearance as a deist, a 2004 symposium at NYU:
What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together. It’s the enormous complexity of the number of elements and the enormous subtlety of the ways they work together. The meeting of these two parts at the right time by chance is simply minute…which looks to me like the work of intelligence.
Also important to Flew’s transformation were arguments against the unaided emergence of the first self-replicating life forms (including their encoded information and nano-scale information processing systems) and the design displayed in the laws of nature that allow for complex life. Flew didn’t even mention molecular machines found within cells and the increasing scientific consensus that the Earth is a rare, hospitable place indeed.
Unfortunately, at times these chapters read like a laundry list of quotations by famous scientists and philosophers. If you are seeking to understand how many 20th-century intellectuals — from scientists like Paul Davies to philosophers like Alvin Plantinga — can embrace a Mind-before-matter universe in a scientific age, you’ve come to the right place. But if you are looking for an explanation of Flew’s nuanced views or his original contribution, you will find this book wanting. Flew merely seems to say that this is a cumulative case argument, and in his lifetime he saw theists take the lead in a conversation — which will continue — about the origin of life, the universe, and the laws of nature.
Flew’s critics claim he is merely afraid of hellfire in his old age. Too bad for them that Flew doesn’t think there is a Hell of which to be afraid. Still others, including the New York Times, allege that evangelicals tricked him into writing this book. This is regrettable, as the cobbled-together nature of this volume does make it appear that Varghese collected and synthesized Flew’s views.
But this is not the first book with a co-author — and at least Varghese is named. When the New York Times Magazine prints an expose determining that Hillary Clinton did not take months off her first term as U.S. senator to write Living History, I will think its analysis more objective. Still, it is sad that the lack of authentic first-person narrative converts what could have been an excellent work into a merely good primer on how science has changed philosophy of religion.
The greatest untold story of our age is the return of metaphysics to respectability among academic philosophers. Prominent atheist philosophers like Quentin Smith have taken note, even if mass media has not. Smith, editor of the atheist philosophy journal Philo, laments the fact that just when academia was thought reliably atheistic, theism “became, almost overnight, ‘academically respectable.'” In fact, he notes, a perusal of the Oxford University Press catalogue for 2000-2001 shows that of the 96 books on philosophy of religion, 94 advanced theism while 2 presented both sides. Also telling is that Flew’s replacement at the University of Keele was none other than Richard Swinburne, an ardent theist, now at Oxford.
Despite the aforementioned untoward charges, There Is a God is a most valuable and readable overview of the many evidential changes of landscape that 20th-century science is furnishing to the oldest question in Western civilization: Is there a God?
Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C. This review appears in the May 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.