Philosopher Antony Flew used to be the most prominent atheist in the English-speaking world. In the last decade, however, that has changed. Unlike Flew, who has always been civil and insightful, a new breed of atheists, who are crass and unruly, has supplanted him, notably, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins. Also, Flew is no longer an atheist. Flew’s newfound belief in God and his assessment of today’s neo-atheism are both described in his delightful new book (coauthored with Roy Varghese), There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
Throughout his philosophical career (going back to the late 1940s, when he rubbed shoulders with C. S. Lewis), Flew was committed to following evidence wherever it leads. Late in life, he found that advances in science made the evidence for design in the universe so compelling that he could no longer withhold belief in God. Flew’s God — a deistic God — is not quite the Christian God of his teacher Lewis. Then again, given Flew’s inclusion in There Is a God of an essay on the Resurrection by N. T. Wright, God seems hardly finished with Flew’s conversion.
The contrast between Flew and his neo-atheist successors is stark. In his atheist days, Flew took not only his atheism but also the theism of his opponents seriously. He understood and engaged their positions; he always recognized that here was a debate of real intellectual merit worth having. Indeed, Flew’s challenge to theism was so insightful that he helped catalyze a distinctly Christian movement of philosophers. Headed by Alvin Plantinga and William Alston, their impact on philosophy has been immense.
The neo-atheists, unlike the old Flew, characterize religious belief as a “poison” that needs to be “eradicated” and those who subscribe to it as “mentally deranged.” Instead of engaging the arguments of theists and admitting difficulties in their own position (for instance, atheism requires a materialistic origin of life, yet all indicators suggest that the information-rich structures of life require a designing intelligence), they issue blanket dismissals of religion. Flew was a rich and varied atheist. The neo-atheists, by contrast, are militant and amateurish.
And vile. In his November 4, 2007 article for the New York Times (“The Turning of an Atheist”), Mark Oppenheimer attributes Flew’s conversion to a combination of senility on Flew’s part and manipulation by Christian evangelicals. This is despicable. I was on the committee to award Flew the Phillip Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth (which he received at Biola University in the spring of 2006). I made the telephone call to Flew on behalf of Biola asking him to agree to accept the award. When I spoke to him, it was clear to me that he was in full possession of his faculties and that he knew full well the cost he was paying for breaking ranks with his atheist colleagues.
Flew as an atheist and now as a theist has always exemplified integrity. I learned this not merely from his writings but also first-hand: when Baylor University, under pressure from Darwinian materialists (like Dawkins), shut down a center for intelligent design research that I directed (the Michael Polanyi Center), Flew protested to the Baylor administration defending my academic freedom and the center’s work — work that opposed atheism. That was back in 2001 while Flew was still an atheist.
God bless Antony Flew!
Antony Flew and HarperCollins Respond to the New York Times article:
Here is Antony Flew’s response to the claim, made in the NY Times magazine article, that he did not write the book (from a press release issued by the publisher 11/7/2007):
“My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 percent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I’m 84 and that was Roy Varghese’s role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I’m old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking.”
Harper One deputy publisher Mark Tauber adds, “We stand behind this book. Roy Varghese took Tony’s thoughts and put them in publishable form. This is not an unusual practice.” Tauber adds, “Unfortunately, the NYT Magazine writer generalized from Flew’s aphasia to senility–which is far from accurate. Additionally, the NYT writer completely skipped the philosophical content of the book, dismissing Tony’s arguments for God’s existence in one word, calling it ‘pseudoscience’ and so insulting both Tony and anyone persuaded that these arguments might be true.”