Antony Flew: the atheist who changed his mind
I was saddened to learn of the death, at the age of 87, of the philosopher Antony Flew, who was one of the 20th century's most significant contributors to the philosophical debate about belief in God. Flew was remarkably productive as a scholar. He wrote books as often as others wrote essays; he published papers as often as others wrote reviews. I saw him lecture a few times in the late 90s and he was one of the most engaging and animated speakers I've ever heard. He loved to do battle over ideas, and his training as an analytic philosopher sharpened his natural abilities as a reasoner to a razor's edge. In his hay-day, he was widely seen as the philosophical heir to Bertrand Russell as the country's leading public atheist. He attended C.S. Lewis's Socratic Club at Oxford, and was impressed by Lewis as a thinker but unpersuaded by his apologetics. His books God and Philosophy (1966) and The Presumption of Atheism (1976) made the case, now followed by today's new atheists, that atheism should be the intelligent person's default position until well-established evidence to the contrary arises.
In recent years, Flew's fame was globalised by the news that he had changed his mind about belief in God. There were enticing news stories suggesting that one of the world's leading atheists had now become a Christian, and counter-claims of a philosophical abduction of an old man with dwindling intellectual capacities by Christian apologists. In some interviews, and in subsequent publications, Flew made it clear that he had not become a Christian; he had moved from atheism to a form of deism. This is important: it is a mistake to claim that Flew embraced classical theism in any substantial form; rather, he came to believe merely that an intelligent orderer of the universe existed. He did not believe that this "being" had any further agency in the universe, and he maintained his opposition to the vast majority of doctrinal positions adopted by the global faiths, such as belief in the after-life, or a divine being who actively cares for or loves the universe, or the resurrection of Christ, and argued for the idea of an "Aristotelian God". He explained that he, like Socrates, had simply followed the evidence, and the new evidence from science and natural theology made it possible to rationally advance belief in an intelligent being who ordered the universe. In 2006, he even added his name to a petition calling for the inclusion of intelligent design theory on the UK science curriculum.
In a recent reprinting of God and Philosophy, Flew added a new introduction in which he described the book as "an historical relic" and set out a number of considerations which, he held, undermined the force of that book's case. These included new versions of the design argument, the rise of the anthropic argument, some arguments offered by the intelligent design movement, Richard Swinburne's work on the concept of God, and David Conway's work on the concept of wisdom.
Considerable debate continues to haunt the publication in 2007 of Flew's book There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. This was co-written by Roy Abraham Varghese, but many critics claim that Varghese was the main author. Flew claimed that Varghese was technically the author in the sense that he contructed the book and composed its sections, but he held to the end that the book properly summarised his own conversion from atheism to deism. That account of Flew's "conversion" contains this description:
"I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe's intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source . . . Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science. Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature. But it is not science alone that has guided me. I have also been helped by a renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments . . . I must stress that my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith."
Nevertheless, the inclusion of a chapter making an evidential argument for the resurrection of Christ -- a case rejected by Flew -- has added fire to the debate about the book's authority.
I think there is little doubt that Flew had a change of mind. The question is whether he should have changed his mind on the basis for the available evidence. If a leading Christian apologist rejects belief in God in his later years, does that do any harm to the philosophical case for belief in God? It may affect the public's attitude to belief, but that is a presentational issue, not a philosophical one. The rational persuasiveness of an argument is not determined by the status of the people advancing the argument -- not unless you are attracted to the Fallacy of Authority.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable to pay more attention to certain evidence, I think, if that evidence persuaded a leading opponent of a position to change his mind. By paying attention, I do not mean that the evidence should simply be accepted as a knock-down-drag-out case for the claim at issue; merely, that a rational person concerned about evidence should give it some consideration.
It was with that in mind that, in 2005, I interviewed Antony Flew about his change of mind. We recorded an interview of about 20 minutes, expecting to broadcast the interview on Sunday Sequence. In the end, we took the decision not to broadcast this interview. On Sunday morning, when we consider the life and legacy of Antony Flew, I'll explain why.