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Antony Flew: the atheist who changed his mind

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William Crawley | 10:44 UK time, Friday, 16 April 2010

04flew60011.jpgI 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.

512Cow1agBL._SS500_.jpgConsiderable 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's a fascinating story, no doubt, and when I read a couple of years ago that Flew had added his name to a list endorsing the teaching of intelligent design, I was thoroughly confused and quickly came to the conclusion that he was not thinking clearly enough anymore to form a consistent answer on these questions. Whether that is the case or whether he was moving toward some more 'theistic' belief, I'm not sure. But it's clear to me that someone who is a deist cannot endorse creationism by any name, especially a deist who claimed to have relied upon reason and the light of scientific discovery to arrive at his conclusions.

    It could be that the fate of addled thinking awaits most of us I guess. Flew was a great thinker.

  • Comment number 2.

    Ridiculous. Flew's brain was dying and no doubt the resulting mis-firing led to the so called recant of Rationalism.

    "People who have "near-death experiences," such as flashing lights, feelings of peace and joy and divine encounters before they pull back from the brink may simply have raised levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood, a study suggests."


    Neuroscience shows where gods come from and that is human imagination.

    Anything can provoke the brain to construct illusion.

    Religious beliefs are expressions of fantasy and the gods are imaginary characters created by ancient cultures. Faith is all in the mind of course.

    Any old thing such as magic mushrooms, anesthesia, food poisoning, getting drunk, a stroke, epileptic seizure or concussion can result in the brain misfiring and causing people to see ghosts or gods. When such brain events happened to primitive people it led them to invent religion. For too long those promoting religious belief have gotten away with conjuring tricks and forcing belief. This cannot continue any longer, as it is irrational and in my mind demeaning to the quest for knowledge and truth. We can no longer tolerate politicians and governments protecting religions mandating theocratic submission and faith.

    'Religion and Science start from the same common ancestor, ignorance.'

    A.C. Grayling

  • Comment number 3.


    "Anything can provoke the brain to construct illusion."

    Anything, Lucy?


  • Comment number 4.

    #2 - LucyQ -

    What an immensely entertaining rant that was, LucyQ, and even more so considering the almost total lack of logical coherence within it. Perhaps this is because you're also getting on a bit, Lucy, and you're become a bit addled?

    According to your own "reasoning" - if I can dare to dignify your seriously confuddled comments with such a term - a person's age undermines the legitimacy of his or her beliefs. Wow! What profound logic that is. You have just established a new argument against the existence of God: the senility argument!

    So we have in our collection:

    The senility argument
    The magic mushroom argument
    The anesthesia argument
    The food poisoning argument
    The getting drunk argument
    The stroke argument
    The epileptic seizure argument
    The concussion argument

    ...and not forgetting...

    The carbon dioxide argument!

    So anyone who believes in God who suffers these unfortunate influences must be deluded. But... wait for it.... anyone who does not believe in God, but comes within these categories is not considered to be deluded. What kind of logic is that??!!

    What utter drivel you write, Lucy!

    Here's a little challenge for you. Try explaining how your wonderful world-view produced reason itself. And then we can have a proper (grown-up) debate...

    (Oh, and by the way... talking about imagination, how can you be so sure that atheism is not also a product of that particular faculty of the mind? After all, in your world-view all ideas of the human mind are merely "human" - therefore entirely subjective - since they result from a natural process of development. But I don't suppose you really understand what that means, epistemologically speaking.)

  • Comment number 5.

    Having travelled the road from atheism /agnosticism to being with or knowing God I can relate to the search and seeking with the mind and the intellect as described above....I also needed reason and rationality rather than 'blind faith' to convince me that there was something more to this life than the limited physical/materialistic/(incomplete) science based views I had held, .....and I found some answers and some reasons and science and had different intellectual concepts and ideas and knowledge about God such that I could have said I knew God existed but I did not know God.....if for example ....metaphorically speaking God was a person... it was as if I knew about that person, their family, their habits, their work, their likes and dislikes etc etc but I had never met the person. The problem was I was using my mind, my intellect to try and know God......and whilst that was part of the journey for me it did not get me where I wanted to go.....I had changed my mind about the existence of God but I was still in my mind and using my mind to get me somewhere that the mind cannot deliver nor understand or know .......The author of the Cloud of Unknowing way back in 14thC approx said that the only way God can be known is by love for ‘only to our intellect is he incomprehensible: not to our love,’ and also that it is ‘by love that the soul enters into union with him’, for ‘by love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never.' .Wise words all those centuries ago and yet most of mankind unfortunately remain largely unaware of their importance and significance. I was also blind and now I see with different eyes. The source of love within us is the inner heart ....and for me the journey to knowing God has been one of shifting from the intelligence of the mind (which may not be as intelligent as we like to think it is !) to the heart and unfolding its wisdom. Yes there are energetic laws of the universe - the most basic of which is that God is love. We are sparks of that love....and it takes love to know love.....and to my understanding we can all know that love/God for ourselves and render 'belief in God' defunct. So did Flew change his mind but stay in his mind or did he make the journey from the mind to the heart? Perhaps staying in the realm of the mind and intellectual argument was enough to give him a 'belief in God' but not the knowing that comes when one shifts from the mind to the heart?

  • Comment number 6.

    I think we are owed an explanation as to why the interview was not broadcast? Could it be the continuation of the BBC's policy of not giving prominence to anything that confirms the Christian worldview?

    So far as we know, Anthony Flew never did become a Christian, but - like Christians - he incurred the wrath of those who forbid atheism to be challenged, least of all on the air!

    The Bible declares,"You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29v13)

    And for those who really want to know the truth, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a very good place to start!

  • Comment number 7.

    Gosh, I did not know the BBC had such a policy.When did they draw that up? How do the governors feel about it? Is it mentioned anywhere in there annual reports? Is it not going to be a bit restricting on William as he goes about his religious/ethical journalistic activities?

  • Comment number 8.

    What would Lady Hope make of this?

    "It was one of those glorious autumn afternoons that we sometimes enjoy in England, when I was asked to go in and sit with the well known professor, Anthony Flew. He was almost bedridden for some months before he died. I used to feel when I saw him that his fine presence would make a grand picture for our Royal Academy; but never did I think so more strongly than on this particular occasion.
    He was sitting up in bed, wearing a soft embroidered dressing gown, of rather a rich purple shade.
    Propped up by pillows, he was gazing out on a far-stretching scene of woods and cornfields, which glowed in the light of one of those marvelous sunsets which are the beauty of Kent and Surrey. His noble forehead and fine features seem to be lit up with pleasure as I entered the room.
    He waved his hand toward the window as he pointed out the scene beyond, while in the other hand he held an open book, which he was always studying.
    "What are you reading now?" I asked as I seated myself beside his bedside. "Dawkins!" he answered - "still Dawkins. 'The Royal Book' I call it. Isn't it grand?"
    Then, placing his finger on certain passages, he commented on them.
    I made some allusions to the strong opinions expressed by many persons on the history of the creation, its grandeur, and then their treatment of the earlier chapters of the Book of Genesis.
    He seemed greatly distressed, his fingers twitched nervously, and a look of agony came over his face as he said: "I was a young man with unformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything, and to my astonishment, the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them."
    Then he paused, and after a few more sentences on "rightness of Dawkins" and the "grandeur of this book," looking at the” God Delusion” which he was holding tenderly all the time, he suddenly said: "I have a summer house in the garden which holds about thirty people. It is over there," pointing through the open window. "I want you very much to speak there. I know you read “Sam Harris” in the villages. To-morrow afternoon I should like the servants on the place, some tenants and a few of the neighbours; to gather there. Will you speak to them?"
    "What shall I speak about?" I asked.
    "Christopher Hitchens!" he replied in a clear, emphatic voice, adding in a lower tone, "and his “God is Not Great”. Is not that the best theme? And then I want you to sing some rock songs with them. You lead on your small instrument, do you not?" The wonderful look of brightness and animation on his face as he said this I shall never forget, for he added: "If you take the meeting at three o'clock this window will be open, and you will know that I am joining in with the singing."
    How I wished I could have made a picture of the fine old man and his beautiful surroundings on that memorable day!"

  • Comment number 9.

    ' How I wished I could have made a picture of the fine old man and his beautiful surroundings on that memorable day!'

    Paul James: you just did. thank you. LH

  • Comment number 10.

    Nice one, Paul, "Lady" Hope - the Katie Price of her age?

  • Comment number 11.

    Helio - surely you know that when people make personal judgmental attacks, it says more about them than the person they are commenting on? (fact - not judgment). Energetically - it means they are separated and disconnected from the love that they are - for if they were connected to that love, such attacks would not be possible. It reveals their own inner dis-ease, discontent and lovelessness towards themselves.(fact not judgment) Give yourself a break - you are also love irrespective of whatever your inner critic says.

  • Comment number 12.

    Nice one, Paul, "Lady" Hope - the Katie Price of her age?

    Hardly Helio.

    I don't think they did boob jobs back then.

  • Comment number 13.

    "To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge." Socrates - Adieu Mr Flew - hope u found ur Narnia!!


  • Comment number 14.

    Eunice, actually I have been unfair. To Katie Price - . And I apologise. Lady Hope was a fraudster and a liar. With a due head-nod to Paul's creative re-working, Lady Hope did not visit Darwin in his last days; Darwin did not convert to Christianity, and the whole story is a pure fabrication. Heck, even Ken Ham and "Answers in Genesis" no longer promote this fake, and they advise others to avoid it! Of course that has not stopped certain people disreputably and ignorantly peddling the myth, such as Boniface Adoyo in Kenya, for instance. But it does show the depths some people will plumb.

  • Comment number 15.

    Helio - I am missing something here - did Lady Hope talk about Darwin? But perhaps best left - thanks for the warm welcome! ;-))

  • Comment number 16.

    Hi Eunice, apols - it appears you didn't get Paul's little (and rather witty) joke. Lady Elizabeth Hope was a late Victorian serial gold-digger who married a number of wealthy old chappies who died shortly afterwards, including one who was a "Sir", hence she acquired the title "Lady". She was also a rather nutty evangelical and concocted a crazy story about visiting Charles Darwin as he was on his deathbed - Paul's little tale verbatim, with a few names changed. It's all been quite well documented. Things have come to a pretty pass when even Ken Ham cannot stoop to such low dishonesty, so that should give you some idea of the character of this person. But in some ways it is funny, and created an entertaining meme for a while.

  • Comment number 17.

    Thank you for that Helio - I am now enlightened! haha ..... your explanation has shed some well needed light on the matter.....I made a boob (not a KP one though!) in the reading of the blogs......good lesson! thank you...:-))

  • Comment number 18.

    Hi Eunice, no probs - it's a funny story though :-)


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