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May 02, 2008

Richard D. North asks, can Antony Flew's conversion convince? There is a God: How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind - Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese

Posted by Richard D. North

There is a God: How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind
by Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese
New York: HarperOne, 2007
Hardback, £12.66

Professor Antony Flew, author of An Introduction to Western Philosophy (1971), first made his name as a very young philosopher in 1950 by arguing that God wasn't worth believing in. Now aged 85, he's changed his mind. He doesn't say he was wrong to be an atheist. Rather, he insists that he was always prepared to go where the argument took him, and now new evidence goes strongly toward the existence of God, "a divine Source" and "an infinite Intelligence".

He has come to

accept the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient Being.
(I suppose starting words with capital letters is sometimes necessary: it all seems a bit "green ink" to me.)

Hedging his bets
Prof Flew seems strategically cautious. It is his co-author, not him, who insists that the existence of God is logically necessary. Nor does Antony Flew discuss his beliefs as to how involved God is in his creation. But he does give a terrific hostage to fortune. He doesn't himself sketch out the reasons for believing in a personal God or in the Christian faith. However, he strongly endorses (and reprints here) the views of the Anglican bishop of Durham, N T "Tom" Wright, who thinks that the biblical Jesus is the historical Jesus. The bishop's arguments, not being Flew's directly, are of secondary importance to the book. (They seem strikingly feeble anyway and it does not do Flew much credit that he thinks they get anywhere.)

The upshot is that Professor Flew is arguing a fairly weak version of theism. He thinks it's reasonable to believe in a God who can do anything. He thinks lots of unbelievers are unreasonable. This is not very dogmatic or comprehensive stuff.

What I believe (not much)
One has to put one's own cards on the table. I am a whimpering agnostic whose lack of belief has never been tested by terror. Given the mysteries of the universe, I can easily imagine a (very weak Flew position) that there was a Source and one might as well call it God. But I am as impressed as the early Flew was by the problem that wondering about the beginning of the Source is no easier than wondering what the beginning of the universe might have been if it wasn’t the Source. Either on the issue of the godly Source, or on the more specific issue of what God is like and what "he" does, I am fond of the idea of faith, but I don't have it.

If I did suddenly get faith, I imagine it would be of the Christian variety, not least because of the sort of argument put by Don Cupitt (who was Dean at Emmanuel College, Cambridge during my brief and inglorious philosophy studies there in the early 1970s). Cupitt made a rather post-modern argument: Christianity may or may not be true, but it is a most satisfactory and sophisticated telling of a necessary story. When you're trying to colour in the ineffable, Christianity does well. Antony Flew seems to agree: he says that Christianity is "the one to beat" when it comes to religions.

By reason alone
It is crucial to faith that reason is subordinate to it. Anyway, this isn't a problem for Professor Flew, who insists:

My discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.
The difficulty is that his belief in God is no more reasonable and no less so than plenty of other people’s disbelief. The surest way to come to a belief in God and about God is probably to go as far as reason will take you and then make the leap of faith, but that doesn't suit Flew's purposes.

Professor Flew now argues that Big Bang theory requires one to posit something which was where and when it all started, and even to kick it off. Flew then argues that the evidence for the sheer rationality of the universe's evolution of life - especially the codes within DNA - is so strong that one has to assume that a rational being has been at work.

I am more inclined to think that modern science merely updates previous arguments for the existence and rationality of God. It doesn't very much reinforce them.

But anyway, new science tends to pose new problems for the argument. For instance, if God was so darned clever in laying out a coded narrative, why did he bother to have a story with a beginning and a very, very long series of middle acts in which species came and went and laid down fossils, and then proceeded to the bits of the story we know about from human experience? Who was all the coded stuff intended to interest considering it was lived out whilst there wasn't anyone about with a brain big enough to discover it? Was God a tease? This is really just a modernised version of the issues Edmund Gosse's very touching father Philip wrestled with as he tried to merge Darwinism with his Plymouth Brethren faith, and the attempt doesn't get any more convincing as time goes on.

It is good fun, by the way, to note that Antony Flew quotes all sorts of heavyweight physicists who believed in God, Einstein and Heisenberg included. He cheerfully prays them in aid of his case though many of them were believers when Flew wasn't one, and most of the science which made them theists well pre-dated the sort of science which Flew argues has necessitated his change of mind to their way of thinking.

I doubt that anyone who has grappled with the nature of religious belief will be changing their mind as a result of this book. But that's not to say it isn't valuable. For a start, it is a very readable memoir from a man who was at the heart of the philosophical debates of the mid twentieth-century. It is a lively account of why Flew early on rumbled the excesses of the logical positivist school which tried to outlaw all discussion about things which weren't knowable. So it becomes one of the most easy-going guides to some very difficult ideas. Bits of it have some Americanised and even flip language, but they may well come from Antony Flew's co-author.

One of the comforting features of the book is that it reminds one that clever people and some of their most challenging thinking doesn't really add up to a row of beans. It is hard not to assume that this old theist is doing lots of wishful thinking, just as he did when he was an atheist.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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I have enjoyed the privilege of meeting Professor Flew on a few occasions, and few people come brighter. I wonder if Professor Dawkins would dare debate him?

Posted by: S J Masty at May 9, 2008 10:07 PM

Richard, we have exchanged emails about the events of 22nd Jan 1972 when I attended, as duty police officer, the Home of Sue Ryder and Leonard Cheshire at Cavendish where you had latterly been Cheshire's PA.

That day (reason has nothing to do with such an experience) I became convinced of the existence of good and evil.

But who was to say which was which ? If I was facing saints then I must be one hell of a sinner. But if I was facing sinners then I did not necessarily have to be a saint myself.

Attending with me was a village funeral director.

I phoned him 25 years later, upon discovery of new evidence.

He told me (to my surprise) that only one death in his career "Bothered" him. That of Matron McGill at the Sue Ryder Home 22.1.72. And that every week since then he had either dreamt about the case or it had entered his daytime thoughts.

I told him that I felt that day that I had encountered malevolence.

And he said he had felt the same thing unforgettably.

So that was two of us then. If we were encountering saints then our revulsion must be that of the sinners ?

Reason tests for the truth of the experience. EG Who lied ? Who broke their own championed principle that he you ever so high the law must be above you ? And if these be valid tests then they define which side of the good and evil fence the parties stood ? But which party is up for sainthood ?

Perhaps the aging prof is long on reason but .....

Perhaps if the movement, starting in Poland, gathers momentum for Sue Ryder's beatification then the RCs will argue this in their court of devils advocacy.

Best wishes

Posted by: Richard Card at May 28, 2008 03:59 PM

Thanks for publishing from a non-academic. I felt a bit intimidated there.

Have you considered the Founder of Aikido Prof Morehei Ueshiba Richard ?

A sort of Japanese slant on things ....

You kind of take an idealike the Masonic Divine proportion.

IE That in any given length there is a special point designating proportions.

In Aikido this point is called "Mai" and signifies the point of distance from an aggressor at which you are neither fighting nor running away. Any closer you get a smack and any further you are a cowardy custard.

Then you create martial arts techniques which don't exactly work.

Then when these techniques eventually do work for the practitioner yet he is still as feeble and slow as when he started out. Something else has interceded with approval ?

Like a multimeter testing for God's approval ?

If there is a God. If there is and he approves then your techniques start working.

And you start bucking the natural laws of selection.

To whit in a demonstration after WW2 19 USA military police were invited to pin Ueshiba. And he walked amongst them as if they were not there. Well he had cunningly stuck his arms up his sleeves anyway.

The first exercise in Aikido is the blending move (Turn the other cheek also)

All down to reading the New Testament without proper guidance ....

Best wishes to you Richard

Posted by: Richard Card at May 29, 2008 10:06 AM
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