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An Open Letter to Professor Antony Flew

Dear Antony:

I understand that you, one of the icons of twentieth century atheism and one of my fellow Honorary Associates of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists, now believe in some sort of God. I am troubled.

Not because you have given comfort to religionists of all stripes, including biblical creationists, many of whom now trumpet your name. Let comfort go to those who crave it.

Nor because I think less of you for changing your mind. On the contrary, I admire someone who has the intellectual and moral courage to follow the evidence and the arguments where they lead. Intransigence is no more virtuous in a nonbeliever than in a believer.

My disquiet stems, rather, from the fact that, despite having read your disclosures with great care, I am still at a loss to understand what sort of God you now embrace, or why.

The general outlines of your new position are fairly clear.

On the one hand, you have been persuaded by some of the stuff you’ve recently read that naturalistic explanations of apparent design in the universe just aren’t credible. In particular, you now subscribe to the idea that there are unbridgeable gaps in evolutionary history, gaps such as those alleged to exist between nonliving and living matter. And since, on your view, it is “inordinately difficult” to give a naturalistic explanation of the origins of living organisms, you conclude that only some nonnaturalistic explanation will suffice, i.e., that only the intervention of some sort of supernatural agent, to be called “God,” can fill these gaps.

On the other hand, you are averse to the idea that the explanatory agent is to be identified with any of the standard theistic gods, the God of Judaism, the God of Christianity, or the God of Islam. You want a God of natural theology, not of revealed religion.

So far, so good. But thereafter, everything is murky.

Let’s start with your conclusion. You say that you have abandoned Atheism for belief in God. But the God of which religion? Pantheism? Deism? Or of some non-Mosaic version of Theism?

You seem to have endorsed all three of them, notwithstanding that belief in any one is logically inconsistent with belief in any of the others, and that both Pantheism and Deism are inconsistent with the alleged “evidence” you count on to support them.

Take Pantheism for a start.

In your letter to Roy Varghese (about his book The Wonder of the World: a Journey from Modern Science to the Mind of God, you claim that design arguments can be seen as “arguments for the existence of a Spinozistic … ‘God of Nature.'”

Here, I submit, your thinking is seriously muddled.

Spinoza’s “God” isn’t some entity apart from nature, an entity that plans or designs nature, let alone one that intervenes in nature to bring about such phenomena as life. On the contrary, Spinoza’s “God” just is nature (i.e., is identical with nature). And so, by the way, is the “God” of Einstein, despite the fact that Christianity Today cites you as thinking that Einstein believed in “an Intelligence that produced the integrative complexity of creation.” The fact is that Einstein did not believe in any such nonnatural, otherworldly “God.” Neither does that other modern-day pantheistic physicist, Stephen Hawking. As Hawking himself has explained, for him the term “God” means nothing more than “the embodiment of the laws of the universe.”

There is no room, on any pantheist view, for another God over and above nature, let alone for a supernatural “Intelligence” that first plans, then executes, his designs for the universe.

Pantheism is nothing but atheism accompanied by feelings of awe about the power and beauty of the cosmos itself. If that were your “new” position, you wouldn’t really have changed positions at all.

Let’s, then, set aside any talk of Spinoza’s God and turn to the God of Deism. Could this be the sort of God you now believe in?

Early in your interview with Gary Habermas, you agree that “Deism” would be a “fair designation” of your current view. Moreover, in your letter to Richard Carrier, dated 16 October 2004, you claim to have in mind only “the non-interfering God of the people called Deists–such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.” And more recently still, Christianity Today (in its website article “Thinking Straighter,” posted 8 March 2005) reports that you have said, “I have become a deist like Thomas Jefferson.”

But surely you can’t be serious. Not only is the deistic hypothesis not supported by the new arguments for Intelligent Design. It is logically inconsistent with those arguments.

Deism, remember, holds that God leaves nature entirely to its own devices, i.e., to operate according to the laws of nature with which he endowed it in the first place. The deist conceives of his God as being competent enough to have got his design right at the outset. His God has no need thereafter to intervene by making adjustments or lending those laws a helping hand. A deist, therefore, will reject the idea that natural mechanisms fail when it comes to the task of producing the first living organisms or any of their more complex descendants. The deist says the laws of nature suffice.

But you, apparently, think they don’t. If they did, then naturalistic explanations would still be possible. You think that interventions of the kind that you, following Hume, have hitherto called “miracles,” are needed. In fact you tell Roy Varghese that there is room for two design arguments for an intervenor: the first from “the first emergence of living from non-living matter,” the second from “the capacity [of that first living matter] to reproduce itself genetically.” Your idea of an intervening, miracle-working God is clearly inconsistent with the deist’s concept of a nonintervening one. Hence the designer you postulate cannot, for logical reasons, be anything like the God of Deism.

Perhaps it is because of a vague sense of this inconsistency that you have recently announced your reversion to something like the Theism of your childhood.

In your interview with Gary Habermas (published in the winter 2005 issue of Philosophia Christi under the title “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism”) you pass fairly quickly from an acceptance of “Deism” as a description of your latest belief system to acquiescence when Habermas talks about “your theism” as the form that “your new belief in God” has now taken. Maybe you haven’t yet reverted to the Methodist Christianity of your first fourteen years. But you have come close. Why else would you give such credence to Gerald Schroeder’s The Hidden Face of God whose comments on Genesis Chapter One reportedly suggest to you that, as you put it, “this biblical account might be scientifically accurate”? Why else would you say that Schroeder’s analysis “raises the possibility that it [Genesis] is revelation”?

Your acceptance of the possibility of revelation in the book of Genesis takes you a long way from the austere arguments of natural theology on which alone you wanted to rely. It lends support to so-called “Scientific Creationists.” Not just the old-earth creationists who put a figurative spin on the Genesis story, but the young earth literalists, too: those who stick with something like 4,004 B.C. for the year of the creation. After all, if your newfound God is a miracle-worker, one can’t rule out the possibility that he created the universe just when Genesis says he did, complete with all the evidence that leads scientists to think otherwise, including fossils, background radiation from the Big Bang, and all the other necessary accoutrements of grand deception. If your God performs miracles to help the laws of nature produce living from nonliving things, why should he stop there?

As I said earlier, your renunciation of atheism has given comfort to religionists of all stripes. It is easy to see why some of my fundamentalist/evangelical relatives and friends are among them.

Now let me ask about your reasons for believing in God.

You say you like to follow the evidence. An admirable sentiment. But what is the evidence on which you rely? Is it really good evidence, evidence sturdy enough to bear the superstructure of theistic inferences that you build upon it?

When it comes to scientific matters, you and I (as philosophers) have to rely on secondhand reports, on what expert scientists themselves say about matters in their areas of expertise. So who did you select as your authorities to tell you about biological matters, and the all-important question of what plausible theories might be offered as to how life began and has subsequently evolved?

Not biologists, or biochemists or anyone working in the relevant fields of molecular biology and genetics. No. You chose a couple of nonexperts, one of whom, Gerald Schroeder, is an Israeli physicist and Orthodox Jew whose The Hidden Face of God (Touchstone, New York; 2001) demonstrates minimal understanding of biological matters, while the other, Roy Varghese, is a Protestant Christian, now engaged in the lucrative “mind of God” industry with his book The Wonderful World: A Journey from Modern Science to the Mind of God (Fountain Hills, Arizona; Tyr Publishing 2003). It is upon them that you seemingly rely for your assertion (in the August-September 2004 issue of Philosophy Now) that “It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism.” And it is upon them that you seemingly rely for the claim (made in the new video Has Science Discovered God?) that biologists’ investigation of DNA “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved.”

I was a bit surprised that you didn’t invoke the names of William Demski, Michael Behe, or Philip Johnson, all of whom feature rather more-prominently among the high priests of Intelligent Design theory. Their arguments run along similar lines. So perhaps you’ll treat us to their versions in the near future. But before you do so, please, please, acquaint yourself with some of the devastating critiques to which this whole Intelligent Design movement has been subjected over the past decade and more, not just by “atheistic evolutionists” but also by experts with no doctrinal axes to grind.

Let’s get back to the matter of the evidence you claim to have followed. Is it positive evidence of God’s intervention to produce life? If it were, scientists would be agog and religionists would be cheering so profound a discovery. But it isn’t positive evidence. Indeed, it is a bit of a cheat to call it “evidence” at all. Rather it is unwarranted inference from a lack of evidence! One starts with an alleged absence of evidence for naturalistic mechanisms that could be causes of the origins of biological life and then infers from this that one has evidence of the absence of such naturalistic mechanisms.

But this inference can be faulted on two counts.

First, it is just plain false that we are still ignorant, as Intelligent Design proponents would have us believe, of the kinds of natural mechanisms that might bring about the origins of life. Certainly, we once were. But molecular biologists are working at banishing such ignorance. And are succeeding.

As a salutary example, consider Michael Behe’s claim (in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution) that no Darwinian explanation could be found in the literature for the production of the nucleotide AMP or for the origins of the human immune system. Only two years later, as David Ussery pointed out (in his review of Behe’s book), Behe’s claim had been proven false. By 1998 “literally thousands of articles had been published about the details of molecular evolution.”

Not only is Behe’s premise false; the inference he draws from it is fallacious. Ussery puts it this way:

It is important to bring up these examples, because this shows a real weakness in the logic that says, “We don’t know how this happened, so God must have done it!” What happens when someone calls your bluff and actually DOES provide a step-by-step mechanism for the gradual evolution of the immune system?

As you know, we philosophers have a name for the general fallacy to which Ussery is calling attention. It is the called the Argument from Ignorance. In this particular instance, it takes the form of what has been called the “God of the Gaps Fallacy”: the fallacy that has led people down the ages, and still leads some today, to invoke a supernatural cause whenever the natural causes of a phenomenon have not yet been discovered.

Only the scientifically illiterate these days suppose that God’s intervention is needed to keep most of the natural world working. Yet some educated people still think that the biological world is an exception and that it alone is in need of God’s tinkering. They wouldn’t countenance the idea that God intervenes to bring about natural phenomena like disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, or hurricanes. But they persist in believing, usually on the basis of some ancient religious text, that he must have intervened to bring about the origins of life and the subsequent phenomenon of speciation. You appear to have allied yourself with them.

But anyone who, like you, wants to follow the evidence where it leads must be willing to go all the way, not just stop at some agreeably comforting point. You think that following the evidence takes you from evidence of complexity in the natural world to the hypothesis of an intelligent designer of that world: not just one who comes up with an original design, but one who also has to redesign that world from time to time. But why stop there?

Reflect carefully on the details of that complexity. It is a complexity that is reflected in all aspects of the natural world, not just the benign ones that true believers find reassuring, but the more abhorrent and discomforting ones as well. Think of disease and disaster, and the whole gruesome arsenal of God’s weapons of mass destruction: radiological, geophysical, meteorological, chemical, biological, and the rest. Philosophers of religion tend to distance themselves from them by sweeping them all together under the abstract term “natural evil.” But think of each in concrete terms, and the enormity of the problem becomes clear. As usual, the devil lies in the details. If complexity manifests intelligence, then by the same token the “god-awful” nature of much of that complexity manifests defective or malevolent intelligence: the sort of intelligence that theists lay at the door of the Devil himself (supposedly another of God’s creations).

So my questions to you, dear Antony, remain: What sort of “God” do you really believe in? And why?

Forty-five years ago, you wrote me a letter applauding my “necessary and valuable” critique of claims that had been made by certain distinguished physicists (Bohr and Heisenberg among them) about the supposed implications of quantum mechanics. You agreed with my criticisms and undertook, as a consequence, to rewrite several pages of a book you were preparing for publication. And you lamented the fact that because of your “almost complete scientific ignorance” you previously had “never dared even to touch on the subject in print.”

Would that you had retained that caution. A little more knowledge of organic chemistry and molecular biology might have made you less credulous about the claims of the Intelligent Design theorists. A little more critical acumen might have made you more skeptical of the alleged theological implications of those claims. And a little more thought about the baneful aspects of the universe might have made you more resistant to belief in a God who built them into his design or introduced them along the way.

In short, had you researched and reasoned more carefully you might not have made yourself the target of my current critique.

Wittingly, or unwittingly, you have achieved international celebrity status, yet I’m not sure what your latest position is. I’ve heard that you may already have retreated from the indeterminate theism of the Habermas interview to something like the deism of Jefferson. But if that is the case, then you’ll have to retreat also from recent claims about the inadequacy of naturalistic explanations of the origins of life and revert to something like Paley’s older arguments for initial design (not subsequent adjustments of that design). Perhaps, in light of my arguments, you will change your mind once again and revert to the well-reasoned atheism for which you once were renowned.

In the meantime, your public, and much publicized, embrace of “God” invites this public response.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say for yourself by way of reply.

Raymond Bradley.      7 July 2005.

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University;
(formerly Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland).
233 Omaha Drive, RD6 Warkworth, New Zealand 1241.