Antony Flew is considering the possibility that there might be a God. Sort of. Flew is one of the most renowned atheists of the 20th century, even making the shortlist of “Contemporary Atheists” at About.com. So if he has changed his mind to any degree, whatever you may think of his reasons, the event itself is certainly newsworthy. After hearing of this, I contacted Antony directly to discuss it, and I thought it fitting to cut short any excessive speculation or exaggeration by writing a brief report on, well, what’s going on.
Once upon a time, a rumor hit the internet that Flew had converted to Christianity. The myth appeared in 2001 and popped up again in 2003. On each occasion, Flew refuted the claim personally, standing by his response to its first occasion with his own reply for publication at the Secular Web (Antony Flew, “Sorry to Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist!” 2001). So I was quite skeptical the third time around. But this time, things have indeed changed somewhat from where Flew stood in his 2001 article. Antony and I exchanged letters on the issue recently, and what I report here about his current views comes from him directly.
The news of his “conversion” this time came from a number of avenues, but the three I have good information on are an interview with Gary Habermas soon to be published by Philosophia Christi in which Flew appears to depart from his past views about God, a letter Flew wrote to a popular philosophy journal expressing doubts about the ability of science to explain the origin of life (“On Darwinism and Theology,” Philosophy Now 47, August/September 2004, p. 22; cf. also Flew’s Review of Roy Varghese’s The Wonder of the World), and, just recently on national TV (the October 9 episode of “Faith Under Fire“), J. P. Moreland used Flew’s “conversion” as an argument for supernaturalism.
The fact of the matter is: Flew hasn’t really decided what to believe. He affirms that he is not a Christian–he is still quite certain that the Gods of Christianity or Islam do not exist, that there is no revealed religion, and definitely no afterlife of any kind (he stands by everything he argued in his 2001 book Merely Mortal: Can You Survive Your Own Death?). But he is increasingly persuaded that some sort of Deity brought about this universe, though it does not intervene in human affairs, nor does it provide any postmortem salvation. He says he has in mind something like the God of Aristotle, a distant, impersonal “prime mover.” It might not even be conscious, but a mere force. In formal terms, he regards the existence of this minimal God as a hypothesis that, at present, is perhaps the best explanation for why a universe exists that can produce complex life. But he is still unsure. In fact, he asked that I not directly quote him yet, until he finally composes his new introduction to a final edition of his book God and Philosophy, due out next year. He hasn’t completed it yet, precisely because he is still examining the evidence and thinking things over. Anything he says now, could change tomorrow.
I also heard a rumor that Flew claimed in a private letter that the kalam cosmological argument proved the existence of God (see relevant entries in Cosmological Arguments). But he assures me that is not what he believes. He said that, at best, the kalam is an argument for a first cause in the Aristotelian sense, and nothing more–and he maintains that, kalam or not, it is still not logically necessary that the universe had a cause at all, much less a “personal” cause. Flew’s tentative, mechanistic Deism is not based on any logical proofs, but solely on physical, scientific evidence, or the lack thereof, and is therefore subject to change with more information–and he confesses he has not been able to keep up with the relevant literature in science and theology, which means we should no longer treat him as an expert on this subject (as Moreland apparently did).
Once Flew gives me permission to quote him I will expand this article with more information about his views and the reasons for them. That will have to wait for when Flew himself has finally mulled things over and come to something like a stable decision about what he thinks is most probable, and that may not happen until the release of his 2005 edition of God and Philosophy. For now, I think his view can best be described as questioning, rather than committed. And there is much to criticize in his rationale even for considering Aristotelian Deism. He is most impressed, he says, by Gerald Schroeder’s book The Hidden Face of God: How Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth (2001), but Schroeder (a Jewish theologian and physicist) has been heavily criticized for “fudging” the facts to fit his argument–see Mark Perakh, “Not a Very Big Bang about Genesis” (1999); Victor Stenger, “Flew’s Flawed Science“; and my own discussion in “Are the Odds Against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept?” (2000), as well as my peer-reviewed article “The Argument from Biogenesis,” Biology & Philosophy 19.5 (November, 2004), pp. 739-64. Flew points out that he has not yet had time to examine any of the critiques of Schroeder. Nor has he examined any of the literature of the past five or ten years on the science of life’s origin, which has more than answered his call for “constructing a naturalistic theory” of the origin of life. This is not to say any particular theory has been proven–rather, there are many viable theories fitting all the available evidence that have yet to be refuted, so Flew cannot maintain (as in his letter to Philosophy Now) that it is “inordinately difficult even to begin to think about” such theories. I have pointed all this out to him, and he is thinking it over.
For now, the story of Antony Flew’s change of mind should not be exaggerated. We should wait for him to complete his investigation of the matter and declare a more definite conclusion, before claiming he has “converted,” much less to any particular religious view.
Update (December 2004)
Flew has now given me permission to quote him directly. I asked him point blank what he would mean if he ever asserted that “probably God exists,” to which he responded (in a letter in his own hand, dated 19 October 2004):
I do not think I will ever make that assertion, precisely because any assertion which I am prepared to make about God would not be about a God in that sense … I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations.
Rather, he would only have in mind “the non-interfering God of the people called Deists–such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.” Indeed, he remains adamant that “theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience,” exactly as he argued in “Theology and Falsification.” Regarding J. P. Moreland using Flew in support of Moreland’s own belief in the supernatural, Flew says “my God is not his. His is Swinburne’s. Mine is emphatically not good (or evil) or interested in human conduct” and does not perform miracles of any kind. Furthermore, Flew took great care to emphasize repeatedly to me that:
My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species … [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms.
He cites, in fact, the improbability arguments of Schroeder, which I have refuted online, and the entire argument to the impossibility of natural biogenesis I have refuted in Biology & Philosophy.
So what of the claim that Flew was persuaded by the Kalam Cosmological Argument? Flew “cannot recall” writing any letter to Geivett claiming “the kalam cosmological argument is a sound argument” for God but he confesses his memory fails him often now so he can’t be sure. Nevertheless, I specifically asked what Antony thought of the Kalam, to which he answered:
If and insofar as it is supposed to prove the existence of a First Cause of the Big Bang, I have no objection, but this is not at all the same as a proof of the existence of a spirit and all the rest of Richard Swinburne’s definition of ‘God’ which is presently accepted as standard throughout the English speaking and philosophical world.
Also, regarding another rumor that Flew has been attending Quaker meetings, Antony says “I have, I think, attended Quaker meetings on at least 3 or 4 occasions, and one was at the wedding of a cousin,” and thus hardly a religious statement on his part but a family affair. Nevertheless, for him and his family generally, he says “I think the main attraction” of Quakerism has been “the lack of doctrines.” On the whole God thing, though, Flew is still examining the articles I sent him, so he may have more to say in the future.
Update (January 2005)
Antony Flew has retracted one of his recent assertions. In a letter to me dated 29 December 2004, Flew concedes:
I now realize that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction.
He blames his error on being “misled” by Richard Dawkins because Dawkins “has never been reported as referring to any promising work on the production of a theory of the development of living matter,” even though this is false (e.g., Richard Dawkins and L. D. Hurst, “Evolutionary Chemistry: Life in a Test Tube,” Nature 357: pp. 198-199, 21 May 1992) and hardly relevant: it was Flew’s responsibility to check the state of the field (there are several books by actual protobiologists published in just the last five years), rather than wait for the chance possibility that one particular evolutionist would write on the subject. Now that he has done what he was supposed to do in the first place, he has retracted his false statement about the current state of protobiological science.
Flew also makes another admission: “I have been mistaught by Gerald Schroeder.” He says “it was precisely because he appeared to be so well qualified as a physicist (which I am not) that I was never inclined to question what he said about physics.” Apart from his unreasonable plan of trusting a physicist on the subject of biochemistry (after all, the relevant field is biochemistry, not physics–yet it would seem Flew does not recognize the difference), this attitude seems to pervade Flew’s method of truthseeking, of looking to a single author for authoritative information and never checking their claims (or, as in the case of Dawkins, presumed lack of claims). As Flew admitted to me, and to Stuart Wavell of the London Times, and Duncan Crary of the Humanist Network News, he has not made any effort to check up on the current state of things in any relevant field (see “No Longer Atheist, Flew Stands by ‘Presumption of Atheism’” and “In the Beginning There Was Something“). Flew has thus abandoned the very standards of inquiry that led the rest of us to atheism. It would seem the only way to God is to jettison responsible scholarship.
Despite all this, Flew has not retracted his belief in God, as far as I can tell. He only writes that “if any unbelievers choose to make a fuss about my recent very modest defection from my previous unbelief in any journal to which I subscribe, then I intend to point out in a letter to the editor that” his new preface to God and Philosophy “points the road to a more radical form of unbelief than” he held originally, which “was a belief that there was no sufficient evidencing reason to believe in the existence of the Gods of either Christianity or Islam,” but now “surely there is material here for a new and more fundamental challenge to the very conception of God as an omnipotent spirit,” it’s just that “I am just too old at the age of nearly 82 to initiate and conduct a major and super-radical controversy about the conceivability of the concept of God as a spirit.” This would appear to be his excuse for everything: he won’t investigate the evidence because it’s too hard. Yet he will declare beliefs in the absence of proper inquiry. Theists would do well to drop the example of Flew. Because his willfully sloppy scholarship can only help to make belief look ridiculous.
Update (March 2006)
During the course of 2005, Flew cut off all correspondence and now refuses to speak to any member of the press. When Matt Donnelly, a reporter for Science and Theology News, asked him for permission to read and quote his letters to me, Flew refused, and insisted that even his phone conversations with Donnelly not be used. A friend and eyewitness whom I trust reported to me that he and another prominent secular humanist spoke to Flew in private during his recent visit to New York for the 25th Anniversary conference of the Council for Secular Humanism in October of 2005. They found him to be philosophically incoherent. He affirmed his belief in an uncaring, uninvolved, unconscious (yes, unconscious) Jeffersonian Deity, but despite half an hour of questioning as to why, he could not give any specific reason for this belief.
In the meantime, Flew wrote “My ‘Conversion'” for the Autumn 2005 issue of Think (pp. 75-84), the only article Flew himself has ever written about his conversion. This article is so confused and unclear that in it he fails to affirm belief in any God and actually suggests he is still an atheist. Flew claims to set the record straight about his, as he himself puts it, “putative conversion from atheism to some form of revealed theistic religion.” Because of the massive press attention, “it seemed to me,” Flew writes, “that there was a need … for me to explain myself” (p. 75). Yet nowhere in the entire nine pages of the article does he explain himself.
Flew starts with a few autobiographical paragraphs explaining that he was an “atheist” in the same sense that someone would be “apolitical,” so he didn’t believe in God simply for lack of evidence, not because God’s nonexistence could be demonstrated. He explains that because of the nuance of this distinction, after the first edition of God and Philosophy he “was mistaken to be a very positive opponent of the Christian religion.” Then, he says, his new introduction to God and Philosophy “reveals my present position.” But it doesn’t. The rest of his Think article proceeds to quote that introductory chapter largely verbatim. But neither that chapter nor this article ever says anything about what he believes or why. Though in both he surveys some of the cutting edge issues in the debate between theists and atheists, he offers no conclusion as to whether any of these new arguments succeed in refuting or confirming theism. And in both, he never once voices any opinion or conclusion about what he himself believes.
The closest he ever comes to such a revelation seems to assert that he is still an atheist, though surely he can’t mean that. Flew writes, “I can here say only that I myself, having read” Victor Stenger’s book Has Science Found God? “cannot but agree with his negative conclusions” (p. 78). Since Stenger’s conclusions are “No, science has not found God,” and Flew says he agrees, ordinarily this would mean Flew remains an atheist, affirming there is still no evidence to warrant believing in God. But given his personal affirmations in New York, all I can conclude from this sentence is that either Flew does not believe any scientific evidence supports his belief (which leaves us completely in the dark as to what evidence then does) or Flew didn’t read carefully what he himself wrote. Neither possibility inspires much confidence.
In the Think article and the new introduction to God and Philosophy Flew does offer some encouraging words for Aristotelian Deism, but he never affirms his belief in it nor says whether he considers any arguments for it successful. For instance, he says things like “the expectations of natural reason must surely be that an omnipotent Creator would be as detached and uninvolved as the gods of Epicurus” (p. 81, my emphasis), not “that an omnipotent Creator is as detached and uninvolved.” Flew never actually says in this article or in the new edition of God and Philosophy whether he believes an omnipotent Creator exists, only that “if” he did “then” he would be “detached and uninvolved.” Then Flew repeats his belief that “there is an enormous yet very rarely recognized difficulty with the very conception of ‘A person without a body (i.e. a spirit)'” (p. 81). He quotes Gaskin favorably as concluding “the absence of a body is therefore not only factual grounds for doubting whether a person exists” but “also grounds for doubting whether such a bodiless entity could possibly be an agent” (p. 83). Flew even cites his own books, The Logic of Mortality (1987) and Merely Mortal (2001), against the possibility of disembodied existence. So Flew seems to think there is still insufficient reason to believe a disembodied spirit like God can even exist. He never explains how, then, or why, he still believes in such a god, nor does he even mention that he does. Flew concludes by saying that Swinburne’s book Is There a God? offers only a “religious hypothesis” that “cannot in principle be either verified or falsified by any experience” (p. 83).
Anyone who knew nothing about Flew except this one article would conclude that Flew is currently an atheist. That’s odd for an article that is supposed to explain his conversion. Instead, he calls the claim of his conversion merely “putative,” states no belief in a god of any kind, presents all the new debates as unresolved stalemates or as unsolved problems for theism, affirms his belief that science has not found God, cites even his own past work in defense of the conclusion that spirits (divine or otherwise) cannot exist, and suggests that God’s existence “cannot in principle be either verified or falsified by any experience.” Nevertheless, Flew claimed this article “explains himself” and “reveals his present position.” I shall leave it to my readers to decide what is going on here.
Update (May 2006)
In recognition of his “conversion,” Antony Flew was awarded the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth at Biola, an Evangelical Christian university in La Mirada, California. Flew accepted it in person (see Former Atheist to Receive Award at Biola). I have received communications from several eyewitnesses in attendance who all confirm that Flew appeared to sleep through most of it, said little, and what he did say was difficult to understand. James Underdown, Executive Director of Center for Inquiry-West recorded the whole event, including a personal interview with Flew afterward. Underdown’s article reporting briefly on this affair will appear as “One Flew Over Biola” in the August-September issue of Free Inquiry, which should come off the presses by the end of July.
Underdown was kind enough to give me an advance look at his article and discussed the experience with me. Flew gave a roughly ten minute acceptance speech to an audience of over a hundred, in which he said nothing new. He declared he was a Deist and believed in a God who “is neither interested in nor concerned about either human beliefs or human behavior.” According to Underdown, the only clear reason he gave for this belief was “that since we’ve not yet solved how the first form of life came about then it must have been God that created it,” even though Flew admitted to the same audience that he lacked any expertise in chemistry. Flew already abandoned his prior claim that science has no viable hypothesis for the origin of life (since he renounced that to me in writing, as noted above), so it appears he has retreated and is now resting his belief in God solely on an invalid “God of the Gaps” argument: merely because no scientific hypothesis of biogenesis has been confirmed, therefore God exists. I doubt any Evangelical with a Ph.D. would endorse such an argument as valid. Underdown said Flew also tried to make some argument about evolved life being too complex for evolution to explain, but it wasn’t clear how Flew determined something to be “too” complex or how he determined that evolution hadn’t or “couldn’t” explain it. In short, it does not appear to me that Flew presented any sound argument for his position at this event, and Underdown and other witnesses agreed.
Apart from being unsound, Flew’s belief might also be incoherent, since it is unclear why a God who was not “interested or concerned” would go out of his way to “intervene” in nature specifically to start life on earth and “intervene” repeatedly again to increase its complexity. What could possibly have motivated a disinterested God to do that? What was His purpose in doing it? By what mechanism did He accomplish it? Why that life instead of some other? Why didn’t this God simply make the universe capable of producing life and complexity in the first place? That is, why did this God create a universe incapable of producing life, and then change his mind billions of years later and alter the laws of physics just to put life on one planet, and then continually alter the laws of physics again to increase that life’s complexity toward some mysterious end? Flew consistently ignored me when I asked him such questions before. He avoided answering Underdown’s questions, too. And he still has offered no answers to this day. I can only conclude he has no answers. It seems as if Flew has no clear understanding of what he means by “God” and is basing his belief in this “God” on entirely unsound reasoning. That this is what a Christian university praises and rewards perhaps tells us something about the epistemic values of Evangelical Christians.
Update (January 2007)
On November 2 of 2006, Christian apologist Lee Strobel posted an article on his webpage detailing his interview with Antony Flew (Why Top Atheist Now Believes in a Creator), including short, edited clips from video footage of the interview. Those known to me are: An Interview With a Former Atheist: Why Did Your Beliefs Change?, An Interview With a Former Atheist: What Is God Like? and An Interview With a Former Atheist: Afterlife and Christianity. If anyone knows of other portions that are available online please use the feedback link below to let me know where.
Strobel never says when this interview was taped. If anyone knows for sure, please send feedback through the link below. By publishing this only now and giving no other indications of the interview’s date, Strobel is certainly implying that it was taped in late 2006. From internal evidence, though, there are indications it might have been 2005, maybe early 2005, or even late 2004. That would mean during the interview Strobel referred to the year of taping in the past tense, and although that would not be too unusual in an interview taped for posterity, it seems unlikely, which would almost rule out a 2004 taping. But the evidence from the interview itself leaves me a bit perplexed:
Flew reveals he is substantially unaware of the Christian reception of his conversion, and implies he has had no major dealings with the Christian community and even asks why he would have, which are all remarks he could not have made after he accepted, in person, the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth in May of 2006 (see previous update above). Unless he doesn’t remember that event, which would be alarming. He also implies he is largely unaware of the atheist reaction to his conversion, which can’t have been true even in early 2005. Indeed, it would be a strange thing to say even at the end of 2004. He also exhibits signs of not having thought through many issues (and outright says as much), as if some of Strobel’s questions he had never been asked or even thought about, which can’t have been true by mid-2005, unless, again, Flew’s memory is in shambles.
Finally, at least in what is shown, neither Strobel nor Flew ever mention me or what I’ve said about Flew’s correspondence, his irrationality, or his ignorance of the scientific evidence, especially as led to his retractions on the matter of biogenesis, yet these remarks of mine were all reported in early 2005 and even made national news, and would surely be of interest to any journalist interviewing Flew now. The fact that Strobel never asks Flew about what I’ve written about him on these points, and the fact that Flew shows no indication of having admitted to being corrected on the science of biogenesis, suggests to me this interview was actually taped before late December of 2004. The only other explanation I can imagine is that Flew’s memory is failing to an alarming degree.
As a point of comparison, compare this with his BBC Radio 4 interview by Joan Bakewell on March 22 of 2005. Directly contrary to what he says in the Strobel video, in this radio interview Flew retracts his certainty of the unexplainable complexity of DNA, noting that the “starting point” for life “is a thing that still needs a naturalistic explanation” but though “many people after the findings of DNA looked around and wondered whether they’d ever be able to find it, and thought it would simply be impossible to do it,” Flew instead concedes, “Well, it isn’t.” In other words, as of March 2005 he publicly admitted that naturalism was not incapable of providing explanations of biogenesis (exactly as he admitted to me, even more emphatically, in his letters). Yet he shows no awareness of having made this concession in his interview with Strobel. So either Flew forgot (not only everything he said in his letters to me but even in his BBC interview), or the Strobel interview must have preceded March of 2005, probably by many months.
Another oddity is that in the BBC interview, Flew references his new Preface to God and Philosophy, noting that “the really long introduction which I wrote for this book did express my own incredulity about this,” i.e. the plausibility of naturalistic explanations for biogenesis, but “the new one” will say “what has in fact been done” on that question, and instead “indicates that my incredulity has stopped in the face of the evidence.” This is not at all consistent with what he says in the Strobel interview. Likewise, in the Strobel interview he implies he finds a quasi-Einsteinian form of the fine-tuning argument somewhat convincing, yet in the BBC interview he says, “No. No I, I’ve never thought the, the fine tuning argument was any sort of proof,” and instead says “I don’t think it proves anything but that it is entirely reasonable for people who already have a belief in a creating God to regard this as confirming evidence,” which he had already been saying since at least 2001 when he was still an atheist.
In the Strobel interview, Flew says “Einstein didn’t have any authority at all” to assess the biological argument for Intelligent Design, which is ironic because Flew has even less authority to do so, but I find it odd that he would make this point and yet not mention his recent discovery of the actual status of the science of biogenesis, which led to correcting himself, both to me and to the BBC. Instead, in the Strobel video, Flew says:
If the integrated complexity of the physical world is a good reason, as Einstein clearly thought it was, of believing that there was an intelligence behind it, then this argument applies a fortiori with the inordinately greater integrated complexity of the living world, isn’t it? It seems to me this is just obvious, that that argument is much stronger now.
Strobel presses and asks if this is indeed Flew’s reason for believing, and Flew emphatically answers “Yes!” No other reasons are given. Notably, Strobel’s quotation of Flew’s remarks on this point, in Strobel’s article about the interview, is substantially different, suggesting either Strobel is not being careful at all with Flew’s exact wording, or he got Flew to repeat the same point in different words and simply didn’t include the second version in the available video clips, which would be strange. But either way, what Flew says above is what he was saying to me and others before January of 2005, which he specifically retracted and heavily qualified afterward, as evidenced in the BBC interview, and his letters to me.
Ultimately, since I can’t determine when this interview was conducted, nor is the entire interview available to me, but only a few short, edited clips, I don’t know what to make of it, apart from the fact that it offers no illumination whatsoever as to what Flew actually believes or why. The portions made available say nothing new or different from what Flew has already said in other venues, which have been discussed throughout my original article and all the updates above. All this Strobel interview establishes is either that it is uselessly out-of-date (if shot years ago, even before Flew and I corresponded) or that Flew no longer has a functioning memory–since if this video was shot recently, then he has completely forgotten everything he has learned, thought and said over the past two years.
Either way, Flew has yet to explain in any coherent way what he believes or why. Unfortunately, in his BBC interview, when Bakewell asked Flew what I had been trying to get him to answer before March 2005 myself, “So what is your final evidence? What is the, what was the clincher for you, Professor Flew?” Flew gives no answer at all, but rambles on about how his newfound deism is no big deal and just an opinion, a conclusion that is “pretty thin.” But what he bases this “pretty thin” conclusion on he still fails to say. Later in that same interview he says “I haven’t really formulated what I do believe,” but it sounds as if he hasn’t even formulated why he believes. And I’ve heard nothing to suggest anything has changed this past year.
Update (7 November 2007)
Antony Flew is said to have published a book finally explaining why he is a Deist: There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (2007). I was able to read an advance copy a month ago but promised the New York Times I would not discuss it until now. I could already tell upon reading it that Flew did not write it, but this has now been confirmed by Mark Oppenheimer, a journalist with the New York Times (see “The Turning of an Atheist,” New York Times Magazine, 4 November 2007, pp. 36-41). As Oppenheimer’s article confirms, Flew has now confessed to the fact that he did not write a word of this book (even though it is sold under his name), and apparently knows (or remembers) little of its contents, despite the publisher’s assurance that he signed off on it (though even his publisher confesses doubts about Flew’s ability to remember essential details). Oppenheimer presents sufficient evidence to confirm that Flew’s failing memory is what I would call clinically serious, and I believe his mental decline is now more or less confirmed. As for the book written in his name, its arguments are so fallacious and cheaply composed I doubt Flew would have signed off on it in sound mind, and Oppenheimer comes to much the same conclusion. Flew appears to have simply trusted a couple of Christians to write on his behalf, without any need to check what they wrote. Its actual author turns out to be an evangelical preacher named Bob Hostetler, with considerable assistance from the book’s co-author, evangelical promoter and businessman Roy Abraham Varghese. I say much more about this affair on my personal blog.
Update (16 November 2007)
Five items of note have now come to my attention.
First, in 2005 and 2006 Flew apparently wrote two short articles on the nature of his new belief that I had not been aware of until now. These are available online as PDF downloads: “What I Mean by Atheism” in The Open Society (Official Journal of the New Zealand Rationalists and Humanists) 78.4 (Summer 2005) and “A Response to Raymond Bradley” 79.4 (Summer 2006), which responded to various articles by Raymond Bradley in the same journal. These articles by Flew are notable for confirming much of what I have said about Flew’s actual beliefs and interests (and his own account of his respective paths to atheism and deism), which differs so greatly from what appears in his alleged new book that anyone who reads both will agree the book does not appear to represent Flew’s actual beliefs or interests. These articles also confirm, in my opinion, Flew’s declining faculties, as they so significantly fail to address the central concerns raised by Bradley (which Flew claims to be responding to) that one can only be alarmed.
Second, in my January 2007 Update I described and linked to video clips of an interview of Antony Flew by Lee Strobel. There I asked if anyone knew of other portions to let me know. I have since discovered two more: My Time with C.S. Lewis and Antony Flew Goes Beyond Deism Saying a Creator Was Involved in the Creation of Life. The latter is notable for confirming certain elements of what Flew believes that don’t match up well with the claims in the book. Yet he mysteriously mentions “this book” as if he is referring to the book that would later appear in his name. Unfortunately that remark is too cryptic to be sure what he means. When Strobel cut up the interview into these little snippets he seems to have left out a lot.
Third, Roy Abraham Varghese wrote a letter to the New York Times Magazine that was surely too long to publish entire but is available online as “Varghese Responds via Gary Habermas” (though dated 3 November 2007, that is a day before the article even appeared in print, so either the letter is misdated or something hinky is going on). In this Varghese insists Flew is of sound mind and actually read ten drafts of the book that is now published in his name, and fully approved of its contents. For numerous reasons, which I allude to in the previous update and explore on my personal blog, I do not believe what Varghese says is entirely true. But if I’m right about that, then whether Varghese is himself deluded or lying I have no way to know. It is certainly possible Flew looked at ten drafts and gave his verbal assent, but even if that happened I see no reason to believe Flew was able to understand or even recall what he read. Though much is being made of Flew’s admission to having a nominal aphasia, Oppenheimer spent two whole days with Flew and was fully aware of his aphasia. He certainly confirmed that that was not the only problem with his memory, as evidently Flew could not even recall the arguments of the book, not just who made them or what his sources were.
Fourth, Steve Laube, “the Literary Agent for this project,” claims on Amazon.com (see Brilliant! 7 November 2007) that “a statement issued by the publisher’s office” on 7 November conveys Flew’s response to the article in the Times. This “statement” included an alleged direct quote from Antony Flew:
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.
However, this statement appears nowhere on any Harper Collins website and Laube appears to be the only human being who knows of it. I have been unable to determine if or when (or where) Harper issued the statement. Nor have I found any explanation of how the quote was received, by whoever did issue it (even if someone at Harper did). Was this communicated by telephone? Airmail? Personal conversation? Whom did Flew write or speak to? Who wrote or called him about this? I don’t know. But I do know that Steve Laube is not Antony Flew’s literary agent. He is Bob Hostetler’s literary agent (as I confirmed myself from Laube’s own client list as of 16 November). This is the man who ghostwrote the ghostwriter. It is noteworthy that Laube claims to be “the Literary Agent for this project.” That suggests Hostetler was the primary author, not Varghese, and means this entire project was managed by a Christian author’s Christian agent, and in America, not by any agent loyal to Flew or residing in England. At any rate, whether this mysterious quote of Flew is genuine or a fabrication I cannot determine. If it is bogus, the question must arise who wrote it–and who else knows it is a fake. If it is genuine, the question arises why only Laube knows of it, and who got the quote from Flew and how. Given his apparent mental decline it is entirely possible Flew would say something like that, actually believing it to be true even when it is not. But I must confess, it doesn’t sound like him. And if it is him, I don’t believe he understands what he is really saying or what is actually happening to him.
Fifth, a new “interview” with Antony Flew, addressing his book, has appeared online. It was posted 30 October 2007 (thus several days before the Oppenheimer article appeared). The interviewer is Christian author Benjamin Wiker. In case you’ve never heard of him, Wiker is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute (which launched and carries out the infamous Wedge Project) and his book Moral Darwinism essentially accuses atheists of either aiding or abetting a global conspiracy to destroy the world by infecting it with hedonistic Epicureanism. This “Exclusive Flew Interview” appears on To the Source, an online service devoted to “challenging hardcore secularism with principled pluralism.” No explanation is given of where or when or how the interview was conducted. It looks like Flew was simply submitted questions in writing to which he responded, but I can’t really tell. I am also not sure Flew is really the author of his responses in this interview, but if he is, it strongly confirms the catastrophic loss of his memory. For example, Wiker’s Flew says “I believe that the origin of life and reproduction simply cannot be explained from a biological standpoint despite numerous efforts to do so” yet the real Flew explicitly retracted this claim in his new preface to God and Philosophy, asserting there that he was wrong to say this. Again this leaves us with only two conclusions: Flew’s memory is failing so severely he can’t even remember his own conclusions, or someone else was speaking for Flew in this interview. The style and content of Flew’s remarks in this interview matches the book (in some cases almost verbatim) far better than it matches Flew’s own recent writings on the same subject (compare Flew’s articles for The Open Society linked above), which leads me to be very suspicious of the authenticity of this interview, but if it is bogus, again, exactly who is fooling whom here I have no way to know. If it is genuine, however, it provides yet more confirmation of Flew’s failing mind.
Update (27 December 2007)
I have located some more items relevant to the issue of Flew’s conversion to Deism, items both new and old, which will be of interest to those following the saga.
Lost Issue of Open Society : Those who want to read Flew’s final draft of his new preface to God & Philosophy (as that book is evidently now hard to find) can read excerpts of it now in the Autumn 2005 issue of The Open Society, which had been lost but is now available again as a PDF (see article entitled “Antony Flew Replies“). Notice his reference to, and citation of, my article on the science and philosophy of biogenesis…whose existence or content is notably never discussed, directly or indirectly, in There Is a God. It is curious that Flew submitted this as his “reply” to questions by Raymond Bradley (see previous update; Bradley’s original, and in my opinion sometimes confusing, “open letter” to Flew appears in the same Autumn issue). And yet Flew did not feel the need to retract or correct himself on this point. So at what time did Flew re-reverse himself on the question of biogenesis? Does he not even remember that having happened?
The first two paragraphs of this excerpted version of his new preface also appear only here: as the editorial note says, they derive from the cover letter sent with the excerpts to Open Society. This is very strange. For earlier drafts of the exact same preface included an (entirely different) paragraph affirming Flew’s Deism. But now its excision makes no sense, as he is here claiming that what he wished he had said in previous months “was that I have become a deist,” even though he had in fact said that in every venue quoting him all those same months, even from the very start, and yet (contradictorily) he had deliberately removed this claim from the final draft of the new preface for the 2005 edition of God & Philosophy. If he regretted not saying it, why did he suddenly forget this regret and remove it from his book? And why would he regret not having said it anyway, when he had said it everywhere for months on end?
I’ll let the reader decide what the most plausible answers are to those questions.
Articles in Christian Periodicals: The new Habermas article (below) cites three articles I had not known about. They are interesting, especially for confirming that Christian apologists (including Habermas himself) were using Flew’s conversion as an apologetic argument right from the very beginning. Habermas, for example, “told Baptist Press that Flew’s decision to believe in God points to the strength of theistic arguments” and “Flew’s status as a world-famous atheist makes his conversion to belief in God particularly significant, Habermas said.” Similarly, Alvin Plantinga said Flew’s conversion is “an indication of the strength of current broadly scientific arguments against atheism,” in yet another article of note by James Beverley, “Thinking Straighter: Why the World’s Most Famous Atheist Now Believes in God,” Christianity Today (April 2005): pp. 80-83.
The Habermas quote comes from David Roach, “Famed Atheist Sees Evidence for God, Cites Recent Discoveries,” Baptist Press News (13 December 2004). Notably none of the “recent discoveries” alluded to in the title are specifically identified. But more notably, Habermas told Roach that “Flew will present a more fully developed explanation of his conversion to belief in God in a forthcoming edition of his book, God & Philosophy.” I can only imagine what must have been shock when Flew cut the very material Habermas must have been referring to. Was the new book, There Is a God, an attempt at damage control, recruiting loyal evangelical ghostwriters to ensure the previously expected result? I don’t know. But I would like to know how Habermas explains Flew’s removal of the material Habermas expected to appear in God & Philosophy. As we’ll see below, Habermas pretends not to know it was removed, but since it was, what explanation can Habermas propose?
Of course, Habermas might not have been happy with what Flew originally intended to publish anyway, since Flew’s “fully developed explanation of his conversion to belief in God” was going to consist of only a single paragraph:
I am, I think, bound to take this first public opportunity to confess that, since I cannot persuade myself that natural scientists will ever be able to find satisfactory naturalistic accounts first of the development of living from non-living matter and then of the development from living matter unable to reproduce itself of living creatures able to reproduce themselves genetically, I am now a Deist; and hence in a company with Thomas Jefferson.
This is from my copy of Flew’s earlier draft of the new preface (this paragraph appeared immediately before his discussion of Conway, still in the published draft and included in the Open Society excerpts). Why did Flew remove this paragraph? Why in this confession of his conversion are scientific questions of biogenesis the only evidence he mentions as having persuaded him? Why did the final published draft state exactly the opposite, that he was now persuaded that scientists probably will find satisfactory naturalistic accounts of these facts? Why is this concession now missing from There Is a God?
I’ll let the reader decide what the most plausible answers are to those questions.
A subsequent article from the same paper, basically a more personal interview with Habermas, adds additional background: David Roach, “Atheist’s Turn Toward God Was a 4-Year Process, Friend Says,” Baptist Press News (22 December 2004). This includes mention of a long letter Flew sent to Habermas in 2000 whose contents are not detailed but are generally described as pro-theism. This might seem odd considering Flew’s subsequent 2001 letter to the Secular Web (“Sorry to Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist!“), though I assume either Habermas or Roach were only putting a positive spin on what must have been more or less the same material, reaffirming Flew’s atheism but abandoning the Positivist basis for his rejection of theism.
This latter point is an issue I raised in comments on my blog about the autobiographical material in There Is a God (8 November 2007): that the “Flew” of There Is a God says things about his 1950 lecture “Theology & Falsification” that in fact make no historical sense, and fundamentally contradict things Flew wrote to the Secular Web in 2001. This comes up again in the next item of note…
Habermas Review: Gary Habermas has just published “Antony Flew’s Deism Revisited: A Review Essay on There Is a God” in Philosophia Christi 9.2 (2007): pp. 431-41. This is half backstory, half softball review of There Is a God. Among the notable things stated here is the claim that (as the book has Flew himself saying, and as Habermas now affirms) “Flew’s conversion was due to philosophical arguments, not scientific ones,” which seems to contradict everything Flew has said in earlier publications (i.e. that it is certain scientific facts and failures that persuaded him). Habermas confesses in his concluding remarks that he wishes Flew had explained more what he means by the difference between a philosophical and a scientific argument. But as I mentioned in my Amazon review of There Is a God (“Badly Written and Dishonest,” 8 November 2007), I wish not only that Flew had made more sense of this distinction (as it is a central element of the book’s case), but I would expect the real Flew to have presented at least an argument for it, particularly considering what he is made to claim in the book: that philosophical arguments take precedence over the scientific. For this is merely asserted in There Is a God. It is never properly argued for in any way, soundly or otherwise, yet it sounds a little strange coming from a former advocate of the analytic-synthetic distinction.
Another notable item is even stranger here. Habermas quotes an as-yet-unpublished interview he conducted with Flew sometime in 2005 (which Habermas reports will appear in the forthcoming book C.S. Lewis as Philosopher in 2008). Habermas says that in this interview Flew “attests that the purpose of his essay [“Theology & Falsification”]” was (now quoting Flew) “intended to simply refute the positivistic stance against religious utterances.” This is essentially what Flew is also made to say in There Is a God and yet (as noted above) such a statement rewrites history, and appears to make nonsense of the facts as Flew once knew them. If Habermas is reporting accurately, then this suggests it is in fact Flew’s memory that is gone (rather than this error being the result of an otherwise competent Flew negligently failing to correct a mistake made by the ghostwriters).
Just contrast this claim reported by Habermas, with what Flew wrote in 2001 (in “Sorry to Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist!“): there he says the aim of “Theology & Falsification” was to show “that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify” any religious proposition, which is exactly what Positivists were arguing at the time, and as he further explains, it was only around 2000 or so that he came to realize he was wrong about that, and that religious propositions can be verified or falsified (at least to some extent). In other words, the new Flew claims he was refuting the Positivist rejection of theism when he wrote “Theology & Falsification,” while the old Flew claims “Theology & Falsification” had so decisively supported the Positivist rejection of theism that he only came to abandon this Positivist basis for his own atheism fifty years later.
Even Habermas does a double take here. In his concluding remarks he admits his own confusion over what Flew could possibly mean by this. As Habermas says:
It would have been very helpful if Tony had explained the precise sense in which he thought that “Theology and Falsification” was an attempt to curtail the growth of positivism. That has remained unclear to me. I, too, was taught that the article was a defense of an analytic position that only softened the force of the positivistic challenge.”
Habermas thus sees the same contradiction that perplexes me. And yet it is rather bizarre that Habermas would declare this, when he had just quoted his own interview with Flew making the very assertion Habermas now finds unclear. Why didn’t Habermas ask Flew to clarify the matter then?
Another curious item is where Habermas “explains” the absence of any mention of Flew’s conversion to Deism (or any of the reasons for it) in his 2005 preface to God & Philosophy with the casual remark, “Of course, book text must be completed well before the actual date of publication,” unlike (he goes on to mention) other articles quoting Flew on this point around the same time. In effect, Habermas appears to be claiming that the preface lacks any mention of his conversion because it was written before Flew converted. But that is not true. It was written well after, and in earlier drafts even mentioned his conversion and his (at that time only, or at least only declared) reason for converting. Flew thus consciously chose to remove that material from the final draft, just before God & Philosophy went to press. Why doesn’t Habermas know this? And as I asked above, how would Habermas propose to explain it?
Other Articles: Fallout from the Oppenheimer article has been reported in Publishers Weekly by Lynn Garrett (see “Times Magazine Piece on Former Atheist Kicks Up Controversy” and “More Flames in Flew Controversy,” 14 and 28 November 2007). In the former article Garrett cites the mysteriously unsourced “press release” by Hostetler’s agent quoting Flew in defense of the book (though credited to HapperOne, it is still unclear whether Harper actually issued it: see previous update). There, among other things, Varghese asked rhetorically, “Is my co-author Tony Flew ‘all there’ mentally? The only reason that people ask questions about his mental faculties is that he dared to change his mind.” That is certainly not true. The reason we ask is because of an avalanche of evidence of his severe failures of memory (only some of which was just revisited above). If anyone has found Varghese addressing any of this actual evidence, please let me know. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, he is avoiding it.
In the New York Times Anthony Gottlieb wrote “I’m a Believer” (23 December 2007), which is a brief review of There Is a God. One interesting point he makes is that the book is written in American English, except for the autobiographical material which has appropriate Anglicisms, further confirming that Flew did not write the actual chapters that present his argument. This suggests he probably wrote at least some of the biographical material, or wrote material on which it was closely based, as only the argument chapters were Americanized. But the disparity suggests the latter chapters were only ever written by Americans, a conclusion partly confirmed by Regis Nicoll, “Freelance Writer, Speaker, Worldview Teacher, Men’s Ministry Leader,” who reports on his blog (“Antony Flew: True Convert or Exploited Scholar?” 21 December 2007) that Varghese told him personally that he and Hostetler “wrote anecdotes for some of the chapters” (where, incidentally, the Americanisms are most obvious).
Actually, as Oppenheimer reports (see previous updates), Varghese and Hostetler already confessed to having written all the book’s content, not just “some” of the “anecdotes.” What they really claim is that they drew upon things Flew had written elsewhere, and (supposedly) things he said to them, and merely sought Flew’s approval of the resulting text through many revisions–but otherwise they themselves did all the writing. But even if we focus on the anecdotes, why did they decide to pepper a book that is supposed to be by Flew, with anecdotes of their own invention?
Once again, I’ll let the reader decide what the most plausible answer is to that question.
Update (17 November 2010)
As has been widely reported already, sadly Antony Flew died this year, having been incapacitated with dementia for many months. For details see Kenneth Grubbs (who attempted a final interview with Flew and interviewed his widow) in The Skeptic, “Antony Flew 1923-2010,” vol. 16, issue 1, pp. 32-35.