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Sorry to Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist!

[Editor’s note: This article no longer represents Flew’s current position. For the most recent information, see Antony Flew Considers God…Sort Of.]

Antony Flew in the 50sRichard C. Carrier, current Editor in Chief of the Secular Web, tells me that “the internet has now become awash with rumors” that I “have converted to Christianity, or am at least no longer an atheist.” Perhaps because I was born too soon to be involved in the internet world I had heard nothing of this rumour. So Mr. Carrier asks me to explain myself in cyberspace. This, with the help of the Internet Infidels, I now attempt.

Those rumours speak false. I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word ‘atheist’ in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as ‘atypical’ and ‘amoral’. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify – to show to be false – what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as “the religious hypothesis.” The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity.

I first argued the impossibility in ‘Theology and Falsification’, a short paper originally published in 1950 and since reprinted over forty times in different places, including translations into German, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Welsh, Finnish and Slovak. The most recent reprint was as part of ‘A Golden Jubilee Celebration’ in the October/November 2001 issue of the semi-popular British journal Philosophy Now, which the editors of that periodical have graciously allowed the Internet Infidels to publish online: see “Theology & Falsification.”

I can suggest only one possible source of the rumours. Several weeks ago I submitted to the Editor of Philo (The Journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers) a short paper making two points which might well disturb atheists of the more positive kind. The point more relevant here was that it can be entirely rational for believers and negative atheists to respond in quite different ways to the same scientific developments.

We negative atheists are bound to see the Big Bang cosmology as requiring a physical explanation; and that one which, in the nature of the case, may nevertheless be forever inaccessible to human beings. But believers may, equally reasonably, welcome the Big Bang cosmology as tending to confirm their prior belief that “in the beginning” the Universe was created by God.

Again, negative atheists meeting the argument that the fundamental constants of physics would seem to have been ‘fine tuned’ to make the emergence of mankind possible will first object to the application of either the frequency or the propensity theory of probability ‘outside’ the Universe, and then go on to ask why omnipotence should have been satisfied to produce a Universe in which the origin and rise of the human race was merely possible rather than absolutely inevitable. But believers are equally bound and, on their opposite assumptions, equally justified in seeing the Fine Tuning Argument as providing impressive confirmation of a fundamental belief shared by all the three great systems of revealed theistic religion – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For all three are agreed that we human beings are members of a special kind of creatures, made in the image of God and for a purpose intended by God.

In short, I recognize that developments in physics coming on the last twenty or thirty years can reasonably be seen as in some degree confirmatory of a previously faith-based belief in god, even though they still provide no sufficient reason for unbelievers to change their minds. They certainly have not persuaded me.

Note from the Editor: in accord with Flew’s remarks, on how the Fine Tuning Argument by itself leads more readily to agnosticism than to theism or positive atheism, see Richard Carrier’s Response to James Hannam’s ‘In Defense of the Fine Tuning Design Argument’ (2001).

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