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From "There Is No God" to "There Is a God" : Tracking Antony Flew’s Conversion


The news has been out since 2004 that the world’s leading atheist, Antony Flew, changed his mind in light of the available evidence. Like waking up from a bad dream, a number of atheists and skeptics reacted in, well, . . . disbelief. Their stance shifted to skepticism and then, as this late-in-life conversion became undeniable, it shifted to outright denunciations of Flew. In his God Delusion book, Richard Dawkins refers scornfully to the "over-publicized tergiversation [apostasy]" of Flew in his "old age," having been "converted to belief in some sort of deity." He contrasts Flew with the "great philosopher" Bertrand Russell, who "won the Nobel Prize."

Flew was of course, the atheist philosopher for decades, and his accomplishments, insight, and creativity can’t be minimized by such cheap shots from within his former “community." His recently-released book, There Is a God: How the World”s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (Harper One, 2007) tells a remarkable story of Flew’s pilgrimage. He had been the son of a Methodist minister, but as a teenager he "rejected the thesis that the universe was created by an all-good, all powerful God." The book recounts an astonishing career of achievements and acquaintances, including his participation in Oxford University’s Socratic Club during C.S. Lewis’ tenure as president (1942-1954). The club’s stated goal was to heed Socrates’ exhortation to "follow the argument wherever it leads." This is the maxim Flew has sought to follow all his life. But for many of his critics, "free-thinking" is a one-way street: thinking is "free" if you move away from God, not toward God.

We should remember that Flew didn’t just change his mind about one thing”and late in life, at that. He earlier repudiated his Marxist beliefs. Also, he came to realize that his juvenile insistencies" that first led him to atheism were ill-founded"”namely, that evil decisively disproved God and that the free-will defense didn’t relieve God of his responsibility for evil. Indeed, before he would come to renounce atheism, Flew repudiated a number of previously-held beliefs including determininsm (in favor of free agency) and the rejection of disembodied personhood as incoherent.

Flew challenges his former fellow-atheists: "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?" An appropriate question indeed”especially for those who assume that nature is all there is. What prompted Flew’s change of mind to become a believer in God (a "Jeffersonian deist" ) was modern science itself guided by philosophical arguments. There are three key considerations: (a) nature’s obedience to laws; (b) the intelligently organized and purpose-driven nature of life; (c) the very existence of nature (something rather than nothing). Flew takes time to explain these points. In the midst of this, he comes to acknowledge there is a point to the design argument he once rejected.

I could go on, but I won’t review the whole book here. (Dr. Gary Habermas offers a nice overview of this book in the next issue of Philosophia Christi”of which you can get a sneak peek. And while you’re at it, check out the upgraded Evangelical Philosophical website at www.epsociety.org). I did want to point out a couple of excellent bonus features to the book, however. Roy Abraham Varghese (Preface and Appendix A) has a fine critique of the "new atheists" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and so on). He points that these thinkers have mistakenly resorted to the old logical positivism of the late A.J. Ayer: for a statement to be meaningful, it must be scientifically provable; ironically, Ayer himself came to see that his whole system itself could not be scientifically provable and was therefore meaningless. He confessed that his view was "full of mistakes." Yet these new atheists are embracing a system that, in Ayer’s words, "died a long time ago." Furthermore, a physical world by itself cannot account for rationality, life’s self-organizing capacities, consciousness, conceptual thought within language, and human identity and agency.

The second appendix is by the Christian historian N.T. Wright, who makes an argument for the historicity of Jesus and the plausibility of Jesus as God incarnate and of his bodily resurrection from the dead. Flew offers his "free-thinking" comments on Wright’s arguments: "I am very much impressed with Bishop Wright’s approach, which is absolutely fresh. He presents the case for Christianity as something new for the first time . . . It is absolutely wonderful, absolutely radical, and very powerful." Flew affirms his openness to any further revelation of God, asking: "Is it possible that there has been or can be divine revelation?" He at least sees that "the claim concerning the resurrection is more impressive than any by the religious competition."

This book is a fascinating and honest story of someone who has courageously followed the evidence where it has now led him. Flew not only tells his personal story, but he shares with us the specific evidences and arguments that led to his change of mind. It’s an exceptional book to readand to give away to all "free-thinkers" in the truest sense of the word.

6 Responses to “From "There Is No God" to "There Is a God" : Tracking Antony Flew’s Conversion”

  1. The NY Times Magazine ran an illuminating piece on this called “The Turning of an Atheist”:

    http://tinyurl.com/5ufm5q

    (It’ll make you think twice about using Flew as your poster boy.)

  2. Considering that Mark Oppenheimer regards Richard Carrier as “brilliant” I can’t help thinking that this is little more than an atheistic beat up job. Carrier’s main objection to God is that the Almighty doesn’t make the world into a Carebear paradise. His techniques of argument involve boring people into submission, and people on this site have detailed how he’s mistranslated the Greek in the NT in order to support a position that he already holds.

    He’s also given lip service to the Christ myth, a view no competent historian holds.

    Bringing in purveyors of drivel like Richard Dawkins (someone who thinks that “if God created everything then who created God?” is a unique and rational argument) shows Mark’s bias more than anything I could say. His reference to the “pseudoscience” of religious belief indicates that he has an inability to just report the facts.

    Whilst Flew is not a Christian, although I hope he does follow the evidence to the cross, he is at least a rational (as opposed to rationalizing) human being. Oppenheimer, Dawkins, Carrier et al are not.

  3. You dismiss the article because it describes Carrier as “brilliant” although Carrier happens to hold some eccentric views. (Is this a good reason to dismiss a disagreeable article?)

    Here’s the full quote:

    “Richard Carrier, a 37-year-old doctoral student in ancient history at Columbia, is a type recognizable to anyone who has spent much time at a chess tournament or a sci-fi convention or a skeptics’ conference. He is young, male and brilliant, with an obsessive streak both admirable and a little debilitating. In the time that he hasn’t finished his dissertation, Carrier has self-published a 444-page magnum opus called “Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.” (According to its Amazon.com description, the book offers “a complete worldview . . . covering every subject from knowledge to art, from metaphysics to morality, from theology to politics.”)”

  4. No, Carrier holds irrational views and rejects sound scholarship whenever it disagrees with him.

    The view of Oppenheimer is that Flew is a doddering old man who has been deceived into deism in his senility.

    I haven’t found any of Flew’s atheistic arguments particularly strong, so I’m not surprised that he recanted them at this late stage. His mental state is immaterial to that.

  5. “No, Carrier holds irrational views and rejects sound scholarship whenever it disagrees with him.”

    We probably all hold (some) irrational views. What’s your evidence that Carrier “rejects sound scholarship whenever it disagrees with him”? That’s a fairly strong claim which can’t be substantiated by citing merely a few instances.

    Peace.

  6. Many of us are suspicious about the sincerity of numerous last-minute conversions. In the old days, Catholic priests, dealing with a loved one that was unrepentantly not catholic, would lean in on the deathbed, and claim to have heard a last minute “conversion.”

    Or indeed – more relevant to Flew – lots of people, faced with death, hypocritically convert to religion at the last minute, to hedge their bets.

    That way they get the best of both worlds, so to speak: they can sin all their lives … and yet get “saved” in the end.

    And who knows, they may be desperate enough, that its not even hypocritical; they “reall”y convince themselves.

    Though to be sure, … God will examine them deeply for any potential hypocrisy.

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