Anthony Flew’s flight from atheism – review of “There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”

The late Anthony Flew (11 February 1923 – 8 April 2010) was a philosopher and something of a genius. He was an atheist philosopher for most of his career and a notable one. By notable, I mean he even invented new arguments against God’s existence, writing many books. However, with increasing advances in science and philosophical arguments for God’s existence, Flew changed his mind to become something of a Deist. This book is the story of how this happened.

Flew’s oft-repeated matra is “follow the evidence wherever it leads” and maintains the importance of being open to changing your mind if the evidence blows that way.  I appreciated his candor on this.

The book begins somewhat autobiographically with good bits of philosophy thrown in, an aspect I really liked. I had some schooling on philosophy and philosophers reading this book. He has great discussions on free-will and determinism, as well as some overview of his past debates and writings, all telling the story of his intellectual journey.

Then he launches into the reasons why he changed his mind:  His first reason is mainly the argument from design. The new findings of science on the complexity of life and the ultimate rationality of the universe seen in the laws of nature were major proofs of a rational Designer for Flew. Another was the so-called fine-tuning argument. This says that the universe and its laws are specifically designed and tuned for human life on earth. He then goes on into the problem of the origin of life and the complexity of the DNA molecule and how impossible it is for life to come about by itself. He proceeds from there to the cosmological argument (that due to the law of cause-and-effect, the universe must have a cause, a starter for the big bang would most reasonably be God), and its further development by philosophers David Conway and Richard Swinburne that he found very sound. Flew wraps it up defending the coherency of God as an explanation and a few conclusions.

The two appendices are excellent. One is by Roy Abraham Varghese, who helped Flew write this book (Flew was in his eighties at the time), interacting succinctly and powerfully with the “New Atheists” arguments. This alone is excellent and he broke some new ground for me. The second appendix is by N.T. Wright on the arguments for the self-revelation of God in human history through the resurrection of Jesus. Flew doesn’t believe that God has revealed himself in any way (Deist), but he thought Wright’s argument was fascinating and “the one to beat.” While Flew dismissed it as deficient for him at that time, he was still open to the possibility. But again, Wright had a very hard-hitting article for how short it was.

I’m being vague though – it’s better just to read it. It impressed me enough for a 5/5. This is among the top-ten books I’d recommend to anyone (not just eggheads). It’s only a 213 page simple, yet complete, sum-total of the arguments for God’s existence. Before people make definitive decisions about theism and atheism, this sort of book is the minimum that should be read on the pro-God side, and may be all you need for this side (The door-stop books Swinburne and Plantiga write simply cannot be read and understood by everyone… or rather, your average person just won’t). It also won Christianity Today’s book award, so I’m not alone.

It should be noted though, Flew was not a Christian or a believer in an afterlife. Nonetheless, Christians find it useful (not surprisingly), as would Muslims, Jews, Zoroasterians, etc. But really,  I think anyone would find it thought-provoking on life’s most important question – is there a God? It’s worth the investigation.

Quotes:

“Progress in philosophy is different from progress in science, but that does not mean it is therefore impossible… To the extent that these things are accomplished with better reasoning and greater effectiveness, progress will be seen – even as consensus and persuasion remain elusive and incomplete.” 41

“I therefore put to my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: ‘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?'” 88

“Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature.” 88-89

“The important point is not merely that there are regularities in nature, but that these regularities are mathematically precise, universal, and ‘tied together.’ Einstein spoke of them as ‘reason incarnate.’ The question we should ask is how nature came packaged in this fashion. This is certainly the question that scientists from Newton to Einstein to Heisenberg have asked – and answered. Their answer was the Mind of God.” 96

“Those scientists who point to the Mind of God do not merely advance a series of arguments or a process of syllogistic reasoning. Rather, they propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision that I personally find compelling and irrefutable.” 112

Introducing Wright’s article: “I think that the Christian religion is one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul.” 186-187

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4 comments

  1. wee3ee@aol.com

    Unfortunately Flew was too ill to write this book on his own (he died from complications associated with Alzheimer’s last year) and was “co” authored by Roy Varghese! the book has bout as much credibility as a book entitled “L Ron was right” co-authored by David Miscavige

    • PB

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!
      I’m aware of this criticism, but when I looked into it it is completely unfounded. I would direct you to Dekle’s review (http://www.amazon.com/review/R11FT93828EFXP/ref=cm_cr_dp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0061335304&nodeID=283155&tag=&linkCode=) on amazon.com, who has read many of Flew’s books and upon reading it concluded that “the heart and soul of the book is Flew,” while admitting it is not as tight and intellectual as his previous works, which itself argues that the elderly Flew was the source of the book. I would further direct you to the book “A Defense of the Integrity of Anthony Flew’s ‘There Is A God’ From His Own Letters” (http://www.amazon.com/Defense-Integrity-Antony-Letters-ebook/dp/B005L9YA10/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1325321283&sr=8-2) According to the review, Carrier and others have still not responded to this book.
      Furthermore, if Varghese wanted to really make it sensational, he would have made Flew a full-blown Christian or something, rather than a Deist.
      Personally, I find the accusations of senility insulting, anti-intellectual ad hominem attacks, and totally inappropriate. Such criticisms are an embarrassment to atheism. The facts are, Flew was coherent, the book contains thoroughly his ideas, and retains it’s credibility.

  2. Hugh Jarrse

    I realise your standpoint prohibits you from looking at Flews “conversion” objectively, But you would have to believe that Flew left it until his 9th decade to do his most focused thinking, no new evidence had been “unearthed” you are dismissing Flews findings that he came to at the height of his intellectual powers, and accepting his views as a nonagenarian because they suit you.

    • PB

      Hugh, if you say that, doesn’t your standpoint prohibit you from looking at his conversion objectively as well? I’d guess I’m about as objective as you are, or I try my best anyway. Have you read Flew’s book? Flew’s conversion was years in the making, and by becoming a deist, he had nothing to gain. As I mentioned, he did not believe in an afterlife, so he is not, as he put it, “settling Pascalian bets” in his old age. Tthis is not the first time he’s changed his mind on something. And on the contrary, new evidence was indeed “unearthed.” He notes the new information science learned about DNA, as well as the refined approaches the new batch of Theist philosophers made on old arguments.

      Furthermore, people “convert” to other views all the time. I’d be the first to admit it doesn’t prove anything per se. Christians become atheists and atheists become Christians. People change their minds. And Flew didn’t even become a Christian! Still, Flew’s change is significant, since he was among the best atheist philosophers.

      Yet I’m baffled as to why this criticism of his old age is so common from the atheist/agnostic community. This is textbook ad hominem fallacy. Furthermore, why is becoming a deist so threatening? Atheism has only been around as a respectable view for a couple centuries. The position of unbelief before this was deism. No self-respecting person would call themselves an atheist even in the French Enlightenment period. Deism isn’t too far from atheism. Anyway, my point is, for a situation like Flew’s, both sides need to be honest enough to call it as it is.

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