Antony Flew

There is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind

There is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. By Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese. New York: Harper One, 2007. 222 pages. $24.95.

Review by Jonathan Morgan, 2012 | Review by Karen Lubic, 2009

Review by Jonathan Morgan, 2012

This book is Antony Flew’s explanation for his controversial conversion from atheism to theism.  He presents this conversion as the natural outcome of his commitment to “follow the argument wherever it may lead” (22).  The first section of the book is autobiographical, tracing his career and intellectual development.  The second section of the book outlines the evidence that compelled him to change his mind.

Flew was a prominent British philosopher of the 20th century.  His most famous books include God and Philosophy and The Presumption of Atheism, both of which were significant contributions to the philosophy of religion.  Even his earlier essay, “Theology and Falsification” remains a landmark in the debate over the meaningfulness of religious statements.  Thus it comes as no surprise that his 2004 conversion was felt as a betrayal among atheists.

Part I opens with a brief autobiography that depicts Flew’s life as spent mainly in academia.  He attended Oxford and worked primarily at Reading and Bowling Green.  But, his movements were not simply geographic.  In chapter two he describes his intellectual development but also presents his prior views as an atheist.           

Flew rehashes three of his significant works and the arguments they contain.  “Theology and Falsification” scrutinized religious claims.  Flew argued that since any contradiction to God’s existence and love is explained away then nothing can falsify those claims.  Therefore nothing can verify the claims either.  The claim to God’s existence or goodness becomes semantically empty, thus God suffers “death by a thousand qualifications” (44).

God and Philosophy, published in 1966, was “a systematic argument for atheism” (49).  Flew followed Hume’s reasoning in rejecting various arguments for God’s existence.  But the crux of Flew’s argument was against the very concept of God.  He showed that the concept of God is far from coherent or consistent.  Therefore one cannot meaningfully assert God’s existence.   

Finally in the Presumption of Atheism we find a procedural argument.  In this book Flew claims that in debate, “the onus of proof must lie with the theists” (53).  He again points to the difficulty of defining and identifying a concept of God.  Given this difficulty the theists cannot assume God’s existence as a premise. 

As Flew recounts each of these older arguments he also traces the debates they encouraged.  By giving voice to dissent he is setting the stage for the second half of the book which argues for theism.  But he is also showing his allegiance to “follow the argument wherever it may lead.”  He directly affirms this by citing his “defection from full compatibilism” as a previous time he changed his mind about something fundamental (64).  These techniques set the tone for the next section, but also read like a personal reconciliation.  The earlier arguments are described through the lens of his current theism and therefore lack the conviction they had.

While this creates a consistent tone, the philosophical reasoning distinctly shifts between the two parts.  His arguments against God are grounded in epistemology or methodology.  He does not describe any of them as ontological, which may be a projection of his theism backwards.  Yet his arguments for God are primarily empirical.  Rather than resolve his earlier doubt it is as though the criteria of proof has shifted which makes the book intellectually disjoint.

By titling part II “My Discovery of the Divine” Flew reinforces the image that his conversion is the rational progression of his thought (83).  He begins candidly with a statement of faith: “I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence” (88).  He goes on to explore the evidence that has emerged from modern science which compels his belief.

The first question that Flew believes points to God is: “How did the laws of nature come to be?” (91).  From Flew’s point of view the laws of nature are too mathematically precise and “tied together” to not imply a Designer (96).  Rather than develop the logic of this implication, Flew evokes a host of scientists who share this position: Einstein, Hawking, Maxwell….  While worth considering, this survey lacks the rigor of Flew’s previous arguments against God.  The only dissenting voice is Dawkins’, which Flew dismisses flippantly in half a page.

Flew’s second piece of evidence is built around the “anthropic principle” (114).  Given how our universe seems finely tuned to support life, Flew considers two possible reasons.  One reason postulates divine design, the other assumes a multiverse.  Flew argues that the multiverse theory is vacuous because by suggesting infinite universes it explains everything and nothing (118).  This is a solid critique, similar to his earlier epistemological insights.  But Flew does not develop his argument enough to be able to claim that “the only viable explanation here is the divine Mind” (121). 

The “anthropic principle” is one answer to the larger question Flew is asking: “How did life as a phenomenon originate from nonlife?” (91).  Flew finds the “end-centered organization” of life particularly compelling when compared to the aimless matter from which it emerged (124).  Self-replication is the other deep mystery of life emerging out of matter.  Flew outlines the difficulties of explaining these truly mysterious phenomenon.  But he again makes the leap from ‘difficulty of explaining’ to implying “an infinitely intelligent Mind.” (132).    

This leap of faith happens again when Flew considers his final subject: creation.  Specifically, the big-bang theory implies that the universe had a beginning which then begs the question: “what produced this beginning?” (136).  As Flew explores alternative explanations he insists that an infinite causal series cannot be self-explaining. Thus Flew follows the footsteps of Aristotle and Aquinas by demanding an initial, infinite cause.

Flew concludes that “the laws of nature, life with its teleological organization, and the existence of the universe-- can only be explained in the light of an Intelligence that explains both its own existence and that of the world” (155).  We are only given snippets of what this “Intelligence” would be: “self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient.” (155).  But demanding a systematic theology from Flew is asking too much.  His intention was to explain why he changed his mind and we can assume that this is a genuine account of that process.

Authenticity is one question and it has stirred up a fervent debate in the blogosphere.  Here we are not in a position to critique his authenticity.  We are, however, in a position to question whether Flew presents a compelling argument for theism.  I found his arguments unconvincing on two accounts.

First, he does not resolve the questions he posed to theism as a younger man.  The later defense for theism addresses an entirely different set of questions than his earlier epistemological challenges.  I found this shift of focus discordant and ultimately undermining his argument.  But, interests do change.

The larger problem is the second: his arguments for theism continually take ‘lack of explanation’ to imply God as the only explanation.  This is an especially unsatisfying error given the logical rigor he once demanded of theists.

That said, he does raise solid philosophical questions.  In doing so Flew effectively creates a sense of wonder about the mystery that still permeates the cosmos.  By cataloguing various theist scientists who share this sense of awe he also shows that rationality and theism are not contradictory ideas.  While this is not a compelling philosophical treatise, it does effectively show why Flew changed his mind.

Review by Karen Lubic, 2009

In this easy-to-read volume endorsed by notables of the religion and science dialogue and leading theologians together with Christian fundamentalist celebrities, Antony Flew retraces his “pilgrimage of reason” from atheism to deism based on the discoveries of genetics and cosmology over the past twenty years (85). Considered by many as one of the twentieth century’s classic atheistic thinkers, Flew rocked both the worlds of atheism and theism with his announcement in 2004 at a New York City debate that he had changed his mind about the existence of God. The subsequent fight for Flew’s endorsement of their respective causes led to taped interviews by fundamentalists, ongoing correspondence with a contributor to the “Skeptical Inquirer,” alternating atheistic and deistic versions of a new introduction to his 1966 book God and Philosophy, and endorsements of several fundamentalist authors. (See Mark Oppenheimer’s article, “The Turning of an Atheist” in the November 4, 2007 edition of The New York Times). In this book Flew purports to set the record straight for the final time by explaining how his lifelong principle of “following the evidence wherever it may lead” directed him to new evidence that supports the existence of an intelligent mind who designed the universe (42).

Following a Preface written by Roy Varghese, Flew’s collaborator, who places Flew in philosophical context and discredits Flew’s “new atheist” detractors, and an Introduction, Flew divides his text into two parts, “My Denial of the Divine” and “My Discovery of the Divine.” Flew writes the first portion of Part I as an autobiography, outlining his birth to a Methodist minister, his early education at John Wesley’s Kingswood School, his education at Oxford where he participated in the Socratic Club led by C. S. Lewis, his subsequent academic appointments, his participation in various atheist/theist debates, and his announcement in 2004 of his acceptance of God’s existence.

While this portion of the text recounts his steps toward atheism, including his teenage rejection of the all-loving and all-powerful natures of God and the triumph of “Theology and Falsification” in describing how theists kill a claim about God “by a thousand qualifications,” it also lays the foundation for Flew’s turn toward deism (44). He describes how proud his father would be of his new-found belief because of the great help it will be to the Christian church. He subtly distances himself from his graduate school supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, who criticized Cartesian dualism, by speaking of his warm relationship with Oxford professor Henry Price, who advocated the existence of body, mind, and soul and a type of disembodied consciousness. He comes close to backtracking on his original assessment of C. S. Lewis’ apologetics by stating that “the case for Christian revelation is a very strong one, if you believe in any revelation at all” (24). He recasts “Theology and Falsification” as a total victory over A. J. Ayer’s defense of logical positivism with no mention of it as a victory over theism. Lastly, the description of his courtship serves as a response to society’s predominant view that atheists have no morals.

In the second half of Part I, Flew reviews the maturation of his philosophical viewpoints and explains that progress in philosophy consists of questioning the premises, validity, and conclusions of arguments without necessarily reaching a consensus with other philosophers. He starts his review by clarifying the motives of his early writings on communism, parapsychology, Marxism, Darwinism, and the thinking of Bertrand Russell. He then explains his version of ordinary language philosophy, with which he is identified, as recognizing that what is perceived must be part of the cause of that effect. He then moves through each of his major works, explains the original intent and either points out mistakes and/or documents the major criticisms, followed by his revised thinking. Flew recants several chapters of his book on Hume, pointing out how Hume is wrong to reject cause and effect, which then results in his statement that “compatibilism does not work” (60). This rewriting of his original position on causation and human free will leads to the reason for his move to deism: the odds of all the atoms necessary to create a strand of DNA coming together simultaneously in such a complex conformation is so small that an intelligent designer, a first cause, is required.

The acceptance of the complexity of DNA as evidence of the existence of divinity sets the stage for Part II in which Flew supports the argument for design based on the lawlike behavior of nature, the existence of teleological beings from matter, and the existence of the universe. Using the standard rhetoric that laws of nature imply a lawgiver, that the Anthropic Principle points to a special place for humans in the universe, that the teleological nature of humans implies a “preexisting mind,” and that Swinburne’s revised version of the cosmological proof of God is headed in the right direction, Flew concludes that “the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence” (131, 132). This god of Aristotle who has the same attributes as the God of the monotheistic religions is a spirit that exists outside space-time but acts in a unique way within the space-time inhabited by humans.

The success of Flew’s arguments for the existence of this creator god who has no connection to revealed religion, no supernatural capabilities, or ties to religious experience rests on the reliability of his evidence, all of which has been previously employed by those involved in the Intelligent Design movement and subsequently debunked by its opponents. For example, the premise that the infinitesimally small likelihood of the existence of DNA without the work of an intelligent designer stands in contradiction to accepted evolutionary biology theory which only demands the gradual buildup of a complex molecule over a long period of time with stable intermediary compounds, such as RNA. (See Ken Miller’s website, The fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants does not necessarily imply that “the universe knew that we were coming,” but that the creatures of Earth can only exist if the constants have the values they currently have (113). In other words, Flew brings no new thinking or novel arguments to the table—only a reiteration of the current debates.

While Flew’s intention in writing this book was to lay to rest the controversy surrounding his conversion to deism, his use of the argument from design, his mention of his ongoing associations with fundamentalist Christians, and his collaboration with a journalist whose express mission is to “refute the arguments of atheists and those who perceive the world strictly in material terms” thrust him back into the media spotlight in much the same way as did the original announcement of his change of mind. (See Mark Stuertz’s interview of Varghese in May 2, 1007 edition of The Dallas Observer.) While Christian fundamentalists view the publication of There is a God as a feather in their cap, atheists are more circumspect. Paul Kurtz, a leader in the secular humanist movement and founder of Prometheus Books which published some of Flew’s earlier works, believes that Flew is being exploited. Richard Dawkins who previously argued that Flew’s god is a “god of the gaps” and who is on the receiving end of much criticism in this book, is quoted as saying, “’He once was a great philosopher.’” Mark Oppenheimer, a writer for The New York Times, interviewed Flew shortly after this book was published and found a forgetful man who indicated that Varghese had authored the book.

Regardless of who actually wrote this book, it will not go down in history as one of the great philosophical writings of this century. The tight, carefully crafted logic of “Theology and Falsification” is replaced with sloppy and incomplete thinking. In the chapter entitled, “Who Wrote the Laws of Nature?” the author simply states that “regularities in nature . . . can best be explained by a divine Mind” without detailing the steps necessary to reach that conclusion (109-110). He never addresses the questions of how and why God chooses the particular laws of nature that humans experience nor does he explore the subtleties around the differences in the meanings of “law” and “regularity”. In the final chapter, the author resolves the problem of evil with the solutions of deism and human free will without acknowledging the new set of issues that these answers create. The reasoning seems to be that once Flew accepted the existence of God, the answer to his boyhood quandary was obvious, which approaches the argument from the wrong direction. Sophisticated analogies, such as that of the explorers and the gardener in “Theology and Falsification,” are supplanted by crude substitutes such as the one which involves a satellite phone washed up on the shore of an island inhabited by a technically challenged tribe and which ends with the Verizon commercial jingle, “Can you hear me now?” In his earlier writings, the world could hear Antony Flew’s philosophical intellect with crystal clarity, but in this work unfortunately all the reader hears is static.