Posted by: rohlfsen1 | May 6, 2009

The Curious Case of Anthony Flew

atheist brochureI don’t know how many of you have heard or know of Anthony Flew, but I came across his story in my research and he is quite an interesting guy. Once known as “the world’s most notorious atheist,” Flew gained even greater notice and publicity in 2004 when he publically converted to theism. Not surprisingly, the world was shocked that a man could pull such a complete 180° turn-around, and in response to the gazillions of questions he was asked, Flew wrote There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. If you have time, you should check the book out. It is a short, easy, and yet rather mindboggling narrative.

In the preface to the book, it states : “No mainstream philosopher has developed the kind of systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition of atheism that is to be found in Antony Flew’s fifty years of antitheological writings” (IX). Of course earlier atheists and the new atheists have attempted to argue against the existence of God, but Flew was distinct in that he both systematically formed rational arguments against the existence of God and then followed those arguments to their logical conclusions. He actually engaged the arguments of his counter-contemporaries (the most prominent being C. S. Lewis) and as a result, he fought against theism with more philosophical force than many, if not most, of his predecessors.

 Without going into too much unnecessary detail, Flew’s personal beliefs were interesting. Born and raised the son of a Methodist preacher, Flew was forced to go to religious boarding school from a young age. At the age of fifteen, however, and in response to the suffering he saw as a result of WWII, he had decided that God did not exist. He then spent the majority of his adult life devising philosophical arguments against theism. As a member of C.S. Lewis’s Socratic Club and as a man with great respect for Lewis, Flew operated under Lewis’s instructions to “follow the evidence wherever it may lead.” Up until 2004, it seems that the problem of theodicy, amongst other problems, led Flew to atheism. Ironically, however, three pieces of unexplained evidence – the existence of nature itself, the dimension of intelligently and purpose-driven beings, and the fact that nature obeys laws – later led Flew to trade in his atheistic beliefs for deistic beliefs. In the end, he could find no other explanation for these three things a Creator God, and as a result, he was forced to reject the conclusions of the earlier 60 years of his work.  

 Thus, Flew did not convert to Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, but rather a very impersonal deism. He writes, “I must stress that my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology. It has had no connection with any of the revealed religions. Nor do I claim to have had any personal experience of God or any experience that may be called supernatural or miraculous. In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage or reason and not of faith” (93).

This leads me to a few questions for all of you. First, Flew’s conversion seems promising for the potential of natural theology and yet sad in that natural theology or any endeavor like it can never lead to the revealed, true God of history. Do you think his conversion is valuable and if so, in what ways? Second, to me it seems as though Flew simply found a “God of the Gaps”. So what implications does this have when one day science is able to answer how any of those three things mentioned above arose?

On a final note, I just wanted to say that the introduction is slightly entertaining in certain parts where it engages the topic of the new atheism. I do not know how the whole situation unfolded, but I guess after Flew’s conversion, Dawkins publically attacked Flew and all of his beliefs in an attempt to maintain a strong-hold on atheism. In response, Flew attacked Dawkins and all of the new atheists right back and in greater force. In this book, Flew claims that the new atheists do not fit into the “larger philosophical discussion on God” for several reasons, but mainly because “they refuse to engage the real issues involved in the question of God’s existence”, they “show no awareness of the fallacies and muddles that led to the rise and fall of logical positivism”, and they “they seem entirely unaware of the massive corpus of works in analytic philosophy of religion or the sophisticated new arguments generated within philosophical theism” (XVII). And on top of it all, Flew mentions that the new atheists lack real significance in that they fail to assert a world-view that backs up their atheistic beliefs. If you’re interested in a philosophical/theological cat fight, this is a good one…

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Responses

  1. Hey Rae,

    I don’t know if you remember, but when I presented the first chapter of the God Delusion for class, I read from Flew’s book “There is a God”. I think Flew has some really interesting critiques of Dawkins, especially in terms of his rhetorical devices and his use of Einstein.

    As the semester has moved forward, I think that Flew’s arguments are less interesting. He arrives, in the realm of impersonal deism, back at a kind of sexy intelligent design theory. He argues that given all the information about science, it is actually intellectually irresponsible to look at the world as uncreated or arbitrary.

    Not that I disagree, but I don’t think that there is much substance here. In his book, Flew invites two writers, Abraham Vargheese and NT Wright, to add appendices to his book on the God-Atheism debate. NT Wright’s response is probably the most helpful.

    Wright basically points out that none of the current Atheists take seriously Christian scholarship, which is why they arrive at conclusions so staggeringly unfocused. If they bothered to dive into a dry, 800 page text of pure history, from Josephus and Philo, to the Gnostics, I’m sure someone like Hitchens would be forced to scale back his historical critiques on Christianity.

    Flew’s book is interesting because it shows how someone who shuts their eyes and ears for 60 years can suddenly find great appreciation for scholarship they once condemned as “second rate”. Although I think his Deism is a step up from the New Atheists, I still think it is a product of unreflected writing and an eagerness to publish. He still just doesn’t get what Christian (or any other religion for that matter) scholarship is all about.

  2. Flew’s conversion process certainly raises some interesting questions, as you’ve pointed out. I did some work on conversion narratives as a part of my paper, and I have to say, the whole process is extraordinarily interesting. Some were as simple as Flew’s, rational argument sufficing to say that we cannot explain everything without God, and some were as dramatic as Saul of Tarsus getting knocked off a donkey and struck blind after persecuting first century Christians, becoming St. Paul, one of the most important leaders in Christian history. I wonder if the manner of one’s conversion matters as much as the fact that one has converted… Flew was a vocal, active, proselytizing atheist who became, if not a Christian or Muslim or Jew, a man admitted that there had to be a Creator. Is that not enough? God is infinitely bigger than we can know, so if God chooses to reveal Godself in an infinite variety of ways, is the manner of conversion or the level of adopted belief important? Or perhaps Flew’s move to deism is simply a stepping stone toward genuine theism? What role, then, should theists play in the developing theologies of men and women like Flew?


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