I don’t remember when I first encountered Antony Flew’s arguments for atheism. I do know that it was primarily Flew’s brand of atheism that I rejected and it was his brand of atheism that I seemed to encounter most often at the time Christian apologetics became one of my passions. I met the news of his change of mind with deep interest and looked forward to the re-release of his ‘God and Philosophy’ which was going to include a new introduction explaining exactly where he now stood and how he got there. I was disappointed with the lack of new information provided by that introduction and it turns out I wasn’t the only one. Flew himself wasn’t satisfied with it.
I first learned that while in France attending an Apologetics Academy led by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery. Presenting at this academy was Dr. Gary Habermas. I had the pleasure of having a couple of good conversations with Dr. Habermas and one of the things I asked him about was Antony Flew’s position. Habermas had held a famous debate about the historicity of the resurrection with Flew and I knew that they kept in touch. In fact, it was Dr. Habermas’s interview with Flew about his new position that had stirred so many atheists into frustration.
Dr. Habermas informed me that Flew was unhappy about how ‘God and Philosophy’ turned out. Soon after returning to the United States, I fired off a letter to Flew imploring him to set the record straight. To my great pleasure, Flew replied and assured me he was already on the case. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who wanted the skinny. His response, “There is a God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind” gives us the answers we were looking for.
As can be expected, atheists haven’t been too thrilled. Accusations that Flew is hedging his bets with a Pascalian wager have been made. At the same time, his arguments have been dismissed as written by someone who is quite old and therefore (I guess) senile. Some have even said that the book doesn’t represent Flew’s actual views. Flew takes on some of these challenges in his book. I’m sure that history will tell the full story.
I agree with some that it would have been nice to have more development of his current arguments and positions. Flew is one of the few writing atheists out there that actually does grasp Christian theology and whose atheistic arguments are not wholesale attacks on strawman conceptions like Dawkins’s and those of the ‘new atheists.’
For example, the design argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the ‘free-will defense’ really do make sense when one is contemplating the evidence for the Aristotelian concept of God which so closely resembles the Christian concept. These arguments don’t make much sense if your concept of God is of an entity hiding out in space somewhere who might be detected by a lucky look of a telescope.
God as understood by Christians could never, in principle, be empirically detectable. Yet there are a host of atheists out there who seem to think he could. Further elaboration on this point would have been a great help in the theism/atheism debate.
The most direct assessment of that issue comes not from Flew, but from Roy Abraham Varghese writing in the preface:
In fact, the ‘new atheists,’ it might be said, do not even rise to logical positivism. The positivists were never so naïve as to suggest that God could be a scientific hypothesis- they declared the concept of God to be meaningless precisely because it was not a scientific hypothesis. Dawkins, on the other hand, holds that ‘the presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question.” This is the kind of comment of which we say it is not even wrong!
Alright, it is not Flew’s job to lay out for anyone exactly what Christian theism is all about. His is an autobiographical tale of where he is and how he got there and in this he succeeds. His account has great value because it is also a fine survey of the progression of atheistic arguments over the last century, many of which were his own. He accompanies these arguments with some of the theistic responses that have been made. He provides names and titles of books that have influenced him. So, while not digging in as exhaustively as perhaps any of us would like (as if he lives to please us!) he does hand us a shovel so we can go deeper if we want.
There is no sense in laying out and defending all of Flew’s arguments. For one thing, apart from reading the book for yourself, you can find plenty of reviews and responses to his arguments from within the atheistic community. I will provide, therefore, just a summary.
2. The more physicists learn about the nature of the universe, the more it appears that the universe is ‘fine-tuned’ so that life could arrive and flourish [the anthropic principle]. Attempts to defeat the significance of these findings have driven scientists to posit explanations such as the ‘multiverse.’ Flew correctly points out that such attempts merely drive the question back a level and still leaves the ‘fine-tuning’ as a compelling reason to believe the universe was created by God.
3. The origin of life resists an atheistic explanation. DNA is information, a code, and a self-replicating one at that. For a variety of reasons, Flew believes that the evidence is such that the best explanation for this code and for the origin of life is a divine mind.
4. That the universe had a beginning prompts the obvious question of what caused the universe to begin, if anything. The matter appears to be completely out of the hands of the empirical scientists, especially if it is maintained that nothing can be known ‘before’ the Big Bang. Flew argues it is thus a matter for philosophy, or, I might say, religion. Flew says, “… the universe is something that begs and explanation. Richard Swinburnes’s cosmological argument provides a very promising explanation, probably the finally right one.” (pg 145)
5. Many atheists take issue with the idea of how a God who by definition cannot be detected by empirical inquiry can be said yet to interact in our empirical universe. Flew himself includes himself as one who found the idea of a ‘person without a body’ to be nonsensical (pg 148). Here we see how Flew’s accurate grasp of Christian theism informs the discussion. He points to two thinkers, Thomas Tracy and Brian Leftow, who have done well in Flew’s mind to respond to the issue. Their arguments convinced Flew that the “idea of an omnipresent Spirit is not intrinsically incoherent if we see such a Spirit as an agent outside space and time that uniquely executes its intentions in the spatio-temporal continuum.” (page 153). In other words, Flew’s own arguments in ‘God and Philosophy’ that the concept of God has no applicability has, in his mind, been answered.
Flew concludes by pointing out that questions remain. The problem of evil and suffering is a formidable problem but he points out what many have been saying for a long time, that this is a separate issue from the question of God’s existence. Flew accepts that the ‘free-will defense’ will work, though it “depends on the prior acceptance of a framework of divine revelation, the idea that God has revealed himself.”
Flew has resisted describing his theism as a belief in a personal God defined by any of the revelatory systems that are available. Such comments as the one above make it clear to me that at some point the question of God’s existence is recognized to be important but not the whole question at all. What God wants and how he plans on doing it is something that we must, by definition, rely on that God to reveal. It looks like Flew is finally in a position where he is more willing to evaluate such revelation claims.
It would have been better if it had been seen all along that the very structure of the problem always meant evaluating revelation claims instead of positing a ‘presumption of atheism’ which was used so often to dismiss such claims a priori.
Flew seems inclined to believe that Christianity is the leading contender among revelatory systems. If he continues to grapple with the reality that a God exists basically how Christians have understood him, it will only be a matter of time before he recognizes that the Incarnation was almost predictable. The Jesus whom Flew admires said that it is only through Jesus that one can have God. It looks like putting two and two together is only a matter of time now for Dr. Flew. I only wish we had more time!
But then, I guess none of us ever really knows how much time we have, do we?