Antony Flew:True Convert or Exploited Scholar?
Regis NicollRegis Nicoll's weblog
- 2007 Dec 21
"I have followed the argument where it has led me. And it has led to accept the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient Being.” (Antony Flew in There is a God)
A STUNNING DEFECTION
Few people in modern history have had the influence on anti-theistic thought as Antony Flew.
Through his 30-plus philosophical works—from the 1000-word essay, Theology and Falsification to the 210-page treatise, God and Philosophy—Flew turned the tables of debate, making atheism the default position and shifting the burden of proof to believers.
That was before the legendary figure announced his defection to deism in 2004. The news sent shock waves throughout freethinking circles. The question on everyone’s mind was how Antony Flew could accept what he spent a lifetime refuting. Bewildered admirers blamed an octogenarian’s end-of-life fear. Maddened colleagues charged “sloppy scholarship.”
In the years that followed, Flew went on record in various venues to explain his position. The most comprehensive account is in the book released this fall, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
It is a thoroughly readable and inspiring account of a man whose life-long intellectual pursuit has been guided by the Socratic dictum to “follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
The first half of the book traces Flew’s upbringing in a Christian home to his rejection of God and his life as a professional philosopher. Included are the factors that shaped his atheism and the philosophical arguments he advanced. In the second half we learn about his discovery of the Divine.
Flew’s journey brought him to two instrumental conclusions: one, that materialistic science could not account for the laws of nature, the teleological essence of life, and the origin of the cosmos; and two, that there were compelling philosophical arguments for an Omnipotence operating outside of spacetime.
Those conclusions led him to an Aristotelian God—a Being who is “self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient.” At the same time, Flew remains adamant about his rejection of an interventionist Deity, the afterlife and revealed religion, although he is open to the latter. An important point to bear in mind, as will soon be made clear, is that Antony Flew has held firm to these convictions ever since his 2004 announcement.
Summarizing his journey, the former atheist states, “my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not faith.” Others are not so sure.
A TRUE CONVERSION?
Shortly after the book’s release, Mark Oppenheimer wrote an article for the New York Times, asking whether Flew’s conversion is “what it seems to be.”
Considering the age of Flew (84) and his stature, it’s a valid question. But given Oppenheimer’s leading description of a “senescent scholar” with “memory failing,” “a continent away” “without an internet connection,” who “has become a mere symbol, a trophy,” the conclusion seems clear from the get-go.
With the punch suitably spiked, the aged oracle is methodically depicted as a useful, if affable, idiot of the intelligent design (ID) movement.
Oppenheimer describes a DVD where Flew, under “prodding” by a couple of ID advocates, admits that current advances in science point to an Intelligence. The mention of Flew’s halting diction and seeming acquiescence complete the desired effect.
Details of private correspondence between Flew and Richard Carrier are disclosed. Carrier, it will be noted, is an atheist of some prominence who is concerned that this one time great thinker hasn’t kept up with science. As he sees it, his job is to awaken Flew from his academic slumber, by provoking him to catch up on the latest theories.
It would appear that nearly two-months of badgering by Carrier had some effect: In the 2005 edition of his 1966 classic, God and Philosophy, Flew declined to mention his move to deism.
When it comes to Flew’s latest book, There is a God, Oppenheimer sets his sights not on the arguments, but the authorship. The book bears the attribution, “Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese.” After learning that the book was Varghese’s idea and that “an extensive copy editor” was involved, Oppenheimer wonders “how much Flew was left in the book?” With Varghese identified as a “crusader” of intelligent design and the copy editor as an evangelical pastor, the not-so subtle implication is: very little.
This is interesting, given Oppenheimer’s acknowledgement that Flew has been intellectually challenged by Varghese (and others) over a span of 20 years. By simple arithmetic he would realize that 20 years ago Antony Flew was 64 years old—what some might call, the new “middle age.”
Nevertheless, the picture we are left with is not of a critical thinker committed to “following the evidence wherever it leads,” but of a declining academic following the evidence “as it has been explained to him.”
But is the portrayal accurate? Is Antony Flew a senescent senior whose views vacillate according to the manipulation of would-be handlers? Not to those who have been paying attention to his public statements.
For instance, in March 2005—less than a month after his apparent backpedaling under the “tutelage” of Richard Carrier—Flew re-affirmed his belief in the Aristotelian God. When asked in a BBC interview whether he was retracting that belief, Flew responded, “Oh no . . . a belief bound up with the deep feeling in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.”
One month later, Flew told Christianity Today that he had been reevaluating the evidence for intelligent design for several years. He went on to say that the evidence led him to accept “an Intelligence that produced the integrative complexity of creation.” Although he rejects Christianity and the notion of life-after-death and supernatural revelation, Flew maintained that he was a “deist like Thomas Jefferson."
Even Mark Oppenheimer described the ex-atheist “flaunt[ing] his allegiance to deism” in May 2006 to a Christian audience at
Shortly after the publication of There is a God, Flew told Ben Wiker, “I think the origins of the laws of nature and of life and the Universe point clearly to an intelligent Source. The burden of proof is on those who argue to the contrary.” Flew added that his “God is a person but not the sort of person with whom you can have a talk. It is the ultimate being, the Creator of the Universe.”
The public record paints a picture bearing little semblance to the stumbling scholar in the New York Times. In fact, from early 2005 through late 2007, Antony Flew’s statements have been unwaveringly consistent with those in a lengthy interview with Gary Habermas, shortly after his “coming out” in 2004.
At the same time, it would be naïve to suggest that Antony Flew has not experienced a decline in faculties commensurate with his age. Flew, himself, admits to “nominal aphasia,” or difficulty in remembering names. But to suggest that this evinces a mentally enfeebled scholar who has fallen victim to crafty Christians is ridiculous.
A FULL PARTNER
For the last couple of weeks I have been in contact with Roy Varghese, Flew’s co-author, to gather information about There is a God.
Mr. Varghese admitted to me that he pulled the book together, drawing on material from published and unpublished works by Flew, as well as, from interviews and private correspondence. Varghese wrote the Preface and one of the appendices; he and the copy editor wrote anecdotes for some of the chapters.
Upon request, Mr. Varghese forwarded me a letter he wrote to the Times, addressing at length the issues raised by Oppenheimer. Concerning Flew’s involvement in the book, Varghese states: “Tony edited, corrected and approved at least ten versions of the manuscript.” (I have since reviewed ample evidence validating that statement but which, because of legal restrictions, cannot be divulged.)
But perhaps it is best to let “Tony” to speak for himself. In a recent statement carried by Publishers Weekly, Flew sets the record straight:
My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 percent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I'm 84 and that was Roy Varghese's role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I'm old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking.
That hardly sounds like a man whose tenacity has diminished with age. Moreover, in a signed, handwritten letter (a copy of which I now have) sent to Roy Varghese, the legendary philosopher reaffirmed his conversion while criticizing Oppenheimer for drawing attention away from the book’s central argument: the collapse of rationalism.
To all those freethinking naysayers, Tony’s message (and I’m paraphrasing) is clear: Having long exhausted your philosophical capital to no avail, all that is left you, is to attack the messenger. Not only am I resolute in my new worldview; but the very foundation upon which yours rests has proven bankrupt.
That’s a blunt message from anyone, much less from a cognitively challenged codger who lets others do his thinking for him.
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