The Curious Case of Antony Flew

atheist now deist antony flew book not convincingAntony Flew created waves with his 2007 book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. He was a prominent atheist philosopher who converted to deism. Attacked or ignored before, Flew suddenly became a darling within many Christian circles and was celebrated as one of the 20th century’s most important philosophers.

Antony Flew, the Christian coup

A 2009 Greg Koukl podcast gives an example of this Christian reaction. Koukl blathered on about what a top-flight philosopher Flew was. He attacked the idea that Flew was losing it, as some atheists charged. “Just read his book and see,” he said. He said that scientists like Dawkins should feel privileged to be in the same room with a great philosopher like Flew. And so on.

Koukl is often motivating, and that was the case here. However, I doubt that it motivated me in the direction that he was expecting. In the first place, and you need only look on the cover to see this, Flew wasn’t the author. It says “Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese.” Maybe Flew wrote most of it, but I doubt it. The “with” customarily means that the other guy wrote it all.

There are other clues. This book is structured in a very different way than a typical nonfiction book in which someone lays out a thesis and then supports it with evidence. It has long summaries of the thinking of other people—Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and so on. No original thinking here, just summaries.

For example, it has a book report-like summary of part of Infinite Minds by John Leslie, which talks about quantum laws and special relativity. Flew’s background gives no indication that he was comfortable with this kind of science, and even if he was, who cares? He wasn’t a physicist or even a science journalist, and he brings no authority to his analysis of physics.

There are also lots of places like this: “In my new introduction to the 2005 edition of God and Philosophy, I said, ‘I am myself delighted …’” (p. 123). Flew was reduced to quoting himself? He can’t just say what he wants to say?

Another example: “In The Presumption of Atheism and other atheistic writings, I argued that we must take the universe itself …” (p. 134). Here again he’s referring to himself as if he were another person. The book is peppered with this structure. It looks exactly as it would if someone (I don’t know … maybe someone like Roy Abraham Varghese?) were told to write a book-length essay on someone else’s philosophy and tried to couch it as if written by the great man himself.

Was Flew losing it in his waning years?

Here’s how Flew summarized his new position in a 2007 video:

If the integrated complexity of the physical world is a good reason, as Einstein clearly thought it was, of believing that there was an intelligence behind it, then this argument applies a fortiori [even more strongly] with the inordinately greater integrated complexity of the living world.

Let’s step through Flew’s argument.

1. Einstein is really smart. True, but this is an irrelevant appeal to authority.

2. Einstein said that there’s an intelligence behind the physical world. False, but even if he did, so what? A really smart guy says that there’s a god behind the curtain, pulling the levers of reality, so therefore it must be so?

3. If you think the physical world is complex, the living world is way more so.

4. If there’s intelligence behind the physical world, there’s even more reason to believe that about the far more complex biological world. Complexity doesn’t demand design. A pile of straw is complex (imagine documenting each piece), but it wasn’t designed.

Flew approvingly mentioned Einstein’s reluctance to go “where [he] didn’t have any authority at all and wasn’t inclined (reasonably enough) to talk about it.” Too bad Flew himself didn’t follow that advice!

The relevance of Flew’s conversion

Let’s return to Koukl’s point about Dawkins vs. Flew. The book itself shows the ridiculousness of this complaint. In the beginning of the conclusion chapter, it lists “the three items of evidence we have considered in this volume—the laws of nature, life with its teleological organization, and the existence of the universe.” These three are all squarely in the domain of science! Now who’s the interloper into a field that he’s unqualified to critique?

If Varghese wants to spin Flew’s works or glean a theistic argument out of Flew’s writings, that’s fine, but what did Flew himself add to this project besides give permission? The image comes to mind of someone helping a senile old man sign his name to the release form. One critic of the book said, “Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, [the book] rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.”

If you are drawn into controversy,
use very hard arguments and very soft words.
Frequently you cannot convince a man by tugging at his reason,
but you can persuade him by winning his affections.
— C.H. Spurgeon

About Bob Seidensticker