Have you heard the shocking news? The world’s most notorious atheist has converted!
No, it’s not Richard Dawkins.
Or Sam Harris.
Or Christopher Hitchens.
Or Dan Barker.
Or Michael Newdow.
Or Julia Sweeney.
No, this world-famous, notorious atheist convert is the philosopher Antony Flew.
If you’re wondering, “Who?”, you’re probably not alone. Antony Flew is a British philosopher, now retired and of advanced age. Though fairly well-known in philosophical circles in his day, I doubt he was ever “the world’s most notorious atheist” by any stretch. Yet now that he’s converted – if in fact he has converted, which I’ll get to in a minute – he’s inevitably acquired this title thanks to Christian apologists who can’t seem to accomplish a single goal without elevating it to the status of the most monumental victory over atheism ever. A recent New York Times article, “The Turning of an Atheist“, gives the whole sordid story.
Flew came to prominence in the 1950s when he presented a famous paper titled “Theology and Falsification“, in which he argued that claims about God have so many exceptions and qualifications that they are impossible to prove and should be disregarded. In subsequent years, he stood by this position with writings such as God and Philosophy (1966) and The Presumption of Atheism (1984). Flew is also the coiner of the term “No True Scotsman Fallacy“, in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking.
Flew retired in 1983 and today is 84 years old. After his retirement he shunned the spotlight for two decades, but in the early 2000s, the first rumblings of rumor were heard. In 2001, he quashed those speculations by writing an article for the Secular Web, “Sorry to Disappoint, But I’m Still an Atheist!”
But rumors of his conversion persisted. Starting in 2005, he apparently confirmed those rumors by stating a preference for Aristotelian deism, and seemed to endorse pseudoscientific speculations such as those of Gerald Schroeder. In response, Richard Carrier of the Secular Web wrote Flew a letter asking him if the rumors were true and pointing out the dubious scientific basis of these apologetics. Flew replied, expressed dismay that he’d been taken in by these charlatans, and promised to be more vigilant in the future, though he held to deism.
This brings up to the present and the subject of the Times article: a book has just been published, purportedly by Flew along with Christian apologist Roy Varghese, titled There Is a God. This book repeats many of the standard arguments for intelligent design creationism, and apparently once again endorses the claims of Gerald Schroeder.
Mark Oppenheimer of the Times went to Reading to interview Flew. Oppenheimer found that he was polite and agreeable, but suffering from serious memory gaps. Flew could not define terms like “abiogenesis” and was unfamiliar with the arguments advanced in the book. He freely admitted, and Varghese confirmed, that Varghese wrote all the original content of the book. Flew was simply persuaded to sign his name to it after it had been written for him.
The only conclusion I can draw is that these apologists are taking advantage of a confused, elderly man in a state of cognitive decline. There’s little evidence that Flew even understands the controversy he’s at the center of, much less that he changed his position as the result of any new arguments. These apologists insinuated themselves into his life, won his confidence, and then pushed him to agree to their claims when he no longer knew what he was agreeing to, and are now using him as a prop to promote their antiquated, irrational superstitions. (Although even by the most Christian-friendly interpretation of these events, Flew is now a deist, not a Christian – which one would think, in their eyes, leaves him just as damned as if he’d been an atheist.)
Just to be clear, I don’t expect this to have the slightest impact on the atheist community. We are not atheists because we follow Antony Flew (or Richard Dawkins, or Sam Harris). We follow these people because we are atheists and find their positions in agreement with our own. Even if Antony Flew had converted in his prime, that would have no persuasive effect on me unless he could show the facts and evidence that led to this decision. The Times article mentions “what others have at stake”, but in fact there is nothing at stake other than the sad story of a worthy philosopher’s legacy being coopted late in life by confidence tricksters.
On the other hand, the Christian evangelists who are trumpeting this as a great victory are truly reprehensible. These people congratulate themselves for every soul “saved” – regardless of whether that conversion took place through coercion, indoctrination or trickery – as if people’s lives were goals in a game and the only objective was to score the most points. Like predators who hunt the sick and the weak, they target the people who are least able to resist them – those who are bereaved and emotionally vulnerable, who are suffering from dementia or cognitive decline, or even those who are dead and unable to defend themselves, as with the invented deathbed conversion stories of Charles Darwin and Thomas Paine. Against an informed atheist in possession of his own mind, their flimsy and irrational assertions easily splinter, so it’s small surprise they pick on the stragglers instead.
I want to make it clear right now that, if I should ever sink into such a state, I want all religious evangelists kept far away from me. I will not be made into a pawn for their manipulative and dishonest games, and if my mind is gone, I will not let them gain possession of my shell so that they can display it as if it were a repudiation of the principles I’ve spent my life defending.