Antony Flew died the other day. Like many secular people, I have mixed feelings. At the end of his life he was declared a theist. I say “was declared” because it is not clear to what extent in his final two or three years he was not simply in a state of senescent confusion. The final book issued in his name (actually authored by third-rate religious apologist Roy Abraham Varghese) is a crackpot screed that, surely, Flew would have repudiated with disdain had he been in possession of his powers. Because he lent his famous name to such a text, theistic propagandists were not ashamed to exploit his dotage, cackling and gloating over their “victory” in “converting” the “world’s most notorious atheist.” Perhaps we atheists should all draw a object lesson and beg that everyone disregard us, if, someday, when in the grip of disease or decay, we begin babbling about the love of God or endorsing intelligent design.
Surely, we should not judge a life of 87 years on the basis of the senile follies of the closing few years. Less excusable than his end-of-day volte face was the fact that he participated in public debates for which he was woefully unprepared, such as his encounters with Thomas Warren, Gary Habermas, and William Lane Craig. Someone used to the sorts of debates held at the Oxford high table would hardly be prepared for the bare knuckles style of American fundamentalists. You could excuse him for being blindsided once, but he fell for it again and again.
Still, I rank Flew as second only to Bertrand Russell as a writer of pellucid, witty, and penetrating philosophical prose, and Flew’s treatment of the theistic arguments was far deeper and more rigorous than Russell’s. Speaking personally, his book God and Philosophy helped drive me from theological murk (e.g., Paul Tillich) and into the harsh light of analytic philosophy. Flew was made famous by his much-quoted 1950 essay “Theology and Falsification.” Flew argued that theological assertions, unlike empirical claims, are incapable of falsification. A scientific claim, such as the double-helix structure of DNA, is potentially falsifiable (though not actually falsified) by many kinds of scientific tests or data. Theological assertions, says Flew, are not similarly falsifiable by contrary data or counterexample.
All such efforts to rule out theological claims as pseudo-assertions on the basis of some sort of verifiability or falsifiability criterion are now generally dismissed as detritus from the bad old days of logical positivism. I still think there is something to Flew’s argument, though. Consider a typical theological assertion, one that was presented to me as Law One of the Four Spiritual Laws from a Campus Crusade tract: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
Great news, huh? The omnipotent, omniscient, creator of the universe loves ME and has a wonderful plan for MY life! But then a moment’s reflection reminds you that God’s “wonderful plan” for some people’s lives is that as infants they are burned to death in house fires. In fact those who assert that God loves you must also hold that God’s love for persons is compatible with his permitting of any of life’s multiple misfortunes to befall them. That is, “God loves you” is not falsified if God permits you, through no fault of your own, to suffer a hideous and torturous death. God’s love therefore seems to be something very strange—not at all like the love of parent for a child. As Flew notes, an earthly father will be driven frantic to ease the suffering of a child, while the heavenly father does nothing at all.
The upshot is not that assertions like “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” are meaningless or devoid of factual significance. They are asserting something, but just what? If God loves me but in some mysterious way that is compatible with letting any horrible thing happen to me or, worse, my loved ones, then why should I want God’s love and why should it matter to me? Indeed, what, really, is the difference between saying that God loves me and saying that God is totally indifferent towards me? The value of Flew’s “Falsification” essay is precisely that it makes us ask such hard questions of theological assertions rather than giving them a free pass because, superficially, they look like innocuous everyday assertions.