The Curious Case of Atheist Philosopher Antony Flew

The Curious Case of Atheist Philosopher Antony Flew March 4, 2016

Antony 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 by them 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 at the cover (above) 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. Skeptic magazine argues that Flew wrote none of it.

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? No, this is Flew’s work being mined by a third party.

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. As complex as the physical world is, the living world is much 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, that Dawkins should feel privileged to be in the same room with such a great philosopher. 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 a man stands by [the Bible], vote for him.
If he doesn’t, don’t.
— Jerry Falwell Sr.

Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders
on how to run a country.
Jerry Falwell Jr.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/3/13.)

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  • MNb

    “He was a prominent atheist philosopher”
    Was he? I only heard of him thanks to christian propaganda, ie after he died. Now I’m not exactly an expert on philosophy of course, but I actually had heard of Russell, Wittgenstein, Arendt, Heidegger, Habermas, Sartre, Popper and a few others I can’t recall now.
    Oh – and Flew discovered the No True Scotchman.
    But still I strongly suspect that Flew became a prominent atheist philosopher after he converted – in the eyes of Koukl and co.
    Let’s forget the question who actually wrote that book. What new and original insight does it has to offer? Thus far no apologist has managed to answer that one.

    • Michael Neville

      I agree. It wasn’t until Christians were bragging about how Flew changed his mind that I’d ever heard of the “most notorious atheist”.

    • curtcameron

      Me too – I had heard of several philosophers, but not of Flew until after his conversion to a senile deism.

    • Greg G.

      That’s a good point. I knew about the “No True Scotsman” argument but I remember finding out who he was on from John Wilkins who has a PhD in philosophy.

      • Pofarmer

        Good article by Tom Dykstra on mythicism.

        • Greg G.

          Thanks. Dykstra hits many points that I have thought but am reluctant to espouse regarding scholars.

        • Pofarmer

          Thomas Brodie and Tommy Thompson just come right out and say it.

        • Greg G.

          Brodie waited until he was ready to retire before he came out as a Jesus mythicist. Thompson paid the price for being an Abraham and Moses mythicist before he got his PhD.

        • Pofarmer

          Which is exactly the point.

        • MNb


          “Did Tonya Hailey exist? In a sense, yes. There was a real historical person who inspired the fictional portrayal, and some of the details in the fictional portrayal correspond closely to reality. In another sense, no, she didn’t exist. Tonya Hailey is fictional and we won’t learn very much about the historical person who inspired the literary creation of Tonya by reading A Time to Kill.”

          Indeed I’m hardly interested in the question which details are fictional and which ones are not.

    • ahermit

      His “Presumption of Atheism” was a big influence on me about thirty years ago. That he now in his dotage appears to have forgotten his own arguments doesn’t make them any less persuasive in my view.

      • Michael Neville

        Flew died six years ago.

        • ahermit

          Yes I’m aware of that.

      • MNb

        How well did that book (a title that’s new to me) sell? How often was it referred to by other philosophers?
        In other words – why should this book lead us to the conclusion that
        he was a prominent atheist philosopher”?
        I can give you a few titles that influenced my thinking. Still I won’t postulate that Anton Constandse and Herman Philipse are/were prominent atheist philosophers. Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis was prominent in The Netherlands, but for other reasons (his social and political work).

        • ahermit

          LMGTFY …

        • MNb

          Sorry – that nice list of links didn’t answer my question why should this book lead us to the conclusion that he was a prominent atheist philosopher.
          Mind you, I’m not talking about quality. For all I know it might be an excellent book. Tell me in a few words why it is and I might read it as well.
          I just don’t see why this book makes Flew prominent.

        • ahermit

          Well it’s just one of the thirty or so books he authored, but undoubtedly the best known. That it’s not known to you doesn’t make it any less important.

          And it’s OK if you’re not familiar with him, especially since he did most of his work in the fifties to seventies, so unless you’re at least as old as me you may not have come across him. But if you’ve ever used the phrase “no true Scotsman” even you’ve been influenced by him in some small way.

          This is not hagiography on my part by the way; I appreciated some of the man’s work on philosophy of religion, but I’ve always been less impressed by his libertarian political ideas.

        • MNb

          You didn’t address my question. So I repeat:

          I’m not talking about quality. For all I know it might be an excellent book. Tell me in a few words why it is and I might read it as well.
          I just don’t see why this book makes Flew prominent

          Just repeating your opinion with “That it’s not known to you doesn’t make it any less important” adds nothing – and it’s also a strawman, because I never argued that.
          Plus if you reread my initial comment you’ll find out that I already recognized where the No True Scotchman came from.
          Sorry, you’re unconvincing. I still don’t see what makes Flew prominent. Like Russell, Wittgenstein, Arendt, Heidegger, Habermas, Sartre, Popper etc. were prominent. Or Plantinga, Craig and even Ken Ham are.

        • ahermit

          Well I don’t think I was ever suggesting he was on a par with Heidegger or Sartre. All I said was that one of his books was a big influence for me. I’m not sure why this is such a problem for you….

        • MNb

          And I’m not sure why you think it’s “such a problem for me that one of Flew’s book was a big influence for you”, especially as I wrote the exact opposite in one of my comments:

          For all I know it might be an excellent book. Tell me in a few words why it is and I might read it as well.
          I just don’t see why this book makes Flew prominent.
          Indeed that’s what I have a problem with – people calling Flew a prominent philosopher. It’s what every single comment of mine in this subthread is about.
          But thanks for clarifying that you don’t make that claim, even if it took a while.
          Now if you’d care to tell me in a few words why it’s an excellent book indeed I might even get something useful out of this discussion, which has become quite silly by now.

        • ahermit

          The book is a collection of essays on the subject of belief and reason, and the value of the agnostic approach to knowledge. If you enjoy that sort of thing you might like it. It’s been years since I read it so I’m not prepared to write you a review, but it made me think.

          If you want a more in depth treatment of the subject then “How to Think Straight” might be more to your liking

          As to Flew’s prominence he’s certainly not the “world’s most notorious atheist” portrayed in the blurb for “There is a God” but he’s not a nobody either. ‘prominent” is a bit of a subjective descriptor, I wouldn’t get too worked about it if I were you.

        • MNb

          I get worked about christian propaganda and thoroughly dislike the implication “if the world’s most notorious atheist gives up his position then atheism must be invalid”.
          Thanks for the short description. Indeed I enjoy that sort of thing.

      • Instead of that parable, I heard Sagan’s “dragon in my garage” example. They seem to be parallel stories.

        • ahermit

          I came across them around the same time I think (it was a while ago…) I was reading a lot of stuff by people like Bertrand Russell and assorted Huxleys at the time too.

    • Well, you know me and philosophy. No chance that I would’ve heard about him as a philosopher except through my little Christian friends.

      Yes, i agree that he became a towering giant of philosophy only after the Christian apologists imagined him as part of their team (tangentially, at least).

    • epicurus

      I found out about Flew in university way back in a previous millennium when I bought the 2nd edition of a dictionary of philosophy Flew edited and a Philosophy of Religion anthology text book in which he had a few entries. So when this “conversion” took place I knew who he was, but I certainly wasn’t impressed with the Christian response, which so often takes any belief in some kind of divine being as automatically entailing Christianity/Classical Theism, even though great chunks of the world believe in a god without being Christian.

      • To Christians’ credit, the loudmouths in my experience are careful to say that he only went to deism. What they overlook is that he’s not much of a catch. “I converted to this other worldview based on arguments that I only dimly understand” isn’t much to brag about.

  • johzek

    If life, because it’s thought to be very special, actually consisted of what at best could only be called “living stuff”, something very simple and totally unlike the elements which make up inanimate matter, would Flew and his ilk really see such a state of affairs as not indicative of a designing intelligence because of the obvious lack of complexity or is this just another case of heads I win tails you lose. Life made up of the elements as we know them must necessarily be complex.

  • Susan

    There’s really not much to add to what the article states and the points made below by commentators.

    Flew was not a famous philosopher.

    The book appears to be written by an opportunist taking advantage of a vulnerable person who had developed dementia.

    The arguments in the book are bad. As Bob points out, they are arguments based on scientific ignorance. They certainly aren’t arguments that would be taken seriously in philosophy. So they fail on both counts.

    Yet apologists keep pointing at Flew as some sort of victory for Jesus. It demonstrates just how dishonest apologists are.

    Apologists know it doesn’t matter. They can keep pointing at Flew as some kind of checkmate and many of their followers won’t bother to do their research.

    It’s pathetic and dishonest. Also cruel.

    Lewis, Flew and Nagel. The apologist’s unholy trinity.

    At this point, I wince every time one or more of those names is mentioned.

    Ex-atheists don’t interest me. What persuaded them interests me. If it’s the same old shite, then I lose interest.

    So far, it’s been the same old shite every time.

    • RoverSerton

      Actually, Ex-atheists do interest me. I always try to find out what evidence or experience made them believe in a god or a specific god. Leah Libresco’s story was of no value. My wife is a theist because of the “hope” it gives her.

      I think apologists will take any bit of positive they can find in a story since they have so little to work with.

    • Nagel is still an atheist, so far as I know, and has stated he would like everyone else to be. Apparently they simply like him because he doesn’t agree with reductionist views of the mind?

      • Susan

        Nagel is still an atheist

        Hi Michael. Yes, he is. Even when I typed that long comment out, I worried about implying that he wasn’t but it would have made the comment longer not to and I planned on making the correction if someone (like you 🙂 ) didn’t correct me.

        Apparently they simply like him because he doesn’t agree with reductionist views of the mind?

        Yes. Especially because he’s an atheist.

        He’s a mascot.

        I have yet to see a christian bring up his name (in my travels) who has shown signs of reading Nagel or the problems with his statements on this subject.

        They just like to type “Even atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel acknowledges…”. without considering all the atheist philosophers and scientists who have pointed out the problems with his position.

        • Yep, they always like to have “one of the good ones” who can be cited.

      • MNb

        Also because he’s a dualist and doesn’t like Evolution Theory. And of course because of

        • Indeed. Presumably he thinks the Intelligent Designer isn’t a god-aliens perhaps?

        • Susan

          Presumably he thinks the Intelligent Designer isn’t a god-aliens perhaps?

          Which takes us into a potentially infinite series of creators.

          All because consciousness is hard to grok. Trying to grok it is like trying to kiss yourself on the back of the head.

          Consciousness does not require transcendent consciousness any more than snowflakes require transcendent snowflakeness.

          Also, Chalmers doesn’t seem to understand evolutionary theory.

          He hasn’t made much progress with his argument in any field but apologetics, as far as I know.

          As a philosopher, he is free to pursue it and take his lumps and make his case as he is capable.

          But apologists ignore science and philosophy when they cherry pick a single philosopher and ignore his arguments and the problems therein.

          Pretty dishonest. But not as bad as exploiting a person who had developed obvious signs of dementia.

          If they had any case to make, they would make it and wouldn’t bother doing either.

        • Yeah, I always thought “If life on Earth was made by aliens (whether designed or just seeded)” then where did they come from? It just leaves that open.

        • Susan

          then where did they come from? It just leaves that open.

          When one insists on extra-being to justify being, then one is left with infinite extra-being.

          That is, it is not sufficient.

          Also, it’s not required to explain anything.

          It is not necessary.

          So, their arguments are a shambles.

        • Yes, it does seem to just raise more questions.

  • Rudy R

    Wonder who is on the plus side of the ledger when it comes to converts? Betcha donuts to dollars that atheists have the most converts to their side.

  • 90Lew90

    Flew got screwed.

  • Eric Sotnak

    Among prominent and professionally respected philosophers one can find theists, atheists, agnostics, and individuals whose sympathies have changed in different directions along the atheism-theism spectrum. As I understand it, there is some question as to how genuine Flew’s “conversion” really was, but let’s grant for the sake of argument that Flew made a sincere and unconfused shift from atheism to deism. Well, so what? The question is not that a former atheist changed his mind, but whether the reasons for his doing so were any good. Otherwise we are left with the following general principle for arguing ex cathedra:

    If S is a prominent and professionally respected philosopher and S believes P, then we also ought to believe P.

    Of course, given the enormous range of diverse points of view within the field of philosophy, any philosopher will recognize that such a principle is utterly useless. At best, an acceptable alternative would be something more like this:

    If S is a prominent and professionally respected philosopher and S believes P, then we ought to give fair consideration to S’s arguments for P.

    This latter principle is fairly innocent, though we all know that sometimes very smart people can believe things that are so goofy that I think we sometimes might rightfully conclude that the probability of any good arguments for those beliefs is so remote that we can dismiss them in advance ( ).

    So it really is unimportant whether Flew converted to Deism. What matters is only whether there were good arguments motivating this shift.

    • If S is a prominent and professionally respected philosopher and S believes P, then we ought to give fair consideration to S’s arguments for P

      … unless P is in field in which S has no expertise.

      If S were a master gardener and P is gardening advice, then I agree that that is good advice–not necessarily the truth, but worthy of serious consideration, as you say. The problem is that Flew was not a scientist, and the arguments that “he” cited were scientific ones. That defeats the entire project. The book would’ve been no more authoritative or believable or credit-worthy if the author’s name were that of Varghese or you or I.

      • Eric Sotnak

        Although I agree that professional expertise does have limits and that this is often relevant to assessing the strength of arguments, it is also often true that non-experts can legitimately make strong arguments that employ premises based on the expertise of others. This is, of course, why in academic papers references can be of such vital importance. In Flew’s case I don’t think it’s enough to dismiss his arguments (assuming they really were his) on the grounds of his scientific inexpertise, since it may be that he has made responsible use of information based on the expertise of others. So I still think it is true that fair consideration ought to be given to his arguments. This only means that the arguments need to be assessed on their own merits.

        There is also the point that when it comes to the question of God’s existence, it is unclear that there is any scientific discipline that provides a suitable base of expertise such that arguments either for or against the existence of God can be accepted or rejected. This is why the whole “famous scientist S was a [insert religious viewpoint here]” line of thinking is a yawner. Logical expertise is, of course, relevant as far as assessing the structure of arguments, but does nothing as far as the truth or falsity of the premises goes.

        • You seem to be saying that “Yeah but Flew wasn’t a biologist” is no reason to conclude that any statement he says about biology is wrong or ignorable. I agree, and I don’t dismiss his arguments out of hand. There are science journalists who don’t have doctorates who can nevertheless provide a valuable service. That Flew was a philosopher doesn’t argue that he’d be better than most when commenting on biology. He’d have to start at the bottom like the rest of us and create a reputation as a valuable source as a science commentor—which, of course, he didn’t do.

          But perhaps we’re in violent agreement.

        • 90Lew90

          The man was brilliant. He had dementia. Why else but having been in a state of terror, given his condition at the time he “wrote” this stuff set against his life’s work, would he allow a book to be ghost-written which contradicts in really shoddy style one of the great thrusts of his life’s work? As far as I can see he was exploited. Also, it’s not and nor does it pretend to be a work of philosophy.

        • Eric Sotnak

          It could very well be true that Flew was exploited, in which case there are ethical concerns surrounding those who did the exploiting.

          But even if Flew’s conversion was completely genuine, it should only matter if he did so for good reasons. According to the apologists who hype Flew’s conversion, we are supposed to think that Flew was the best and brightest atheists had to offer, but that in the end, even he couldn’t deny the overwhelming weight of the pro-theist case. So one would expect the book to set forth some pretty powerful arguments; some real stumpers that will at least make atheists stroke their chins and mutter, “Hmm.. Yeah, that is a tricky one, isn’t it?”

          Instead, what we find are barely changed-up variants of the argument from functional complexity (or design) that lead the atheist not to chin-stroking, but rather to head-scratching, and to muttering “how could a philosopher of Flew’s calibre have bought into that tired old mess?

        • 90Lew90

          Precisely. As I said, the man had dementia. Alzheimer’s. He was diminished in his faculties and probably — understandably — terrified. As such, I would say he was exploited. Reading around the circumstances under which that book was written, that much seems plain.

    • TheNuszAbides

      What matters is only whether there were good arguments motivating this shift.

      agreed. and if only the likes of Varghese had anything resembling a sense for genuinely robust arguments/explanations, they might be onto something with such ‘high-profile’ conversion narratives.

  • RichardSRussell

    It’s worth noting that, even if we accept 100% what was written in Flew’s name as his genuine belief toward the end of his life, it still argues at most for deism, not Christianity.

    • Incredibly, this is also both applicable and relevant to big-name apologists like Wm. Lane Craig since their arguments are also predominantly or exclusively deist.

    • im-skeptical

      It’s been a while since I read Flew’s book, but there were two things that really struck me about it. One is that there was no real insight given as to what actually made him change his mind, knowing that he had argued forcefully against these standard theistic (or deistic) arguments before. The other is that at the end of the book, he said he might even be open to Christianity. That struck me as rather phony, since there was absolutely no support for it. It seemed to be just the kind of words a Christian would put in his mouth.

  • L.Long

    If one wants to spin a word salad of BS into …GAWD!! Fine. It still PROVES nothing and does not show evidence of anything. ANd it still places BS like….if a man lies with a man….etc… 5million miles away from being true or worth anything.

  • Zeta

    Readers here might be interested in the following articles about Antony Flew.

    “Antony Flew’s Bogus Book” by Richard Carrier

    “The Turning of an Atheist”

    A New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer

    “Flew’s Flawed Science”
    by the late Victor Stenger

  • RandomFunction2

    To Bob the broken, yet somehow fabulous atheist,
    A pile of straw is complex…??? It isn’t complex in any relevant sense for biology. Complexity means that in a system, there are many parts that function as a whole, in a coordinated fashion, to perform a task. A cell and a computer are complex, but not a pile of straw.

    • Describe a pile of straw so that someone else could recreate it. It’s complex.

      You seem to be saying that it’s not interconnected.

      • RandomFunction2

        To Bob,
        It might be complex in that sense, but it’s obviously not the relevant sense for the design argument. Obviously chance can account for the pile of straw, since it’s not what Dembski calls SPECIFIED complexity, that is, complexity with an independently given meaning. Another example is that the set of the craters on the moon is complex in your sense, yet it’s obvious that chance can account for THAT KIND OF meaningless complexity.

        • Complexity? What kind of information are we talking about? Is this Shannon complexity? Kolmogorov complexity? Something he just made up?

          You say, “complexity with an independently given meaning.” If this simply means that we humans find the complexity that makes our cells work very interesting, much more so than some other kind of complexity, sure. So what?

          If your larger point is that evolution is crap, let’s just stop there. It’s the consensus view, and I accept it for that reason. I’m not a scientist.

        • RandomFunction2

          I do accept evolution by natural selection. I’m just curious to know the arguments of ID and to make sure I understand them.

        • Cool. Understanding ID is fine, just don’t trot out their arguments unless you want a broadside from the commenters here.

        • MNb

          Specified (with our without capitals) complexity is bullshit, simply because Dembski never managed to develop the math he promised to …. specify it. And that again is why Dembski and co never tried to actually test their “method”.

      • RandomFunction2

        It’s like the anthropic design argument. Some atheists say that believers misunderstand probability theory : very improbable events happen all the time, they say, yet they don’t have any transcendent meaning. Someone HAS to win the jackpot even if the odds of winning it are vanishingly small… So even if our universe is improbable, it can be accounted for by luck.
        But that’s obviously not what creationists are saying. They have been lumping together all possible life-preventing worlds, and they point out that they vastly outnumber possible life-permitting worlds. So their claim is that life is very special in the set of possible worlds, and since it happens to have come about, there must be some designing hand behind.
        The flaws of the anthropic argument are elsewhere.

        • The flaws of the anthropic argument are elsewhere.

          If this is the fine-tuning argument, then the flaws are in ignoring the multiverse, for starters.

        • MNb

          “It’s like the anthropic design argument.”
          There is no such thing as the anthropic design argument. You conflate the anthropic principle with fine tuning. The first is without teleology, the latter with.

          “they point out that they vastly outnumber possible life-permitting worlds. So their claim is that life is very special in the set of possible worlds, and since it happens to have come about, there must be some designing hand behind.”

          You’re funny as you contradict yourself. Compare:

          “I point out that those who DON’T win the jackpot vastly outnumber possible winners. So my claim is that winning the jackpot is very special in the set of possible worlds, and since it happens to have come about, there must be some designing hand behind.”
          You made it very, very clear that “it’s obviously what creationists are saying.”

  • TheNuszAbides

    great quote pair.