[This review was published in the Spring 2008 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 129-133.]

 

Book Review 

 

There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind

Antony Flew, with Roy Abraham Varghese

 

 

            Born in 1923, Anthony Flew has had a long and varied career as a philosopher.  Although the son of a Methodist minister, he says he was “already a professing Communist” by the time he (as quite a young man) enrolled as a student at Kingwood School and that he was “an atheist at the age of fifteen.”  The Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 deterred him from joining the Communist Party, “but I remained a hotly energetic left-wing socialist until the early 1950s.”  Much later in his life, we find his multifaceted nature well illustrated by his being simultaneously an academic “Patron” of the British conservative journal Right Now! (and of its successor, the Quarterly Review) and a Contributing Editor for free inquiry, published by the Council for Secular Humanism.  He is listed in this latter journal as a “Humanist Laureate” of the International Academy of Humanism.

            Flew was professor of philosophy at the University of Keele for twenty years, and later at the University of Reading.  He is the author of more than thirty books, many—but by no means all—of which deal with the question of whether there is a God.  An example of his political thought and of his turn away from Marxism is his 1981 book The Politics of Procrustes, which significantly bore the subtitle “Contradictions of Enforced Equality.”  What is most pertinent to the book we are now reviewing, however, is his many years of writing as a leading proponent of atheism.  Roy Abraham Varghese, Flew’s writing companion in this book, says that the paper “Theology and Falsification” that Flew presented to the Oxford University Socratic Club in 1950 “became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century.”  (The dust-jacket says “of the last half century,” but no matter.)  This paper was followed by a number of books presenting a polemic in support of atheism.  There is some questioning among Flew’s colleagues writing in free inquiry whether it is literally true that he has been “the world’s most notorious atheist,” as claimed by the present book’s subtitle.  But no doubt he was right up there.

            In 2004, Flew did an about-face.  He announced that “he now accepts the existence of God.”  This led to the 2007 book There is a God which we are reviewing here.  Although Flew insists that he really hasn’t done “a paradigm shift,” arguing that his current position is simply a further product of his long-term commitment to “follow the argument wherever it leads,” this insistence is convincing only if one accepts his limited use of the word “paradigm.”  He has in his lifetime at least twice moved from one intellectual universe to another: from Marxism to the right on social and political matters; and from articulate atheism to the “deism” that he calls his current position.

            The thing that draws a reader most compellingly to There is a God is curiosity about what it is exactly that would convince a confirmed atheist to jump from the one intellectual universe to the other.  One reads the book with bated breath to see what those reasons were.

            Before we review them (and in doing so necessarily take them at face value), it is worth mentioning that there is some reason for agnosticism about whether the about-face fairly represents Flew’s considered opinion.  We say “agnosticism” because we truly don’t know.  Flew was 81 when he first voiced his change of position, and is now 84.  No doubt many people are fully in control of their faculties at that stage of life—but it is also true that many people will have faded intellectually or have become unusually susceptible to extraneous influence.  The web site “Daylight Atheism” says that “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’ [used more than once in his text] and was unfamiliar with the arguments advanced in the book.  He freely admitted, and [Roy Abraham] 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.”  Varghese, and another contributing author Bishop N. T. Wright, are Christian thinkers, and for them the conversion was not a first-person intellectual experience, which would remove the stimulus we just mentioned for our curiosity.  [If it is true that Varghese wrote Flew’s portion of the book for him, there would be a serious ethical lapse in the failure to tell the reader of that, since the very opposite impression is given.  But this reviewer has no information himself about that.]

            Be all this as it may, let us pursue the curiosity we mentioned earlier by taking the reasons for the conversion at face value.  Flew’s portion of the book says that in pondering the existence of God he now considers persuasive the “argument from design.”  He does so, he says, “almost entirely because of the DNA investigations.”  Because of “the almost unbelievable complexity” of the DNA double-helix, “intelligence must have been involved.”  He says that “the meeting of these two parts at the right time by chance is simply minute.”  Flew cites three features of nature that “point to God”: that nature obeys laws; that intelligent life has arisen from matter; and, third, “the very existence of nature.”  In his thinking, “the only viable explanation [for these things] is the divine Mind.”  He argues that they “can only be explained in the light of an Intelligence.”  [Emphasis added in the preceding sentences.]  When he says that he does not “claim to have any personal experience of God or any experience that may be called supernatural or miraculous,” he eliminates for himself grounds that some believers say are the basis for their faith.

            His rationale for the switch suggests several issues:

            It is somewhat mixed as to whether Flew has abandoned the “evidence-based” focus of science when he argues that astounding complexity, as in the DNA double-helix, is evidence enough to justify an inference of intelligent design.  Even if one does not join him in drawing this inference, it is difficult to say that he is not citing what he considers to be compelling evidence.  What can be said, however, is that Flew is leaving behind science’s methodological premise that something “must be subject to falsification.” If there is an all-powerful intelligence, it can by definition will anything—and this rules out the possibility of making any prediction based on its existence.  Since no predictions can be made, there can be no verifications or lack thereof. 

            Regardless of whether it is based on “evidence,” thought must be given to the nature of the inference Flew has made.  His point that the complexities “can only be” explained by an inference of intelligent causation is the type of reasoning that a scientist will be extremely reluctant, almost loath, to make.  It means that any other explanation is ruled out—forever.  There is no reason for inquiry to continue.  By the absolute nature of his inference, Flew has precluded the agnosticism that is inherent in a willingness to continue the unending inquiry that is the very essence of science. 

            And there is so much complexity in nature as described by modern science that it is surprising to find that the complexities of the DNA double helix carried him over the threshold of accepting the “argument from design.”  We recall that Whittaker Chambers was persuaded by the beautiful convolutions of his daughter’s ear.  Somehow the DNA investigations brought Flew to an “a-ha” experience that made him draw a conclusion that he was unwilling to draw before.

            Although, as just stated, the inference of intelligent design is based on evidence, a critical reader watches closely whether Flew is then willing to draw any further inferences, and to see whether they are themselves supported by the evidence that is provided by complexity.  In several ways, Flew does go further; and it is here that it becomes clear that he has indeed made the leap to outside the evidence-based paradigm of science.  (1) He embraces monotheism and speaks of “a God.”  He agrees with a modern philosopher who says that monotheism “best explains” the complexities of nature.  We are led to ask, “How so?,” because if the imputation of “intelligence” is justified, that in itself would not seem to tell us anything about the form the “intelligence” takes.  (2) As to the question of whether it is his God that is “uncaused” or the universe itself that is uncaused, Flew concludes that “it is rather more likely that God would exist uncaused.”  His text doesn’t elucidate the criteria by which one is to judge the respective “likelihoods” of such things.  (3) He accepts the proposition that God is “loving or wise” and, according to an article in free inquiry, he has written that his God is one “who requires no worship” and does not intervene in human affairs beyond having established a regime of natural justice.  We have no idea how Flew has come to assign particular characteristics to the intelligence he has inferred.  (4) While he does not come right out and endorse Christianity, he observes that “no other religion enjoys anything like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul.”  He goes on to say that the Christian claim of resurrection is “more impressive than any by the religious competition.”  He notes that Bishop Wright’s essay (in one of the appendices) presenting a “case for Christianity” is “absolutely fresh.”   None of this, of course, has anything to do with evidence.  We might well suppose that during much of his life Flew would have agreed that whether something is “impressive” or “fresh” is irrelevant to its truth or falsity.

            A final reflection, although of a somewhat different sort: In this reviewer’s home state of Kansas, as in many states in the United States, there has been a long-running debate over whether “intelligent design” should be brought up alongside the theory of evolution in the teaching of science in the public schools.   This is generally depicted in the media as an argument between “the enlightened” and “country-bumpkin ignoramuses.”  It would seem clear not just from Flew’s conversion (which may or may not be vitiated by his age) and that of such a fellow as Whittaker Chambers, but also from the fact that a great many major scientific personalities—such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Werner Heisenberg,, Stephen Hawking, Max Planck, Charles Darwin, and a good many others—embrace the inference of Intelligent Design, that such a depiction is unjustified.  The debate over the public schools’ science curriculum should certainly eschew the caricature of those who accept the concept.  Right or wrong, Flew and the others have earned more respect than that.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Dwight D. Murphey