November 13, 2007
One Flew Over
It seems that everyone wants a say about the new book There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheists Changed His Mind. It started with publication of the book last month by Harper One about Antony Flew, a British philosopher who wrote a pivotal essay in 1950 called “Theology and Falsification,” originally presented at the Oxford Socratic Club chaired by C. S. Lewis. Reprinted many times over, it has been a guide for atheists ever since.
Then Mark Oppenheimer wrote a long, substantive article, “The Turning of an Atheist,” for the New York Times with some research of his own suggesting that Antony Flew, now in his eighties and with his faculties failing, had been taken advantage of by overzealous Christians eager to line him up for their cause. Doug LeBlanc at Get Religion.org notes that in fairness Oppenheimer also chronicles the efforts of atheists to win him back.
David Neff, however, says that overall "Oppenheimer raises questions galore without actually proving any of his points. He questions the degree of Flew’s involvement in writing the book, the credibility of scientists whose perspective Flew adopted, and even Flew’s mental competence at the advanced age of 84."
Stanley Fish chimed in the same day as Oppenheimer with a piece comparing Antony Flew's journey toward theism to Bart Erhman's away from same, taking a far less partisan view than most others. He notes with equanimity that "their chief value is that together they testify to the continuing vitality and significance of their shared subject."
What does InterVarsity Press have to add to all this. Well, we published an original essay by Flew, "Neo-Humean Arguments About the Miraculous," following the classic essay by Hume, "Of Miracles," which led the charge against the miraculous over two hundred and fifty years ago. Both these were published in the 1997 collection edited by Doug Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, In Defense of Miracles.
In addition, IVP's own Senior Editor Gary Deddo was at the Biola University meeting referenced by Oppenheimer. "On May 11, 2006, Biola awarded Flew the second Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth, named for the author of Darwin on Trial." Oppenheimer goes on to appear to take relish in how Flew laid the Christians low: "At the Biola ceremony, Flew mocked the revealed religion of his audience and flaunted his allegiance to deism: 'The deist god, unlike the god of the Jewish, Christian or, for heaven’s sake, the Islamic revelation, is neither interested in nor concerned about either human beliefs or human behavior.'" Oddly Flew's vigorous statement belies the impression Oppenheimer seeks to paint elsewhere of a kindly old gentleman who is overly influenced by admiring Christians and who has simultaneously started to lose track of his ideas.
Gary Deddo's recollection is of a man who clearly knew what he thought: "I was there at the Biola meeting when he was given the award. I'm certain he has been influenced by his friends and acquaintances. However, at Biola I particularly noted his decided ability to resist being regarded as a Christian even when among 'friends' awarding him. He described himself there as a Thomas Jefferson Deist. So he had not lost all 'objectivity' at that point when he affirmed theism. The Christians were not able to use him for that purpose.
"So I have some confidence in Flew's 'conversion' to theism. And also, it does seem to me that he has never been an ideological atheist. His own approach has always been a consideration of the evidence or the lack thereof for a transcendent creator God. The arguments presented and considered did not convince him heretofore. His thought was philosophically grounded. He was committed to the evidence and arguments. I think that leaves open the possibility of a change of mind with integrity."
As Deddo looked at the recent book he notes: "Most of the philosophers/scientists considered there are first rate (e.g., Swinburne, Haldane, Polkinghorne, Peacock) even if Varghese is not. There is an essay from N.T. Wright in response to queries sent to him by Tony [Flew] in an Appendix. The powers of memory and consideration of what is in front of you can be distinguished. Flew very well could have responsibly considered new arguments presented to him and changed his mind."
Why has Flew's change of mind created such a stir? Perhaps because at this cultural moment much seems to be at stake nationally and internationally regarding the role of religion in life and politics. It also plays into the cult of personality that is endemic in the hyper-commercialized Western world. What one well-known person (atheist or Christian) says seems to be more important (or at least given more notice) than all the truth and grace one lay on the other side of the scales.
I think Doug LeBlanc's conclusion to all this is probably the best. "Now, would it be too much to ask that everybody leave Antony Flew in peace?"