This is a wonderful read for so many reasons. Professor Flew - a true scholar and former professor of philosophy at Keele, Oxford and Aberdeen - more or less wrote the rule book for the so-called “new atheism” with his 1950 essay ‘Theology and Falsification’. The blurb on the back cover of the book tells us that this became ‘the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last half century.’ He grew famous – as has Richard Dawkins – for his atheistic views, and debated and spoke widely around the world as to why he did not believe in God. In a debate in the U.S in 1998, he said this; ‘I know there is no God’, and claimed that a system of belief about God contained contradictions similar to ‘unmarried husbands’ or 'round squares.'
Flew was clearly a major thinker of the 20th and early 21st century. And yet, over the past few years, where discussion about atheism is so often paraded around our broadcasting media, his name is rarely, if ever, mentioned. This is probably because, towards the end of his life in 2004, Antony Flew changed his mind. As far as the new atheism goes, Flew is a fly in the ointment (no pun intended).
One of Flew’s guides in life was a line from Plato’s Republic; ‘We must follow the argument wherever it leads.’ The line is quoted several times throughout the book. And this is what Flew honestly tried to do as he journeyed through just about every knotty problem which theology, philosophy and science can offer, mostly from the point of view of a devout atheist. He, it was, who first coined the term ‘free will defence’ in criticism of Christianity and other religions which try to explain the evils of the world by putting them all down to man and his free will.
But following the argument wherever it leads, led Flew to a complete turnaround. I won’t go into details as I wouldn’t wish to spoil the story if you should decide to read it. But basically, certain philosophical and scientific arguments led Flew to change his mind. One notable blow to his certainty came in a debate with Terry Miethe, who laid out a particularly convincing version of the so-called cosmological argument (which I’ve discussed in other entries in this blog). Another came from the discovery of the complexities inherent in DNA. I quote from the book on page 75:
What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together…. It is all a matter of the enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence.On page 76-78, Flew quotes Schroeder, dealing with the absurd argument in support of evolution which uses the well known example involving monkeys, typewriters and the works of Shakespeare. This section of the book made me laugh out loud as I read the mathematical probabilities for this and the sheer idiocy of the claim.
In a section starting on page 78, Flew has a subheading; ‘Duelling with Dawkins’, in which he recounts various ‘run-ins’ with that rather loud mouthpiece of the new atheism. This too is entertaining to read as Flew (in answer to Dawkins’ selfish-gene writings) says that… ‘natural selection does not positively produce anything. It only eliminates or tends to eliminate, whatever is not competitive.’ He goes on to describe Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene as ‘a major exercise in popular mystification.’ He write; ‘Genes, of course, can be neither selfish nor unselfish any more than they or any other non-conscious entities can engage in competition or make selections. (Natural selection is, notoriously, not selection…’)
Did Flew have a “Damascus Road experience”? Not as far as we know, unless it came after the book’s publication. But what is clear is that he developed an interest in the Christian faith. On p24 he writes; ‘… when I later came to think about theological things, it seemed to me that the case for the Christian revelation is a very strong one, if you believe in any revelation at all.’ By the end of the book, he writes “Some claim to have made contact with this Mind (i.e., God). I have not – yet. But who knows what could happen next?”
An appendix at the end of the book is written by N.T. Wright, current bishop of Durham (though soon to retire), and well known theologian. Of this appendix, Flew writes on p160; ‘Wright’s response to my previous critiques of divine self-revelation, both in the present volume and in his books, comprise the most powerful case for Christianity that I have ever seen.’ These hints in his book lead me to hope that Antony Flew came to know his Lord before he died in April of this year and that he is now safely with him.