In the crossfireJohn Haldane
- 24 November 2007
The debate surrounding the atheist philosopher Antony Flew's alleged admission of the existence of God has resurfaced with the publication of his latest work, There is a God. Here, a philosophy professor with a ringside seat examines how Flew was embroiled in the culture wars of our time
Recently the debate about the existence of God and the nature of religion has intensified, with believers and atheists arguing forcefully on both sides of the divide. While people of faith say with renewed vigour that the universe is the product of a benign deity, and that religion is a mode of spiritual response through which creatures may approach their Creator, atheists match their conviction with their view that there is no God and that religion is deceptive mythology. But as well as the passion there is also mounting rancour as some of those on both sides have begun to accuse their opponents of stupidity or malevolence.
Twenty years ago the intellectual lead was with the theists. They were inspired by a number of able mainstream philosophers who had applied themselves to issues in natural theology (pre-eminently Richard Swinburne in Britain and Alvin Plantinga in the United States), and by a cluster of distinguished scientists (including John Polkinghorne in Britain and Frank Tipler in the US) who saw evidence for theism in the structure of the physical world, and in our ability to comprehend it.
After a long period sheltering underground, intellectual theism was again striding out with confidence. With books and articles appearing, publishers and broadcasters got the sense of a trend and encouraged head-to-head encounters between believers and unbelievers. One product of this was a published debate between the prominent Australian atheist philosopher J.J.C. Smart and myself, which appeared under the title Atheism and Theism, first in 1996 and then in a second edition in 2002. It was widely reviewed and generated a secondary literature enlarging the areas of dispute.
In the last few years it has been the atheists who have been most vocal, publishing books for the educated public. Americans Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, and Britons Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have launched vehement attacks on religion, rejecting the view that it is reasonable and benign and instead accusing it of being a refuge of the unthinking and the malevolent, and that those who argue for it are either knaves or fools.
If that were not souring enough, matters have just taken a definite turn for the worse. On Sunday 4 November, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article entitled "The Turning of an Atheist". The author, Mark Oppenheimer, is a freelance journalist and sometime editor who has written before on the place of religion in America. Less than two weeks after its publication, however, this article is already his best-known work. For in it he draws from and enters into the world of internet religious polemics, touching the charged issue of whether or not one of the best-known philosophical atheists has turned from nothingness to God.
The philosopher in question is Antony Flew and the story Oppenheimer tells is one of suggested exploitation and misrepresentation, with theists and atheists pulling an elderly and failing man - Flew is 84 - hither and thither to advance their own interests.
Of necessity Oppenheimer has to speculate, and evidently he is not a neutral commentator. At one point he writes, "Depending on whom you ask, Antony Flew is either a true convert whose lifelong intellectual searchings finally brought him to God or a senescent scholar possibly being exploited by his associates." It is clear that he favours the second suggestion. Whatever the true answer, however, there are points in the Flew affair that should give anyone involved in debating God and religion cause to pause and to consider how far one should be willing to go in pursuing and campaigning for one's convictions.
As it happens I have a privileged perspective on one aspect of the affair, for I am a character in the story. In 2004, an American businessman and amateur philosopher named Roy Abraham Varghese convened a meeting at New York University between Antony Flew, an Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder and myself for the purpose of producing a documentary film of an extended encounter and discussion on the subject of the existence of God. Varghese, an Indian Syro-Malankara-rite Catholic, had a long-standing interest in natural theology and was evidently very well read in, and comprehending of, analytical philosophy of religion. Indeed the previous year he had published a book, The Wonder of the World, in which he drew upon this and scientific literature to present an extended argument for the reality of God. Varghese was also familiar with Flew, having had dealings with him for 20 years. He had previously brought him to the US for seminars and conferences.
I was invited to the 2004 event on the strength of my previous debate with Smart. When I accepted the invitation I imagined that we would be on a panel before an audience of academics and interested members of the public (as had been the case with Smart in Melbourne in 2000). So the setting of a television studio without audience or director proved challenging, in no small part because we were placed for long periods beneath intense studio lights. Still, we did our best with unscripted pieces to camera, and two- and three-way discussion.
What was notable was that in the course of this, Flew, who had long been regarded as one of the leading philosophical atheists, yielded to arguments favouring the existence of God and also to ones defending this hypothesis against the counter-argument from the facts of natural and moral evil.
The following description by Oppenheimer of the film of these discussions gives a sense of the events, and of his take on them: "When at last Flew speaks, his diction is halting, in stark contrast to Schroeder and Haldane, both younger men, forceful and assured. Under their prodding, Flew concedes that the Big Bang could be described in Genesis; that the complexity of DNA strongly points to an ‘intelligence'; and that the existence of evil is not an insurmountable problem for the existence of God. In short, Flew retracts decades' worth of conclusions on which he built his career. At one point, Haldane is noticeably smiling, embarrassed (or pleased) by Flew's acquiesence. After one brief lecture from Schroeder, arguing that the origin of life can be seen as a form of revelation, Flew says, ‘I don't see any way to meet that argument at the moment.'"
Our meeting was entirely congenial, and Flew and I talked agreeably before, during and after the filming. I knew him from previous occasions in the US and in the UK, and it is of little surprise, therefore, that I might be seen to be smiling. It is also true that I was pleased that Flew conceded cogency to my case for God and to my response to the problem of evil.
It is interesting, and perhaps perceptive, however, that Oppenheimer suggests that I might have shown some embarrassment, since I did not think that Flew's acquiescence was demanded by the force of the points. Replies might have been mounted, which I would have expected, and to which I would then have responded. But in the event I sensed that the exchange was unlikely to go to further rounds and registered that his vigour was reduced. Thereafter my engagement with him was more in the manner of an interview than a debate.
On our return to the UK, I wrote, as I had promised, to send him the relevant sections from my earlier exchange with Smart, and Flew in turn sent me an introduction he had written to a reprint of his well-known book God and Philosophy, in which he set out his new attitude to the arguments in favour of the existence of God.
So far as I was concerned that was the end of things. But shortly after, the fires began to burn. Varghese had produced an edited, illustrated, soundtracked and commentary-accompanied DVD of the New York discussions under the title Has Science Discovered God? and begun marketing this as providing a record of Flew's departure from atheism.
Associated Press and other agencies picked up the story and very soon the internet was aflame with praise or denunciation. Atheist groups sought to defuse the significance of the reports, suggesting that they were confused or even deceitful; or else proposing that if accurate they were to be explained by Flew's mental decline. Theists meanwhile sang praises and thanksgiving for the return of a lost soul and began to heap glories upon him. Last year Biola, an Evangelical Christian university in California, awarded Flew the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth, named after the author of Darwin on Trial, a sustained attack on the materialist assumptions of evolutionary naturalism.
These responses are as nothing when compared to the predictable reactions to a book published last month entitled There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind, described as being "by Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese". I quote the form of the authorial assignment for it is part of Oppenheimer's suggestion that Flew had little if anything to do with the book and that it is the latest and most brazen attempt by a member of the theist forces to co-opt a declining mind to their cause.
In the last few days Roy Varghese has published a letter in The New York Times rejecting the suggestion of misrepresentation, and the publisher, Harper, has put out a statement on Flew's behalf in which he is quoted as saying: "My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 per cent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I'm 84 and that was Roy Varghese's role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I'm old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking."
As with the defences and denunciations on the weblogs, readers will interpret these statements and Oppenheimer's article in line with their own prejudices, but to my mind the presumption should be in favour of innocence. That said, I have felt uneasy about what I have read regarding the 2004 event. This includes misleading descriptions of Flew's position, which I took to be that while there is evidence in nature of intelligent creation there is also evidence to suggest that who or whatever created the world is not concerned with the welfare of its creatures.
This is certainly not theism, and in one understanding of the term, as Flew himself has pointed out, it could even be described as a form of a-theism. Certainly I had, and still have, no reason to think that Flew has embraced theism; and nor have I had any reason to think that he regards Christianity as at all plausible. Indeed its doctrine of a loving creator God is one that he took to be at odds with what we know about the cosmos. Where his thinking led him subsequently I do not know. Flew and I have not corresponded since the period immediately following the New York meeting. Nor have I been involved in any discussions about influencing his views, and nor have I previously commented publicly on them.
The arguments and controversies surrounding Flew's announced abandonment of atheism are a reflection of the state of religious and anti-religious polemics in the US. Until now the issue of Flew's current position has received little commentary in Britain but that may be about to change. If so it will be further evidence of the vulgarisation of intellectual debate, for what matters is not the prejudices of the parties but the truth or falsity of the God hypothesis and the cogency of the arguments for and against it.