What is the Deal with Anthony Flew's Conversion to Theism?

There has been lots of buzz about renowned atheist philosopher Anthony Flew's conversion to theism (though not Christianity). Atheists rushed to claim that he had not really converted or that he had been duped and was now having second thoughts, but those reactions met a buzz saw with the publication of There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, by Anthony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese.

The atheists have shifted tactics and have rallied around an article in the New York Times by Mark Oppenheimer called, "The Turning of an Atheist." In my opinion, the article is rather biased towards the atheists. For example, the author simply outright refers to Richard Carrier as "brilliant" and refers to his "magnum opus" written before getting his doctorate (the relevance of the timing is unclear to me). The Christians, on the other hand, are trying to foster their "scientific proof" of God (air quotes in the original).

The thrust of the article is that these nice, biased Christian authors took advantage of a frail man with a failing mind and are "exploiting" him (perhaps without malice) to promote their agenda. Oddly, when Richard Carrier continues to question Flew aggressively, he is put in a far more positive light as someone truly seeking truth. (Yet another example, in my opinion, of the author's bias). In any event, the suggestion is that Flew did not have much to do with the book, as it was written by its co-author and may lack the intellect to even know what it says.

The article, however, is forced to concede a few things. Flew is a theist now, accepting a God who created though not one who continues to involve Himself in the universe's affairs. Flew was on the receiving end of Carrier's own polemics and other atheists scrambling to change his mind, but in the end has rejected them and staked out his position as a theist. In addition to his work on There Is a God, he has written the British government and requested that they permit the teaching of intelligent design and appeared at a conference at Biola to accept a prize from a group of Christians. While there, he reiterated his theism to the Christian audience but again emphasized that he is no Christian and cannot accept the God of the Old Testament. This does not strike me as the actions of a frail intellect or someone who has been charmed into belief by overly kind Christians who he is afraid to offend.

Victor Reppert, of the Dangerous Idea blog, has provided additional information. He has posted a letter from Varghese that explains more his relationship with Flew, the status of Flew's intellect, and the writing process for There Is a God. Yes, Varghese teed up the original draft, but did so based in large part on Flew's own writings and interviews with Flew:

the substantive portions of the book came from a combination of Tony’s published and unpublished writings (and by the way he still does write) as well as extensive correspondence and numerous interviews with him. I would be happy to share these with any investigative journalist.

Regarding Flew's involvement in the writing process, Varghese states that "Tony edited, corrected and approved at least ten versions of the manuscript."

Moreover, if you are looking to the internet for fair coverage of the back-and-forth, you likely are missing out:

For three years, assorted skeptics and freethinkers have hounded the poor man trying to get him to recant. Believe me, if there was the slightest indication, the remotest suspicion, that he had retracted his new-found belief in God, it would be plastered all across the worldwide web (and beyond). Instead, Tony has taken it on himself to respond to every attack on his intellectual integrity in contributions to publications ranging from a rationalist journal in New Zealand to the latest issue of Skeptic magazine in the UK. The attacks on him are always highlighted on the Internet – his responses are never to be found unless you happen to get hold of the print editions. Not without reason, he now refers to several of the apostles of reason as “bigots”.

I also found interesting the comments on why Flew changed his mind. It was not just a matter of interpreting scientific evidence, but of philosophical issues that Flew is far more qualified to resolve than any of those raising questions about him.

A key point missed by the article is that it is not just or even mainly the evidence from science that led Flew to change his mind. The single greatest influence on him was philosophical – specifically the book The Rediscovery of Wisdom by David Conway. It was not a tug of war between, on the one hand Paul Kurtz and Richard Carrier, and on the other, the theist scientists, with the data from science as the rope. The rope was a philosophical one and here Conway, Richard Swinburne, Gerald Schroeder (in his exploration of the philosophical implications of science in The Hidden Face of God), et al were decisive.

As for his mental state, Varghese states that Flew, though affected by some memory issues and slower than he was in his prime, is the same considered scholar as before:

When he sets pen to paper (as will be seen in the most recent issue of Skeptic), he is as cogent and coherent as you could want (and also as terse as he was in his 1950 article). The only reason why people ask questions about his mental faculties is because he dared to change his mind.

What do I make of this? Well, based on the articles and blog entries and forum discussions I have read:

Anthony Flew's conversion to theism is genuine and the result of an active and considered intellect. It is abiding, not a sudden shift or flash in the pan impulse. Flew has been heading in this direction for a while, by all accounts, and has firmly arrived. Atheists have swarmed him trying to convince him he had been duped, but failed. Having failed to get him to recant, the atheist orthodox are attacking his intellect, unable to admit that a "true" atheist could convert to theism based on reason and evidence. It simply has to be the result of those deviously clever idiotic Christians taking advantage of an old man. What seems to be truly inappropriate, however, is the atheists attacking an "old man" with outright or implied accusations of a failed intellect.

Nothing about the writing of the book "smells" odd at this point. The first draft was based on Flew's earlier writings, his correspondence with his co-author, and interviews with Flew. It is consistent with the many public statements and writings Flew has offered on the same issue. And Flew edited ten drafts before approving it for publication by HarperCollins, a respected publishing house.

So, I suggest that if you are interested in Flew and his conversion, you buy the book and see what convinced him. It might not convince you, but it will likely be an interesting read.

Reppert's latest overview on the situation is worth a read as well.


Leslie said…
I don't understand why this is such a big deal to atheists, unless it is making a lot of them go face to face with the idea that theism is not irrational (if not openly, at least in their own personal thoughts). Anyway, if he wasn't old, they'd just say he was wrong, so either way I don't understand all the commotion from their side. It would seem the best way to lessen the impact would be to simply shrug it off.
Jason Pratt said…
What's doubly interesting is that the man has made just about the most minimal move he could make in this direction--and he's being flamed as if he's the new C. S. Lewis. (Often by people so ignorant of him that they don't even recognize how influential he has been to professional atheism, so to speak.)

That being said, I'm also on record in various places as pointing out that Richard Carrier (who has been updating a page on this for years) isn't just making up critiques of Flew's new position (and the brouhaha brewing up around it on our own side of the aisle). The new book should provide more substantial data for discussion; but I can see why even thoughtful atheists would be dubious about the content of his new position up to now.

Troy said…
I haven't posted here in a very long time...nice to see the Layman still writing, and the new voices and old.

I think this is a remarkable shift for Flew, and wish him grace. If he genuinely steps back from Christianity because of the OT, I find that sad. A mind like his would find other ways to read the OT given time; the Christian scholars who do so are many. But then, for me, seeing the Bible as a collection of books by quite human authors who have interacted with God has been very significant. And it has left me no less a Christian.

If what has driven AF to theism is the complexity of the physical universe, I can fully understand that position. The difficulty is in the biological suffering of human beings and animals as we attempt to deduce the moral or personal nature of the creator. There I have found no easy answer...other than the extraordinary healing work of Jesus on earth.

Peace to all :)
Steven Carr said…
Does anybody in their right mind think that Flew wrote a book whose title calls him 'The World's Most Notorious Atheist'?

Is that how Flew refers to himself?

Reality check here, folks....
Layman said…
Flew says he did.
Steven Carr said…
At least now we know that atheism cannot be so bad if the World's Most Notorious Atheist in the 20th century was Professor Antony Flew.

Flew comparing himself with Stalin and Mao? Is this a joke?

The New York Times pretty much accused Varghese of fraud. I wonder why Varghese does not sue.

Perhaps they just don't want Flew on the witness stand talking about 'The Integrated Complexity Argument'.

So much for Flew reading Behe's book about Irreducible Complexity.

At least Flew can remember half of the name of what converted him.

Not bad for 84!

And I wonder why this press release from the publisher's office is still not on the Harper Collins press release site, and as at 13/11/2007 only exists on an Amazon.com book review, written by Pastor Bob Hostetler's literary agent.

This is as big a scandal as Salvador Dali signing blank sheets of canvas.
Jason Pratt said…
Incidentally, Flew has said that the subtitle wasn't his choice (though the visual design for the main title was). That's pretty normal, by the way: books are often retitled or subtitled by the publishers.

Also, when he goes into interviews saying that he vetted the manuscript no less than 10 times and the ideas are his, then we aren't exactly at the "Dali signing blank sheets of canvas" stage, Steven. Dial back on the rhetoric, please; Flew isn't that much of a threat. (The publisher's ridiculous subtitle notwithstanding. {wry g})


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