Antony Flew: Philosopher of Atheism

by Jillian Becker (January 2021)


The God of Confectioners, Otto Dix, 1922
 

Antony Flew, the philosopher, atheist, and defender of freedom, died on April 8, 2010, at his home in Reading, England. He was 87 years old. I knew him, to my pride and delight, for many years. We would meet a few times a year (we both served on the Council of the Freedom Association, as I still do), and wrote to each other frequently about books, events, issues, campaigns, tactics. On politics and religion we saw eye to eye. We were both atheist conservatives. He was a classical scholar, widely and deeply erudite. And he had the humility of true greatness. When I asked him to write the introduction to a new edition of a book I was having republished, on and against Karl Marx (The Red Prussian by Leopold Schwarzschild), he told me that he was not the best person for the task, and gave me a short list of experts who, he insisted, knew more than he did and whose names would better grace the book. Only when they’d all declared themselves unable or unwilling, Antony said he would “do his best” to write a good introduction—and a very good introduction it is.

        Obituaries on both sides of the Atlantic say that Antony Flew was the world’s most famous atheist—and that he suddenly changed his mind and declared that God exists after all. It is true that he said it. But he never said it when he was in his right mind.

        The reasoning by which he had arrived at his certainty that God does not exist was never cancelled or reversed by the sloppy arguments of his senility.

        Of his many books, the one that matters most for his reputation as an atheist is his brilliantly argued God & Philosophy. It was first published in 1966. Later editions appeared at intervals. The last appeared in 2005, and to judge by the new introduction he wrote for it, he was as sure of his atheism then as he had been in 1966.

        But in 2007 a new book appeared under his name titled There is a God. The subtitle crows: How the world’s most notorious [sic] atheist changed his mind. The authorship is ascribed to Antony Flew “with Roy Abraham Varghese.” But no one who has read God & Philosophy with attention could possibly believe that There is a God was a product of the same intelligence. Either the powers of Antony Flew had faded away, or some other mind had engendered this work. In fact, both those things had happened. It is a certainty that he did not write it. He could not even remember—or had never known—what was in it. The actual writers had wickedly taken advantage of his failing memory and a general weakening of his mental faculties—as also of his indestructible humility and intellectual integrity.   

        There is a God is distinctly written for an American readership. It refers, for instance, to the Red Sox. I’d have bet a mint that my friend Tony Flew had no idea who the Red Sox were. Chinese schoolboys, he may have supposed.

        According to Dr Richard Carrier, a prolific atheist writer and critic of Christianity who tried to ascertain from Professor Flew himself whether he had really “found God,” the authors of There is a God are Roy Abraham Varghese, an Indian Christian fanatic known for his work on “the interface between science and religion,” and Pastor Bob Hostetler—two people with a big blunt axe to grind.

        Carrier’s detailed account of how Flew claimed he was, but then again was not, converted to belief in a creator-god when certain scientific facts were brought to his attention, makes the whole sorry story plain. Carrier records that the philosopher admitted to finding the subject “too hard” to deal with; that he failed to remember anything about There is a God; that he repeatedly contradicted himself. He tells us about the bewildered old man being awarded a prize by an Evangelical Christian University. (The Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth was bestowed on him by the University of Biola at la Mirada, California.) The prodigal son returned! Much rejoicing in Christian circles. As if the willingness of a senile man to concede—on and off—the existence of a creator-god, were all the proof they needed to shout in the face of atheists and skeptics: “There, you see? If even he can see it now, you should not have the hubris to think you know better and continue to deny it!”

        How insecure these believers must be in their belief!

        Carrier writes: “It is certainly possible that Flew looked at ten drafts [of There is a God]. I see no reason to believe Flew was able to understand or even recall what he read.” Flew admitted to having “a nominal aphasia.” But it was more than “nominal,” more than a failure merely to recollect names. “Flew could not even recall the arguments of the book, not just who made them or what his sources were.”

        Carrier found that whenever Professor Flew himself stated his position, it was always to reaffirm his atheism. Public statements to the contrary were never made by him directly, though one at least, firmly insistent that he really had changed his mind, was put out by the publisher on his behalf.

        However, I know it was not a total scam. I know that at times he did think he had changed his mind.

        I saw him soon after the book appeared and asked him if it was true that he now believed in God.

        “Yes,” he replied, “but not the Monster.”

        I understood of course what he meant by “the Monster.” He had rejected the Christian God while still in his teens because he could not reconcile the evil in this life and hell after it with a beneficent deity. Such a deity could only be a Monster. His father, a Methodist minister, was distressed by young Antony’s rejection of his faith, but Antony said, as he was to repeat throughout his life, that he had to go “where the evidence leads.” But now he told me, only the existence of “an intelligence” can explain the nature of the universe. This intelligence, this non-monstrous god, made the laws of nature and then had nothing more to do with his creation—the theological position known as deism.

        But in his God & Philosophy, there is a section on “Order and Design,” in which the author asks the question: “Does order in nature itself presuppose an Orderer?” Elegantly and fully he reasons over a few pages that it does not. (This is not the place to quote his reasons, but I hope to whet some appetites for seeking them in the book.) “So we conclude that order in the universe by itself provides no warrant whatsoever for trying to identify an Orderer.”

        The meticulous arguments are abandoned as though they had never been made, in There is a God. The reason given there for belief in a creator-god, is that the author has learned about DNA, about its “enormous complexity,” and sees that there must have been an Orderer who made the universe! He also sets out the “fine-tuning” argument. (Both the arguments, from “irreducible complexity” and “fine-tuning”, have been refuted.)

        Then there is the “Stratonician presumption”, as Flew himself named it after the Greek philosopher Strato of Lampsacus, the third head of Aristotle’s Lyceum, who formulated it. The presumption is that in explaining the world you can do without entities that are not necessary for the completeness of the explanation. In God & Philosophy, Antony Flew does not find it necessary to call in God or gods. But suddenly, in There is a God, such a supernatural being becomes essential to explain the world’s existence.

        From Antony’s point of view these pressing believers had not done him a disservice. He told me that there was to be a TV documentary about him and his conversion. He was innocently surprised at the attention he was getting, and the unexpected windfall it brought with it. He was paid what seemed to him a very large sum of money. He had never been a rich man, and he was happy for his wife and daughters that they would have this fund at their disposal. (This most generous-hearted of men was painstakingly frugal: every letter he posted was in a re-used envelope with a label stuck over the old address.)

        So there’s the picture. A pair of American Christian Evangelicals (abetted by a Jewish theologian and physicist, Gerald Schroeder) had worked on him rather than with him, when he had become mentally frail, to produce this cancellation of a lifetime’s thought. In his dotage, these mountebanks of religion battened on to him, dazzled him with science that was utterly new to him—the big bang, DNA—and rewarded him like a Pavlov’s dog when he gave the response their spin elicited. He was subjected to intellectual seduction, much as Bertrand Russell was by Communists in his senile years.

        What seems to me intolerably sad and wrong is that the reputation Antony Flew ought to have, as an atheist philosopher who brilliantly defended atheism throughout his long and distinguished professional life, is now to be replaced by a phony story that he changed his mind. Is the man who defended atheism better than anyone since David Hume, to be remembered as a deist?

        The trick was worked—that he be remembered as a man who saw the error of his atheist ways and became persuaded that there was a god—simply because he suffered a softening of the brain in his last years. The truth is that the Antony Flew who conceded the existence of a “creator-intelligence” was not “the Flew” —as he liked to allude to himself—that he had been at the peak of his powers. His faculties were deteriorating, his memory came and went unreliably, he was confused, bewildered and—because he was in a state of decline—taken advantage of.

        His handwriting became shakier. He put letters to other people in envelopes that he addressed to me. (They probably got the letters I was supposed to receive.) When I sent him the print-out of an article I had written deploring the Islamization of Britain, he sent it back to me a few weeks later as an article of his own that he would like me to comment on. When he was to meet me and a few colleagues at a certain old club on Pall Mall (the famous street of clubs in the heart of London) which he must have visited dozens or even hundreds of times, he couldn’t find it. A search party rescued him and brought him to the meeting. He had become unsure of himself. He did not always remember, or possibly even grasp, points put to him in a discussion.

        But what an enthusiast he forever was for ideas! His face would light up, his voice grow urgent with excitement. A passionate intellectual who was always gentle, always courteous even in the heat of argument, Antony Flew was the epitome of a reasonable man. Or I should say that that is what he had been, and that is the way he should be remembered, this great philosopher and atheist. (His country bestowed no honors on him. I think he should have been made Companion of Honour, which is in the sole gift of the sovereign. England deserves her great men ever less!) Even those who disagree with his atheism must surely acknowledge, in the name of justice, that his lifelong achievements as a philosopher, not his late and lamentable capitulation to a pair of intellectual bullies when he was mentally debilitated by time, should be what he is remembered for.

 
 
 
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Jillian Becker writes both fiction and non-fiction. Her first novel, The Keep, is now a Penguin Modern Classic. Her best known work of non-fiction is Hitler’s Children: The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang, an international best-seller and Newsweek (Europe) Book of the Year 1977. She was Director of the London-based Institute for the Study of Terrorism 1985-1990, and on the subject of terrorism contributed to TV and radio current affairs programs in Britain, the US, Canada, and Germany. Among her published studies of terrorism is The PLO: the Rise and Fall of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Her articles on various subjects have been published in newspapers and periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Commentary, The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal (Europe), Encounter, The Times (UK), The Telegraph Magazine, and Standpoint. She was born in South Africa but made her home in London. All her early books were banned or embargoed in the land of her birth while it was under an all-white government. In 2007 she moved to California to be near two of her three daughters and four of her six grandchildren.
 
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