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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The irrelevance of Antony Flew

Antony Flew has changed his mind: he is not an atheist anymore, he is an “Aristotelian deist,” though some of his current friends are evangelical Christians happy to pass him off as a Jesus freak.

Who is Antony Flew, and why should we care what he thinks? Flew used to be a good philosopher, author of a short classic paper entitled “Theology and Falsification,” in which he made the very good argument that if god's attributes include things like invisibility, intangibility and inscrutability, then the whole concept of god is hopelessly vague and it doesn't make sense even to talk about his existence or lack thereof.

But now, after a few years of rumors about his change of heart about the god question, Flew has co-authored a book entitled “There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” If this sounds like an obvious piece of Christian propaganda, it's because that's exactly what it is. A detailed article by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times reveals some of the troubling background to the story.

To begin with, Flew is apparently both largely uninterested in the god question and intellectually incapable of writing sensible things about it. Even according to HarperCollins' editor for the book, Cynthia DiTiberio, “it is hard to tell at this point how much is him getting older,” which however didn't stop her from claiming that “it would do the world a disservice not to have the book out there, regardless of how it was made.”

I didn't make up the latter sentence, check out the NYT article. Why the defensiveness? Because Oppenheimer actually went to see Flew in his house in Reading, England, and asked some probing questions. He got embarrassing answers:

In the book, Flew quotes repeatedly from Christian theologian Brian Leftow. “Did you know Brian Leftow?” asked Oppenheimer. “No. I don't think so.”

“Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?” (another source often cited in the book). “I think he's quite good,” said Flew, but then failed to remember at exactly what Leslie was allegedly so good.

Flew in the book calls cosmologist Paul Davies “arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science” (he ain't). But when asked “Have you ever run across the philosopher [sic] Paul Davies?” he replied “I'm afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!”

And a spectacle it is, unfortunately. Flew has admitted to not writing the book at all. It turns out that the opus in question was penned by Roy Varghese, an American businessman who personally finances Christian evangelical enterprises such as the “Institute for MetaScientific Research” (whatever that is). Varghese, who at least officially co-authored Flew's book, was helped by an unacknowledged ghost writer, Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor from Ohio.

In other words, “There is a God” has little if anything of Flew, and has been written by people who have no credible background in either science or philosophy. It is a sad story of ideological exploitation that reveals more about the base motives and questionable modus operandi of true believers than anything about religion and atheism.

So, no, we really shouldn't care what the eighty-four year old Flew thinks. If you want to benefit from his insight, you are better off asking the 27-year philosopher who wrote that classic paper back in 1950. “There is a God” will soon enter the dustbin of intellectual history, while “Theology and Falsification” will remain a landmark and a testament to the man who wrote it while in full possession of his faculties.


  1. I was contemplating a post about this, but yours is more than sufficient. :-)

    The larger point, I think, is that we needn't care what anyone thinks, but rather should assess the merits of their logical arguments and/or data (as appropriate). He's an atheist. He's a deist. Makes no difference, as neither science nor philosophy are advanced by arguments from authority.

    Thanks for pointing out the irrelevancy of the entire topic, which is appreciated.

  2. However strong and elegant Flew's arguments against the existence of god were, they still stand or fall on their merits regardless of Flew's views now.

    These Christians are treating Flew in the last twighlight of his intellectual life like some kind of trophy. But what kind of prize is Flew for Christians? Not a big one considering he hasn't made the leap into accepting Christ.

    I have had arguments with Christians where I have taken the position that even if I could accept a god of design, fine tuning, and the first cause (which I don't); there still remains a huge gap between that and thinking that Christianity is anything more than nonsense.

    Flew at least still seems to be in command of his faculties to the extent that he recognizes this. There is a recent YouTube video of an interview by evangelist Lee Strobel of Flew. He pretty much states that the doctrine of eternal punishment is despicable and absurd. So take that Jesus Freaks!

  3. When questioned about Flew last year in Lynchburg, VA (Liberty "University"), Dawkins gave an answer that, if I remember correctly, included the word senile -- but I might be wrong, have to watch the videos. But I think that was the general meaning...

    That not even a man who's visibly growing senile can be tricked into boarding the Christ canoe is definitely telling. It would be interesting to hear what the "faithful" would be calling an atheist who was doing that same thing but in a switched situation.

    Poor guy... although apparently he couldn't care less, if the article is to be believed. He's more interested in bashing immigrants and stuff like that.

  4. J: "It would be interesting to hear what the "faithful" would be calling an atheist who was doing that same thing but in a switched situation."

    Er...that he switched? lol

    My feeling is that most skeptics and agno / athe know pretty much exactly what they are doing when they willfully reject God. The Bible says that everyone is given enough light to choose God or not. I believe that. And that is what God judges us on. People, for instance, who live in the Bible belt and who are exposed to an incredible amount of "Bible everything" will be judged a bit differently than some guy that lives way in the outback of Australia and no one has ever even mentioned God's name to him.

    Flew may have made somewhat of a small concession, and may use that as a spring board to make other decisions about faith. But yet there is this matter of how often we make a decision against or for truth by the end of our lives. The decisions we make create more or less "callousness" on our hearts and souls. So there does come a point in the life of all individuals, based on the LIGHT that they have been given, that they just cannot 'go back' anymore. And only God knows if Flew has arrived at that point or not.

    I am positive he has been exposed to much that has to do with faith throughout his life, as id true of a lot of skeptics. But Flew is more like a life long "seeker", right? So what does that make him responsible for? Further, what does that make any of YOU responsible for?
    Are you like a random (seeker type) rejecter of God or a willful one?

    When we're ALL dead, the matter of relevance is pretty much going to be "irrelevant".

  5. In agreement with the original post and most of the comments, I see this as an illustration of the major shortcoming of the appeal to

    If Dawkins decides to accept a personal relationship with the FSM, do we all follow suit?

    If the Pope declares that it is all pointless, do all Catholics jump ship?

    Neither one makes any sense, because we all have to make our own decisions based on the information available, and our own ideological position with regard to evidence. Does evidence override faith? I
    would say so; that "faith" is simply wishful thinking.

    Others disagree. Who cares? It's not going to have any effect on my belief, or lack of it.

  6. J: "It would be interesting to hear what the "faithful" would be calling an atheist who was doing that same thing but in a switched situation."

    Er...that he switched? lol

    I was hardly clear there, I must admit... What I meant was: what would people be calling an atheist who was exploiting some senile religious person to shamelessly advance the atheist agenda? (that's the reason for the "switched", but maybe it only makes sense in my language...)

  7. "The Bible says that everyone is given enough light to choose God or not. I believe that. And that is what God judges us on."

    Thank you Cal for bringing up that biblical reference and your belief. I find it perfect for hitting home my point from the last thread.

    The problem is that the Bible, allegdly "God's word" does not give sufficient information for a potential believer to make a rational choice between any number of interpretations and the Christian denominations that promote them.

    Does it not seem that if God wanted to communicate his desires and correct doctrine, that he would do it with much more clarity? Clarity to the extent that those who wished to follow him would have much less disagreement between themselves?

    And what does this alleged God judge us on? Not on the good or bad actions that we actually do, but on whether we believe.
    "Salvation by faith alone, not works".

  8. This whole thing is reminiscent of the allegation of Darwin's deathbed "conversion", in a way, and yes, points out the exact fallacy inherent in an argument from authority. My suspicion is that authorities change their minds much more often than reality changes its facts.

  9. Thumpalumpacus,

    the story of Darwin's deathbed conversion was entirely made up by a Massachusetts preacher.

    The best summary of the story that I know of is in Edward Caudill's "Darwinian Myths," a book worth reading in its own right.

  10. Antony Flew has apparently now taken to calling himself 'The Worlds Most Notorious Atheist'

    So no sign of mental troubles there :-)

  11. Ah, yes. The Darwin conversion. Wasn't it nice in the old days when the Christians had the decency to let someone die before making claims like this? Now, they just wait until he's no longer in full possession of his mind and do it. I think it's sad, just sad.

  12. Why is Flew associated with the Skeptical Inquirer?


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