In 2004 the atheist world was rocked by the news of one of the most important defections from its ranks in recent times. The world’s leading atheist, Antony Flew, announced that he was no longer an atheist, but a theist. This of course sent shock waves through the anti-theist camp, since they had long been claiming that rational and reasonable people only choose unbelief, whereas believers can only be regarded as stupid, gullible and deluded. It is pretty hard to describe Antony Flew in those terms.
Indeed, given his credentials, this is an amazing book about an amazing intellectual about-face. For over 50 years Flew was the number one proponent of atheism. And as a world class scholar with over 30 books on philosophy in print, he was one of the twentieth century’s most imposing intellectual figures.
In this book we hear about the reasons why he has abandoned atheism and embraced its counterpart. The significance of this turnaround can be seen in part by the ugly attacks and bitter responses by fellow atheists. They have made it perfectly clear that Flew has committed the unpardonable sin here. Their crude and ugly attacks on him and his decision is a telling commentary on the intellectual shallowness, bigoted fundamentalism, and narrow-minded intolerance that characterises so much of the new atheism.
The first half of this book is a brief intellectual biography of Flew. Here we learn about how he was raised in a Christian home; his decision to embrace atheism at age 15; his career as a professional philosopher; his numerous important works on philosophy; his time as a Marxist; his encounters with such intellectual heavyweights as C.S. Lewis, A.J. Ayer, Gilbert Ryle, Wittgenstein, and others; his debates with Christian theists such as Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig; his debates with fellow atheists such as Richard Dawkins; and his six decades as a dogmatic atheist.
The second half of the book deals with why he finally felt compelled to abandon his atheism and embrace theism. He offers three main reasons for his defection, (or apostasy, as many fellow atheists regard his move). The first bit of evidence he cites is the fact that nature obeys rational and ordered laws. The second is the fact that we are intelligently organised and purpose-driven beings. The third is the very existence of nature itself. The brute evidence of nature, in other words, has led Flew to recognise that “the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence”.
He expands these three points in some detail, and demonstrates how any open-minded examination of recent scientific discoveries can only point in one direction: that matter alone is not all there is, and a supreme intelligence must be directing what we observe in nature.
All the reasons offered in this book are based on an honest assessment of the evidence. Flew had made it a life habit to follow the command of Plato attributed to Socrates, “We must follow the argument wherever it leads”.
Flew rightly complains that so many atheists are simply stuck in a narrow box, where prior faith commitments to naturalism preclude an honest evaluation of the evidence. It is so easy “to let preconceived theories shape the way we view evidence,” he says, “instead of letting the evidence shape our theories”. Flew’s willingness as an honest atheist to follow the evidence where it leads finally led him out of the barren sands of atheism into the refreshing oasis of theism.
He notes that many leading scientists today “have built a philosophically compelling vision of a rational universe that sprang from a divine mind”. Eminent scientists and scientific thinkers such as Max Planck, Erwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Davies, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking all acknowledge that there must be more to reality than what is offered in the materialist worldview.
The various new discoveries – be they in astronomy, physics, cosmology, genetics or molecular biology – all demonstrate intelligence, purpose, order, design and complexity, the most obvious explanation of which is an intelligent designer.
Flew of course takes on all the various challenges to such thinking, be it the multiverse scenarios, the functionalism of Dennett, Stenger’s notion of symmetry, or Dawkins’ idea of selfish genes. Concerning the last of these, Flew had long been a critique of this idea. “Genes, of course, can be neither selfish nor unselfish,” he says, “any more than they or any other nonconscious entities can engage in competition or make selections”. Indeed, natural selection “does not positively produce anything. It only eliminates, or tends to eliminate, whatever is not competitive”.
Even though this is a brief book of just 200 pages, the cumulative case for the inadequacies of atheism and the necessity of theism is here very nicely and compellingly made. And given the one making the case – the world’s leading atheist for six decades – this book needs to be seriously read by everyone.
Flew makes it clear that he is not a Christian – at least as yet – but is basically a deist. Deism says that there is a creator God, but such a God has no ongoing relationship with the created order – a bit like an absentee landlord. He says his journey to theism was based on reason alone, not faith, and he has yet to decide about revealed religion.
He does inform us however that if he were to embrace a revelational religion, Christianity would be the best choice. Indeed, he finds the arguments for Christianity persuasive, and is now exploring the evidence for this as well. He is even impressed with the central truth claim of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he allows New Testament scholar N.T. Wright to have a concluding chapter in this book, making the case for the resurrection.
So as an honest seeker, he is more than willing to consider the claims of Christ. But for the honest atheist, this book offers a persuasive case for the claims of theism. As Roy Abraham Varghese argues in another appendix to this book, “we have all the evidence we need in our immediate experience” for theism, and the only reason why people remain in atheism is a refusal to look at this evidence.
In this hugely important book Antony Flew challenges all of us – atheists especially – to honestly and sincerely examine the evidence, without preconceived biases and agendas. Genuine intellectual honesty demands that we indeed follow the evidence wherever it may lead.