Life-Long Atheist Philosopher Antony Flew Embraces Belief in God – A Summary of his Book.
[“There is a God; How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind” (Harper Collins New York 2007)]
Antony Flew has been a renowned atheist philosopher for many years. But he announced in 2004, at the age of 80, that he now believes in God. During his career Flew developed perhaps the most comprehensive philosophical exposition of atheism in the 20th century. 1 In the Introduction Roy Abraham Varghese describes the hysterical reaction from fellow atheists. 2
Antony Flew was, in fact, the son of a Methodist Minister and attended a private Christian school. But at the age of 15 he embraced atheism because of the problem of evil.
Now, however, he believes that the existence of the universe and of purposeful natural laws can only be explained by the existence of an intelligent creator.3
He criticises David Hume’s denial of the reality of causation. Hume said that event A doesn’t cause event B but rather that A and B are simply conjoined, i.e. events of this sort are regularly followed by events of that sort. Flew points out that Hume jettisoned such scepticism as soon as he left his study. He draws a parallel with those philosophers who deny the possibility of objective knowledge and then claim that their opinion is objectively true!4
Even as recently as 1998 in a debate with William Lane Craig, attended by 4000 people, he affirmed God did not exist but that the universe is without beginning or end.5 He rejected the Cosmological Argument (that the universe requires a First Cause – God) because he believed that all the individual causes in the universe give sufficient explanation of its existence without the need for a First Cause. He held that everything is caused by unconscious mechanical forces. He also rejected the argument that it was because God created humans with freedom (to choose to do good or not) that this explains the evil in the world despite there being a good omnipotent God. He argued that such a God coulod have created human beings who would freely choose to obey him.6
However, in his last public debate in New York in 2004 he was asked if recent work on the origin of life pointed to the activity of a creative Intelligence and he responded that it did because DNA had indicated almost unbelievable complexity and subtlety in different aspects working together.7
He went on to criticise Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene argument (that evolution mainly acts upon our genes and only characteristics which benefit the gene are passed on – hence “selfish gene”). Flew says that natural selection doesn’t produce anything. It only eliminates competitive disadvantages.”8 He adds that genes cannot necessitate our behaviour nor can they have any sense of purpose – selfish or altruistic.9
Flew uses an illustration of a satellite phone being washed ashore on a remote island inhabited by a tribe which has never had contact with modern civilisation. The natives think the phone makes the voice noises. But the tribe sage concludes the voices come from people like themselves and that it is possible to be in touch with other humans. However the tribe “scientists” laugh and show that if the phone is damaged the voices stop. So they conclude the combination of materials in the phone is what causes the voices.
He draws the parallels with those who say we shouldn’t ask how the universe came into being, adding that such people believe life arose spontaneously from matter and physical laws just appeared.10
Flew then affirms that he believes is God because modern science points to God in three ways: first that nature obeys laws, second the existence of complex, organised purposeful beings, third that nature exists at all. He added that he looked again at the classical philosophical arguments for God. 11
Flew now believes it is possible to know the God Aristotle described as explaining the world by unaided human reason. This God, according to Aristotle, has attributes of immutability, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness or indivisibility, perfect goodness and necessary existence. Flew stresses that his discovery of the Divine has been without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It is not connected with any religion or based on any personal experience of God.12
He finds the argument for God’s existence from design persuasive. He is also impressed by the laws of nature which he defines as the regularity and symmetry which is mathematically precise, universal and tied together. Einstein called them “reason incarnate.”
Having mentioned Einstein, Flew adds that Einstein said “I'm not an atheist, and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist”13 He criticises Richard Dawkins for ignoring such statements by Einstein and claiming he was an atheist. Flew proceeds to give further quotations showing Einstein was not an atheist and was quite angry that atheists quoted him as evidence for their views.14 He also refers to great scientists such as Max Planck (who introduced the quantum hypothesis), Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger (who developed wave mechanics), and Paul Dirac, who saw a connection between the order in nature and God.
He quotes Charles Darwin who wrote: “[Reason tells me of the] extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capability of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.”15
Flew then refers to Paul Davies who wrote that atheistic scientists simply accept by faith the existence of a world which obeys laws without asking where they came from.
Flew again criticises Dawkins for making the “bizarre” statement that God is too complex a solution for explaining the universe and its laws.16 He quotes physicist Freeman Dyson as saying: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming.”17
Flew refers to the “multiverse” idea that there are numerous different universes with ours happening to have just the right conditions for life to develop and says that virtually no leading scientist believes the fine tuning happened by chance.18
He goes on to make the obvious criticism that the multiverse argument does not eliminate the question of divine Source. He quotes Richard Swinburne who wrote: “It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job.”19
Flew’s argument for an intelligent creator from the complexity of DNA has been criticised. Some said he was unaware of the latest work on abiogenesis (the theory that some life can develop from non-living material). However Flew points out that the universe is not old enough for abiogenesis to have achieved life as it is. More important, he asks, how can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with goals and purposes, etc.20 Human cells are information storing, processing and replicating systems. How can they have developed from non-living matter?
Back in the 1980s Flew predicted that Big Bang cosmology, which indicates the universe had a beginning, would embarrass cosmologists and atheists because of its potential theological implications, and that they would therefore come up with “influential escape routes” to explain away the need for God, including the multiverse theory and Stephen Hawking's notion of a self-contained universe. Flew thinks the multiverse theory is a desperate alternative to belief in God.21
Many atheists have followed Hume and Kant who said that a series of individually-caused events does not require an explanation for the whole series beyond the sum of the individual causes. Hence, it is argued, there is no need to seek a First Cause of the universe because the universe is sufficiently explained by all the individual causes and events that have happened in its history. Flew, quoting Professors David Conway and Richard Swinburne, rejects this idea and says there is a need to find a cause of the whole universe.
He goes on to say that the existence of something rather than nothing raises the fundamental question of why it exists, how it came about. Atheistic theories have not answered this question.22
Flew ends his book by referring to the “infinitely intelligent Mind” behind the universe, saying “Some claim to have made contact with this Mind. I have not—yet. But who knows what could happen next? Someday I might hear a Voice that says, ‘Can you hear me now:’”23
In an Appendix Roy Abraham Varghese gives a critical appraisal of the “New Atheists” Dawkins, Dennett, Wolpert, Harris, and Stenger. He continues Flew’s arguments by saying that five phenomena can only be explained in terms of the existence of God – rationality, autonomous life, consciousness, conceptual thought and language and the self as a centre of consciousness.24
The book ends with an Appendix by N T Wright entitled “The Self-Revelation of God in Human History: A Dialogue on Jesus” which is highly commended by Flew. He deals with how we know Jesus existed and the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for copying on the Home Page
1. p. ix.
2 p. viii
3 p. 155.
4 pp. 57-58.
5 pp. 68-69.
6 p. 73.
7 p. 74-75.
8 p. 78.
9 p. 80.
10 pp. 85-87.
11 pp. 88-89.
12 p. 93.
13 Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 44 quoted by Flew p. 99.
14 pp. 98-103.
15 Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882, ed. Nora Barlow (London: Collins, 1958) 92-93
quoted by Flew p. 106.
16 p. 111.
17 Freeman J Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 250 quoted by Flew p114.
18 p. 115.
19 Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, (Oxford: Clarendon, 2004), 11-12, quoted by Flew p. 119.
20 p. 124.
21 p. 136-7.
22 John Leslie, Infinite Minds, (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001, quoted by permission of Oxford University Press, www.oup.com), 194-5 quoted by Flew p. 142-3.
23 p. 158.
24 p. 162-3.