A Change of Mind for Atheist Philosopher Anthony Flew

From Peter S. Williams and arn.org.

Professor Antony Flew, 81 years old, is: ‘a legendary British philosopher and atheist and has been an icon and champion for unbelievers for decades.’[1] In his most famous book, God and Philosophy, Flew concluded: ‘though as always subject to correction by further evidence and further argument, that the universe itself is ultimate; and, hence, that whatever science may from time to time hold to be the most fundamental laws of nature, must, equally provisionally, be taken as the last words in any series of answers to questions as to why things are as they are.’[2] In other words, nature (probably) explains everything about itself that is explicable, and so there is no need to believe in any sort of Creator.

One can read several debates in which Flew argues for atheism against Christian philosophers such as William Lane Craig, Gary R. Habermas and Terry L. Miethe.[3] In recent years Flew has been called: ‘the world’s most influential philosophical atheist.’[4] Writing on the Secular Web, Richard Carrier acknowledges Flew as: ‘one of the most renowned atheists of the 20th Century, even making the shortlist of “Contemporary Atheists” at About.com.’[5]

The shortlist needs to be updated.[6] Flew has changed his mind, and has let it be known that he is now a theist (at least in the broad sense of the term) because: ‘the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before.’[7]

Flew says that he simply: ‘had to go where the evidence leads.’[8] His atheism truly was provisional and ‘subject to correction by further evidence and further argument. . .’[9] ‘It speaks very well of Professor Flew’s honesty,’ observes America’s pre-eminent philosopher of religion, Alvin Plantinga: ‘After all these years of opposing the idea of a Creator, he reverses his position on the basis of the evidence.’[10]

Flew’s change of mind is big news, ‘not only about his personal journey, but also about the persuasive power of the arguments modern theists have been using to challenge atheistic naturalism’[11], says philosopher Craig J. Hazen. Flew’s acknowledgement of theism was greeted with not a little scepticism by some of his former atheistic comrades.[12] In part, this scepticism was been fuelled by the fact that a rumour about Flew converting to Christianity hit the internet in 2001 and surfaced again in 2003. On each occasion: ‘Flew refuted the claim personally. . .’[13] This time, however, Flew has personally confirmed that he is a convert to theism (not Christian theism), and the story has been covered by major news organizations such as ABC News[14] and the BBC. If his new-found belief upsets people, well: ‘that’s too bad,’ says Flew: ‘My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato’s Socrates: Follow the evidence, wherever it leads.’[15] As Jonathan Witt says: ‘Those who admired [Flew’s] intellect when he was an atheist should listen carefully to his reasoning now – for if a man suddenly becomes persona non grata for changing his mind, then the possibility of reasoned civil discourse withers.’[16]

Tracing the News

I first heard about Flew’s change of mind in August of 2004, whilst attending the European Leadership Forum in Hungry. A number of well-placed sources said that Flew had recently come to believe in the existence of some kind of God, and that this shift in thinking was due in no small part to the kinds of arguments advanced by the Intelligent Design movement. Flew has since confirmed to The Associated Press that: ‘his current ideas have some similarity with American “intelligent design” theorists, who see evidence for a guiding force in the construction of the universe. He accepts Darwinian evolution but doubts it can explain the ultimate origins of life.’[17]

Then, in a letter to Philosophy Now magazine (Issue 47, August/September 2004, p. 22, cf. www.philosophynow.org/issue47/47flew.htm), Flew pointed out: ‘the limits of the negative theological implications of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.’[18] Quoting from Darwin, Flew noted that the theory of evolution by natural selection does not account for the origin of life, and observed that: ‘Probably Darwin himself believed that life was miraculously breathed into that primordial form of not always consistently reproducing life by God. . .’[19]  Flew also said that:

the evidential situation of natural (as opposed to revealed) theology has been transformed in the more than fifty years since Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.  It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism.[20]

Flew recommended two books that tackle this issue from a theistic perspective: The first book was Roy Abraham Varghese’s The Wonderful World: A Journey from Modern Science to the Mind of God (Fountain Hills, Arizona: Tyr Publishing, 2003). [cf. www.thewonderoftheworld.com/] The second book was Gerald L. Schroeder’s The Hidden Face of God: Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth, (Touchstone, New York 2001).

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