Where the Evidence Leads

Article excerpt

Where the Evidence Leads There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind By Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese (HARPERONE, 256 PAGES, $24.95)

Reviewed by Logan Paul Gage

ANTONY FLEW HAS LONG BEEN my favorite atheist. That may be an odd thing for the son of a minister to say, but then again, Flew's father was a minister also. For more than 60 years, Flew has been a bugbear, a sort of John McCain maverick, defying theists and atheists alike. Flew, who began his career at Oxford, rejected the smug atheism of logical positivism that blithely dismissed all theological statements a priori as meaningless-neither true nor false. Flew opted for an atheism that stood on its own two feet, an atheism of reason and evidence.

Retaining his individualist philosophy and his Socratic commitment to "follow the evidence wherever it leads," Antony Flew declared his "conversion" to deism in 2004. That is, he now believes in an "infinite Intelligence," the source of life and the universe; but he does not believe in revealed religion or an afterlife. He recounts all this, along with co-author Roy Abraham Varghese, in There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

That subtitle may seem presumptuous, and Flew would have you know it was the publisher's idea, but rest assured that it is accurate. From his positions at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele, and Reading, Antony Flew literally set the agenda for philosophical atheism in the latter half of the 20th century. In fact, his first paper, "Theology and Falsification," delivered at C.S. Lewis's Oxford Socratic Club just after WWII, is the most widely reprinted philosophical piece of the 20th century.

Unlike many atheist philosophers of the previous century-such as Bertrand Russell-Flew did more than write a few essays on his personal atheism. Rather, he improvised like a jazz musician, challenging theism with whole new lines of thought. As Varghese puts it in his introduction, "it was his reinvention of the frames of reference that changed the whole nature of the discussion."

In "Theology and Falsification," Flew challenged believers to not qualify their religious statements to death. In God and Philosophy, he disputed the coherence of the very concept of an omnipresent, omniscient being. And his The Presumption of Atheism argued that in an evidential tie, atheism should win by default.

Unlike dramatic religious conversions, Antony Flew's change of heart seems based on sober assessment of science's advance over his lifetime. As he puts it, his is "a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith." "This is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science."

By the 1980s, philosophy of religion was moving beyond discussing the meaningful ness of theological claims and the coherence of the concept of God, beyond discussing the burden of proof. The hot topic became the implications of Big Bang cosmology. In 1976 Flew breezily declared, "I myself am inclined to believe that the universe was without beginning and will be without end." But as the 20th century came to a close this belief grew increasingly difficult to maintain. Alternate cosmological models attempting to explain away the evidence for a beginning to the universe, such as the steady-state model, repeatedly failed.

In biology, Flew is little impressed with Richard Dawkins's selfish gene theory-that "we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes" and so we should "teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish." Replies the philosopher, "If any of this were true, it would be no use to go on....No eloquence can move programmed robots. But in fact none of it is true-or even faintly sensible. Genes....do not and cannot necessitate our conduct."

Nor is Flew satisfied with zoologists like Desmond Morris who, in The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo, gives "a systematic denial of all that is most peculiar to our species. …