In Memoriam: Antony Flew, Philosopher of Atheism 8

[Photo: John Lawrence]

Antony Flew, the philosopher, atheist, and defender of freedom, died on April 8, 2010, at his home in Reading, England. I knew him, to my pride and delight, for many years. We would meet a few times a year (we both served on the Council of the Freedom Association, as I still do), and wrote to each other frequently about books, events, issues, campaigns, tactics. On politics and religion we saw eye to eye. We were both atheist conservatives. He was a classical scholar, more widely and deeply erudite than anyone else I’ve ever known. And he had the humility of true greatness. When I asked him to write the introduction to a new edition of a book I was editing on, and against, Karl Marx (The Red Prussian, by Leopold Schwarzschild) he told me that he was not the best person for the task, and gave me a short list of experts who, he insisted, knew more than he did and whose names would better grace the book. Only when they’d all declared themselves unable or unwilling, Antony said he would “do his best” to write a good introduction – and a very good introduction it is.

Obituaries on both sides of the Atlantic say that Antony Flew was the world’s most famous atheist, and that he suddenly changed his mind and declared that God exists after all.

It is true that he did say this. But he never said it when he was in his right mind.

It would have been unkind of me to write what I am about to write while he was alive. Yet I think it is absolutely right that I say it now, because it’s necessary to do him justice. So I declare that the reasoning by which he arrived at his certainty that God does not exist was never cancelled or reversed by the sloppy arguments of his senility.

Of his many books, the one that matters most for his reputation as an atheist is God & Philosophy. It was first published in 1966. Later editions appeared at intervals, the last in 2005. To judge by the new introduction he wrote, he was as sure of his atheism then as he had been in 1966.

In 2007 a new book appeared under his name titled There is a God. The subtitle crows: How the world’s most notorious [sic] atheist changed his mind. The authorship is ascribed to Antony Flew “with Roy Abraham Varghese”. But no one who has read God & Philosophy with attention could possible believe that There is a God was a product of the same intelligence. Either the powers of Antony Flew had faded away, or some other mind engendered this work. In fact, both those things happened. It has emerged that he did not write it. He had spoken, and other hands had written. He could not even remember what was in it. And of that failure of memory and general weakening of his mental faculties, the actual writers had taken advantage.

There is a God is distinctly written for an American readership. It refers, for instance, to the Red Sox. I’d have bet a mint that my friend Tony Flew had no idea who the Red Sox are – Chinese school-boys, he may have supposed.

According to Dr Richard Carrier, who tried to ascertain from Professor Flew himself whether he had really “found God”, the authors of There is a God are Roy Abraham Varghese who is known for his work on “the interface between science and religion”, and Pastor Bob Hostetler – two people with a big blunt axe to grind.

Carrier’s detailed account of how Flew claimed he was, but then again was not, converted to belief in a creator-God when certain scientific facts were brought to his attention, makes the whole sorry story plain. Carrier records that the philosopher admitted to finding the subject “too hard” to deal with; that he failed to remember anything about There is a God; that he repeatedly contradicted himself. He tells us about the bewildered old man being awarded a prize by an Evangelical Christian University. (The Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth, bestowed on him by the university of Biola at la Mirada, California.) The prodigal son returned! Much rejoicing in Christian circles. As if the willingness of a senile man to concede – on and off – the existence of a creator-God, were all the proof they needed to shout in the face of atheists and sceptics: “There, you see? If even he can see it now, you should not have the hubris to think you know better and continue to deny it!”

How insecure these believers must be in their belief!

Carrier writes: “It is certainly possible that Flew looked at ten drafts [of There is a God]. I see no reason to believe Flew was able to understand or even recall what he read.” Flew admitted to having “a nominal aphasia”. But it was more than “nominal”. “Flew could not even recall the arguments of the book , not just who made them or what his sources were.”

Carrier found that whenever Professor Flew himself stated his position, it was always to reaffirm his atheism. Statements to the contrary were never made by him directly, though one at least, firmly insistent that he really had changed his mind, was put out by the publisher on his behalf.

However, I know it was not a total scam. I know that at times he did think he had changed his mind.

I saw him soon after the book appeared and asked him was it true he now believed in God.

“Yes,” he replied, “but not the Monster”.

I understood of course what he meant by “the Monster”. He had rejected the Christian God while still in his teens because he could not reconcile the evil in the world and hell after it with a beneficent deity. Such a deity could only be a Monster. His father, a Methodist minister, was distressed by young Antony’s rejection of his faith, but Antony said, as he was to repeat throughout his life, that he had to go “where the evidence leads”. Now he told me, only the existence of “an intelligence” can explain the nature of the universe. This intelligence, this non-monstrous god, made the laws of nature and then had nothing more to do with his creation – the theological position known as deism.

In God & Philosophy, there is a section on “Order and Design”, in which the author asks the question: “Does order in nature itself presuppose an Orderer?” Elegantly and fully he reasons over a few pages that it does not. (This is not the place to quote his reasons, but I hope to whet some appetites for seeking them in the book.) “So we conclude that order in the universe by itself provides no warrant whatsoever for trying to identify an Orderer.”

The meticulous arguments are abandoned as though they had never been made, in the later book There is a God. The reason given there for belief in a creator God, is that the author has learnt about DNA, about its “enormous complexity”, and sees that there must have been an Orderer who made the universe! He also sets out the “fine-tuning” argument. Both the arguments, from “irreducible complexity” and “fine-tuning” have been thoroughly refuted.

Then there is the “Stratonician presumption”, as Flew himself named it after the Greek philosopher Strato of Lampsacus, the third head of Aristotle’s Lyceum, who formulated it. The presumption is that in explaining the world you can do without entities that are not necessary for the completeness of the explanation. In God & Philosophy, Antony Flew does not find it necessary to call in God or gods.

But suddenly, in There is a God, such a supernatural being becomes essential to explain the world’s existence. *

From Antony’s point of view these pressing believers had not done him a disservice. He told me that there was to be a TV documentary about him and his conversion. He was innocently surprised at the attention he was getting, and the unexpected windfall it brought with it. He was paid what seemed to him a very large sum of money. He had never been a rich man, and he was happy for his wife and daughters that they would have this fund at their disposal. (This most generous-hearted of men was painstakingly frugal: every letter he posted was in a re-used envelope with a label stuck over the old address.)

So there’s the picture. A pair (or more?) of American Christian Evangelicals (and a Jewish theologian and physicist, Gerald Schroeder) had worked on him rather than with him, when he had become mentally frail, to produce this cancellation of a lifetime’s thought. In his dotage, these Evangelicals battened on to him, dazzled him with science that was utterly new to him – the big bang, DNA – and rewarded him like a Pavlov’s dog when he gave the response their spin elicited. He was subjected to intellectual seduction, much as Bertrand Russell was by Communists in his senile years.

What seems to me intolerably sad and wrong is that the reputation Antony Flew ought to have, as an atheist philosopher who brilliantly defended atheism throughout his long and distinguished professional life, is now to be replaced by a phony story that he who had been a convinced atheist changed his mind. Is the man who defended atheism better than anyone since David Hume, to be remembered as a deist?

Is this to be allowed to happen – that he be remembered as a man who saw the error of his atheist ways and became persuaded that there was a God – simply because he suffered a softening of the brain in his last years? The truth is that the Antony Flew who conceded the existence of a “creator-intelligence” was not “the Flew” – as he liked to allude to himself – that he had been at the peak of his powers. His faculties were deteriorating, his memory came and went unreliably, he was confused, bewildered and – because he was in a state of decline – taken advantage of.

His handwriting became shakier. He put letters to other people in envelopes that he addressed to me. (They probably got the letters I was supposed to receive.) When I sent him the print-out of an article I had written deploring the Islamization of Britain, he sent it back to me a few weeks later as an article of his own that he would like me to comment on. When he was to meet me and a few colleagues at a certain old club on Pall Mall (the famous street of clubs in the heart of London) which he must have visited dozens or even hundreds of times, he couldn’t find it. A search party rescued him and brought him to the meeting. He had become unsure of himself. He did not always remember, or possibly even grasp, points put to him in a discussion.

But what an enthusiast he forever was for ideas! His face would light up, his voice grow urgent with excitement. A passionate intellectual who was always gentle, always courteous even in the heat of argument, Antony Flew was the epitome of a reasonable man. Or I should say that is what he had been, and that is the way he should be remembered, this great philosopher and atheist. (His country bestowed no honors on him. I think he should have been made Companion of Honour, which is in the sole gift of the sovereign. England deserves her great men ever less!) Even those who disagree with his atheism must surely acknowledge in the name of justice and decency that his achievements, not his late and lamentable capitulations which seemed to cancel them, should be what he is remembered for.

Jillian Becker  April 18, 2010


*Here is a sample of the “reasoning” of these Christian ghosts, writing in the name of Professor Flew:

“I put to my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?’

Easy reply: manifest purpose.

They state in his name that the immaterial, ie mind, cannot come out of the material.

Reply: How can the material come out of the immaterial – ie matter out of “Mind” or “God”?

  • ultramontane

    A reasonable man would be willing to change his mind and face the scorn of his fellow travelers. What about deathbed conversions? What’s the advantage of going out as an atheist other then worldly fame maybe but who cares your dead. Maybe he realized that there is a chance he was wrong and seeing things through the wrong perspective. I don’t think senility explains the case, is there any evidence of that? Is there any other comparable cases of people refuting their longheld views due to dementia? I don’t think that’s how the disease manifests itself. There are numerous cases of people recounting their views towards the end of life, however, and its not due to becoming senile. Wouldn’t it lead him as likely to be stubborn about his views then drastically change them. This is just pure conjecture meant to detract from the significance of his change without any solid evidence. The writing was obviously different because he didn’t write it but I highly doubt that him saying there is no God was falsely stated that he affirmed there was a God. Most likely was that he was mixed between both views and chose one in the end. A man is allowed to change his mind. And he gave a very basic definition of God and not any particular religion which he could have easily concluded. If he stated that I support Christianity that would be more improbable because he is a thinking man and he would have investigated the claims in much more detail before accepting them rashly.

    • liz

      “This is anathema to atheists because they need to feel they stand on solid intellectual ground”… – atheists don’t “need to feel” this – they know it already.
      If there’s one thing an atheist knows it’s that there is no “solid intellectual ground” for a belief in the supernatural, which in itself provides a solid intellectual ground for atheism.

    • There is massive evidence that Professor Antony Flew was suffering from severe Alzheimer’s when those Christian mountebanks exploited him so evilly. As a personal friend of his who saw him often and corresponded with him regularly through many years, I experienced many sad instances of the failure of his once extremely fine mind. In that condition, he was the victim of a couple of Christian confidence tricksters who ought to be ashamed themselves – but won’t be, as they’re complacent Christians who think that everything they do in the name of Jesus is for the greater good. The whole episode of their exploiting a sick man for their sly ends is beyond contemptible. It is an intellectual CRIME of the first order, perpetrated not only against a great man, a great thinker, but against the intellectual inheritance of Western Enlightenment philosophy.

      Few modern philosophers studied religion as deeply or as long as Antony Flew did. None wrote about it with greater profundity and understanding. His father was a minister. He was raised a Christian. He became a great scholar. He became an atheist. He called the Christian god “a monster” of human invention. If you had the “intellectual confidence” to read his book, written at the height of his powers, “God : A Critical Enquiry” (1986), you might learn how to think more deeply and effectively about your own irrational faith. (“God: A Critical Enquiry” is the book that was re-issued in 2005 with the title “God and Philosophy” as “his” revised edition carrying an introduction written when his time of mental distress and disorder was just beginning – but he was still a convinced atheist. The first version of “God and Philosophy” was published, as I say in the text, in 1966.)

      Your arrogant assumptions about what atheists and scientists are (mere intellectual sheep!), are not only unjustified, they are hugely insulting, and frankly very silly.

      As you sign yourself “ultramontane” I gather that you are a Roman Catholic. You must be troubled by what I have written in the post above about Professor Flew, or you would not bother to write the longish comment you have. I hope his story continues to trouble your conscience. I hope it troubles the conscience of all Christians who get to hear of it. That is, if Christians have a conscience – a proposition which the story of Antony Flew throws into doubt.

      • Veritas

        Your faith is as irrational as mine. Will comment further after medical boards. Truth escapes those that conform it to their desires.

        • I have no faith.

          Please do not comment further. Your comments make no sense.

          Truth escapes those who depend for their understanding on faith.

  • NoCountryForYoungMen

    Yes christians and other violent domineering pressure groups often use the tactic of getting a prominent opposition leader to 'recant' thereby massively weakening the movement. How do they do this? Well there are many methods.. threaten the dissidents family, offer money, use drugs, use black-mail, wait until he is senile – feed him biased information and use the conversion on the death bed method that is so effective against realist movements. When grasping in the dark people are more likely to say that there is something than that there is not – fantasy is also often comforting and more appealing to the weak especially those near death.

    It is disgusting. The religious authorities are still using the same tactics they used against Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus.

    The precise knowledge of how intelligence, information, and matter interact is unknown and similar to the chicken and the egg paradox. So there is nothing to discuss. People find it hard sometimes to set their official position to I do not know agnosticism – but it is the best position to take on the mysterious.

    This does not make atheism and deism equal logically though. In the state of unknowing saying there is nothing is the better assumption than projecting a mythos based on anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism and 'smoke and mirrors.' If there was only one religion, one deist story, this one religion would have more power in my eyes – and I might remain agnostic. But this is not the case. There are many different religions – many different interpretations, many contradictions, many different cosmologies and astrologies, many different mythos. Deism its self is in no way even close to religion – Deism simply states that a supreme consciousness set everything (nature, the universe) into motion at some distant point – this is very different from the delusion that anthropomorphic 'god/gods/spirits' intervene in human affairs – wrote a perfect book… ect. Another variant of Deism simply says that because there are universal rules, and only one type of consciousness/intelligence – that all intelligence is a piece of the deity. Similar to how millions of cells make up a body.

    Interesting ideas they are but there is no reason to 'believe' or have 'faith' – in fact having faith more often has negative results than positive ones – in my experience at least.

    I will now logically explain how all religion is crazy. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This fits prayer and offerings perfectly. But the placebo effect and sunny side up thinking (only remembering supporting evidence) support these sacraments.

    So this is why I am an atheist and no longer an agnostic as I was before 16. Atheism is to me a more developed agnosticism – the natural progression over time.

    But in the end people will believe or live the lies they want to live. I try to stick to the truth – because eventually the truth will set you free.

    P.S if you look with a critical eye you can find some gems in the rough in many holy texts… but the majority is trash. Don't be afraid to pick and chose even in works tainted by association. Discrimination and refinement is one of the noble goals of human endeavour.

  • Bill

    Leave it to the religionists to use an atheist scholar in a severely weakened state, tortured by some of the effects of old age, to make their point.

    I remember when I was dragged to church as a kid most of the attendees were white-hairs. This made me think the close one is to the end of life, the more that person will try any mental justification (belief in UFOs, Gods, Unicorns) to accept mortality.

    Kind of off-topic, but my regular lunch companion is just a few years older and he's been trying to reel me into his pessimistic outlook. He is saying that I'm old, that I'm losing it. On the other hand, I am told I look as though I'm in my late 30s. My friend is diabetic, due to his sedentary history and his poor diet. I was never sedentary and I was conscious about my diet. I look far younger than him.

    Age is mostly in the mind. I need to disassociate myself from my friend and if I cannot find positive people to surround myself with, I will surround myself with no one!

    • NoCountryForYoungMen


      It is always good to remember the principle of only taking advice from people who are already where you want to be, e.g if you want to be rich ask someone who made their fortune money advice, or, if you want a good hair cut only go to a barber who has a good hairstyle.