March 12, 2005

Flew's over in the cuckoo's nest?

It was like Krakatoa had blown its stack once again. The news skittered quickly though the various philosophical communities, most loudly trumpeted by fundamentalist Christians and creationists. "Anthony Flew now believes there is a God!"

Anthony Flew, an octogenarian philosopher who years ago wrote one of the seminal essays about religious faith, called The Presumption of Atheism, was causing another stir. What’s more, it was the same stir all over again.

Twice before, in 2001 and 2003, Anthony Flew was rumored to have converted to some form of theism. On both of the previous occasions he confirmed that he was still an atheist. But this time, in 2004, the expected correction from Flew never came. This time he meant it.

Well this was Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan all rolled into one for theists ‘round the world. The news was breathlessly reported in the religious media, cited incessantly on the internet. Even mainstream outlets managed stories on the prominent once-atheist who now "believes in God."

Unsurprisingly this apparent setback was not greeted with enthusiasm by atheists. A giant in the industry, so to speak, was tendering his resignation with the company he helped found and signing on with a major competitor. Though not as widespread and brassy as the theist "Hosannas," there was plenty of atheist hand-wringing going on. But the important question never seemed to get much play. What sort of God does Anthony Flew now believe in? And is it the kind of belief that should cause anyone to feel either affirmation or rejection?

As of this moment it appears that Flew’s most recent conversion has actually stuck. But he has retreated from some of the supposedly scientific notions that at first helped to support his new belief. Flew misguidedly accepted the veracity of certain observations regarding the paucity of scientific explanations of the origin of life and the universe. He has confessed to being misled both by his own indifference to researching these questions and by the guidance of scientists with a personal agenda (Gerald Schroeder in particular). In conversation with Secular Web writer Richard Carrier, Flew admitted,
"I now realize that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction."
"I have been mistaught by Gerald Schroeder,…it was precisely because he appeared to be so well qualified as a physicist (which I am not) that I was never inclined to question what he said about physics."
And as Flew has cleared up any confusion about whether his comments can be regarded as support for pseudo-sciences such as creationism, it has also become clear that there is no aid or comfort for traditional theism to be taken from his updated philosophy. Just as it’s difficult to believe that any of the traditional religious organizations accepted Flew’s previous atheism as devastating proof that their position was fatally flawed, neither does it make any sense that his recent conversion has irresistibly bulwarked their philosophy. Flew certainly doesn’t think so.
"I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations."
Flew has not come to belief in God through any spiritual revelation or scriptural conversion. In fact he calls this new position “a more radical form of unbelief” than his previous one. Flew claims to now accept a sort of Aristotelian god. One who is fundamentally disconnected with human affairs. In fact he bases this belief specifically on the in principle impossibility of providing a naturalistic explanation for life’s origins, even though he now admits that these explanations, if in fact they do not already exist, are at least plausible. To explain this apparent contradiction Flew says,
"I am just too old at the age of nearly 82 to initiate and conduct a major and super radical controversy about the conceivability of the putative concept of God as a spirit."
Surely, this lack of intellectual rigor, though perhaps understandable in a man of his age, cannot be construed by any traditional theists to affirm their philosophy. That would be a pathetic kind of triumph.

Neither, however, should Flew’s apparent sloppiness cause undue difficulty for atheists or atheism in general. Just as theists would be foolish to pin the validity of their religion on the conversion of one philosopher, so would be atheists who worry excessively over Flew’s defection. Especially in light of the kind of defection it was. Even Flew refers to it as a,
"...very modest defection from my previous unbelief..."
But, I think, the most important reason to step back, take a deep breath, and consider this apparent tempest more of a brief squall is the man’s statements following this conversion. It seems pretty clear to me that Flew is feeling his age, and is simply looking for some comfort. He appears to be embracing a kind of philosophical theism like that of Martin Gardner, who acknowledges that there can be no proof for God. Gardner understands that it is reasonable to be skeptical on these matters, he just prefers to believe in God because it makes him feel good. Though I cannot accept this point of view for myself, I can respect the honesty of it. And I suspect that Flew has opted for a similar kind of security.

It is foolish either to crow or cry about Anthony Flew's change of heart. It should be ignored (certainly we know it won't be by theists, but atheists should try). He should simply be respected and honored for his contributions to the debate.

Beyond that, he should be left alone to enjoy the rest of his life in well-earned, if intellectually unkempt, content.


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