Who Flew The Coop? The “Deconversion” of Antony Flew

Back in 2007 a book landed in the front windows of bookstores across the country, announcing that the “world’s most notorious atheist” had changed his mind and now believed in “God.”

This atheist’s name? Antony Flew.

Atheists and apologetics-minded believers everywhere turned to each other and said:

“Who?”

Well, throughout the second half of the 20th century, Mister Flew had written some philosophical papers in support of atheism and had broken some new ground in the conversation. To be fair, he was somewhat prototypical to Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett. But most notorious? The hyperbole runs thick sometimes.

Especially when it comes from the circle of believers. As the primary trend is for the indoctrinated to break free of religious thought by way of reason, the rare reversal of order is pounced upon by Christians as evidence that all us atheists are eventually going to come around, on our deathbed if not before (which honestly carries its own level of offense, but more on that later.)

This particular case, though, is rather sad because it involves the manipulation of a very elderly Antony Flew in what seems to me a rather unscrupulous manner.

I’d like to briefly examine Flew’s so-called conversion from two directions:

  1. The outward nature of his “conversion,” and the manipulation and mischaracterization committed by those involved.
  2. The details of what he believed and its irrelevance to the Christian hope.

Word started circulated as early as 2001 or so that noted English philosopher Antony Flew had changed his mind about his previously avowed atheism. After discussion with physicist and theologian Gerald Schroeder, Flew came to the conclusion that the universe was too complex to have come into being by natural processes, instead requiring an intentional design. It seems Schroeder had misrepresented explained to Flew the nature and complexity of DNA, asserting that the impossibility of spontaneous generation was fact, when it was and is not, and advances in this arena are being made every day. And we’re not even getting into the very poor God of the Gaps nature of this argument.

Noted historian and atheist, Richard Carrier, carried on a correspondence with Flew, as the two were acquainted, which he cataloged in detail at infidels.org. In it, some rather disturbing factors come to light.

First, as mentioned, the evidence on which Flew made his decision was spurious at best. Prior to publication of the book, Richard Carrier reached out to Flew in response to the rumors of his conversion. Quoting Flew directly, Carrier relates the following:

My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species … [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms.

However, this was based on the writing of the above mentioned Schroeder, whose assertions have been thoroughly refuted by several separate writers, including the late Mark Perakh, a noted mathematician and physicist in his article Not a Very Big Bang About Genesis, Victor Stenger, also recently deceased, a famous particle physicist and philosopher (who was noted for his skewering of ID theory) and Carrier himself, here at an article archived at infidels.org, as well as in a peer-reviewed article. The links to that article and Stenger’s refutation are broken. I’ll add them if I can locate updated links.

At the end 2004, in a letter Flew wrote to Carrier, he said the following:

“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.”

Interestingly, Flew blamed Richard Dawkins, of all people, because somehow Dawkins didn’t make Flew aware of advances in the field. I’m not certain why it was Dawkins’ responsibility to be sure Flew was properly informed, and Carrier makes the same point in his recounting of the exchange.

Flew even said:

“I have been mistaught by Gerald Schroeder.” …”(I)t 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.”

Of course, Schroeder is a physicist, whereas the field of DNA and the research into abiogenesis is particularly in the field of biochemistry, so perhaps was not the best source of information on which Flew could rely. But he also admitted later to Carrier that he was just too old to do all the research necessary to fully vet the claims to which he is attaching himself, relying on a random expert here and there and taking their word for it. Not very scientific for a person otherwise well known for their thorough reasoned thinking.

Even more interesting, despite his admission of that error, Flew persisted in the conclusion he reached because of it. That conclusion was not, as Christians would have you and I believe, a conversion to Christianity, but rather a belief in an impersonal Aristotelian God – the Unmoved Mover – who is like a person who pushes one domino over so that every other domino in the set also falls over without said mover having anything more to do with it.

Flew even said:

If and insofar as it is supposed to prove the existence of a First Cause of the Big Bang, I have no objection, but this is not at all the same as a proof of the existence of a spirit and all the rest of Richard Swinburne‘s definition of ‘God’ which is presently accepted as standard throughout the English speaking and philosophical world.

I’ll have more to say on this later.

Later, upon release of the book, supposedly written by Flew, it was noticed by those well-acquainted with him and his writing that this book did not sound like his writing at all. Carrier wrote in a review shortly after the book’s release (he was actually provided a pre-publication galley):

Now, after reading “Flew’s” new book, I was appalled at how badly argued it was, and how obviously it was not written in his style or idiom, but in that of contemporary Christian apologetics (like someone attempting a poor imitation of the style and approach of a Lee Strobel or Gary Habermas). Moreover, from crucial omissions (and distortions of history) it was clear the author could not have been Flew. Unless Flew had gone completely insane.

But Carrier, and others, were certain that it was not insanity, but another author at fault.

In the wake of the book’s publication, Mark Oppenheimer, a writer for the New York Times and other publications, went off to England to interview Flew. He wrote a long, detailed account of the interview and provided significant background information, including retelling some of the correspondence between Flew and Carrier. The entire article is well worth the reading, and he is evenhanded with all parties. But it’s difficult to come away from the article with anything but the sinking feeling that Flew’s Christian acquaintances had manipulated the man for their own purposes. And he’s careful to point out that they were probably not malicious, but possibly lacked regard to whether Flew was equipped to properly evaluate the data on his own.

I won’t relate too much of the article, for fear of going on overlong here, but after relating Flew’s recanting of his beliefs to Carrier, only to have this book released, Oppenheimer recounts a rather startling comment on the part of Flew in which he concedes that he did not write the book.

“This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!”

Roy Varghese himself had a ghostwriter, Bob Hostetler, and they are responsible for the content. During this interview, Oppenheimer asked Flew about the work of several philosophers who are extensively referenced in in the book, but whom Flew had never referenced at any time in the past. Their work is distinctly Christian, and their inclusion is clearly more down to the work of Varghese than anything to do with Flew. It is telling that Flew could only recall two of the three by name, and of the two he could remember, he was unable to recollect or discuss their particular views.

The question remains of the timing, progression, and effect of his memory problems (he died in 2010 in the throes of dementia, at its worst over the last year of his life, of course.) But whatever the question, I think it unseemly the way he was wined, dined, and groomed by these men to serve their agenda.

So we come to the second point. Is Flew’s so-called “conversion” relevant to anything having to do with Christianity?

In bringing up this topic, my former pastor (found in the comment section as “CW”) claimed to be intrigued by atheists who recanted their beliefs late in life, citing Flew in particular.

The context and implication of his words being that, when faced with mortality and eternity, the intellectual arguments give way to faith, and thereby to the redemption of the individual.

The first problem with this is that it is terribly anecdotal. Most atheists or non-believers go to their passing without so much as a peep in the direction of any religion. So the fact that a couple high profile individuals did convert either out of an abundance of caution or out of genuine change of heart means nothing in terms of the reality of the argument.

I also have to confess that I find this approach to faith somewhat tawdry, as it plays off the natural human fear of death and the unknown, and ascribes a heavy weight to those who in their weakest moments reach out for the pacifier of their early indoctrination, while ignoring those who went open-eyed to their end.

But all of that ignores the fact that such an implication is a gross mischaracterization of Flew’s alleged conversion. This was not some mortality quest. This was a change of mind that, on the surface at least, was supposedly driven by exposure to scientific developments of the day.

More than that, his views, as already recounted above, are that because of the complexity of the universe, there must be an unmoved mover, the god of Aristotle, not a personal god who is an actual spirit that interacts with the world. He counts himself among deists such as Thomas Jefferson, who was impertinent enough to edit out verses in the bible he found ridiculous or offensive and republish a more reasonable version. Jefferson’s god was not an active agent, but an unconscious first cause. Flew wrote that the vindictive God of the Christians and Muslims should not be confused with the:

…“noninterfering God of the people called Deists — such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.”

Rather than touting Flew as evidence that they’re right, Christians ought to eschew his viewpoint. Why? Because it’s bad enough that atheists and non-atheists say their version doesn’t make sense. Even this guy who says some sort of god must exist still repudiates the idea of any revealed god. When Biola University, an Evangelical institution in Southern California, gave him the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth, Flew had the audacity to say:

“The deist god, unlike the god of the Jewish, Christian or, for heaven’s sake, the Islamic revelation, is neither interested in nor concerned about either human beliefs or human behavior.”

Translation: Even if I do believe in a god, it certainly isn’t your god.

Flew isn’t by any stretch an apologist for Christianity. Even worse, by the Christian economy, Flew is a guy who got partway there, but fell down at the finish, as he never ascribed to anything more than deism. By my former pastor’s reckoning, Flew is suffering in Hell, and will for eternity, for regardless of his change of mind, whether motivated by rational inquiry or mental deterioration, he never made any commitment to Christ as Savior. He never accepted the “Free Gift.” How much more egregious then the use of Flew’s name as some vindication of their faith? How selfish and sad of them to tout this half-conversion as evidence of anything other than the paucity of evidence for their own belief?

The assertion that we who eschew belief in any revealed god should with years and wisdom come to change our mind carries with it an underlying arrogance that despite our inquiry, and despite the theist’s inability to answer rationally those questions that weigh most heavily on the subject, the theist is somehow in a superior position of knowledge nonetheless, and furthermore has some position by which to judge our lack of belief without actually being able to rationally address it.

While Christians will always continue to hope for and promote the deathbed conversions of nonbelievers whenever they do happen (which isn’t nearly as often as they’d like,) to do so with Flew and his memory is a disservice to him, his philosophy, and honestly, their own theology.

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7 thoughts on “Who Flew The Coop? The “Deconversion” of Antony Flew

  1. That’s what irritates me the most (when I CBA to think about religion at all) ~ it’s the arrogance. I am “OK” with people believing in the supernatural. To me, that’s just an extension of irrational fears and feelings we all have. “I don’t wear blue on Tuesdays.” Or whatever the fuck. Because God. Or because Grandma said. Or the goldfish whispered it to you in a dream. It’s fine. I won’t try to talk you out of it. Just don’t tell me I shouldn’t wear blue on Tuesdays. Don’t try to make a fucking LAW about it for everyone else! But so many of them act like there is some overriding truth to these arbitrary fairy tales ~ and THAT is what makes this type of believer (#notallbelievers) so repulsive and intolerable.

    As far as deathbed revelations/conversions… hey, whatever makes it easier to go into that goodnight, right? I don’t care. But again, don’t put it on ME.

  2. When I first committed to look at the evidence with all options on the table, I found over and over that the apologetic talking points were not well supported, and were often quite exaggerated.

  3. Nope, once again you (Anthony) miss my point concerning Flew! Flew, like other imminent atheists, came to doubt his “unbending allegiance” to his no-God worldview. Why would a man of his renown and caliber (and other notables) take a step back from his tightly held views(s) if there wasn’t some legitimate cause for doubt? That’s my point.

    On another (somewhat related) note: there is a repeated appeal to my inability to rationally support our claims as theists. Once again, very absurd Anthony! Let’s take the Bible as an example: If you don’t mind me asking, how many undergraduate/graduate level classes have you taken on historiography (for our readers: the science of validating/invalidating the integrity and authenticity of old/ancient documents)? You may recall that one of my degrees is a B.A. in History; you’re also no doubt aware that this implies I’ve taken my share of historiographical coursework (also at the graduate level by the way). I say this not to flaunt my education but rather to note that the very rigors of thorough historiographical research have been applied to the ancient Biblical text (by myself and scholars innumerable) – and it in fact stands up, in exemplary fashion, to the strict disciplines of this science.

    The relevant significance is simply this: what the Bible says today is what was originally penned by its 40-plus authors. This leaves you and me with a choice to make: we can go with the strong evidence that the Bible is actually God’s book, believing what it assumes: we live in a created universe, and that Creator is the God of the Bible – or we can choose to reject the evidence. You (and others) have said atheism is not based on faith. I beg to differ with you! To my way of thinking, it is a giant step of faith to reject the testimony of Scripture – and the convictions and observations of so many credible people of the past and present.

    • And you seem to miss Anthony’s points. Flew’s reasons for becoming a deist were based on misinformation. Even if he was sincere in his new belief, it is irrelevant for reasons stated earlier. Appeal to authority is not a good argument. Plenty of others have converted to atheism. That’s not a good argument for atheism either. It is the details that matter. And the way Christians have used Flew is deceitful. Typical apologist exaggeration. But it’s OK since it’s for Jesus.

      Dammit. I said I didn’t want a tit-for-tat and yet here I am again.

      I agree that the Bible manuscript we have today is very reliable relative to the lost originals. So what? How does that support it being God’s Word? People have faithfully copied the Koran for a very long time, too. So what? Not believing it is God’s Word is “rejecting the evidence”? That is laughable. It is rejecting an assertion. Rejecting an assertion because we took it at face value and tried it and found it wanting. Believing in creationism instead of evolution is rejecting actual evidence. Go read “Finding Darwin’s God” by Kenneth Miller (a Catholic).

      “To my way of thinking, it is a giant step of faith to reject the testimony of Scripture – and the convictions and observations of so many credible people of the past and present.”
      Not when one has tried it for oneself for decades. Your continual attempts to equate what atheist’s have to do to conclude what they conclude with what you have to do are ludicrous.

      Ugh. Why do I keep coming back for more of this. I don’t even enjoy it. I just can’t stand misinformation and bad arguments.

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