In the parable of the lost sheep, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says there shall be more joy in heaven over “one sinner that repenteth” than over 99 just persons who need no repentance. Never mind heaven: check out the joy on the Internet. In 2001, rumors started to hit the blogosphere that Antony Flew, a British philosopher born in 1923, had found God after six decades of atheism. At first Flew denied the reports. But in May 2004 he told a conference in New York that he had indeed changed his mind and become a believer. A flurry of online pundits debated the meaning of this shocking conversion.
Now, in a book written, according to its title page, “with” Roy Abraham Varghese — of whom more later — Flew tells the story of his “discovery of the divine.” This sounds like a victory for the faithful in the God wars: a welcome riposte to the atheist tomes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Although Flew is not “the world’s most notorious atheist,” as the subtitle of “There Is a God” claims, and never was, even in his native Britain, he ought to count as quite a catch. Now retired from the University of Reading in Berkshire (he has also taught at Oxford and in Scotland, Canada and the United States), he is the author of several cogent and elegant works of philosophy, including accomplished critiques of religion. In many public debates he has vigorously made the case for unbelief. But I doubt thoughtful believers will welcome this volume. Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, it rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.
There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind
The book has five main parts: a preface and an appendix by Varghese; an intellectual autobiography and an account of his case for God, attributed to Flew; and another appendix, on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, by N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham. Varghese is an Indian-born business consultant who founded the Institute for MetaScientific Research in Texas, and writes and edits books on the interplay between science, religion and philosophy. He helped organize the conference at which Flew announced his conversion and is the author of a book, “The Wonder of the World,” that Flew recommends. Varghese has also written “God-Sent: A History of the Accredited Apparitions of Mary,” which argues that more than 50 such apparitions cannot be explained away as hallucinations and that there is better evidence for them than there is for any ostensible U.F.O. sighting.
Wondrous apparitions and the Sci Fi Channel are a long way from the Oxford of the late 1940s, where Flew cut his philosophical teeth. But throughout his career, he has, he says, been willing to follow an argument wherever it leads and to be open to new evidence. Although he does not yet follow Varghese into Marianism (or even Christianity), Flew now thinks “the world picture … that has emerged from modern science” points to an “infinite Intelligence” that brought the universe into being. He believes the fact that nature obeys precise mathematical laws, the fact that life and mind have emerged from inanimate matter, and the fact that the universe exists at all are best explained by positing a God.
Oddly, Flew seems to have turned into an American as well as a believer. His intellectual autobiography is written in the language of an Englishman of his generation and class; yet when he starts to lay out his case for God, he uses Americanisms like “beverages,” “vacation” and “candy.” It is possible that Flew decided to make some passages easier on the ears of American readers or that an editor has made trivial emendations for him. But it is striking how much of Flew’s method of argument, too, has changed from that in his earlier works, and how similar it now is to the abysmal intellectual standards displayed in Varghese’s appendix. In fact, Flew told The New York Times Magazine last month that the book “is really Roy’s doing.”
Instead of trying to construct a coherent chain of reasoning in Flew’s own words, the authors present a case that often consists of an assemblage of reassuring sound bites excerpted from the writings of scientists, popularizers of science and philosophers. They show little sign of engaging with the ideas they sketchily report. And they don’t seem much bothered whether readers understand what they are trying to say: one crucial passage refers to a “C-inductive argument” for God, but doesn’t explain what a C-inductive argument is. The pattern of the reasoning is always the same: a phenomenon — be it life, consciousness or the order of nature — is said to be mysterious, and then it is boldly asserted that the only possible explanation for it is “an infinitely intelligent Mind.” It is never said how or why the existence of such a mind constitutes an explanation.
Flew’s testament ends with a hint that his journey is not yet over. He has not, he says, made any contact with the infinite Mind: “But who knows what could happen next? Someday I might hear a Voice that says, ‘Can you hear me now?'” It is unclear whether Flew has lost the desire to reason effectively or whether he no longer cares what is published in his name. Either way, it seems that this lost sheep remains rather lost.
Anthony Gottlieb podcasts for The Economist and teaches the history of ideas at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is writing a book about nothingness.
Read the first chapter of There is a God, at the New York Times.