Ex-atheist takes on religion bashers with new book on God

November 6, 2007

book coverThe “neo-atheists” in the best-seller lists over the past year or so are getting serious competition from the other side. The new book There Is A God is all the more challenging because it comes from a former atheist who is far better versed in the complex arguments at the core of this debate. And he has a major U.S. publisher to promote this story of how a leading atheist philosopher eventually changed his mind. Anthony Flew doesn’t like to call his story a conversion, but a lot of people will probably see in it a modern Saul-to-Paul experience.

Anthony Flew is a British philosopher, now 84, who provided modern atheists with some powerful arguments during his career. His approach was to take atheism as the default position until sufficient evidence for God appeared — he called it “the presumption of atheism” and compared it to the presumption of innocence in the law. In numerous books with titles such as God and Philosophy or Does God Exist?: A Believer and an Atheist Debate, he rejected the usual arguments for God’s existence with logic and style. His approach was a far cry from the “neo-atheists” who rail against caricatures and excesses of religion (and there are certainly enough around to take aim at!) but avoid asking the tough questions that science cannot answer.

When the news came in 2004 that he had come to doubt full-blown atheism and had shifted towards deism, many atheists wrote this off as nothing more than the sign that his mental faculties were fading. Flew insisted in a long interview that he had not started believing in the God presented in the main monotheisms and did not accept the idea of an afterlife. He believed, instead, in what he called Aristotle’s God, the First Cause that created the universe but played no further role in it. He said he had come to the conviction that some form of superior intelligence must have ignited the Big Bang and set up the laws of nature.

A long feature in the New York Times Magazine has again raised the issue of whether Flew, with an admittedly fading memory, could have actually written There Is A God. It calls him “a senescent scholar.” His co-author Roy Abraham Varghese rejects the charge and says Flew’s new conviction had long roots. “The only reason why people ask questions about his mental faculties is because he dared to change his mind,” he has written in response.

I have neither the information nor the inclination to want to take sides in this debate. Although part of the interest in There Is A God comes from Flew’s change of mind, the question of how much he wrote and how much Verghese edited may turn out to be secondary to the contribution it makes to the atheism debate as a whole. It certainly seems to be more serious than other recent books on the topic. As Stanley Fish pointed out in his blog for the New York Times, the book does not trivialise its subject or demonise those who think differently, “which is more than can be said for the efforts of those fashionable atheist writers whose major form of argument would seem to be ridicule.”

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[…] noted before that the neo-atheist wave that hit the best-seller lists a while back seems to be waning. The mood at the “Beyond Belief” symposium seems to be another sign that the discussion […]

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