It looked like one of the most extraordinary defections from the atheist to theist camp in recent years. In December, reports started to circulate that Antony Flew, the author of several anti-theistic books such as God and Philosophy and The Presumption of Atheism, had changed his mind and found God. ABC news was one of many leading news sources to carry a report from the international news agency Associated Press, under the headline, “Famous atheist now believes in God”.
The report unambiguously claimed that the 81-year-old Flew had “changed his mind” and “now believes in God more or less based on scientific evidence.” Most dramatically, AP claimed that Flew told them his ideas “have some similarity with American ‘intelligent design’ theorists,” who are leading a partially successful campaign to stop the theory of evolution being taught as fact in schools.
However, one week later, Rationalist International, of which Flew is an honorary associate, reported that Flew had contacted them to say “that his position about the belief in God remains unchanged and is the same as it was expressed in his famous speech ‘Theology and Falsification’.” “Some people argue that I changed my views,” Flew told them. “It is simply not correct.” What’s going on?
The source of the confusion is probably the inability of commentators to observe the careful distinctions made by philosophers and theologians. The clue comes in the subheading to ABC’s report: “One of world’s leading atheists now believes in God, more or less, based on scientific evidence.” The casual “more or less” glosses over some vital distinctions.
What Flew now seems to believe is that scientific explanations alone cannot explain the origins of life and the universe. We need to posit some sort of intelligence as the first cause which must have created the universe. “It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose,” Flew told ABC.
But although this could be thought of as a God, “I’m thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam.” This would make Flew at most a deist who does not believe that God is actively involved in people’s lives, and certainly not a Christian theist. Given that Flew’s target has always been the theistic God, this change in one detail of his thinking would not undermine or oppose the main current of his philosophy to date.
Yet Christian organisations around the world are still claiming Flew as a convert, insisting quite inaccurately that he has become a theist. Flew should perhaps have expected them to jump on any signs of doubt whatsoever. Many, for example, still take some comments A J Ayer made after a near-death experience as evidence that he realised the error of his atheist ways, despite explicit subsequent statements by Ayer to the contrary.
In this respect, Flew, who says he is merely following Socrates’ injunction to “follow the argument wherever it leads,” has shown more intellectual integrity than those who have distorted his latest statements to fit their own views.