When it was announced in 2004 that key atheist thinker, Antony Flew, now believed in God, there was a flurry of traditional and new media attention among theological geeks and atheistic thinkers. Very quickly, an ad hominem attack arose—not as much in blogs, as you might suppose, but in reputable papers, notably, the New York Times. The incredulous response of Flew’s former supporters is captured classically in Richard Dawkins’ insistence in calling Flew’s philosophical shift an “over-publicised tergiversation”—Merriam-Webster’s first definition is “evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement,” and second, “desertion of a cause”; I suppose
we can pick whichever negative connotation we prefer—which occurs in his “old age” (The God Delusion, Mariner, 2008, 106). Old age is definitive, apparently.
It was not, however, until 2009 that I first read Flew’s, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (HarperOne, 2007).* My cynicism was high—not high enough to launch “old man” insults, but I had just been sorely disappointed with Ravi Zacharias’ The End of Reason and began There Is a God with little in the way of expectations. The result was exactly the opposite of what I expected: There Is a God became transformational in my thinking and my approach to apologetics.
When I say “transformational,” I don’t really mean a conversion. I think no differently about God since reading the book, though I might admit to feeling very occasional hints of confirmation about God’s existence. Instead, two of Flew’s arguments have opened me up to the world of proofs of God’s existence in a new way of understanding their possibility.
As an adult, I’ve always felt about apologetics—the artistic science of logically defending belief—much the way John Stackhouse shares in his introduction to Humble Apologetics. He speaks of an apologist on a college campus that was able to win all the arguments but still lose the hearts of the listeners. A student commented after the event, “I don’t care if the son of a bitch is right, I still hate his guts” (xvi). I’ve never felt moved by intellectual arguments for God, and I’ve never met anyone converted purely by them. The lack of response in the face of “proof” may be partly because intelligent adults in our culture lack the necessary background to assess the logic, but I think it is because we simply don’t find them credible—Anselm’s ontological proof has to be wrong, even if it is right.
When I read There Is a God two years ago, and then again last week, two arguments for the existence of God struck me as credible and help me understand Aquinas’ Five Ways. I’ve heard Aquinas argued well before by a colleague of mine, and when the text is before me I can almost be convinced by his Second and Third Way. However, when I’ve set Aquinas aside to attend to everyday life, the logic of his argument has always slipped away from me into mental mist. This is, of course, because of my own lack of critical imagination, but I suspect it is a common cultural experience. Flew, however, moves past the Aquinas text to do his job as a philosopher of science to look at the implications of scientific discovery for the big questions of life. In doing so, he has brought me along.
The first one-third of There Is a God tells about Flew’s upbringing, as well as a biographical account of how he formulated his key atheistic arguments. His Introduction to Western Philosophy (1971) and God and Philosophy (1966) are go-to philosophy texts on my shelf, but I think he is known more popularly for two works. The Presumption of Atheism (1976; 1984) put the pressure upon theists to argue for God’s existence rather than the other way around. It had much of the power of Russell’s Tea Pot in popular conversation, I think.
Flew’s most popular work, though, is an essay called “Theology and Falsification”. It is reputedly the most widely reprinted philosophical essay of the late 20th century, and it began at Oxford’s Socratic Club, “a group that was really at the center of what intellectual life there was in wartime Oxford” (22), presided over by C.S. Lewis. The founding principle of the Socratic Club was to “follow the evidence where it leads.” Flew takes this challenge as his intellectual starting point, built into him as the son of an educated Methodist preacher, and bases his entire philosophical career upon the principle. Flew believed that Lewis modeled this principle in his work, and called him “an eminently reasonable man” and “the greatest Christian apologist of the last century” (4).
Flew “locked horns” (22-24) with Lewis in 1950, presenting “Theology and Falsification” at the Socratic Club Flew argued that any claims about God need to be falsifiable or they have no meaning. Again, like Russell’s invisible, incorporeal orbiting Tea Pot, if it can’t be disproven, it has no philosophical meaning. I am unclear what Lewis’ counter-argument at the Socratic Club was, if there was one but the event was formative for Flew’s vocation as an atheistic philosopher.
Flew shifts in the second part of the book to a narrative account of his shift in thought. Flew’s overnight conversion—or dishonourable tergiversation as Dawkins’ calls it—was decades in the making. The significance of some of these shifts may be lost on the reader, but Flew is trying to demonstrate that in all of his mind-changes, he is trying to intellectually and seriously engage with his critics and challengers, ultimately with the goal of following the evidence where it leads. As we are mid-way through the book, we see that the evidence, for Flew, leads to an omnipotent, incorporeal, creator god, like the god of Aristotle or Spinoza.
The last half of his argument is the presentation of key shifts in his philosophical thinking about the arguments of God. The difference, for Flew, is the scientific conversation. The discovery of DNA and the idea of the Big Bang as the credible explanation of origins are key movements of science that his previous argumentation could no longer address. Flew presents five chapters of philosophical arguments that are, I think, accessible to most. There are some logical points that become a little abstract, and some of the scientific thought is beyond popular knowledge, but I was able to follow it for the most part. The result is, I think, a well-argued presentation of why this “notorious” atheist has come to believe in God.
There are many critics of the book and of his particular lines of thought, but there are two arguments that have opened up new intellectual worlds for me. First, Flew offers a critique of some
responses to the Uncaused Cause argument of Aquinas. Bringing it down to my intellectual level, in class I chose a student and granted as a premise that she exists, and she seemed glad to be granted existence. I then asked how she came to be—her parents, of course. And how did her parents come to exist? Their parents, and so on. Can there be an infinite regress of parents? No. At some point the non-life material in the primordial gloop had to be her great-great-great-…-great grand-omoeba. How do we know this? Because the young woman exists, and no child is born without a parent—no effect is without a cause, so to speak.
Likewise, in our universe, no effect that we have observed is without a cause. Sometimes causes are unknown to us, but we trust in a cause-and-effect universe—in fact, we depend upon that universal consistency. Following the same logic, because every effect has a cause—every child has a parent, to use the metaphor—there must be some initial cause that began it all. To use a colleague’s illustration: if we see a series of motor-less train cars moving up a mountain and disappearing into the clouds, but there is no engine, we can’t assume the train of cars goes on forever. There needs to be an unseen engine—something that is not being pulled but is pulling. In our current understanding of things, the Big Bang seems to be our first cause, or the cause that makes sense in the context of the subsequent causes and effects in our present universe.
However, the Big Bang can’t be the first cause, can it? How could that bundle of highly dense extremely hot material change its state? If I have a perfect sphere sitting on a perfectly flat plane with no gravitational or frictional (or any other) forces, will that sphere ever move? Something must cause the shift of potential to kinetic energy, from stasis to movement. The Big Bang—though it seems to me a very theistic, almost religious theory—may well explain the beginnings of our universe, but it can’t be the first cause. Something must have caused it, igniting the explosion, so to speak.
I have always taken Bertrand Russell’s argument as the next step. In his lecture, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” he says,
“There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed.”
However, there is a reason. In a cause and effect universe the effect is explained by the cause, so an observed effect means there must be an initial cause. Aquinas recognizes this, and posits an Uncaused Cause (or Unmoved Mover, etc.), which we call God.
It is true that introducing an hypothetical Uncaused Cause contradicts the premise—that all observable effects have a cause—and introduces into the world the possibility of an Uncaused Cause. Fair enough—perhaps we can demonstrate an Uncaused Cause and the theory falls. But unless we deny that the universe is based on cause and effect principles, we have to deal with the fact that there is something rather than nothing.
There are two scientific responses that I have always found convincing but that Flew does not. First, is Stephen Hawking’s idea of a self-contained universe:
“So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end, it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?” (A Brief History of Time, 174).
Flew argues that this explanation—a more elegant one that Russell’s, and more complete—is still begging the question of what came before. Hawking responds with the idea that “before” the Big Bang has no meaning. How then can we, Flew argues, be anything but “radically agnostic” in the face of this argument? (138).
I have heard that Hawking’s newest book has closed the gap of God’s necessity, at least in his own mind. But a second theory of first cause is common: that of the multiverse. As a Terry Pratchett fan, I am aesthetically drawn to the idea of a multiverse—that there is not one first cause but an innumerable (or possibly infinite) collection of interrelated and interconnected universes. But, with respect to Sir Pratchett, does this solve the problem? Flew’s critique of this and other ideas is much fuller in chapter 8, but I find his response to be to the point:
“If the existence of one universe requires an explanation, multiple universes require a much bigger explanation: the problem is increased by the factor of whatever the total number of universes is. It seems a little like the case of a schoolboy whose teacher doesn’t believe his dog ate his homework, so he replaces the first version with the story that a pack of dogs—too many to count—ate his homework.” (137)
The multiverse, to me, is not an actual explanation, and is at least as improbable as an Uncaused Cause. As philosopher Richard Swinburne says:
“It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job” (“Design Defended,” 17).
Perhaps, though, the idea of the multiverse is not only more complex, but less likely when we bring in evidence of human experience. I have never found the idea of C.S. Lewis’ Moral Argument to be definitive. In a fuller and more sentient way, particularly in Mere Christianity and “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis argues that all humans in all time have trusted in—even if they were not conscious of it—a greater Good, the Tao, a Moral Law, a Standard by which all are judged. Not all cultures agree on the particulars, but all agree that there is a standard. Try holding the door open for someone carrying a coffee and heavy books. Then, as they are coming to the door, slam it in their face, then laugh through the glass at the coffee-stained victim trying to gather books off the pavement. I don’t know of any culture where that is a good or honourable thing—even in anti-coffee and anti-book cultures.
As much as I am sceptical about the definitive nature of the Moral Argument (I feel much the same as Russell in his critique), I must admit there is a universal sense of right and wrong in humans. That Moral Law, coupled with the universal human experience of the Divine or the Numenous—an unlikely invention given the unruly sorrow all humans in history have experienced (see Lewis’ Problem of Pain, ch. 1)—seems to me to strengthen the idea of an Ultimate Cause. In the face of choosing between God and a multiverse, I am inclined to the former.
There is a second argument in Flew that has intrigued me. We are beginning to understand the immense complexity of the unlikely event of the emergence of life. We may or may not ever know how it happened, but there is a lot of conversation about the probability or improbability or life occurring. Flew discusses Dawkins’ statement that the staggeringly improbable is not so improbable in an infinite universe. But Flew rejects this approach on logical grounds:
Given this type of reasoning, which is better described as an audacious exercise in superstition, anything we desire should exist somewhere if we just “invoke the magic of large numbers.” Unicorns or the elixir of youth, even if “staggeringly improbable,” are bound to occur “against all intuition.” The only requirement is “a chemical model” that “need only predict” these occurring “on one planet in a billion billion.” (174)
I’m not certain, anyway, that we can speak of “odds” when one part of the equation is “infinity”—does the calculation have any meaning?
With the occurrence of life, however, we are not necessarily talking about infinity. We have life now, and recognize some of the building blocks of life. At a personal credibility level, most scientists seem to be able to accept that life arose from non-life. Some recognize the stretch, as Nobel Laureate George Wald said:
“we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance” (Flew 131).
Most don’t put it in those terms, but given the right conditions and enough time, eventually life emerged out of primordial matter.
I, myself, have never found this reasonable, but I take it as a kind of leap of faith. Flew, however, makes the leap much more challenging. He points out in his chapter, “How Did Life Go Live?”, that we are speaking not just about the gradual evolution of life in and from the unlikely conditions of nonlife. But what is posited is the gradual evolution of self-replicating life—life that is complex enough to be programmed to replicate itself. The first life in evolutionary history is the dramatic leap from pre-life to teleological, goal-driven life. That leap, Flew argues, stretches our credibility.
Flew argues the probability of God from a number of angles, but it is these two origins arguments that I find compelling. What is important to me about these transformations in my thinking about these arguments for the existence of God is not so much that I feel better able to defend my faith or more secure in facing critique. I could still be wrong—the critiques of Russell and Dawkins aren’t definitive for me, but I might see things differently after spending more time with Malcolm Murray’s much more credible The Atheist’s Primer. These arguments for God’s existence, I mean, may not actually hold water. And they may not win a generation.
What is intriguing to me is the peek inside the conversation that I now have. Thanks to Antony Flew’s There Is a God, I am better able to present the classical proofs of the existence of God to others—particularly students—in a more credible way.
Inevitably, though, I am forced to re-think about my relationship to apologetics. Even if I’ve never met anyone convinced to believe in God by argument alone, I have met many who were confirmed in their faith by great apologetic works. And I’ve met many who have been convinced by anti-theologians and philosophers that God is improbable. So I see the value of being in the conversation, and take C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and John Stackhouse as my mentors in method and argument, while supplementing with philosophers like Peter van Inwagen, Alvin Plantinga, and Tony Flew.
But I must return to my experience of presenting Anselm’s Ontological Proof. Now, I may not have presented the argument well when I’ve done it, but I’ve never found anyone convinced by the proof. There is something in-credible, un-believable about the very argument. I think to a certain extent all intellectual arguments about the ineffable, mysterious, invisible Living One will be unbelievable to us. How much meaning can we cram into these little words when speaking about a One who Is more than there is?
I don’t believe in complete incoherence, but that all of our arguments and discussions and queries must come in a context. We are not just minds, but bodies; we are relational. I think that for any argument to be convincing, it must come in the context of authentic relationships. I think meaning is flesh-bound. After all, the Word became Flesh (John 1:1,14), and we are in danger of doing what Walter Ong warns us against when we try to turn flesh into word again. Absolutely, we should be ready in season and out to defend our faith (2 Tim 4:2; 1 Pet 3:15). But if we don’t do this in the context of intimate relationships, I think we run the risk of presenting good arguments that ring hollow on a generation—not least because of the “son of bitch” presenting the ideas.
*There Is a God is co-written by Roy Abraham Varghese, who provides the Introduction and a critique of New Atheism. While there is a controversy about whether he is also responsible for the content of the book, I think that the arguments against atheism in the appendix can largely be answered by our lack of knowledge about the brain—while he may be right that a person should doubt atheistic arguments because of things like human consciousness and self-knowledge, I don’t think they are definitive proofs of God. For my purposes, Varghese’s article doesn’t add much, and I’d recommend readers to see his The Wonder of the World and his The Missing Link, which he promises, but I haven’t seen yet.
N.T. Wright, the formidable author of The New Testament and the People of God is interviewed in an appendix. I may deal with his article in another forum, but have generally found Wright helpful in teaching biblical studies.
I read There Is a God at the same time as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The books really are in conversation with each other—the magic of reissues allows the conversation to move forward in successive editions—but I won’t offer a substantial critique of it here. I think Dawkins is, in general, a brilliant writer. In The God Delusion, however, his philosophical argument is not very strong. I think the book is an important cultural artefact—it tells us something about the culture of belief, disbelief, religion and atheism—but his The Greatest Show on Earth is far better.
- Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Mariner, 2008.
- Dawkins, Richard. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Toronto: Free Press, 2009.
- Flew, Anthony. “Theology and Falsification.” Reprinted variously. http://www.ratbags.com/rsoles/comment/flew.htm.
- Flew, Anthony. God and Philosophy. London: Hutchinson, 1966.
- Flew, Anthony. An Introduction to Western Philosophy. London: Thames & Hudson, 1971.
- Flew, Anthony. The Presumption of Atheism, and other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom and Immortality. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976.
- Flew, Anthony. There Is A God. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
- Habermas, Gary. “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: Exclusive Interview with Former Atheist Antony Flew.” http://www.biola.edu/antonyflew/index.cfm.
- Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam, 1988.
- Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. 1940.
- Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man; or; Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (1943).
- Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. 1952.
- Oppenheimer, Mark. “The Turning of an Atheist.” New York Times, November 4, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/magazine/04Flew-t.html?pagewanted=all.
- Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: OUP, 1923.
- Russell, Bertrand. “Why I Am Not A Christian.” 1927, 1957. http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html.
- Stackhouse, John G. Jr. Humble Apologetics. Oxford: OUP, 2002.
- Richard Swinburne, “Design Defended,” Think (Spring 2004): 17.
- Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/.
- Varghese, Roy Abraham. The Wonder of the World: A Journey from Modern Science to the Mind of God. Santa Rosa, CA: Tyr, 2003.
- Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
- Zacharias, Ravi. The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
Thank you for this outstanding post.
Hey Brenton, I’ve been wanting to read Flew for a while now, and your post has solidified that. I was talking with my friend Ryan Scruggs today about Anselm’s Ontological Argument, and on re-reading it it is apparent to us that Anselm never meant for it to be a proof in the first place, so your lack of passion for the argument is well-founded! Anselm couches it in prayer, and the argument seems to be an extension of that prayer. He prays that he would believe so that he could understand – the argument presupposes faith. According to Ryan, Thomas Merton said that philosophers would never understand Anselm, because they do not understand mysticism. Anselm began by knowing that God exists, because he had encountered God – his ‘argument’ was merely a rational way of stating the reality from his inner life.
Thanks Matthew. (I’m still waiting for ch. 3 of Darwin, and your thoughts about Dennett).
I think Ryan is largely correct. Some have reformulated the argument, but largely I am unimpressed. I am pleased, though, that I was able to present it fairly to students.
Flew is definitely worth a read. I’d love your thoughts on it (as a guest blog, perhaps) if you do–not that PhD/engagement isn’t busy enough!
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I resonate to the relational side of arguments for or against God. We have a fair number of dogmatists in my community who build great arguments but leave out their fellow humans. The natural world and the scientific exploration of such, delving ever deeper into the molecular and ever farther into the universe and finding ever more is also a draw for my thinking. I’m far to incoherent and emotional to apply myself to the purely logical. The punk rocker and hymn singer in me rises up far too soon for me to reach the logic’s finish line. Still, I found myself reading your thoughts and enjoying, probably because you admitted your reservations.
Thanks for the note and the honesty.