“Locking Horns With C.S. Lewis” by Antony Flew

HarperOneIn There is a God (2007), Antony Flew tells the story of his philosophical conversion from atheism to deism, and finally to theism. Flew became famous as an atheist with this little paper, “Theology and Falsification” (1950), where he argued that religious claims are meaningless unless they can be disproved. The real meat of his work was in his philosophy of science and philosophy of religion work, which he talks about in There is a God, which is also a sort of memoir.  It was that early short essay, however, that spread his name the quickest and the furthest. 

While at Oxford, Antony Flew attended meetings of the Socratic Club, whose President was C.S. Lewis. In this little excerpt, we get to see a view of the Socratic Club by someone who sat on the opposite side of the floor as Lewis. And although they had different perspectives–Flew the atheist philosopher and Lewis the Christian apologist–they shared the same principle: follow the evidence where it leads. We also get to see a bit about the Lewis-Anscombe debate, a controversial area in Lewis biography.

While he died before he converted to Christianity–or before he told us about it–Antony Flew was flirting with the Jesus movement, and included an appendix by New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright. He hints about that inclination at the end of this great little quote.


“Locking Horns with Lewis,” Antony Flew, There is a God, 22-24

During my time as a graduate student supervised by Gilbert Ryle [at Oxford], I became aware that it was his obviously principled practice always to respond directly, person to person, to any objection made to any of his philosophical contentions. My own conjecture, although Ryle certainly never revealed this to me or, as far as I know, to anyone else, is that he was obeying the command that Plato in the Republic attributes to Socrates:

“We must follow the argument wherever it leads.”

4.1.1Among other things, this principle requires that every objection made person to person must also be met person to person. It is a principle I myself have tried to follow throughout a long and very widely controversial life.

This Socratic principle also formed the inspiration of the Socratic Club, a group that was really at the center of what intellectual life there was in wartime Oxford. The
Socratic Club was a lively forum for debates between atheists and Christians, and I was a regular participant at its meetings. Its redoubtable president from 1942 to 1954 was the famous Christian writer C. S. Lewis. The club convened every Monday evening during term time in the underground Junior Common Room of St. Hilda’s College. In his preface to the first issue of the Socratic Digest, Lewis cited Socrates’ exhortation to “follow the argument wherever it leads.” He noted that this “arena specially devoted to the conflict between Christian and unbeliever was a novelty.”

Many of the leading atheists at Oxford locked horns with Lewis and his fellow Christians. By far the best known encounter was the celebrated February 1948 debate between Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe, which led Lewis to revise the third chapter of his book Miracles. I still remember being a member of a small group of friends returning together from that great debate, walking directly behind Elizabeth Anscombe and her party. She was exultant, and her friends were equally exultant. Immediately in front of this party, C. S. Lewis trod alone, walking as rapidly as he could to refuge in his rooms in Magdalen College, just off
the bridge we were all crossing.

miraclesAlthough many have characterized Lewis as permanently demoralized by the outcome of this debate, Anscombe herself thought differently.

“The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper,” she wrote later, “has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr. Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennett remembered any such feelings on Lewis’ part. . . . I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends . . . as an interesting example of the phenomenon called ‘projection.’”

Lewis was the most effective Christian apologist for certainly the latter part of the twentieth century. When the BBC recently asked if I had absolutely refuted Lewis’s
Christian apologetic, I replied: “No. I just didn’t believe there was sufficient reason for believing it. But of course when I later came to think about theological things, it seemed to me that the case for the Christian revelation is a very strong one, if you believe in any revelation at all.”

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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6 Responses to “Locking Horns With C.S. Lewis” by Antony Flew

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you! I had read one thing and another about his change of mind and heard of this book, but have never had it in my hand or seen such detail quoted!

    We had Elizabeth Anscombe speak about Lewis’s revised version of Miracles, and John Lucas (who had spoken recently) joined us in the audience and entered vigorously into the discussion – he had apparently been involved in a sort of re-match of the Lewis-Anscombe discussion, but I (stupidly enough) never asked him for details about this (he is, at 85, still active: I see on the homepage of his very interesting website the note “This page was […] most recently revised on December 6th, 2014”). There may be a recording of that talk (with or without discussion), somewhere – at a certain point we started recording for internal Lewis Society use (if the speaker was willing), but I don’t have the dates or other details by heart.


    • The book is a fun, quick read, lacking polemic and simply telling the story. It is light philosophically, but has a couple of fresh ideas.
      I just reread Miracles, this time reading the 1947 chapter then the 1960 chapter with the Anscomb critique and HH Price’s original article. It was a good exercise. I would love to hear the talk.
      I struggle, though, with the actual “self-refuting” argument. It seems cogent, but it lacks something for me. If it is true, I think Nihilism is the most natural response, or Camus’ absurdity, for turning then to a confirming voice of Reason, why Christianity specifically?


  2. Having just read your piece on Dawkins et al & Lewis as well as this piece on Flew makes me wish that Flew had debated with Dawkins before he died. I must say that Dawkins’ argument that there is a fourth alternative to Lewis’s Mad, Bad or God, i.e. that Jesus may have been “sincerely mistaken” seems rather weak. If I went about saying that I were God I don’t think there would be many who would just say in a kindly, though sad, manner, “Poor old Stephen. Such a nice chap. What a shame that he turned out that way.”
    I strongly agree with you on Reason and Absurdity. The new atheists want it both ways: to deny Revelation but to affirm Reason. How do they do this in a universe entirely comprised of accidents including the brain that perceives? Camus has always struck me as courageous, to act ethically in an absurd universe as an act of resistance.


    • I think a reader who knows Camus will see that I am struck with him. I think the only way to avoid Nihilism in Naturalism is Camus’ idea of Absurdity: that one lives meaningfully even when there is no meaning. I think Camus is courageous and very creative.
      Yes, Dawkins’ reasoning was pretty pale there, though there are some exciting things in his books. His “viral” idea–mimesis–is pretty elegant.
      I think the really problematic part of the Lord-Liar-Lunatic trilemma isn’t the choice on the face of it. The real problem is that the text may be true, intentionally deceptive, or self-deceived. Indeed, here it is true that the early leaders may be simply wrong, as Dawkins puts out. To me, the problem is so obvious that I don’t know why Dawkins wouldn’t go there first.


      • You probably already know this but I was reminded of Camus’ “The Unbeliever and Christians” that began originally, I think, as an address to a group of clergy in 1948. Camus described himself, not as an atheist in the sense that the hypothesis of God is impossible but as an “unbeliever”, one who could not commit himself to belief in God. But in his address he says:
        “On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds. This is tantamount to saying that the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians… Hence I shall not, as far as I am concerned, try to pass myself off as a Christian in your presence. I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”


  3. Pingback: A Toy Left on the Lawn: C.S. Lewis and the Controversy of The Four Loves | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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