Friday, December 10, 2004

Baby Steps: Flew Embraces Deism

When I was taking my first steps in theology and philosophy back in the '60's and '70's, Antony Flew's essay "Theology and Falsification" was required reading. It was considered a major challenge to belief in God, questioning not only the validity of theistic truth-claims, but their very coherence. He stated that religious truth-claims were too compatible, in the eyes of those who asserted them, with too wide a range of phenomena, and therefore were meaningless.
A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications....What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?

Now it appears that Flew has found his own answer. According to an AP story by Richard Ostling in today's paper,
NEW YORK (AP) -- A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God - more or less - based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday.

At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England.

Flew said he's best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people's lives.

"I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins," he said. "It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose."


There was no one moment of change but a gradual conclusion over recent months for Flew, a spry man who still does not believe in an afterlife.

Yet biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved," Flew says in the new video, "Has Science Discovered God?"

This is important, because Flew was not just an atheist, but a philosopher who had made atheism the foundation stone of his work. I read the story with astonished delight; if you're on the other side, imagine reading that Billy Graham had announced that he had decided the Bible was "buncha fairy tales fit only for rubes and bigots." It's even more fun reading atheist reactions to this news as they try to spin it into "no big deal."

So my hat is off, at least part way, to Antony Flew, who is worth reading, no matter what his conclusions turn out to be: an analytical philosopher in the grand British tradition that combines honest empiricism with clarity of expression. And now he's taken a step that places at least a small question-mark against much of his previous work. Bravo for his courage.

"He's just a deist now," I said to my wife Amy. "Not an out-and-out theist."

"Hey," she said. "Baby steps."

BIBLIOGRAPHY: "Theology and Falsification" is still important. It's actually a symposium with R. M. Hare and Basil Mitchell, first published in New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1955) and reprinted many times. Read all of it.

UPDATE: An excerpt from "Theology and Falsification" (shorn of the eloquent responses from Hare and Mitchell) is found here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: CADRE Comments is on top of this story here,
and provides a link to a fascinating interview with Flew by Gary Habermas. My jaw is still on the floor.

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