The atheists who came in from the cold

Posted: Nov 19, 2007 12:00 AM
The atheists who came in from the cold

Imagine if one of the world's leading Christians--say C.S. Lewis a generation ago, or Billy Graham now--were to reject his religious beliefs and become a atheist. It would be big news! The New York Times would be all over it, for sure, and the question would be why a man who has devoted his life to God would now turn against Him? In sum, the focus would be on what were the reasons for the conversion and on what's so bad about Christianity.

Contrast this with the New York Times' approach to the conversion of philosopher Anthony Flew. Flew has been, for the past half-century, the world's leading advocate of atheism. His works such as Theology and Falsification and The Presumption of Atheism were considered classics of theist thought. No one has so relentlessly espoused the atheist cause, and no one has been more anthologized and eulogized by the atheist community. Other twentieth-century philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger and Bertrand Russell, were unbelievers but they did not make atheism central to their philosophical work as did Flew. Flew's atheism long precedes that of latecomers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.

Now, in his early eighties, Flew has rejected atheism and said he believes that God exists. He does not espouse the Christian God, but calls himself a Deist. He says he has a lifelong commitment to following the evidence where it leads, and that new advances in the sciences have shown him that materialism and Darwinism simply cannot account for the world as it is and life as it is. Examining the fine-tuning of the universe and the mind-boggling complexity of the cell (a compexity that evolution presumes but cannot explain), Flew now believes that the design of the universe requires a designer. He gives his reasons in a new book There Is a God which is co-authored with Roy Abraham Varghese.

In the book, Flew uses simple analogies to expose atheist illogic. For instance, leading atheists seek to prove that the mind is no more than the brain. If the brain is destroyed, they say, we can't use our minds. Therefore there is nothing to minds excerpt circuits and neurons. Flew gives the example of a child raised on a remote island who finds a satellite phone. Voices come out of the machine. The child recognizes these voices as human and is thrilled by the discovery that she has found a way to interact with other humans. Perhaps there is life outside the island!

Then the elders of the tribe (if I may embellish Flew's account, let's call them Big Chief Dawkins, Grand Pooh Bah Dennett, and Witch Doctor Pinker) scorn the child and say, "Look, when we damage the instrument, the voices stop. So they're obviously nothing more than sounds produced by the unique combination of metals and circuit boards. Forget about learning about other humans. From all the evidence we have, we are the only living creatures on earth. So go back to making sandcastles." Who are the real dummies here?

When a major figure like Flew switches sides, the New York TImes goes into mafia-style intellectual hit mode. They selected Mark Oppenheimer of Yale, who visited Flew in England and wrote a long article in the November 4, 2007 New York Times Magazine suggesting that Flew converted because he is, well, senile. The basic idea is that Flew has lost his mind and can't remember anything, and when Christian apologists like Varghese were nice to him Flew basically surrendered to them and let them write his book.

The only evidence that Flew has lost his mind is that he's 84 years old. A man of 84 naturally loses some of his memory, especially for names, but this does not mean he has lost his marbles. Flew's own writings of the past few years are all entirely coherent and employ sophisticated philosophical vocabulary. While Flew seems to have asked his collaborator Varghese to write a draft of his life story, it was Flew who reviewed and approved the final contents. There is nothing in the Times' article that shows Flew to be incapable of a reasoned change of mind and heart.

I realize that atheists--including those at the New York Times--are embarassed at having to surrender one of their most stalwart champions to theism. Maybe they too should consider following the evidence where it leads? Too closed-minded to consider Flew's arguments, these fellows would much rather belittle the intellectual capacity of the man they once revered. Hell hath no fury like an atheist scorned.

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