EPS Article Library
Antony Flew's Deism Revisited - Page 2
Antony Flew's Influence
Signifying his change of view, the cover of Flew's new book cleverly reads, "There Is No God," but the word "No" is scribbled out and the word "A" is handwritten above it. Flew terms this work his "last will and testament," noting that the subtitle "was not my own invention" (1). The contents are nothing short of a treasure trove of details from Flew's life, including his family, education, publications, and interactions with many now world-famous philosophers, not to mention the long-awaited reasons for his becoming a deist.
The volume begins with a preface written by Roy Varghese, followed by an introduction by Flew. Part 1, "My Denial of the Divine," contains three chapters on Flew's previous atheism.
The book opens with a reverberating bang. Varghese's eighteen-page preface sets the tone for much of the remainder of the text. He begins with the breaking news in late 2004 of Antony Flew's newly-announced belief in God. Varghese then notes that
the response to the AP story from Flew's fellow atheists verged on hysteria. . . . Inane insults and juvenile caricatures were common in the freethinking blogosphere. The same people who complained about the Inquisition and witches being burned at the stake were now enjoying a little heresy hunting of their own. The advocates of tolerance were not themselves very tolerant. And, apparently, religious zealots don't have a monopoly on dogmatism, incivility, fanaticism, and paranoia. (vii - viii)
Varghese ends by stating that, "Flew's position in the history of atheism transcends anything that today's atheists have on offer" (viii).
This last comment serves as an entree to two of the more interesting arguments in the book. Considering Flew's impact in the history of modern atheism, Varghese argues initially that, "within the last hundred years, no mainstream philosopher has developed the kind of systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition of atheism that is to be found in Antony Flew's fifty years of antitheological writings" (ix). He then considers the contributions to atheism produced by well-known philosophers such as A. J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger. Varghese finds that none of these scholars "took the step of developing book-length arguments to support their personal beliefs" (x).
More recent writers are also mentioned, among them Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, J. L. Mackie, Paul Kurtz, and Michael Martin. While they might be said to have contributed more material on behalf of atheism, "their works did not change the agenda and framework of discussion the way Flew's innovative publications did" (x).
But Flew's writings like "Theology and Falsification" ("the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century" [vi - vii]), God and Philosophy, The Presumption of Atheism, and other publications set the philosophical tone of atheism for a generation of scholars. Along with Flew's many other books and essays, one could hardly get through a contemporary philosophy class, especially in philosophy of religion, without being at least introduced to his theses.
Varghese also raises a second crucial topic in the history of twentieth-century philosophy - Flew's relation to logical positivism. Many works treat Flew's ideas, especially those in "Theology and Falsification," as a more subtle, analytic outgrowth of positivism. Sometimes it is thought that Flew attempted to refurbish a less dogmatic application of the discredited verification principle, popularized by Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic.
However, Flew did not interpret his essay in this manner. In 1990, he explained his thinking that logical positivism made an "arrogant announcement" that sought to rule out theology and ethics in an a priori manner. The resulting discussion had often become stagnated. Flew wanted to provide an opportunity for the free discussion of religious issues: "Let the believers speak for themselves, individually and severally" (xiii - xiv).
In an article in 2000, Flew explained that his purpose in first reading the paper at a meeting of C. S. Lewis' Socratic Club, was that "I wanted to set these discussions off onto new and hopefully more fruitful lines." In another interview that I did with Tony in Oxford in 2005, Flew attested that he saw his essay as slamming the door on positivism at the Socratic Club. He attests that the purpose of his essay "was intended to simply refute the positivistic stance against religious utterances. It succeeded in that, but then its influence spread outside of Oxford."
These two topics - Flew's influence on the philosophical atheism of the second half of the twentieth century and his purpose in first presenting his essay "Theology and Falsification" - are key chapters in the life of this major British philosopher. Varghese does well to remind us of Flew's influence. As he concludes, it is in this context that "Flew's recent rejection of atheism was clearly a historic event" (xi).
Flew then begins the remainder of the book with an introduction. Referring to his "conversion" from atheism to deism, he begins by affirming clearly that, "I now believe there is a God!" (1). As for those detractors who blamed this on Flew's "advanced age" and spoke of a sort of "deathbed conversion," Flew reiterates what he has said all along: he still rejects the afterlife and is not placing any "Pascalian bets" (2).
In a couple stunning comments, Flew then reminds his readers that he had changed his mind on other major issues throughout his career. He states, "I was once a Marxist." Then, more than twenty years ago, "I retracted my earlier view that all human choices are determined entirely by physical causes" (3).1 2 3 4 5