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Antony Flew's Deism Revisited - Page 3

The Making of an Atheist

Part 1 ("My Denial of the Divine") consists of three chapters, intriguingly titled, "The Creation of an Atheist," "Where the Evidence Leads," and "Atheism Calmly Considered." This material is simply a delightful read, consisting of many autobiographical details regarding Flew's career and research, along with many enjoyable as well as amusing anecdotes.

In chapter 1, Flew reviews his childhood and early life. This includes detailed references to his father: an Oxford University graduate, with two years of study at Marburg University in Germany, who had become a Methodist minister very much interested in evangelism, as well as a professor of New Testament at a theological college in Cambridge. It was from his father that Tony learned, at an early age, the value of good research and of checking relevant sources before conclusions are drawn.

Flew even stated in some of his atheist publications that he was never satisfied with the way that he had become an atheist - here described as a process that was accomplished "much too quickly, much too easily, and for what later seemed to me the wrong reasons." Incredibly, he now reflects on his early theism that changed to atheism: "for nearly seventy years thereafter I never found grounds sufficient to warrant any fundamental reversal" (12 - 13). Nonetheless, it was an aspect of the problem of evil that affected Tony's conversion to atheism. During family travels to Germany, he witnessed first hand some of the horrors of Nazi society and learned to detest "the twin evils of anti-Semitism and totalitarianism" (13 - 14).

Chapter 1 also includes accounts of Flew's basically private education at a boarding school along with his years at Oxford University, interspersed with military service during World War II, as well as his "locking horns with C. S. Lewis" at Socratic Club meetings. He was present at the famous debate between Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe in February, 1948 (22 - 4). Flew also met his wife Annis at Oxford. For all those (including myself) who have wondered through the years about Tony's incredible notions of ethical responsibility, he states that while he had left his father's faith, he retained his early ethics, reflected in his treatment of Annis before their marriage (25 - 6).

In Chapter 2 ("Where the Evidence Leads"), Flew reflects on his early tenure as "a hotly-energetic left-wing socialist" (33), and narrates his early philosophical interests: parapsychology, Darwinian social ethics and the notion of evolutionary progress, problems with idealism, and analytic philosophy. More details on the Socratic Club introduce some of the philosophical reactions to Flew's "Theology and Falsification," along with his writing of his epic God and Philosophy, his "systematic argument for atheism" (49). Flew discusses reactions from Richard Swinburne, J. L. Mackie, and Frederick Copleston. His conclusion today, as Tony has told me on several occasions, is that God and Philosophy is "a historical relic," due to changes in his thinking which arose from other's response to his writing. These changes are set forth in this volume (52).

Flew also discusses in chapter 2 his well-known volumes The Presumption of Atheism and Hume's Philosophy of Belief. Philosophical reactions are recounted from Anthony Kenny, Kai Nielson, Ralph McInerny, and especially Alvin Plantinga, whose thoughts Flew calls, "By far, the headiest challenge to the argument" of the former volume (55). The chapter concludes with Flew's changes of mind regarding some of Hume's ideas, plus his holding and then abandoning compatibilism (56 - 64).

Ending his section on his atheism, Flew's third chapter is "Atheism Calmly Considered." Here he notes a number of his debates and dialogues over the years, both public and written, with Thomas Warren, William Lane Craig, Terry Miethe, Richard Swinburne, Richard Dawkins, and myself. Two conferences are also mentioned. The first ("The Shootout at the O.K. Corral") occurred in Dallas, Texas, in 1985 and featured four prominent atheistic philosophers, playfully called "gunslingers" (Flew, Paul Kurtz, Wallace Matson, and Kai Nielson) dueling with four equally prominent theistic philosophers (Alvin Plantinga, Ralph McInerny, George Mavrodes, and William Alston). The second conference at New York University in 2004 notably included Scottish philosopher John Haldane and Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder. Here Flew stunned the participants by announcing that he had come to believe in God (74).

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