Antony Flew’s Deism Revisited
Antony Flew's Deism Revisited
Review Essay on There Is a God
Department of Philosophy and Theology
There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
By Antony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 256 pages.
When preeminent philosophical atheist Antony Flew announced in 2004 that he had
come to believe in God's existence and was probably best considered a deist, the
reaction from both believers and skeptics was "off the chart." Few religious stories
had this sort of appeal and impact, across the spectrum, both popular as well as
theoretical. No recent change of mind has received this much attention. Flew
responded by protesting that his story really did not deserve this much interest.
But as he explained repeatedly, he simply had to go where the evidence led.
It was this last sentence, repeated often in interviews, that really interested
me. Having known Tony well over more than twenty years, I had heard him repeat many
things like it, as well as other comments that might be termed "open minded." He
had insisted that he was open to God's existence, to special revelation, to miracles,
to an afterlife, or to David Hume being in error on this or that particular point.
To be truthful, I tended to set aside his comments, thinking that while they were
made honestly, perhaps Tony still was not as open as he had thought.
Then very early in 2003 Tony indicated to me that he was considering theism,
backing off a few weeks later and saying that he remained an atheist with "big questions."
One year later, in January 2004, Tony told me that he had indeed become a theist,
just as quickly adding, however, that he was "not the revelatory kind" of believer.
That was when I heard him say for the first time that he was just following where
the evidence led. Then I remembered all the earlier occasions when he had insisted
that he was not objecting to God or the supernatural realm on a priori grounds.
I was amazed. Tony was indeed willing to consider the evidence!
There was an immediate outcry from many in the skeptical community. Perhaps Tony
Flew was simply too old, or had not kept up on the relevant literature. The presumption
seemed to be that, if he had been doing so, then he would not have experienced such
a change of mind. One joke quipped that, at his advanced age, maybe he was just
hedging his bets in favor of an afterlife!
One persistent rumor was that Tony Flew really did not believe in God after all.
Or perhaps he had already recanted his mistake. Paul Kurtz's foreword to the republication
of Flew's classic volume God and Philosophy identified me as "an evangelical
Christian philosopher at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University," noting my interview
with Flew and my "interpretation" that Tony now believed in God.
Kurtz seemed to think that perhaps the question still remained as to whether Flew
believed in God. After explaining that Flew's "final introduction" to the reissued
volume had undergone the process of four drafts, Kurtz concluded that readers should
"decide whether or not he has abandoned his earlier views."
In his introduction to this same text, Flew both raised at least a half-dozen
new issues since his book had first appeared in 1966, as well as mentioning questions
about each of these subjects. Included were discussions on contemporary cosmology,
fine-tuning arguments, some thoughts regarding Darwin's work, reflections on Aristotle's
view of God, as well as Richard Swinburne's many volumes on God and Christian theism.
Hints of theism were interspersed alongside some tough questions.
Of course, book text must be completed well before the actual date of publication.
But several news articles had appeared earlier, telling the story of what Flew referred
to as his "conversion."
Early in 2005, my lengthier interview with Flew was published in Philosophia
excellent interview was conducted by Jim Beverly, in which Flew also evaluated the
influence of several major Christian philosophers.
In many of these venues, Flew explained in his own words that he was chiefly
persuaded to abandon atheism because of Aristotle's writings about God and due
to a number of arguments that are often associated with Intelligent Design. But
his brand of theism – or better yet, deism
not a variety that admitted special revelation, including either miracles or an
afterlife. While he acknowledged most of the traditional attributes for God, he
stopped short of affirming any divine involvement with humans.
Along the way, Flew made several very positive comments about Christianity, and
about Jesus, in particular. Jesus was a first rate moral philosopher, as well as
a preeminent charismatic personality, while Paul had a brilliant philosophical mind.
While rejecting miracles, Flew held that the resurrection is the best-attested miracle-claim
It is against this background that we turn to the latest chapter in the ongoing
account of Antony Flew's pilgrimage from ardent atheism to deism. Further clarifying
his religious views, especially for those who might have thought that the initial
report was too hasty, or suspected incorrect reporting, or later backtracking on
Flew's part, the former atheistic philosopher has now elucidated his position.
In a new book that is due to be released before the end of the year, Flew chronicles
the entire story of his professional career, from atheism to deism, including more
specific reasons for his change. Along the way, several new aspects have been added.
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
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"
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
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).
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
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
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 –
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).
There Is a God
The second half of the book consists of the long-awaited reasons for Flew's
conversion to deism, titled "My Discovery of the Divine." It includes seven chapters
on Flew's religious pilgrimage, along with the nature of the universe and life.
Two appendices complete the volume.
"A Pilgrimage of Reason" (chapter 4), is the initial contribution to this section.
In this essay, Flew chiefly makes the crucial point that his approach to God's
existence has been philosophical, not scientific. As he notes, "My critics responded
by triumphantly announcing that I had not read a particular paper in a scientific
journal or followed a brand-new development relating to abiogenesis." But in so
doing, "they missed the whole point." Flew's conversion was due to philosophical
arguments, not scientific ones: "To think at this level is to think as a philosopher.
And, at the risk of sounding immodest, I must say that this is properly the job
of philosophers, not of the scientists as scientists" (90).
Thus, if scientists want to get into the fray, they "will have to stand on their
own two philosophical feet" (90). Similarly, "a scientist who speaks as a philosopher
will have to furnish a philosophical case. As Albert Einstein himself said, "�The
man of science is a poor philosopher'" (91). Flew ends the chapter by pointing
out that it is Aristotle who most exemplifies his search: "I was persuaded above
all by the philosopher David Conway's argument for God's existence" drawn from
"the God of Aristotle" (92).
The fifth chapter, "Who Wrote the Laws of Nature?" discusses the views of many
major scientists, including Einstein and Hawking, along with philosophers like Swinburne
and Plantinga, to argue that there is a connection between the laws of nature and
the "Mind of God" (103). Flew thinks that this is still a philosophical discussion.
As Paul Davies asserted in his Templeton address, "science can proceed only if the
scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview," because, "even the most
atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a lawlike order
in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us" (107). The existence of
these laws must be explained. Flew concludes that many contemporary thinkers "propound
a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and
imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision that I personally find compelling
and irrefutable" (112).
Chapter 6 ("Did the Universe Know We Were Coming?") discusses fine-tuning arguments
and the multiverse option as another angle on the laws of nature. Among the opponents
of the multiverse option, Flew lists Davies, Swinburne, and himself, in part because
it simply extends the questions of life and nature's laws (119). Regardless, Flew
concludes, "So multiverse or not, we still have to come to terms with the origins
of the laws of nature. And the only viable explanation here is the divine Mind"
Chapter 7 ("How Did Life Go Live?") continues what Flew insists is a philosophical
rather than a scientific discussion of items that are relevant to God's existence.
He discusses at least three chief issues: how there can be fully materialistic explanations
for the emergence of life, the problem of reproduction at the very beginning, and
DNA. Although science has not concluded these matters either, they are answering
questions that are different from the philosophical issues that Flew is addressing
(129). Flew concludes by agreeing with George Wald that, "The only satisfactory
explanation for the origin of such �end-directed, self replicating' life as we
see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind" (132).
In the title of chapter 8, Flew asks, "Did Something Come from Nothing?" In spite
of our twenty years of friendship, I was still not prepared to see Tony developing
and defending a cosmological argument for God's existence! In an essay published
back in 1994, Flew had raised questions about David Hume's philosophy and its inability
to explain causation or the laws of nature (139). Then, works by philosophers David
Conway and Richard Swinburne convinced him that Hume could be answered on the cosmological
argument, as well. Buoyed by these refutations of Hume, Flew was now free to explore
the relation between a cosmological argument for God's existence and recent discussions
regarding the beginning of the universe. Flew concludes that, "Richard Swinburne's
cosmological argument provides a very promising explanation, probably the finally
right one" (145).
In chapter 9, "Finding Space for God," Flew begins with his long-time objection
to God, that a concept of "an incorporeal omnipresent Spirit" is incoherent
analogous to talking about a "person without a body" (148). But through the 1980s
and 1990s, theistic philosophers in the analytic tradition enjoyed a renaissance.
Two of these, David Tracy and Brian Leftow (who succeeded Swinburne at Oxford),
answered Flew's questions. Flew now concedes that the concept of an omnipresent
Spirit outside space and time is not intrinsically incoherent (153 – 4).
In "Open to Omnipotence" (chapter 10), Flew summarizes that his case for God's
existence centers on three philosophical items – the origin of the laws of nature,
the organization of life, and the origin of life. What about the problem of evil?
Flew states that this a separate question, but he had two chief options – an Aristotelian
God who does not interfere in the world or the free-will defense. He prefers the
former, especially since he thinks the latter relies on special revelation (156).
Closing the main portion of the book with some further shocking comments, Flew
states, "I am entirely open to learning more about the divine Reality," including
"whether the Divine has revealed itself in human history" (156 – 7). The reason:
Everything but the logically impossible is "open to omnipotence" (157).
Further, "As I have said more than once, no other religion enjoys anything like
the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual
like St. Paul. If you're wanting omnipotence to set up a religion, it seems to
me that this is the one to beat!" (157; see also 185 – 6). He ends the chapter a
few sentences later: "Some claim to have made contact with this Mind. I have not
But who knows what could happen next? Some day I might hear a Voice that says, �Can
you hear me now?'" (158).
Two appendices close the book. The first is an evaluation of the "New Atheism"
of writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. The author of the
first appendix, Roy Varghese, argues that "five phenomena are evident in our immediate
experience that can only be explained in terms of the existence of God" (161). These
five are rationality, life, consciousness, conceptual thought, and the human self,
each of which is discussed. Varghese concludes that by arguing from "everyday experience"
we are able to "become immediately aware that the world of living, conscious, thinking
beings has to originate in a living Source, a Mind" (183).
The second appendix is an essay on the self-revelation of God, written by New
Testament theologian N. T. Wright, with brief responses by Flew. Wright argues very
succinctly that Jesus existed, was God incarnate, and rose from the dead (187 –
213). Flew precedes this treatment by commenting that though he does not believe
the miracle of the resurrection, it "is more impressive than any by the religious
competition" (186 – 7). Flew's final reflection on Wright's material is that it
is an impressive argument – "absolutely wonderful, absolutely radical, and very powerful."
In the end, Flew remains open to divine revelation, since omnipotence could act
in such a manner (213).
As I have indicated, Flew's new book was a delightful read. This especially
applies to the many autobiographical details. The intersection of his life with
some of the best-known philosophers in the previous half century was nothing short
It will be no surprise to anyone who has followed my published debates or dialogues
with Tony that the clarification found in this volume was more than welcome. For
one thing, many of his comments here were also made in our published dialogue in
Philosophia Christi. Most of all, this book should clear up the rumors as
to the nature of Tony's "conversion." He indeed believes in God, and while from
the beginning rejecting special revelation along with any religious affiliation,
his view of God's nature is otherwise quite robust. Indeed, his deism includes
most of the classical theological attributes. Further, Flew is also clear several
times that he is open to special revelation. As Tony told me just recently, he "won't
shut the door" to the possibility of such revelation or even to hearing a word from
Of course, I predict that various skeptics will still have profound problems
with the book's content. They will not be satisfied with its proclamations. I can
only imagine the nature of the complaints. If I am right about this, it may even
confirm further Varghese's charge of the vociferous nature of this community's
response to the original announcement (viii). If Varghese is also correct that Flew
had produced the most vigorous defense of philosophical atheism in the last century,
a guess is that some skeptics are still stung by the loss of their most prominent
I would like to have seen further clarification on a few issues in the book.
For instance, it would have been very helpful if Tony had explained the precise
sense in which he thought that "Theology and Falsification" was an attempt to curtail
the growth of positivism. That has remained unclear to me. I, too, was taught that
the article was a defense of an analytic position that only softened the force of
the positivistic challenge.
Another potential question surrounds Tony's excellent distinction between giving
philosophical as opposed to scientific reasons for his belief in God. However, a
discussion or chart that maps out the differences between the two methodological
stances would have been very helpful. Philosophers are used to these distinctions.
But I am sure that others will think that Tony is still providing two sorts of arguments
for God: Aristotle plus scientific arguments like Intelligent Design scenarios.
As Tony has said several times in recent years, he remains open to the possibility
of special revelation, miracles like Jesus's resurrection, and the afterlife. In
this volume he also continues to be very complimentary towards these options. I
cannot pursue further this topic here. While mentioning evil and suffering, I did
wonder about Tony's juxtaposition of choosing either Aristotle's deism or the
free-will defense, which he thinks "depends on the prior acceptance of a framework
of divine revelation" (156). It seems to me that the free-will defense neither asks
nor requires any such revelatory commitment. So I think that it could be pursued
by a deist, too. If so, that is one more potential defeater to the evil and suffering
issue. I will leave it here for now.