My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: A Discussion with Antony Flew
My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism
A Discussion between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas
Department of Philosophy
University of Reading
Department of Philosophy and Theology
Antony Flew and Gary Habermas met in February 1985 in Dallas, Texas. The
occasion was a series of debates between atheists and theists, featuring many
influential philosophers, scientists, and other scholars.1
A short time later, in May 1985, Flew and Habermas debated at Liberty
University before a large audience. The topic that night was the resurrection of
Jesus.2 Although Flew was arguably the world’s foremost philosophical
atheist, he had intriguingly also earned the distinction of being one of the
chief philosophical commentators on the topic of miracles.3 Habermas
specialized on the subject of Jesus’ resurrection.4 Thus, the ensuing
dialogue on the historical evidence for the central Christian claim was a
natural outgrowth of their research.
Over the next 20 years, Flew and Habermas developed a friendship, writing
dozens of letters, talking often, and dialoguing twice more on the resurrection.
In April, 2000 they participated in a live debate on the Inspiration Television
Network, moderated by John Ankerberg.5 In January, 2003 they again
dialogued on the resurrection at California Polytechnic State University – San
During a couple of telephone discussions shortly after their last
dialogue, Flew explained to Habermas that he was considering becoming a theist.
While Flew did not change his position at that time, he concluded that certain
philosophical and scientific considerations were causing him to do some serious
rethinking. He characterized his position as that of atheism standing in tension
with several huge question marks.
Then, a year later, in January 2004, Flew informed Habermas that he had
indeed become a theist. While still rejecting the concept of special revelation,
whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic, nonetheless he had concluded that theism
was true. In Flew’s words, he simply “had to go where the evidence
The following interview took place in early 2004 and was subsequently
modified by both participants throughout the year. This nontechnical discussion
sought to engage Flew over the course of several topics that reflect his move
from atheism to theism.8 The chief purpose was not to pursue the details
of any particular issue, so we bypassed many avenues that would have presented a
plethora of other intriguing questions and responses. These were often
tantalizingly ignored, left to ripen for another discussion. Neither did we try
to persuade each another of alternate positions.
Our singular purpose was simply to explore and report Flew’s new
position, allowing him to explain various aspects of his pilgrimage. We thought
that this in itself was a worthy goal. Along the way, an additional benefit
emerged, as Flew reminisced about various moments from his childhood, graduate
studies, and career.
Habermas: Tony, you recently told me that you have come to believe in the
existence of God. Would you comment on that?
Flew: Well, I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system, although I
am open to that. But it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who
has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger
than it ever was before. And it was from Aristotle that Aquinas drew the
materials for producing his Five Ways of, hopefully, proving the existence of
his God. Aquinas took them, reasonably enough, to prove, if they proved
anything, the existence of the God of the Christian Revelation. But Aristotle
himself never produced a definition of the word “God,” which is a curious fact.
But this concept still led to the basic outline of the Five Ways. It seems to
me, that from the existence of Aristotle’s God, you can’t infer anything about
human behaviour. So what Aristotle had to say about justice (justice, of course,
as conceived by the Founding Fathers of the American Republic as opposed to the
“social” justice of John Rawls9) was very much a human idea, and he thought that
this idea of justice was what ought to govern the behaviour of individual human
beings in their relations with others.
Habermas: Once you mentioned to me that your view might be called Deism. Do
you think that would be a fair designation?
Flew: Yes, absolutely right. What Deists, such as the Mr. Jefferson who
drafted the American Declaration of Independence, believed was that, while
Reason, mainly in the form of Arguments to Design, assures us that there is a
God, there is no room either for any supernatural revelation of that God or for
any transactions between that God and individual human beings.
Habermas: Then, would you comment on your “openness” to the notion of
Flew: Yes. I am open to it, but not enthusiastic about potential
revelation from God. On the positive side, for example, I am very much impressed
with physicist Gerald Schroeder’s comments on Genesis 1.10 That this
biblical account might be scientifically accurate raises the possibility that it
Habermas: You very kindly noted that our debates and discussions had
influenced your move in the direction of theism.11 You mentioned that this
initial influence contributed in part to your comment that naturalistic efforts
have never succeeded in producing “a plausible conjecture as to how any of these
complex molecules might have evolved from simple entities.”12 Then in your
recently rewritten introduction to the forthcoming edition of your classic
volume God and Philosophy, you say that the original version of that book is now
obsolete. You mention a number of trends in theistic argumentation that
you find convincing, like Big Bang Cosmology, Fine Tuning, and Intelligent
Design arguments. Which arguments for God’s existence did you find most
Flew: I think that the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are
those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries. I’ve never been
much impressed by the Kalam cosmological argument, and I don’t think it has
gotten any stronger recently. However, I think the argument to Intelligent
Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it.
Habermas: So you like arguments such as those that proceed from Big Bang
Cosmology and Fine Tuning Arguments?
Habermas: You also recently told me that you do not find the Moral Argument
to be very persuasive. Is that right?
Flew: That’s correct. It seems to me that for a strong Moral Argument, you’ve
got to have God as the justification of morality. To do this makes doing the
morally good a purely prudential matter rather than, as the moral philosophers
of my youth used to call it, a good in itself. (Compare the classic discussion
in Plato’s Euthyphro.)
Habermas: So, take C. S. Lewis’s argument for morality as presented in Mere
Christianity.13 You didn’t find that to be very impressive?
Flew: No, I didn’t. Perhaps I should mention that, when I was in
college, I attended fairly regularly the weekly meetings of C. S. Lewis’s
Socratic Club. In all my time at Oxford these meetings were chaired by Lewis. I
think he was by far the most powerful of Christian apologists for the sixty or
more years following his founding of that club. As late as the 1970s, I used to
find that, in the USA, in at least half of the campus bookstores of the
universities and liberal art colleges which I visited, there was at least one
long shelf devoted to his very various published works.
Habermas: Although you disagreed with him, did you find him to be a very
reasonable sort of fellow?
Flew: Oh yes, very much so, an eminently reasonable man.
Habermas: And what do you think about the Ontological Argument for the
existence of God?
Flew: All my later thinking and writing about philosophy was greatly
influenced by my year of postgraduate study under the supervision of Gilbert
Ryle, the then Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in the University of Oxford,
as well as the Editor of Mind. It was the very year in which his enormously
influential work on The Concept of Mind14 was first published. I was told that,
in the years between the wars, whenever another version of the Ontological
Argument raised its head, Gilbert forthwith set himself to refute it.
My own initial lack of enthusiasm for the Ontological Argument developed into
strong repulsion when I realized from reading the Theodicy15 of Leibniz that it
was the identification of the concept of Being with the concept of Goodness
(which ultimately derives from Plato’s identification in The Republic of the
Form or Idea of the Good with the Form or the Idea of the Real) which enabled
Leibniz in his Theodicy validly to conclude that a Universe in which most human
beings are predestined to an eternity of torture is the “best of all possible
Habermas: So of the major theistic arguments, such as the Cosmological,
Teleological, Moral, and Ontological, the only really impressive ones that you
take to be decisive are the scientific forms of teleology?
Flew: Absolutely. It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks
the fact that Darwin himself, in the fourteenth chapter of The Origin of
Species, pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already
possessed reproductive powers. This is the creature the evolution of which a
truly comprehensive theory of evolution must give some account. Darwin himself
was well aware that he had not produced such an account. It now seems to me that
the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials
for a new and enormously powerful argument to Design.
Habermas: As I recall, you also refer to this in the new introduction to your
God and Philosophy.
Flew: Yes, I do; or, since the book has not yet been published, I will!
Habermas: Since you affirm Aristotle’s concept of God, do you think we can
also affirm Aristotle’s implications that the First Cause hence knows all
Flew: I suppose we should say this. I’m not at all sure what one should think
concerning some of these very fundamental issues. There does seem to be a reason
for a First Cause, but I’m not at all sure how much we have to explain here.
What idea of God is necessary to provide an explanation of the existence of the
Universe and all which is in it?
Habermas: If God is the First Cause, what about omniscience, or omnipotence?
Flew: Well, the First Cause, if there was a First Cause, has very clearly
produced everything that is going on. I suppose that does imply creation “in the
Habermas: In the same introduction, you also make a comparison between
Aristotle’s God and Spinoza’s God. Are you implying, with some interpreters of
Spinoza, that God is pantheistic?
Flew: I’m noting there that God and Philosophy has become out of date and
should now be seen as an historical document rather than as a direct
contribution to current discussions. I’m sympathetic to Spinoza because he makes
some statements which seem to me correctly to describe the human situation. But
for me the most important thing about Spinoza is not what he says but what he
does not say. He does not say that God has any preferences either about or any
intentions concerning human behaviour or about the eternal destinies of human
Habermas: What role might your love for the writings of David Hume play in a
discussion about the existence of God? Do you have any new insights on
Hume, given your new belief in God?
Flew: No, not really.
Habermas: Do you think Hume ever answers the question of God?
Flew: I think of him as, shall we say, an unbeliever. But it’s interesting to
note that he himself was perfectly willing to accept one of the conditions of
his appointment, if he had been appointed to a chair of philosophy at the
University of Edinburgh. That condition was, roughly speaking, to provide some
sort of support and encouragement for people performing prayers and executing
other acts of worship. I believe that Hume thought that the institution of
religious belief could be, and in his day and place was, socially beneficial.16
I, too, having been brought up as a Methodist, have always been aware of this
possible and in many times and places actual benefit of objective religious
instruction. It is now several decades since I first tried to draw attention to
the danger of relying on a modest amount of compulsory religious instruction in
schools to meet the need for moral education, especially in a period of
relentlessly declining religious belief. But all such warnings by individuals
were, of course, ignored. So we now have in the UK a situation in which any
mandatory requirements to instruct pupils in state funded schools in the
teachings of the established or any other religion are widely ignored. The only
official attempt to construct a secular substitute was vitiated by the inability
of the moral philosopher on the relevant government committee to recognize the
fundamental difference between justice without prefix or suffix and the “social”
justice of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.
I must some time send you a copy of the final chapter of my latest and
presumably last book, in which I offer a syllabus and a program for moral
education in secular schools.17 This is relevant and important for both
the US and the UK. To the US because the Supreme Court has utterly
misinterpreted the clause in the Constitution about not establishing a religion:
misunderstanding it as imposing a ban on all official reference to religion. In
the UK any effective program of moral education has to be secular because
unbelief is now very widespread.
Habermas: In God and Philosophy, and in many other places in our discussions,
too, it seems that your primary motivation for rejecting theistic arguments used
to be the problem of evil. In terms of your new belief in God, how do you now
conceptualise God’s relationship to the reality of evil in the world?
Flew: Well, absent Revelation, why should we perceive anything as objectively
evil? The problem of evil is a problem only for Christians. For Muslims
everything which human beings perceive as evil, just as much as everything we
perceive as good, has to be obediently accepted as produced by the will of
Allah. I suppose that the moment when, as a schoolboy of fifteen years, it first
appeared to me that the thesis that the Universe was created and is sustained by
a Being of infinite power and goodness is flatly incompatible with the
occurrence of massive undeniable and undenied evils in that Universe, was the
first step towards my future career as a philosopher! It was, of course,
very much later that I learned of the philosophical identification of goodness
Habermas: In your view, then, God hasn’t done anything about evil.
Flew: No, not at all, other than producing a lot of it.
Habermas: Given your theism, what about mind-body issues?
Flew: I think those who want to speak about an afterlife have got to meet the
difficulty of formulating a concept of an incorporeal person. Here I have again
to refer back to my year as a graduate student supervised by Gilbert Ryle, in
the year in which he published The Concept of Mind.
At that time there was considerable comment, usually hostile, in the serious
British press, on what was called “Oxford Linguistic Philosophy.” The objection
was usually that this involved a trivialization of a very profound and important
I was by this moved to give a talk to the Philosophy Postgraduates Club under
the title “Matter which Matters.” In it I argued that, so far from ignoring what
Immanuel Kant described as the three great problems of philosophers – God, Freedom
and Immortality – the linguistic approach promised substantial progress towards
I myself always intended to make contributions in all those three areas. Indeed
my first philosophical publication was relevant to the third.18 Indeed it was
not very long after I got my first job as a professional philosopher that I
confessed to Ryle that if ever I was asked to deliver the Gifford Lectures I
would give them under the title The Logic of Mortality.19 They were an extensive
argument to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to create a concept of
an incorporeal spirit.
Habermas: Is such a concept necessarily required for the notion of an afterlife?
Flew: Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defines death as the soul leaving the body. If
the soul is to be, as Dr. Johnson and almost if perhaps not quite everyone else
in his day believed it to be, something which can sensibly be said to leave its
present residence and to take up or be forced to take up residence elsewhere,
then a soul must be, in the philosophical sense, a substance rather than merely
a characteristic of something else.
My Gifford Lectures were published after Richard Swinburne published his, on The
Evolution of the Soul.20 So when mine were reprinted under the title Merely
Mortal? Can You Survive Your Own Death?21 I might have been expected to respond
to any criticisms which Swinburne had made of my earlier publications in the
same area. But the embarrassing truth is that he had taken no notice of any
previous relevant writings either by me or by anyone published since World War
II. There would not have been much point in searching for books or articles
before that date since Swinburne and I had been the only Gifford lecturers to
treat the question of a future life for the sixty years past. Even more
remarkably, Swinburne in his Gifford Lectures ignored Bishop Butler’s decisive
observation: “Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personal identity.”
Habermas: On several occasions, you and I have dialogued regarding
the subject of near death experiences, especially the specific sort where people
have reported verifiable data from a distance away from themselves. Sometimes
these reports even occur during the absence of heartbeat or brain waves.22 After
our second dialogue you wrote me a letter and said that, “I find the materials
about near death experiences so challenging. . . . this evidence equally
certainly weakens if it does not completely refute my argument against doctrines
of a future life . . . .”23 In light of these evidential near death cases, what
do you think about the possibility of an afterlife, especially given your
Flew: An incorporeal being may be hypothesized, and hypothesized to possess a
memory. But before we could rely on its memory even of its own experiences we
should need to be able to provide an account of how this hypothesized
incorporeal being could be identified in the first place and then – after what
lawyers call an affluxion of time – reidentified even by himself or herself as one
and the same individual spiritual being. Until we have evidence that we have
been and presumably – as Dr. Johnson and so many lesser men have believed – are to
be identified with such incorporeal spirits I do not see why near-death
experiences should be taken as evidence for the conclusion that human beings
will enjoy a future life – or more likely if either of the two great revealed
religions is true – suffer eternal torment.
Habermas: I agree that near death experiences do not evidence the doctrines of
either heaven or hell. But do you think these evidential cases increase
the possibility of some sort of an afterlife, again, given your theism?
Flew: I still hope and believe there’s no possibility of an afterlife.
Habermas: Even though you hope there’s no afterlife, what do you think of the
evidence that there might be such, as perhaps indicated by these evidential near
death cases? And even if there is no clear notion of what sort of body might be
implied here, do you find this evidence helpful in any way? In other words,
apart from the form in which a potential afterlife might take, do you still find
these to be evidence for something?
Flew: It’s puzzling to offer an interpretation of these experiences. But I
presume it has got to be taken as extrasensory perceiving by the flesh and blood
person who is the subject of the experiences in question. What it cannot be is
the hypothesized incorporeal spirit which you would wish to identify with the
person who nearly died, but actually did not. For this concept of an incorporeal
spirit cannot properly be assumed to have been given sense until and unless some
means has been provided for identifying such spirits in the first place and
re-identifying them as one and the same individual incorporeal spirits after the
affluxion of time. Until and unless this has been done we have always to
remember Bishop Butler’s objection: “Memory may reveal but cannot constitute
Perhaps I should here point out that, long before I took my first university
course in philosophy, I was much interested in what in the UK, where it began,
is still called psychical research although the term “parapsychology” is now
used almost everywhere else. Perhaps I ought here to confess that my first book
was brashly entitled A New Approach to Psychical Research,25 and my interest in
this subject continued for many years thereafter.
Habermas: Actually you have also written to me that these near death experiences
“certainly constitute impressive evidence for the possibility of the occurrence
of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human brain.”26
Flew: When I came to consider what seemed to me the most impressive of these
near death cases I asked myself what is the traditional first question to ask
about “psychic” phenomena. It is, “When, where, and by whom were the phenomena
first reported?” Some people seem to confuse near death experiences with after
death experiences. Where any such near death experiences become relevant to the
question of a future life is when and only when they appear to show “the
occurrence of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human
Habermas: Elsewhere, you again very kindly noted my influence on your thinking
here, regarding these data being decent evidence for human consciousness
independent of “electrical activity in the brain.”27 If some near death
experiences are evidenced, independently confirmed experiences during a near
death state, even in persons whose heart or brain may not be functioning, isn’t
that quite impressive evidence? Are near death experiences, then, the best
evidence for an afterlife?
Flew: Oh, yes, certainly. They are basically the only evidence.
Habermas: What critical evaluation would you make of the three major
monotheisms? Are there any particular philosophical strengths or weaknesses in
Christianity, Judaism, or Islam?
Flew: If all I knew or believed about God was what I might have learned from
Aristotle, then I should have assumed that everything in the Universe, including
human conduct, was exactly as God wanted it to be. And this is indeed the case,
in so far as both Christianity and Islam are predestinarian, a fundamental
teaching of both religious systems. What was true of Christianity in the Middle
Ages is certainly no longer equally true after the Reformation. But Islam has
neither suffered nor enjoyed either a Reformation or an Enlightenment. In the
Summa Theologiae we may read:
As men are ordained to eternal life throughout the providence of God, it
likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away from that end;
this is called reprobation . . . . Reprobation implies not only foreknowledge
but also is something more. . .28
What and how much that something more is the Summa contra Gentiles makes clear:
. . . just as God not only gave being to things when they first began, but is
also – as the conserving cause of being – the cause of their being as long as they
last . . . . Every operation, therefore, of anything is traced back to Him as
The Angelic Doctor, however, is always the devotedly complacent apparatchik. He
sees no problem about the justice of either the inflicting of infinite and
everlasting penalties for finite and temporal offences, or of their affliction
upon creatures for offences which their Creator makes them freely choose to
commit. Thus, the Angelic Doctor assures us:
In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and
that they may render more copious thanks to God . . . they are allowed to see
perfectly the sufferings of the damned . . . Divine justice and their own
deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed, while the pains
of the damned will cause it indirectly . . . the blessed in glory will have no
pity for the damned.30
The statements of predestinarianism in the Qur’an are much more aggressive and
unequivocal than even the strongest in the Bible. Compare the following from the
Qur’an with that from Romans 9.
As for the unbelievers, alike it is to them
Whether thou hast warned them or hast not warned them
They do not believe.31
God has set a seal on their hearts and on the hearing
And on the eyes is a covering
And there awaits them a mighty chastisement.32
In the UK the doctrine of Hell has for the last century or more been
progressively de-emphasised, until in 1995 it was explicitly and categorically
abandoned by the Church of England. It would appear that the Roman Catholic
Church has not abandoned either the doctrine of Hell nor predestination.
Thomas Hobbes spent a very large part of the forty years between the first
publication of the King James Bible and the first publication of his own
Leviathan engaged in biblical criticism, one very relevant finding of which I
And it is said besides in many places [that the wicked] shall go into
everlasting fire; and that the worm of conscience never dieth; and all this is
comprehended in the word everlasting death, which is ordinarily interpreted
everlasting life in torments. And yet I can find nowhere that any man shall live
in torments everlastingly. Also, it seemeth hard to say that God who is the
father of mercies; that doth in heaven and earth all that he will, that hath the
hearts of all men in his disposing; that worketh in men both to do, and to will;
and without whose free gift a man hath neither inclination to good, nor
repentance of evil, should punish men’s transgressions without any end of time,
and with all the extremity of torture, that men can imagine and more.33
As for Islam, it is, I think, best described in a Marxian way as the uniting and
justifying ideology of Arab imperialism. Between the New Testament and the
Qur’an there is (as it is customary to say when making such comparisons) no
comparison. Whereas markets can be found for books on reading the Bible as
literature, to read the Qur’an is a penance rather than a pleasure. There is no
order or development in its subject matter. All the chapters (the suras) are
arranged in order of their length, with the longest at the beginning. However,
since the Qur’an consists in a collection of bits and pieces of putative
revelation delivered to the prophet Mohammad by the Archangel Gabriel in
classical Arab on many separate but unknown occasions, it is difficult to
suggest any superior principle of organization.
One point about the editing of the Qur’an is rarely made although it would
appear to be of very substantial theological significance. For every sura is
prefaced by the words “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” Yet
there are references to Hell on at least 255 of the 669 pages of Arberry’s
rendering of the Qur’an34 and quite often pages have two such references.
Whereas St. Paul, who was the chief contributor to the New Testament, knew all
the three relevant languages and obviously possessed a first class philosophical
mind, the Prophet, though gifted in the arts of persuasion and clearly a
considerable military leader, was both doubtfully literate and certainly
ill-informed about the contents of the Old Testament and about several matters
of which God, if not even the least informed of the Prophet’s contemporaries,
must have been cognizant.
This raises the possibility of what my philosophical contemporaries in the
heyday of Gilbert Ryle would have described as a knock-down falsification of
Islam: something which is most certainly not possible in the case of
Christianity. If I do eventually produce such a paper it will obviously
have to be published anonymously.
Habermas: What do you think about the Bible?
Flew: The Bible is a work which someone who had not the slightest concern about
the question of the truth or falsity of the Christian religion could read as
people read the novels of the best novelists. It is an eminently readable book.
Habermas: You and I have had three dialogues on the resurrection of Jesus. Are
you any closer to thinking that the resurrection could have been a historical
Flew: No, I don’t think so. The evidence for the resurrection is better than for
claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality
and quantity, I think, from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most
other supposedly miraculous events. But you must remember that I approached it
after considerable reading of reports of psychical research and its criticisms.
This showed me how quickly evidence of remarkable and supposedly miraculous
events can be discredited.
What the psychical researcher looks for is evidence from witnesses, of the
supposedly paranormal events, recorded as soon as possible after their
occurrence. What we do not have is evidence from anyone who was in Jerusalem at
the time, who witnessed one of the allegedly miraculous events, and recorded his
or her testimony immediately after the occurrence of that allegedly miraculous
event. In the 1950s and 1960s I heard several suggestions from hard-bitten young
Australian and American philosophers of conceivable miracles the actual
occurrence of which, it was contended, no one could have overlooked or denied.
Why, they asked, if God wanted to be recognized and worshipped, did God not
produce a miracle of this unignorable and undeniable kind?
Habermas: So you think that, for a miracle, the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection
is better than other miracle claims?
Flew: Oh yes, I think so. It’s much better, for example, than that for most if
not all of the, so to speak, run-of-the-mill Roman Catholic miracles. On this
see, for instance, D. J. West.35
Habermas: You have made numerous comments over the years that Christians are
justified in their beliefs such as Jesus’ resurrection or other major tenants of
their faith. In our last two dialogues I think you even remarked that for
someone who is already a Christian there are many good reasons to believe Jesus’
resurrection. Would you comment on that?
Flew: Yes, certainly. This is an important matter about rationality which I have
fairly recently come to appreciate. What it is rational for any individual to
believe about some matter which is fresh to that individual’s consideration
depends on what he or she rationally believed before they were confronted with
this fresh situation. For suppose they rationally believed in the existence of a
God of any revelation, then it would be entirely reasonable for them to see the
Fine Tuning Argument as providing substantial confirmation of their belief in
the existence of that God.
Habermas: You’ve told me that you have a very high regard for John and Charles
Wesley and their traditions. What accounts for your appreciation?
Flew: The greatest thing is their tremendous achievement of creating the
Methodist movement mainly among the working class. Methodism made it impossible
to build a really substantial Communist Party in Britain and provided the
country with a generous supply of men and women of sterling moral character from
mainly working class families. Its decline is a substantial part of the
explosions both of unwanted motherhood and of crime in recent decades. There is
also the tremendous determination shown by John Wesley in spending year after
year riding for miles every day, preaching more than seven sermons a week and so
on. I have only recently been told of John Wesley’s great controversy against
predestination and in favor of the Arminian alternative. Certainly John Wesley
was one of my country’s many great sons and daughters. One at least of the
others was raised in a Methodist home with a father who was a local preacher.
Habermas: Don’t you attribute some of your appreciations for the Wesleys to your
father’s ministry? Haven’t you said that your father was the first non-Anglican
to get a doctorate in theology from Oxford University?
Flew: Yes to both questions. Of course it was because my family’s background was
that of Methodism. Yes, my father was also President of the Methodist Conference
for the usual single year term and he was the Methodist representative of one or
two other organizations. He was also concerned for the World Council of
Churches. Had my father lived to be active into the early 1970s he would have
wanted at least to consider the question of whether the Methodist Church ought
not to withdraw from the World Council of Churches. That had by that time
apparently been captured by agents of the USSR.36
Habermas: What do you think that Bertrand Russell, J. L. Mackie, and A. J. Ayer
would have thought about these theistic developments, had they still been alive
Flew: I think Russell certainly would have had to notice these things. I’m sure
Mackie would have been interested, too. I never knew Ayer very well, beyond
meeting him once or twice.
Habermas: Do you think any of them would have been impressed in the direction of
theism? I’m thinking here, for instance, about Russell’s famous comments that
God hasn’t produced sufficient evidence of his existence.37
Flew: Consistent with Russell’s comments that you mention, Russell would have
regarded these developments as evidence. I think we can be sure that Russell
would have been impressed too, precisely because of his comments to which you
refer. This would have produced an interesting second dialogue between him and
that distinguished Catholic philosopher, Frederick Copleston.
Habermas: In recent years you’ve been called the world’s most influential
philosophical atheist. Do you think Russell, Mackie, or Ayer would have been
bothered or even angered by your conversion to theism? Or do you think that they
would have at least understood your reasons for changing your mind?
Flew: I’m not sure how much any of them knew about Aristotle. But I am almost
certain that they never had in mind the idea of a God who was not the God of any
revealed religion. But we can be sure that they would have examined these new
Habermas: C. S. Lewis explained in his autobiography that he moved first from
atheism to theism and only later from theism to Christianity. Given your great
respect for Christianity, do you think that there is any chance that you might
in the end move from theism to Christianity?
Flew: I think it’s very unlikely, due to the problem of evil. But, if it did
happen, I think it would be in some eccentric fit and doubtfully orthodox form:
regular religious practice perhaps but without belief. If I wanted any sort of
future life I should become a Jehovah’s Witness. But some things I am completely
confident about. I would never regard Islam with anything but horror and fear
because it is fundamentally committed to conquering the world for Islam. It was
because the whole of Palestine was part of the Land of Islam that Muslim Arab
armies moved in to try to destroy Israel at birth, and why the struggle for the
return of the still surviving refugees and their numerous descendents continue
to this day.
Habermas: I ask this last question with a smile, Tony. But just think what would
happen if one day you were pleasantly disposed toward Christianity and all of a
sudden the resurrection of Jesus looked pretty good to you?
Flew: Well, one thing I’ll say in this comparison is that, for goodness sake,
Jesus is an enormously attractive charismatic figure, which the Prophet of Islam
most emphatically is not.