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Flew’s change-of-mind about God

by Rick Lewis

Antony Flew – to my delight – wrote for the very first issue of Philosophy Now, back in 1991, and he continued to be a fairly frequent contributor for more than a decade. Therefore although I only met him a handful of times, I did have the luck to have quite a bit of correspondence with him. Flew’s articles generally arrived in heavily-patched, recycled envelopes, often plastered with anti-EU stickers and addressed in his highly recognisable hand. His writing style was elaborate, courteous, sometimes a little fussy, but always clear.

We reprinted Flew’s 1950 paper on ‘Theology and Falsification’ in the Oct/Nov 2000 of Philosophy Now to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its first appearance. This short article was the original source of Flew’s fame among philosophers of religion. Its argument is still a standard point of discussion in theological colleges. The main point is expressed by a parable about two explorers coming across a jungle clearing filled with flowers and weeds. One of the explorers thinks there must be a gardener tending the clearing; the other disagrees. They watch the plot for a long time but see nobody. The first explorer suggests that perhaps the gardener is invisible. So they surround the clearing with a big fence, electrified and patrolled by bloodhounds, but still they detect nobody. So the explorer suggests that perhaps the gardener is intangible, scentless, immune to electric shocks, and comes secretly to tend the garden. Eventually the sceptic asks: if the gardener is invisible, intangible etc, how does this gardener differ from one who is imaginary, or doesn’t exist at all? The failure of religious believers to answer the equivalent question – to say what would constitute disproof of the existence of God – was for Flew the indication that religious assertions were either false or meaningless.

In 2004, the news “Famous atheist changes his mind” was published around the world in literally hundreds of newspapers. But Flew had been having doubts about his atheism for several years before that.

In 2001 he had phoned to ask about a very brief news item we had just published in Philosophy Now, about some reports of scientific research into near death experiences. He was very excited about the research and whether it might indicate the possibility of some kind of survival of consciousness after death. I knew little about the research but agreed to try to find out more. When I rang back (after speaking to a doctor friend, a Christian incidentally, who was very sceptical about the work) I was astonished how keen Flew seemed to be to find some possibility that the research was accurate. Eventually after long discussion he remarked that because his father had been a clergyman, he always felt a filial duty to go out of his way to be fair to the religious side of any argument.

Flew sometimes wrote us book reviews, and later the same year, he sent a short review of a book he had been reading called Darwin’s Black Box, by Michael Behe, a biochemist and advocate of Intelligent Design who argued that some features of living organisms (eyes, for example) are so complex in a special way – ‘irreducibly complex’, he calls it – that they could not possibly have evolved in accordance with Darwinian theory. Behe’s implication was that therefore they must have had a designer. In a very positive review, Flew remarked that although he was not a biologist, he found Behe’s argument “inescapably compelling”. I was dimly aware that Flew calling an argument for Intelligent Design ‘inescapably compelling’ might be something of a scoop. However, rather than phoning the New York Times and the BBC, instead at Flew’s suggestion I emailed Richard Dawkins, suggesting that he might like to write a response to Behe in our following issue. Dawkins emailed back immediately, asking to be put in touch with Flew, to persuade him not to publish his review without hearing some opposing views of Behe’s ideas first. Flew, who greatly admired Dawkins, at once agreed to put the review on ice while he read some criticisms of Behe’s claims by evolutionary scientists. The review never made it into print.

In 2003, Flew again hinted that his opinions about religion might be shifting. He said that he would write a Philosophy Now article outlining his new thinking. The article eventually arrived, and I set to work editing it. However, when he wrote back approving the proof copy, Flew also asked me to put it on hold, saying that he had a new edition of his book God and Philosophy coming out from Prometheus shortly, with a preface outlining his new position, and didn’t want to steal their thunder. The article which Flew had pulled was lucid and elegantly-written. Flew’s main point in it was that while completely accepting Darwinian evolution for the development of species, he couldn’t see how the first self-reproducing life had appeared on earth to kick off the whole process of evolution. This, for Flew, was finally the footprint of the gardener.

© Rick Lewis 2010

Rick Lewis is the Editor of Philosophy Now.

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