Antony Flew brings deism back

FlewBookIn The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, Mark Oppenheimer built a lengthy case that the philosopher Antony Flew is, amid painfully documented memory problems, being exploited by a few evangelical authors. Oppenheimer argues that There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, "a book attributed to Flew and a co-author, the Christian apologist Roy Abraham Varghese," bears far more editorial fingerprints by Varghese than by Flew. Oppenheimer describes interviewing Flew at his home in Reading, England:

I visited on two consecutive days, and each day Annis, Flew's wife of 55 years, served me a glass of water and left me in the sitting room to ask her husband a series of tough, indeed rather cruel, questions.

In "There Is a God," Flew quotes extensively from a conversation he had with Leftow, a professor at Oxford. So I asked Flew, "Do you know Brian Leftow?"

"No," he said. "I don't think I do."

"Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?" Leslie is discussed extensively in the book.

Flew paused, seeming unsure. "I think he's quite good." But he said he did not remember the specifics of Leslie's work.

"Have you ever run across the philosopher Paul Davies?" In his book, Flew calls Paul Davies "arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science."

"I'm afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!"

He said this with a laugh. When we began the interview, he warned me, with merry self-deprecation, that he suffers from "nominal aphasia," or the inability to reproduce names. But he forgot more than names. He didn't remember talking with Paul Kurtz about his introduction to "God and Philosophy" just two years ago. There were words in his book, like "abiogenesis," that now he could not define.

To his credit, Oppenheimer also describes aggressive efforts by doctoral student Richard Carrier to persuade Flew back to the rock-ribbed atheism he defended for the bulk of his career.

Oppenheimer engages in a few annoying practices in this report. He begins the piece with a sentence that sounds either patronizing or overly apologetic about its subject matter: "Unless you are a professional philosopher or a committed atheist, you probably have not heard of Antony Flew."

He's also fond of using scare quotes and the unattributed "many would say" method:

The book offers elegant, user-friendly descriptions of the arguments that persuaded Flew, arguments familiar to anyone who has heard evangelical Christians'"scientific proof" of God. From the "fine tuning" argument that the laws of nature are too perfect to have been accidents to the "intelligent design" argument that human biology cannot be explained by evolution to various computations meant to show that probability favors a divine creator, "There Is a God" is perhaps the handiest primer ever written on the science (many would say pseudoscience) of religious belief.

Still, I find it difficult to argue with Oppenheimer's conclusion: "At a time when belief in God is more polarizing than it has been in years, when all believers are being blamed for religion's worst excesses, Antony Flew has quietly switched sides, just following the evidence as it has been explained to him, blissfully unaware of what others have at stake." (I would take issue with that "following the evidence as it has been explained to him" shot, but maybe that's just me.)

A few related posts: Stanley Fish compares Flew's path toward deism with Bart Ehrman's path away from Christianity. My friend Rod Dreher considers Oppenheimer's piece "surprisingly fair-minded and sympathetic, without any of the slash-and-burn rhetoric of the pop atheists today. Which to me makes it all the more damning." My friend (and former boss) David Neff writes that Oppenheimer "raises questions galore without actually proving any of his points." If you read David's post, scroll down to the first comment, in which Roy Abraham Varghese shares a spirited defense of Flew that he sent to the Times as a letter to the editor.

Here's an especially good passage from Varghese's response:

Let me be blunt about this (as I was with Oppenheimer). For three years, assorted skeptics and freethinkers have hounded the poor man trying to get him to recant. Believe me, if there was the slightest indication, the remotest suspicion, that he had retracted his new-found belief in God, it would be plastered all across the worldwide web (and beyond). Instead, Tony has taken it on himself to respond to every attack on his intellectual integrity in contributions to publications ranging from a rationalist journal in New Zealand to the latest issue of Skeptic magazine in the UK. The attacks on him are always highlighted on the Internet -- his responses are never to be found unless you happen to get hold of the print editions. Not without reason, he now refers to several of the apostles of reason as "bigots."

Now, would it be too much to ask that everybody leave Antony Flew in peace?

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