Antony Garrard Newton Flew
|Born||11 February 1923|
London, United Kingdom
|Died||8 April 2010 (aged 87)|
|Alma mater||SOAS, University of London|
St John's College, Oxford
|Philosophy of religion|
|No true Scotsman|
The presumption of atheism
Negative and positive atheism
Antony Garrard Newton Flew (//; 11 February 1923 – 8 April 2010) was an English philosopher. Belonging to the analytic and evidentialist schools of thought, Flew was most notable for his work related to the philosophy of religion. During the course of his career he taught at the universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading, and at York University in Toronto.
For much of his career Flew was known as a strong advocate of atheism, arguing that one should presuppose atheism until empirical evidence of a God surfaces. He also criticised the idea of life after death, the free will defence to the problem of evil, and the meaningfulness of the concept of God. In 2003 he was one of the signatories of the Humanist Manifesto III.
However, in 2004 he changed his position, and stated that he now believed in the existence of an Intelligent Creator of the universe, shocking colleagues and fellow atheists. In order to further clarify his personal concept of God, Flew openly made an allegiance to Deism, more specifically a belief in the Aristotelian God, and dismissed on many occasions a hypothetical conversion to Christianity, Islam or any other religion. He stated that in keeping his lifelong commitment to go where the evidence leads, he now believed in the existence of a God.
In 2007 a book outlining his reasons for changing his position, There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind was written by Flew in collaboration with Roy Abraham Varghese. The book (and Flew's conversion to Deism) has been the subject of controversy, following an article in The New York Times Magazine alleging that Flew's intellect had declined due to senility, and that the book was primarily the work of Varghese; Flew himself specifically denied this, stating that the book represented his views; although he acknowledged that due to his age Varghese had done most of the actual work of writing the book.
Flew, the son of Methodist minister/theologian Robert Newton Flew (1886–1962) and his wife Winifred née Garrard (1887–1982), was born in London. He was educated at St Faith's School, Cambridge followed by Kingswood School, Bath. He is said to have concluded by the age of 15 that there was no God. During the Second World War he studied Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and was a Royal Air Force intelligence officer. After a period with the Inter-Services Topographical Department in Oxford, he was posted to Bletchley Park in June 1944.
After the war, Flew achieved a first class degree in Literae Humaniores at St John's College, Oxford (1947). He also won the John Locke Scholarship in Mental Philosophy in the following year. Flew was a graduate student of Gilbert Ryle, prominent in ordinary language philosophy. Both Flew and Ryle were among many Oxford philosophers fiercely criticised in Ernest Gellner's book Words and Things (1959). A 1954 debate with Michael Dummett over backward causation was an early highlight in Flew's career.
For a year, 1949–50, Flew was a lecturer in philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. From 1950 to 1954 he was a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, and from 1954 to 1971 he was a professor of philosophy at the University of Keele. He held a professorship at the University of Calgary, 1972–73. Between 1973 and 1983 he was professor of philosophy at the University of Reading. At this time, he developed one of his most famous arguments, the No true Scotsman fallacy in his 1975 book, Thinking About Thinking. Upon his retirement, Flew took up a half-time post for a few years at York University, Toronto.
Politically Flew was a libertarian-leaning conservative and wrote articles for The Journal of Libertarian Studies. His name appears on letterheads into 1992 as a Vice-President of the Conservative Monday Club, and he held the same position in the Western Goals Institute. He was one of the signatories to a letter in The Times along with Lord Sudeley, Sir Alfred Sherman, and Dr. Harvey Ward, on behalf of the Institute, "applauding Alfredo Cristiani's statesmanship" and calling for his government's success in defeating the Cuban and Nicaraguan-backed communist FMLN in El Salvador.
While an undergraduate, Flew attended the weekly meetings of C. S. Lewis's Socratic Club fairly regularly. Although he found Lewis to be "an eminently reasonable man" and "by far the most powerful Christian apologists for the sixty or more years following his founding of that club", he was not persuaded by Lewis's argument from morality as found in Mere Christianity. Flew also criticised several of the other philosophical proofs for God's existence. He concluded that the ontological argument in particular failed because it is based on the premise that the concept of Being can be derived from the concept of Goodness. Only the scientific forms of the teleological argument ultimately impressed Flew as decisive.
During the time of his involvement in the Socratic Club, Flew also wrote the article "Theology and Falsification", which argued that claims about God were merely vacuous where they could not be tested for truth or falsehood. Though initially published in an undergraduate journal, the article came to be widely reprinted and discussed.
Flew was also critical of the idea of life after death and the free will defence to the problem of evil. In 1998, he debated Christian philosopher William Lane Craig over the existence of God.
One of Antony Flew's most influential professional works was his 1976 The Presumption of Atheism in which Flew forwarded the proposition that the question of God's existence should begin with the presumption of atheism:
"What I want to examine is the contention that the debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist. The word 'atheism', however, has in this contention to be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of 'atheist' in English is 'someone who asserts that there is no such being as God, I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively... in this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist.
The introduction of this new interpretation of the word 'atheism' may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage. 'Whyever', it could be asked, don't you make it not the presumption of atheism but the presumption of agnosticism?
Flew's proposal to change his profession's use of the term atheism saw limited acceptance in the 20th century, but in the early 21st century Flew's negative sense of 'atheism' came to be forwarded more commonly. The impact of Flew's proposed negative atheism, which is often referred to today as 'weak atheism' or 'soft atheism', is illustrated by analytic Philosopher William Lane Craig's 2007 assessment that the presumption of atheism had become "one of the most commonly proffered justifications of atheism." And BBC journalist William Crawley 2010 analysis: "The Presumption of Atheism (1976) made the case, now followed by today's new atheism, that atheism should be the ... default position". In recent debates, atheists often forward the Presumption of Atheism referring to atheism as the "default position" or has "no burden of proof" or asserting that the burden of proof rests solely on the theist.
In January 2004 Flew and Gary Habermas, his friend and philosophical adversary, took part in and conducted a dialogue on the resurrection at California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo. During a couple of telephone discussions shortly after that 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.
In a 2004 interview (published 9 December), Flew, then 81 years old, said that he had become a deist. In the article Flew states that he has renounced his long-standing espousal of atheism by endorsing a deism of the sort that Thomas Jefferson advocated ("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"). Flew stated that "the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries" and that "the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it". The argument of ID is that evidenced objects and physical concepts are either too simple or too complex to be simply natural, whichever of the two extremes one chooses to be the hallmark of design by an outside intelligence. He also answered in the affirmative to Habermas's question, "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?". He supported the idea of an Aristotelian God with "the characteristics of power and also intelligence", stating that the evidence for it was stronger than ever before. He rejected the idea of an afterlife, of God as the source of good (he explicitly states that God has created "a lot of" evil), and of the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact, although he has allowed a short chapter arguing in favor of Joshua's/Jesus' resurrection to be added into his latest book.
Flew was particularly hostile to Islam, and said it is "best described in a Marxian way as the uniting and justifying ideology of Arab imperialism." In a December 2004 interview he said: "I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins".
In October 2004 (before the December publication of the Flew–Habermas interview), in a letter written to the internet atheist advocate Richard Carrier of the Secular Web Flew stated that he was a deist, and wrote "I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations." Flew also said: "My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species... [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms."
When asked in December 2004 by Duncan Crary of Humanist Network News if he still stood by the argument presented in The Presumption of Atheism, Flew replied he did and affirmed his position as deist: "I'm quite happy to believe in an inoffensive inactive god." When asked by Crary whether or not he has kept up with the most recent science and theology, he responded with "Certainly not," stating that there is simply too much to keep up with. Flew also denied that there was any truth to the rumours of 2001 and 2003 that he had converted to Christianity.
His 2007 book There is a God (see below) revisited the question, however, and questioned contemporary models: "the latest work I have seen shows that the present physical universe gives too little time for these theories of abiogenesis to get the job done." He added: "The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and 'coded chemistry'? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem".
However, in spring 2005 when atheist Raymond Bradley, emeritus professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University and a member of the editorial board of The Open Society journal, wrote an open letter to Flew accusing him of not "check[ing] the veracity of Gerald Schroeder's claims before swallowing them whole," Flew responded strongly to that charge in a letter published in the same journal in summer 2006, describing the content of Bradley's letter "extraordinarily offensive" and the accusation made by him as an "egregiously offensive charge"; he also implied that Bradley was a "secularist bigot," and suggested that he should follow Socrates's advice (as scripted in Plato's Republic) of "follow[ing] the argument wherever it leads." Other prominent atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, suggested Flew's deism was a form of God of the gaps.
Flew said in December 2004:
I have been denounced by my fellow unbelievers for stupidity, betrayal, senility and everything you can think of and none of them have read a word that I have ever written.
A letter on evolution and theology which Flew published in the August/September 2004 issue of Philosophy Now magazine closed with, "Anyone who should happen to want to know what I myself now believe will have to wait until the publication, promised for early 2005, by Prometheus of Amherst, NY of the final edition of my God and Philosophy with a new introduction of it as ‘an historical relic’."
The preface of God and Philosophy states that the publisher and Flew went through a total of four versions (each extensively peer-reviewed) before coming up with one that satisfied them both. The introduction raises ten matters that came about since the original 1966 edition. Flew states that any book to follow God and Philosophy will have to take into account these ideas when considering the philosophical case for the existence of God:[page needed]
In an interview with Joan Bakewell for BBC Radio 4 in March 2005, Flew rejected the fine-tuning argument as a conclusive proof: "I don't think it proves anything but that it is entirely reasonable for people who already have a belief in a creating God to regard this as confirming evidence. And it's a point of argument which I think is very important – to see that what is reasonable for people to do in the face of new evidence depends on what they previously had good reason to believe." He also said it appeared that there had been progress made regarding the naturalistic origins of DNA. However, he restated his deism, with the usual provisos that his God is not the God of any of the revealed religions. In the same interview, Flew was asked whether he was retracting belief in an Aristotelian God, but answered no.
One month later, Flew told Christianity Today that although he was not on the road to becoming a Christian convert, he reaffirmed his deism: "Since the beginning of my philosophical life I have followed the policy of Plato's Socrates: We must follow the argument wherever it leads."
In 2007, in an interview with Benjamin Wiker, Flew said again that his deism was the result of his "growing empathy with the insight of Einstein and other noted scientists that there had to be an Intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical Universe" and "my own insight that the integrated complexity of life itself – which is far more complex than the physical Universe – can only be explained in terms of an Intelligent Source." He also restated that he was not a Christian theist.
In 2007, Flew published a book titled There is a God, which was listed as having Roy Abraham Varghese as its co-author. Shortly after the book was released, the New York Times published an article by historian of religion Mark Oppenheimer, who stated that Varghese had been almost entirely responsible for writing the book, and that Flew was in a serious state of mental decline, having great difficulty remembering key figures, ideas, and events relating to the debate covered in the book. His book praises several philosophers (like Brian Leftow, John Leslie and Paul Davies), but Flew failed to remember their work during Oppenheimer's interview.
A further article by Anthony Gottlieb noted a strong difference in style between the passages giving Flew's biography, and those laying out the case for a god, with the latter including Americanisms such as "beverages", "vacation" and "candy". He came to the same conclusion as Oppenheimer, and stated that "Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, [the book] rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew". Varghese replied with a letter disputing this view.
Flew later released a statement through his publisher stating:
I have rebutted these criticisms in the following statement: My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 percent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I’m 84 and that was Roy Varghese’s role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I'm old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking."
An audio commentary by William Lane Craig concurs with this position, but Richard Carrier disputed this view. In June 2008, Flew stated his position once again, in a letter to a fellow of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship.
Christian writer Regis Nicoll claims that "Moreover, in a signed, handwritten letter (a copy of which I now have) sent to Roy Varghese, the legendary philosopher reaffirmed his conversion while criticising Oppenheimer for drawing attention away from the book’s central argument: the collapse of rationalism." He argues that "Even Mark Oppenheimer described the ex-atheist 'flaunt[ing] his allegiance to deism' in May 2006 to a Christian audience at Biola University." Perhaps most definitively, Christian apologist Anthony Horvath corresponded with Antony Flew before it was publicly known there would even be a book. In 2010, he published his letters. The letters contain Flew's description of the outline of the book, his Deism in the pattern of Einstein's, and his high praise of N.T. Wright's arguments for Christianity. All of these elements are present in the book.
However, in 2014 the blog skeptical-science.com, following Oppenheimer's investigation on the authorship and content of the book, concluded that Varghese and a few other "ghostwriters" (evangelical pastors) psychologically manipulated Flew quite easily due to his vulnerability, old age and their persistent love-bombing, exploiting him, and presenting typical rough creationist arguments in favor of the Intelligent design theory and appraisal of Christianity that Flew would have never agreed upon:
If you read the book itself, you will find some rather crass creationist arguments that any half decent philosopher would have seen through, so yes indeed, clearly it reeks of bovine waste and is not his work at all. What should set alarm bells clanging in your head is that he does not give any rebuttals for the arguments he had for being an atheist, but instead simply leans upon a design argument, one that misrepresents much of what we actually know. Appendix A is supposedly a discussion of whether “God” has communicated anything to humankind, but is instead just an attack on Richard Dawkins, and also demolishes a few straw men. Appendix B is billed as a “dialogue” between Flew and biblical scholar about the Resurrection, in which Flew supposedly asks just three one line questions and the rest (about 20 pages) is religious drivel. For example, Q: Do we have a proof that Jesus was real? A: Evidence is so vast that it is not worth mentioning … and so no actual evidence is cited at all, you are supposed to just “believe”. Oh, and we also supposedly have an endorsement of Christianity by Flew, but there is nothing at all in the book to justify such a stance – clearly this book is simply PR, or to be a bit more blunt, it’s a con job. [...] It may in fact be true that Flew did become a deist, but he never ever made the leap to theist, and even that deist step is perhaps explained by him being essentially love-bombed by some Christians in his old age and steered in that direction.
Flew was awarded the Schlarbaum Prize by the Ludwig von Mises Institute for his "outstanding lifetime achievement in the cause of liberty." Upon acceptance of the award in Auburn, Alabama, in September 2001, Flew delivered an address entitled "Locke versus Rawls on Equality." Of his choice of topics, he stated "I am the first Englishman and the first professional philosopher to receive the Schlarbaum Prize. So it seems appropriate to begin by talking about the greatest English philosopher, John Locke."
On 11 May 2006, Antony Flew accepted the second "Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth" from Biola University. The award, named for its first recipient, was given to Flew "for his lifelong commitment to free and open inquiry and to standing fast against intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression". When informed of his award, Flew remarked, "In light of my work and publications in this area and the criticism I’ve received for changing my position, I appreciate receiving this award".
He was an honorary associate of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. In 1985, Flew was awarded the In Praise of Reason Award the highest honor the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry awards. The award was presented by Chairman Paul Kurtz in London "'[I]n recognition of his long-standing contributions to the use of methods of critical inquiry, scientific evidence, and reason in evaluating claims to knowledge and solving social problems."
In “There Is a God” he explained that he now believed in a supreme intelligence, removed from human affairs but responsible for the intricate workings of the universe. In other words, the Divine Watchmaker imagined by deists like Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
In a letter to The Sunday Telegraph of London in 2004, he described “the God in whose existence I have belatedly come to believe” as “most emphatically not the eternally rewarding and eternally torturing God of either Christianity or Islam but the God of Aristotle that he would have defined — had Aristotle actually produced a definition of his (and my) God — as the first initiating and sustaining cause of the universe.”
In some interviews, and in subsequent publications, Flew made it clear that he had not become a Christian; he had moved from atheism to a form of deism. This is important: it is a mistake to claim that Flew embraced classical theism in any substantial form; rather, he came to believe merely that an intelligent orderer of the universe existed. He did not believe that this "being" had any further agency in the universe, and he maintained his opposition to the vast majority of doctrinal positions adopted by the global faiths, such as belief in the after-life, or a divine being who actively cares for or loves the universe, or the resurrection of Christ, and argued for the idea of an "Aristotelian God". He explained that he, like Socrates, had simply followed the evidence, and the new evidence from science and natural theology made it possible to rationally advance belief in an intelligent being who ordered the universe. In 2006, he even added his name to a petition calling for the inclusion of intelligent design theory on the UK science curriculum.
As he himself conceded, he had not written his book.
“This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!”
When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”
So even the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter: Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author from Ohio, rewrote many passages, especially in the section that narrates Flew’s childhood. With three authors, how much Flew was left in the book?
But it is common these days to find atheists who define the term to mean “without theism”... Many of them then go on to argue that this means that the “burden of proof” is on the theist...
In the last twenty years or so atheists and theists have taken to debating on college campuses, and in town halls, all across this country. By using the above definition, atheists have attempted to shift the burden of proof.
[The Presumption of atheism is] One of the most commonly proffered justifications of atheism has been the so-called presumption of atheism.
His books God and Philosophy (1966) and The Presumption of Atheism (1976) [Flew] made the case, now followed by today's new atheists, that atheism should be the intelligent person's default until well-established evidence to the contrary arises
A notable modern view is Antony Flew’s Presumption of Atheism (1984).
Many atheists ... take atheism to be just the default position...Given this redefinition, most atheists are taken aback when theists demand they provide evidence for their atheism.
There are very many atheists who think they have no worldview to defend.
The 'evidentialist challenge' is the gauntlet thrown down by atheist writers such as Antony Flew, Norwood Russell Hanson, and Michael Scriven. They argue that in debates over the existence of God, the burden of proof should fall on the theist. They contend that if theists are unable to provide cogent arguments for theism, i.e. arguments showing that it is at least more probable than not that God exists, then atheism wins by default.
The default position is neutral on the position of God’s existence. The burden of proof is on the claim maker to justify his claim by evidence. At the least, negative atheism does not bear a burden of proof
Another familiar strategy of atheists is to insist that the burden of proof falls on the believer.
When Christians and atheists engage in debate concerning the question, Does God exist? atheists frequently assert that the entire burden of proof rests on the Christian.
Atheists tend to claim that the theist bears the burden of proof to justify the existence of God, whereas the theist tends to claim that both parties have an equal burden of proof.
In this article I will show that atheism is a belief about the world and that it does require a justification in the same way that theism does.
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