Friday, February 12, 2016

Review of "There is a God: How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind"

In the Platonic dialogue know as the Republic, Socrates issues a statement that has come to be known among philosophers as the Socratic Principle; namely to follow the argument wherever it may lead. This principle at it's core is simple: be honest. If your point of view does not align with the facts, change it. If a point of view has holes in it, continue to look for answers and adjust your method. Sounds simple, but considering that if you do it you may have to renounce what has made you famous, it may not always be easy.

Enter Antony Flew, one of the leading analytic philosophers of the 20th century. For more than five decades, Flew argued that one should presuppose atheism until empirical evidence (evidence testable by the 5 senses) for a God emerges, a case he makes in books such as The Presumption of Atheism and God and Philosophy. However, Flew never was like the so called "New Atheists" of today; there was no hatred or vitriol in his works. While he fiercely defended atheism, he would often say in his books "However, I am open to the evidence." In 2004, the evidence lead him from being the world's most notorious to being a deist; a theist who believes in an all-powerful non-interventionist God.

Flew begins his book by detailing the early years of his life, stating that while he was raised by a father who was a minister, by the age of fifteen he had become an atheist, in large part due to the problem of evil. He first made a name for himself with an essay that he presented to the Socratic club at Oxford known as Theology and Falsification, wherein he argued that religious arguments must be within a frame of debate that is falsifiable if it is to be meaningful. While this essay is over 50 years old now, it is a classic in the area of philosophy of religion. As a matter of personal reflection, I recall reading it in my philosophy of religion class and as a theist I found the arguments that Flew presented reasonable and fair.

Flew then outlines the evidence that lead him to believe in a God; namely the arguments found in the complexity of DNA and in the fine-tuning teleological argument. He points out that while these arguments lead him to believe in God, they did not lead him to the belief of being a religious man and did not change his views on life after death, a view he rejected until the end of his life. However, in the closing interview of the book with N.T. Wright, he again affirmed his allegiance to the Socratic Principle; stating that he could come to believe that Christianity was true if the evidence led him there. Professor Flew passed away on April 8, 2010, so while he did not change his mind during his lifetime about life after death, he certainly knows now.

The book itself is well-written and very simple, accessible to both philosopher and non-philosopher. The arguments presented are given in a clear, concise matter and are well developed, as well as counterarguments. Through it all, you do not hear the voice of a vitriolic preacher trying to convert you; rather the calm voice of a humble man who was willing to change his mind in the face of new evidence. If there is anything a reader should take away from this book, it is what I mentioned in the opening paragraph : Be willing to follow evidence wherever it may lead, even if it means you must radically alter your own views.


  1. The real test is to determine what counts as evidence.

  2. New evidence has shown that the complexity in DNA (isomers tending towards L chirality) is more in line with the law of thermodynamics and existing nucleotides in early earth composition. So assuming this was a fingerprint of a divine creator because it was not a normal probability 50/50 ratio is no longer sound.

    Similarly, when the sun is included in the closed system of thermodynamics, the fine-tuning is not anything special either.

    Once again, any arguments that have been put up for a God have been shown by further science to not actually be from God, but natural and expected.

    Reflecting on this makes me wonder, how many times the God of the gaps situation have to get smaller and smaller before people admit the evidence over time has become so overwhelmingly against a continued expectation of God that they stop putting their faith in that and put it into agnostic morality and scientific discovery without divine intervention?

    1. Carson,

      The argument of fine-tuning is a sound one; even physicists such as Stephen Hawking have said so. the fact that if something were different by even a hair life would not exist is one that no one can deny.

      God of the gaps is not the same as what Flew is talking about. Flew spent his entire life arguing for atheism and changed his mind in spite of scientific evidence. Notice he believed in a deistic God rather than the God of classical theism. Saying that you see design in the universe has little or nothing to do with how you come about with morality.