Sunday, January 13, 2013

Atheism to Theism | Antony Flew

A Discussion between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas

From the E.P.S.

Antony Flew
Department of Philosophy
University of Reading
Reading, England

Gary Habermas
Department of Philosophy and Theology
Liberty University
Lynchburg, Virginia

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 atCalifornia Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo.6

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 leads."7

The following interview took place in early 2004... 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 theistic revelation?

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 is revelation.

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 persuasive?

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?

Flew: Yes.


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: 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 things?
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 beginning."


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: 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 today?

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 scientific arguments.

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.

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