Review of There Is a God by Antony Flew

In 2004, Antony Flew, a famous professor of philosophy known for his atheism, declared that he had changed his mind and now accepted the existence of God. There was some confusion at first as to what kind of theism Flew had embraced, particularly since in the past, there had been other rumors of his conversion to Christianity, which Flew himself had squelched. The situation soon clarified, though, and There Is a God (which came out in 2007) explains in detail Flew’s current position.

The book is short and is written in Flew’s characteristically simple and direct style. In my view, though, the existence of this book is more important than its content. Flew’s long-standing role as a figurehead for atheism makes his “conversion” of great symbolic significance. The book is important because it documents this historic event. As a work of philosophy, however, it is surprisingly short on new ideas.

Part I of the book is not very philosophical at all, but is more of an intellectual autobiography, chronicling key events in Flew’s life. Flew’s father was a vibrant Christian minister, but Flew himself never found Christianity emotionally appealing, and as a teenager became an atheist due to his concern with the problem of evil. Later on, as a professional philosopher, he wrote numerous important articles and books on atheism and participated in several public debates. I won’t dwell on these here because on the whole I found this section of the book rather boring.

The second part of the book is the philosophical part. Flew mostly recounts arguments of others that have convinced him, and puts forward rather few original ideas of his own. The argument from design, in particular the fine-tuning of physical constants to enable life, is probably the argument that carries most weight with him. He also cites the origin of life as an issue, although this section seems a bit confused to me. Initially he seemed simply unaware of recent research in abiogenesis; when this was pointed out to him, he said that that wasn’t the point. It seems to me that his argument is that life necessarily embodies intentionality, and that no mechanistic explanation can explain the origin of intentionality. However, he never uses the word “intentionality” so I’m not sure if I’m reading him correctly. Finally, he also suggests that the existence of laws of nature is best explained by an infinite Mind. He considers briefly the possibility that “laws of nature” are not real but are just human descriptions of reality, but dismisses this view without much argument.

Flew is at his best coming up with fresh questions to ask, and fresh ways to phrase old questions. His formulations and parables are deceptively simple—having the “why didn’t I think to say that?” quality—but are mesmerizing and have changed the way entire debates are framed. For example, the very fact that Richard Swinburne’s apologetics trilogy starts with a volume entitled The Coherence of Theism owes much to Flew’s celebrated “invisible gardener” argument, which insists that one start by making it clear what one even means by talking about God.

Flew does have a few new parables and ideas in this book. The one I liked best was that of “a satellite phone that is washed ashore on a remote island inhabited by a tribe that has never had contact with modern civilization.” The tribe’s scientists analyze the phone and conclude, “This particular combination of crystals and metals and chemicals produces what seems like human voices, and this means that the voices are simply properties of the device.”

On the whole though, the book mostly reports others’ arguments. In my view, Flew’s biggest weakness is that he tends not to anticipate the obvious objections to his arguments. Thus it seems to me that most experienced atheists will find Flew’s book enormously unsatisfying. The rebuttals that would spring to their mind are not even mentioned, let alone addressed.

The book has two appendices, one by Roy Abraham Varghese on the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, et al.) and one by N. T. Wright making the case for Christianity. Flew’s current view is probably best described as deistic, and he does not believe in an afterlife, let alone in any standard religion. However, he has high praise for Wright’s appendix, describing the Christian religion as “the one to beat!” Throughout the book, Flew insists that he has never changed his mind about the most important thing, which is to follow wherever the evidence leads. This principle has led him to deism and it would not be a shock if it leads him deeper into theism in the future.

Posted November 2008

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