Yes, the photo’s upside down! Actually, that’s how it appears on the cover of a recent book by the most influential atheist over the past fifty years. So-called ‘new’ atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have stood on his shoulders in debunking the existence of God. But Professor Antony Flew’s thinking has recently been turned upside down-or maybe right side up! He now believes in a Creator.
The book’s title declares: THERE IS NO GOD-but the ‘NO’ is scribbled out and replaced by an ‘A’. And the subtitle adds, How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.
Antony Flew engaged in debate with C.S. Lewis at the Oxford University Socratic Club in 1950, when he presented a paper called Theology and Falsification. This became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century. The Socratic principle emphasised by this club-of following the evidence wherever it may lead-became a guiding principle throughout Flew’s career.
It was that principle, he explains, which led him to change his mind about God after more than sixty years of atheism and a distinguished career as a philosopher. In a chapter entitled Atheism calmly considered (following John Wesley’s sermon, Predestination calmly considered), Flew describes his various debates with theists over the decades. Some were attended by thousands.
The professor found himself confronted in debate with increasing evidence of an intelligent designer behind the universe. Big Bang cosmology, implying that the universe had not always existed, had pulled the rug out from under some of his key arguments. Other developments in modern science too seemed to point to a higher Intelligence.
In May 2004, Flew was invited to participate in a symposium at New York University, to debate with Israeli scientist Gerald Schroeder and Scottish philosopher John Haldane. All were greatly astonished when he announced at the start that he now accepted the existence of a God.
The scheduled debate thus became a joint exploration of the implications of recent scientific discoveries. In one report of the event, it was said that of all the great discoveries of modern science, the greatest was God!
Asked that evening if recent work on the origin of life indicated creative Intelligence, Flew answered: ‘Yes, I now think it does… DNA (investigations h
ave shown)… that intellige
nce must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together.’
Atheists, he explained, were fond of appealling to the idea that given enough time, chance could produce anything, even life. But Schroeder impressed Flew by debunking the so-called ‘monkey theorem’: that enough monkeys banging away on enough keyboards could eventually produce a Shakespearean sonnet. Or, by analogy, that life could emerge by chance.
Schroeder referred to an experiement conducted by the British National Arts Council, in which six monkeys were put in a cage with a computer. One month and fifty typed pages later, not a single word had been produced by the monkeys. Not even the single-letter words of ‘a’ or ‘I’. Actually, argued Schroeder, the likelihood of getting a one-letter word was one in 27,000.
What chance then was there of getting a fourteen-line Shakespearean sonnet by chance? Schroeder did the maths and came up with 10 to the 690th. To get that in perspective, the number of particles in the whole universe-protons, electrons, and neutrons-is a mere 10 to the 80th!!
For Flew, this was a convincing display that the monkey theorem he and others had often used to discount any intelligent Creator was simply ‘rubbish’.
Flew calls his discovery of the Divine a pilgrimage of reason, not of faith. He claims no personal experience of God or any experience of the supernatural or miraculous. Yet he includes as an appendix in his book an article by Bishop Tom Wright arguing the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
Introducing the article-‘by far the best case for accepting Christian belief that I have ever seen’-Flew states: ‘I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honoured and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true… If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat.’
The book’s other remarkable appendix, by Flew’s collaborator Roy Abraham Varghese (The Wonder of the World), is a critique of the ‘New Atheism’, represented by Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Lewis Wolpert (Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast), and others.
Varghese accuses these ‘atheist evangelists’ of ignoring the very phenomena relevant to the question of God’s existence. These are: rationality, implicit in all our experience of the physical world; life, the capacity to act autonomously; consciousness, the ability to be aware; conceptual thought, the power of articulating and understanding language; and the human self, the ‘centre’ of consciousness and action. All the evidence we need is in our immediate experience, argues Varghese; only a deliberate refusal to ‘look’ is responsible for atheism of any variety.
Flew’s book is a powerful challenge to all to ‘look’ and follow the evidence wherever it may lead.
Till next week,