Overview:

Antony Flew's conversion is often heralded by creationist Christians as a feather in their cap.

In fact it is an indictment of their approach and methods.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

At some point during our merry journey through secularism, we all encounter some benighted religious people who make arguments that only seem to work if you already accept their conclusions.

Whenever Christians send messages about creationism to my atheism blog, they tend to be religious, faith-based arguments. I try to use scientific, evidence-based arguments in my responses. 

As a quick filter question, I often ask them to name one atheist who was ever convinced by these arguments. By this, I hope to demonstrate that their beliefs are the product of religious justifications rather than scientific investigations.

If I get a reply, Christians invariably mention Antony Flew. Flew was a British professor of philosophy during the last century and a vocal atheist. In 2004, he changed his mind and became convinced that there is a god.

He was trying to sell books. Never question the hustle.

Flew was not “one of many.” He’s one of an almost non-existent species. In fact, more educated people are more likely to be atheist. Atheists even tend to know more about religion than theists do. Other indicators of the rarity of this event are the flap when he announced his feelings and that no one in my inbox ever mentions anyone else.

In the subtitle to his 2005 book, There Is A God, Flew called himself the “world’s most notorious atheist.” This may seem self-serving in a world which had Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in it. I’m willing to bet that many OnlySky readers have never heard of Antony Flew until just now. However, he was trying to sell books. Never question the hustle.

Nevertheless, the people in my inbox, who also never heard of him, seem convinced that he was a leading light of a coherent atheist movement. As any atheist will explain, there is no such thing.

How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind

In this book, Flew says that his “one and only piece of relevant evidence [for a god] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species”. The italics are his.

In an interview with ABC in 2004 he said he believed in a god “very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam.” He also “still does not believe in an afterlife.” In an interview with the Humanist News Network the same year, he said he was “quite happy to believe in an inoffensive inactive god.” This is the same deist god the Thomas Jefferson and Einstein believed in. This definition of a god is so broad and naturalistic that it’s almost indistinguishable from atheism.

At the very least, no one in my inbox would relate to this understanding of “god.” Furthermore, it introduces the suspicion that none of them have read further than the title of the book.

What actually happened?

It’s impossible to know for sure. There is evidence to suggest that certain elements of the Intelligence Design movement were taking advantage of a confused, elderly man in a state of cognitive decline. There is also evidence that his co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese, wrote most of the book and Flew merely signed off on it.

It proved that the creationists will organize to knowingly lie.

In a 2007 New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer, Flew admitted to a certain forgetfulness and seemed more interested in discussing his support for UKIP than his philosophical positions. When asked directly about various people discussed at length in his own book, Flew was unable to remember them.

He also conceded that “he had not written his book.” When Oppenheimer asked Varghese about this, he said “he had done all the original writing for it.” The article concludes that Flew may have been “blissfully unaware” that he was manipulated by people he thought were his friends.

How could anyone be so mendacious?

The benchmark legal ruling on what creationists would do is the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. In this case, creationists were flying under the banner of Intelligent Design (ID). Creationists sometimes prefer to argue for ID because they can pretend it’s unrelated to a belief in a god. The final judgement ruled that the evidence of the ID witnesses “was marked by selective memories and outright lies under oath”, and that “ID is not science.” Furthermore, the decision of the school board in favour of ID was “breathtaking inanity.”

This came from a conservative Republican judge and had nothing to say about the truth or otherwise of the claims of ID. The only judgement was that it was obviously a matter of religion and not science. However, it proved that the creationists will organize to knowingly lie.

Try it for yourself

Conversations with a creationist can sometimes get bogged down in irrelevant details. If this happens to you, ask: “Do you believe in creationism because it’s where the facts led you or because of religion?”

Some creationists are honest about this. If the answer is “religion,” then you’re done. Everyone’s entitled to his own religious beliefs and that’s the end of the conversation. After that, if the conversation continues, it’s proselytising by definition.

If the answer is “facts,” then you should challenge him to find a single nonreligious person who subscribes to creationism. If he fails, it is reasonable to conclude, as the Republican judge did, that this opinion is religious and therefore outside the bounds of reality-based discussion. If they mention Antony Flew, you’ll know what to do.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...