Thursday, April 08, 2010

Book Review: "There is a God" (Anthony Flew)

Title: There is a God (how the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind)
Author: Anthony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese
Published: HarperOne, 2007, (222 pages).

This book has atheists all up in arms against one of their foremost champions of atheism. In a remarkable turnaround in 2004, the British philosopher, Anthony Flew, turned from atheism and embraced Christianity. This comes about simply because of his shift of assumptions. Instead of waiting for proofs of God as his primary stance before belief, he decides to adopt the evidence against God attitude to deter his belief. It is like taking the position that God exists until He is proven otherwise. Written in two parts, the first part of the book contains three summary chapters of why he was an atheist for so many years. In fact, it was his paper, 'Theology and Falsification' that first propelled Flew to worldwide fame. He was frequently cited as a top advocate for atheistic thinking. In a remarkable testimony of his conversion, he describes himself as a person who has progressed from 'Denial of the Divine' to 'Discovery of the Divine.' He attributes this conversion to 3 key points.

Main Ideas in the Book
Philosophically, Flew reasons that
  1. The Universe came into being because of an Intelligent Creator;
  2. The laws of the Universe reflects a Higher Mind, called the Mind of God;
  3. Life and Reproduction is designed by a Divine Source.
Scientifically, Flew explains the three ways science points to the existence of God:
  1. 'Nature obeys laws' 
  2. The universe is intelligently organized and has 'purpose-driven beings.'
  3. The very existence of nature explains the presence of God.
On the point of suffering and evil. He argues that this perennial sticking point against the existence of God is not exactly a proof against a Divine God. In itself, they cannot be used to deny the existence of God. They can only manifest the presence and man's awareness of the existence of evil.

Against his former group of atheist friends, he pleads with them to answer the simple central question:
"What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a Superior Mind?" (88)

He criticizes the 'New Atheism' and the antics of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for promoting another version of fundamentalism, that sinks in a 'denying God unless otherwise' as an illogical and bigoted assumption.

Part I - My Denial of the Divine
The son of a Methodist preacher, Anthony Flew was a reluctant religious person when he was young. As a result, he begins with a denial point of view, and uses that to see everything, especially Christianity. He believes in following the 'argument wherever it may lead me.' (56) He takes part in meetings organized by CS Lewis's Socratic Club. He admits that his journey into atheism begins with a 'presumption of atheism' which assumes the denial of God as the first premise (53). With his brilliant mind, Flew was able to strongly argue for atheism and gained a sizable following for his debates. He begins to soften his stand when he acknowledges that atheism cannot disprove or explain the existence of the intelligence happening in the world. In a criticism of Richard Dawkins' 'selfish gene' thesis, Flew writes:

"If any of this were true, it would be no use to go on, as Dawkins does, to preach: 'Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.'" (80)

Moreover, if the selfish gene is true, Dawkins' philosophy describes a process of natural selection as 'elimination' rather than 'production.' While Dawkins's process seeks to eliminate and deny, he allows such a philosophy to eliminate and deny the existence of God, without adequate proofs!

Part II -My Discovery of the Divine
Seven chapters of the book is allocated to outline Flew's conversion experience. When one is a philosopher, one ought to think as a philosopher. When one is a scientist, one thinks as a scientist. Of course, a philosopher can think scientifically, and a scientist can think philosophically. Both however, needs wisdom, and this wisdom has to be from Somewhere, or from Someone. The seven chapters seem to be a submission to the existence of God, instead of fighting against it.

My Comments
This book will certainly be an embarrassment to atheists. Some of them will predictably distance themselves from Anthony Flew, and accuse Flew of senile and unstable age. Some even accuses the co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese of using the name of Anthony Flew to disprove atheism.

Such accusations are incredulous. Will a well-known philosopher be easily manipulated? Will it also be possible that given time to reflect and a rich history to make sense of, that Anthony Flew has finally attained a level of wisdom that he has never before discovered? Didn't he suggest a posture of being willing to listen and be open to the existence of God?

This is a commendable book. It goes through the mind of an atheist, and diligently engages the questions and many legitimate puzzles of life from both fronts, a belief and an unbelief perspective. The Appendices provide a powerful re-statement of Flew's theistic arguments as well as a re-statement of the core tenets of the Christian faith. In particular, NT Wright's treatise on the Resurrection is in itself worth the price of the book.

I get a sense that Anthony Flew's conversion is still somewhat more deistic rather than theistic.  The former means that God is a distant clock-maker, uninterested in the happenings in this world. The latter reflects a personal God. Anyway, Flew's decision to embrace the existence of God is something that we can all learn from. It is a reasonable challenge not to let the atheists get away with everything they want to say. Scientists and philosophers alike need to let the evidence guide them. More importantly, they need to recognize that their faith and beliefs are the ones usually the key to helping them interpret these evidence.  For those of us who embraces God, we have something even better: Wisdom from above, through Jesus.



Marco said...

"One of the worlds foremost atheists"? I have to admit, I'm a little surprised at this. I've never heard of him.

Conrade Yap said...

Hi Marco,

Back in the 60s, Anthony Flew was the 'Richard Dawkins' or the 'Sam Harrises' of that time. He is a fierce critic of CS Lewis.

It's ok to have not heard of him. Now you have. Cheers.


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