Atheist Finally “Sobers Up”
Nearly 30 years ago, a debate of significant proportions took place. It was September 20-23, 1976. The place was the campus of North Texas State University in Denton, Texas. The disputants were two longtime professors of philosophy—Thomas B. Warren (whose Ph.D. in philosophy was from Vanderbilt) and Antony G.N. Flew (who was teaching in the University of Reading near London, England). The propositions they debated juxtaposed succinctly the real issue between thorough-going (positive) atheism and thorough-going (biblical) theism. Dr. Flew affirmed, “I know that God does not exist,” and Dr. Warren affirmed, “I know that God does exist.”
Dr. Warren once explained why he selected Antony Flew as his opponent in the debate. His rationale was simple: if those who are on the cutting edge of philosophical thought and who are considered to be the leaders in their chosen area of expertise—the “best of the best” if you will—are unable to defend their position when confronted by a fair and accurate defense of the truth, their error will be exposed. Those who were influenced by these leading men would be forced (like the “domino effect”) to recognize the sterility of the viewpoint they had embraced. Antony Flew had been a leading champion of atheism for decades. His writings dominated philosophical journals, and he was a prolific author [his books included Hume’s Philosophy of Belief (1961), God and Philosophy (1966), Evolutionary Ethics (1967), An Introduction to Western Philosophy (1971), and even a book on logic—Thinking Straight (1975)]. Having taught at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele, and Reading universities in Britain, Flew also served as a visiting professor in many American universities, and conducted numerous debates in the process of defending his atheism.
For the first two nights of the Warren-Flew debate, Flew assumed the affirmative position in an attempt to prove that God does not exist. However, Warren’s kind-but-relentless assault in the negative position seemed to leave Flew battered, bewildered, and disoriented—so much so that when Dr. Warren assumed the affirmative position on the third night of the debate, he spent a few minutes attempting to ascertain the reason for Dr. Flew’s failure, while in the affirmative, to present a sound argument for his atheistic contention in a precise logical way:
It has been suggested that his failure is due to the fact that he is in a foreign country, but such could have little or nothing to do with this proposition. That he is out of his own country has nothing to do with how he handles intellectual material. Neither is his failure due to his not being accustomed to this style of debating. I have heard him in discussion before, and he seemed not to be bothered at all by the kind of format that was involved. Perhaps he did not know the responsibility of an affirmative speaker? But that cannot be so because, in his writings, he constantly chides a man who does not recognize his responsibility as an affirmant. Perhaps because he does not know the arguments? I deny that emphatically. In reading the works of Dr. Flew, I am convinced that he knows the arguments that are involved as well as anybody in the world. Perhaps because he does not understand or accept the law of rationality? The truth of the matter is: he has written very strongly and frequently in defense of it! But he has not acted in harmony with it in this discussion. Ordinarily, when he is writing in the affirmative, and he writes almost constantly of matters that are concerned with God or very closely related to God—at least subjects that are peripheral to the subject of God. In fact, it is the case that he is almost God-intoxicated. He constantly emphasizes in his books that the onus of proof is on the affirmative writer or speaker! But I am afraid that he has not recognized that truth in this discussion (1977, pp. 131-132, emp. in orig.).
In the very next speech—the first negative—Dr. Flew responded to Dr. Warren’s comments in the following words: “Dr. Warren may be assured that I am sobering up from God intoxication. I shall be writing considerably less, if anything, in this area in the future” (p. 143, emp. added). Now, 28 years later, Dr. Flew appears, indeed, to finally have sobered up. At the age of 81, he has announced to the world that, based upon the scientific evidence, he now believes in some type of God (“Famous Atheist…,” 2004). However, do not jump to any premature conclusions. One interviewer spoke with Dr. Flew about his recent adjustments in his thinking, and concluded:
The fact of the matter is: Flew hasn’t really decided what to believe. He affirms that he is not a Christian—he is still quite certain that the Gods of Christianity or Islam do not exist, that there is no revealed religion, and definitely no afterlife of any kind. But he is increasingly persuaded that some sort of Deity brought about this universe, though it does not intervene in human affairs, nor does it provide any postmortem salvation. He says he has in mind something like the God of Aristotle, a distant, impersonal “prime mover.” It might not even be conscious, but a mere force. In formal terms, he regards the existence of this minimal God as a hypothesis that, at present, is perhaps the best explanation for why a universe exists that can produce complex life. But he is still unsure. In fact, he asked that I not directly quote him yet, until he finally composes his new introduction to a final edition of his book God and Philosophy, due out next year. He hasn’t completed it yet, precisely because he is still examining the evidence and thinking things over. Anything he says now, could change tomorrow (Carrier, 2004).
Here is what Flew has stated about whether he believes in God in the biblical sense:
I do not think I will ever make that assertion, precisely because any assertion which I am prepared to make about God would not be about a God in that sense … I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations…. My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species… [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms (as quoted in Carrier, italics in orig., emp. added).
It’s a step. But Dr. Flew has a long way to go to arrive at the truth concerning God’s existence. Observe that even when an atheist is forced to recognize that the evidence demands that a purposive, intelligent Being lies behind the Creation, he still endeavors to relegate this intelligence to an impersonal force that does not “provide a postmortem salvation.” Why? Because the same Being also would provide a “postmortem condemnation” in which humans will rightly and justly receive punishment for their sinful behavior on Earth. Can’t have that, can we?! It would mean adjusting one’s daily life choices and relegating one’s stubborn pride beneath the will of God.
Flew also stated: “My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato’s Socrates: Follow the evidence, wherever it leads” (“Famous Atheist…,” emp. added). If that were true, he would have already been led to the truth that the God of the Bible exists (just read the Warren-Flew debate!). Indeed, all the available evidence leads to that singular conclusion. The very evidence that Flew now believes indicates the existence of some sort of God, is the same evidence that he once insisted supported atheism! It took him 66 years to arrive at this most recent conclusion (Flew has been a self-avowed atheist since he was 15). But given the current human lifespan, he does not have another 66 years to follow the evidence to where it leads.
Carrier, Richard (2004), “Antony Flew Considers God—Sort Of,” [On-line], URL: http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=369.
“Famous Atheist Now Believes in God” (2004), The Associated Press, December 9, [On-line], URL: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=315976.
Flew, Antony G.N. and Thomas B. Warren (1977), Warren-Flew Debate (Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press).
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