Did Antony Flew really leave his long-time atheist position and become a deist? And if so, why? After years of cryptic rambling and then a near media blackout, we’ll soon have some answers: Antony Flew’s latest book, documenting his conversion to theism, is set to arrive this November.
While some have tried to play down his importance, Flew is a significant figure in the history of atheism and philosophy, though very far from the “most notorious” as the book’s title claims (in fact, outside of some rather esoteric debates within academic philosophy ages ago, Flew is just not very well known). For most atheists, Flew’s conversion has been controversial less because of its ultimate significance and more because the whole matter has been downright confusing.
For starters, in 2001 and then again in 2003, rumors circulated that Flew had become a theist. Flew eventually swatted these rumors with a definitive essay entitled “Sorry to Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist!” Only a year later, however, he claimed that he had updated his position to sort of speculative deism based on doubts about the possibility of chemical origins of life.
Then, another turnaround: Flew seemed to reject many of the arguments that had led him to that point, saying that he felt he had been foolish and somewhat misled. Even so, Flew still claimed that he remained a deist, but declared himself too old to really consider or research the relevant subjects. When critics prodded him to explain the remaining justifications for his position further, he suggested that a forthcoming new edition of one of his classic books would finally explain his true position. But when it arrived in 2005… no such luck. Even more baffling, in 2005 he published an article called “My ‘Conversion” that bizarrely seemed to imply that he was still an atheist. Finally, in the face of increasing criticism over his cryptic arguments and even accusations of senility, Flew basically stopped talking about the issue altogether. (A more detailed summary of all the many confounding twists and turns in this saga is available from Richard Carrier, who corresponded with Flew for some time over this period)
In the last year or so, Flew hasn’t so much as finally explained his thinking as he has confirmed it in practice: by associating himself with the Intelligent Design movement. First he accepted an Intelligent Design award at a conservative evangelical university celebrating his conversion, and then signed a letter urging Tony Blair to start including ID in Britain’s schools.
It remains to be seen whether his reasoning in the new book will put him solidly in the ID camp or not (movement groupies are already claiming victory on this score), and exactly what his final reasoning will be. Interestingly, the second author listed on the book is Roy Abraham Varghese, one of the two figures that claim personal credit for “converting” Flew. Varghese himself usually shies away from most of the biological Intelligent Design critiques, though he seems sympathetic to their basic claims.
With evangelists and cranks from Kirk Cameron to Bill O’Reily citing Flew as proof of atheism’s ultimate intellectual failure, it will be interesting to see whether Flew’s conversion story can live up to the hype.