How the world’s most prominent atheist changed his mind

The following was written by Ron Hay. Hay recently retired from the Anglican ministry in order to devote time to writing.

The December 2004 headline was eye-catching – “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God.” The Associated Press story went on to say, “A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half century has changed his mind. He now believes in God…based on scientific evidence.”

The professor in question was Antony Flew whom many rate as the pre-eminent British philosopher of the last half century, so his change of mind was certainly major news. Strangely, though, his story received the barest mention in the New Zealand media. Would that have been the case if a notable Christian, say Billy Graham, had announced that he had just become an atheist?

Overseas, the interest in Antony Flew’s announcement was huge. One commentator wrote: “Few religious stories have had such an impact.” Many welcomed the news. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, wrote: “His colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized by his story, but believers will be greatly encouraged, and earnest seekers will find much in Flew’s journey to illuminate their own path towards the truth.”

Others were, as Collins predicted, “scandalized” by the news and reacted angrily. Richard Dawkins accused Flew of “tergiversation,” that is, apostasy or betrayal, and made disparaging comments about this being a change of mind made in “old age.”

Since then Flew has produced a book outlining his intellectual journey and the reasons for his new conviction. Its title: There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. He describes his journey as a “pilgrimage of reason”, not of faith, and writes, “I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence.”

The question naturally arises: Why does he now believe this when he has defended and propounded atheism for more than half a century? His short answer is, “This is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.”

Two of the most striking things about Antony Flew are his honesty and humility. He is prepared to admit where he has been wrong on a number of philosophical issues, not just on the existence of God. There is a humility and an openness to follow the evidence where it leads that is often lacking in the so-called “new atheists.” He is keenly aware of how easy it is to let preconceived ideas shape the way we view evidence instead of letting the evidence shape our ideas. Therein, he says, “lies the peculiar danger… of dogmatic atheism.”

So, just what evidence has brought about this remarkable turn-around in Flew’s convictions? In his view, modern science spotlights three dimensions of the natural world that point to God. The first of these is the existence of the laws of nature. After spelling out their precision, symmetry, and regularity, he asks how did nature come packaged like this? The point is not just that these laws exist but that they are mathematical. That is, they are not found through direct observation, but are discovered through experiment and mathematical theory. The laws are “written in a cosmic code that scientists must crack.” Einstein described them as “reason incarnate.”

So the burning question is: who created the code? Where do the laws of physics come from? Even Stephen Hawking asks, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”

Flew, (following great scientists such as Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg and Dirac) comes to the conclusion that the only reasonable explanation for the laws of nature is that they originate in the mind of God. He quotes Einstein’s comment that the “laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”

Flew concludes that those scientists who point to the mind of God as the explanation for natural laws “propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science,” a vision that he personally finds “compelling and irrefutable.”

The second area of recent scientific study that leads Flew to the God conclusion is the investigation of DNA and the life of the cell. For Flew the key philosophical question here is: how can a universe of mindless matter produce self-replicating life?

George Wald, a Nobel prize-winning physiologist, once responded, “We choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance.” He later revised his view and concluded that there was a pre-existent mind that was the matrix of physical reality. “It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life, and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create.” Flew concurs.

The third area of evidence that leads Antony Flew to God is the consensus among scientists about the big-bang theory. He writes:

When I first met the big-bang theory as an atheist, it seemed to me the theory made a big difference because it suggested that the universe had a beginning and that the first sentence in Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) was related to an event in the universe. As long as the universe could be comfortably thought to be not only without end but also without beginning, it remained easy to see its existence (and its most fundamental features) as brute facts. And if there had been no reason to think the universe had a beginning, there would be no need to postulate something else that produced the whole thing.

But the big-bang theory changed all that. If the universe had a beginning, it became entirely sensible, almost inevitable, to ask what produced this beginning. This radically altered the situation.

Atheistic scientists have attempted to avoid the theistic implications of the big-bang. A number of escape routes have been tried. Stephen Hawking evokes the concept of “imaginary time.” Richard Dawkins and others posit the idea of multiple universes (the idea being that our universe was the product, perhaps through “vacuum fluctuation”, of other pre-existing universes.)

Flew regards the postulation of multiple universes as “a truly desperate alternative.” He writes: “If the existence of one universe requires an explanation, multiple universes require a much bigger explanation: the problem is increased by the factor of whatever the total number of universes is.” Then he adds, a little impishly, “it seems a little like the case of a schoolboy whose teacher doesn’t believe his dog ate his homework, so he replaces the first version with the story that a pack of dogs – too many to count – ate his homework.”

Some reports of Antony Flew’s conversion to theism claim that this does not amount to a belief in a personal God, but only to belief in an impersonal divine principle. This is quite untrue. In There is a God Flew explains in some detail how he struggled with the concept of a “person without a body” but came eventually to find the idea of an “incorporeal omnipresent Spirit” coherent. Following the three lines of evidence to their conclusion “has led me,” he writes, ‘to accept the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient Being.”(italics added)

What is true is that while Flew has moved from atheism to theism, he has not yet moved from theism to Christianity. However, he seems remarkably close. He ends his book with a presentation by N.T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar and the Bishop of Durham, on the “Self-Revelation of God in Human History.” N.T. Wright addresses the evidence for the deity and resurrection of Christ.

At the end of this presentation, Flew says how impressed he is with Tom Wright’s approach which he finds “absolutely wonderful, absolutely radical, and very powerful.” The man who has had the courage to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, and to do so despite having to disavow his much-publicised earlier beliefs, is clearly open to further development in his thinking. Regarding Christianity, he writes, ‘If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat.”

There is, though, a sad postscript to the Antony Flew story. There has been a tendency for both Christians and atheists, to use Flew to score points off the other. Some Christians have become triumphalistic about the ‘conversion’ of a famous atheist. On the other hand, some atheists have gone out of their way to discredit Flew’s book, claiming it is really the product of his co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese, and that Flew, in his eighties when the book was published, was too mentally frail to have written it. Flew admits he suffers from nominal aphasia (a tendency to forget names) but has strenuously denied accusations that the book is not his work. In response to a highly-sceptical article in the New York Times, he wrote: “My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100% agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I’m 84 and that was Roy Varghese’s role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I’m old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking.”

In light of this, there is no doubt that the book accurately reflects Antony Flew’s own position and presents his own “pilgrimage of reason.” In the midst of the dispute over authorship the book’s actual arguments have often been ignored in attempts to discredit the author. Now it is time to let the arguments speak for themselves and to consider them without party spirit or preconceived bias.

Ron Hay recently retired from the Anglican ministry in order to devote time to writing. (1624 words)