Atheist changed his mind

08/16/2008 7:58 AM

08/16/2008 8:33 AM

Recent books by "new atheism" authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have made headlines and put arguments against the existence of God back into the culture wars.

But a shock to atheist proponents -- comparable to a massive California earthquake -- came in 2004 when renowned atheist and philosophy professor Antony Flew of England said he had changed his decades-long stance and acknowledged that God exists.

His book "There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind" (Harper One, $24.95) was published late last year and details his beliefs.

At the age of 15, Flew broke with his parents' faith -- his father was a Methodist minister -- and proclaimed he was an atheist. At Oxford, he attended weekly meetings of C.S. Lewis' Socratic Club, where he disagreed with his fellow philosopher's Christian views. In 1950, Flew wrote the essay "Theology and Falsification," which was the most widely reprinted philosophical publication in the past half century.

Flew's books, among them "God and Philosophy," "The Presumption of Atheism" and "How to Think Straight," have been among the standard-bearers of atheism.

But the philosopher said in his new book that he always believed in "following the argument no matter where it leads."

For Flew, it was the modern science of DNA and the refutation by Gerry Schroeder of the "monkey theorem" that changed his mind regarding evolution and intelligent design. In his final public debate in 2004, Flew said, "What I think DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together."

The monkey theorem defends the possibility of life arising by chance rather than by design by saying that if you have a multitude of monkeys banging on computer keyboards, you will eventually end up with a Shakespeare sonnet.

Schroeder pointed to an experiment conducted with six monkeys and a computer in a cage. After one month, the monkeys had produced 50 typed pages, but not a single word -- not even "a" or "I". Schroder then said even if the entire universe was converted to computer chips that put out trials at a million times a second, "you will never get a sonnet by chance."

Flew writes, "Why do I believe (in God), given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than half a century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science."

It's important, however, to point out that Flew's belief is in "the God of Aristotle," which Flew said is compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition. He is a deist -- one who believes God created the universe, but doesn't intervene in personal life, although he is open to that possibility. Flew said his mind change "had no connection with any of the revealed religions. ... In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and faith."

The book got a scathing review in the New York Times, calling into question the 80-plus-year-old Flew's mental capacity and saying he was being manipulated by co-author Roy Varghese and an editor, both Christians.

The charges are ludicrous, Varghese said from his home outside of Dallas this week.

"You cannot manipulate a British philosopher. I guarantee that. They are as independent as they can be," said Varghese, a native of India.

He was first introduced to Flew in the 1980s, when the well-known atheist participated in conferences that included atheists and theists. Even before 2004, Varghese said he saw some shifts in the philosopher's thinking.

"The scientific ideas that were prominent in his heyday is that life came from a primordial soup, that life was always here," Varghese said. "Then came the big bang theory. (Flew) said in 1992 that the current cosmological consensus about the origin of the universe having a beginning was an embarrassment to atheists. That had a big influence on him."

The author said Flew's shift from atheism to deism is huge.

"Tony Flew was pushing the envelope as far as atheism," Varghese said. "Most of the atheists were basically knocking the arguments for God's existence. What Flew did was come up with innovative arguments against the existence of God. It was not a counterargument. No one had ever posed that kind of argument before. He said the very concept of God was incoherent.

"So for a person who was on the vanguard of atheism dramatically changing is pretty dramatic. It's like Einstein saying that he was entirely wrong about the theory of relativity. Or Darwin saying that evolution doesn't exist. It at least deserves a second look.

"I hope people will come away from the book believing that God exists."

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