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Who Goes Where (or Who Cares)?

A couple of articles in the New York Times caught my eye over the past couple of days, the first dealing with the “conversion” of a prominent atheist and the second using this “conversion” in a discussion of the problem of evil. Antony Flew is a British philosopher who in 2004 announced, after a lengthy career as a professional philosopher devoted, at least in part, to arguing for the truth of atheism, that he had changed his mind. Professor Flew is apparently now an advocate of a form of deism—a long way away from belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but a significant change of course from the the position he held for the bulk of his career, to put it mildly.

To top it off, he’s written a book describing his “pilgrimage of reason” from atheism to deism in which he claims to simply be following the evidence wherever it leads. The book has been hailed by some as a breath of fresh air—a monument to the obvious relentless rationality of theism as opposed to the dogmatic fundamentalist atheism making all the headlines these days, a welcome respite from the attacks on faith which seem to pop up on a weekly basis in bookstores, magazines, and newspaper articles around North America.

Or is it? The problem with this scenario, according to Times writer Mark Oppenheimer, is that it seems that Flew did little of the actual writing of the book, remembered few of his discussions with influential scientists and philosophers, and may not even understand some of the concepts he employs in his own arguments. The co-writer listed on the cover of the book, Roy Abraham Varghese, apparently did more than just a bit of supplementary writing. The picture presented by Oppenheimer is of an almost senile old British gentleman being led around by the nose by an enthusiastic American Christian more than a little eager for a response to the wave of atheist writings that have come out in the last couple of years. Not only did Varghese do most of the writing, Oppenhemier claims, but there were additional editing and revising done by an American evangelical pastor. While Oppenheimer does not come straight out and accuse these people of deliberately manipulating Flew for their own purposes, this is definitely the sense one gets from his article. He concludes, politely, as follows:

At a time when belief in God is more polarizing than it has been in years, when all believers are being blamed for religion’s worst excesses, Antony Flew has quietly switched sides, just following the evidence as it has been explained to him, blissfully unaware of what others have at stake.

One day later, Stanley Fish’s column on suffering, evil, and the existence of God appeared, citing Bart Ehrman and Antony Flew as examples of people being driven in opposite directions by the problem of evil. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies who for most of his life was a committed Christian, came to a point where he could no longer reconcile his belief in a providential God with the amount of suffering he saw in the world. Flew… well, we already know about Flew. Upon concluding Fish’s article, one is unclear exactly what his purpose in writing it even was. It ends with a rather unremarkable statement of approval that Ehrman and Flew can maintain their respective positions on God and evil without degenerating into ridicule and hostility, and an acknowledgment that neither would likely be convinced by the other’s argument.

It also ends with an apparently hastily appended caveat acknowledging Oppenheimer’s article from the previous day—a piece which, one suspects, Fish was unaware of as he was preparing his article. It’s difficult to imagine that Fish would have been approvingly referring to Flew had he read Oppenheimer’s conclusions regarding the book’s authorship and the deteriorating state of Flew’s memory. While one is inclined to be a bit suspicious about how much the Times editors knew about the two articles and why they published them in the order they did, and while Oppenheimer’s portrayal of the “courtship” of Flew by American Christians over the last several decades seems a bit odd (as if the very fact that Flew had evangelical friends instantly made his atheism less sincere?), the story does leave a sour taste in the mouth. The idea of an ambitious Christian ghost writing a book for a former atheist does smack of desperation. The subtitle of the book, chosen by the publishers, is particularly odious in my opinion: “How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind?!” As if being an atheist was enough to get you on the wall of the local post office….

If Oppenheimer’s claims about this book’s authorship are true, the efforts of Varghese (and whoever else was involved) come across as rather defensive and reactionary. This whole business of tabulating how many and which intellectuals belong on one side or the other, or attempting to prove that this or that person was a “real” theist or atheist strikes me as rather juvenile. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do the same thing, the former claiming in a sense that every intelligent person throughout history was some kind of latent atheist, and that if they had only been presented with the wonders of Darwinian science, they too would have been as devout an atheist as he is, and the latter joining Dawkins and the theists in the tug-of-war over which camp Einstein “really” belongs in. It all gets rather tiresome and contributes virtually nothing to the issue under discussion.

The simple fact is that intelligent people can be found on either side of the atheist/theist divide. It’s not as if Flew is the first atheist to reconsider his position—some have even been rumored to embrace faith before their mental faculties go into decline—and there have obviously been many intelligent Christians (like Ehrman) who have renounced their faith as a result of their understanding of science, the problem of evil, or any combination of other factors. The issue isn’t intelligence, no matter how it is portrayed by either side. It’s not as if all thinking people are obliged to become either atheists or theists. Honest theists will admit that there are compelling reasons for disbelief and honest atheists will admit the opposite. The position one ends up taking seems to be determined less by intellectual capacity than by an act of the will.

Faith—whether it is in the various kinds of atheism or theism—has always been a decision made within the ordinary human constraints of finitude and epistemological limitation. Of course reason has a role to play, but it’s not the only role, nor is it necessarily the decisive one in every case. A broader acknowledgment of this rather obvious fact (from my perspective, at least) might go a long way toward sparing us the annoying tendency, found in both theistic and atheistic apologetics, of assembling all the intellectuals that can be found on either side, counting them up, and seeing who wins (being sure to denigrate those on the other side along the way). As if matters of importance could be decided that easily.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dave Chow #

    Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for the article. I can relate to Flew in an offsided kind of way…I’m still a Flames fan at heart…really…


    November 8, 2007
  2. Thanks Ryan,

    Great post, and thanks for the link to Fish’s article. Hope the thesis is coming along for you.


    November 8, 2007

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