One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

While we’re on the subject of atheism, I should mention the “conversion” of Anthony Flew. He is a renowned philosopher who for the second half of the 20th century was perhaps the world’s leading atheist. He first came to prominence as a philosopher when he presented a paper at the Oxford University Socratic Club in 1950, chaired at the time by C. S. Lewis, himself a former atheist. The Socratic Club was formed for the purpose of providing “an open forum for the discussion of the intellectual difficulties connected with religion and with Christianity in particular.” Flew’s paper was entitled “Theology and Falsification,” and became the one of the most widely reprinted philosophical publications of the 20th century. He went on to write more than thirty books, including God and Philosophy, The Presumption of Atheism, and How to Think Straight.

Several years ago I showed a televised debate between Flew and Dr. Gary Habermas on the subject of Christ’s resurrection to a small Bible study group. One of the really interesting things about the debate was how clearly it showed the power of presuppositions. Flew admitted that in a world where miracles were possible the evidence for the resurrection of Christ was very persuasive. The problem was (from his perspective): we don’t live in a world where miracles are possible. Ergo, there must be some other explanation for the evidence. Flew came across as a very likable guy, a grandfatherly type, someone you were moved to pity rather than be angry with for his arguing against the faith. Unlike the trio mentioned in the previous post, he was respectful and courteous.

It was with a great deal of interest, therefore, that I read some years later of his “conversion.” The word is in quotes because it was not a conversion to the Christian faith, but to a form of Deism. As he explains in his newest book (2007), There is a God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind,

I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source.

Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science... (p. 88)

The leaders of science over the last hundred years, along with some of today’s most influential scientists, have built a philosophically compelling vision of a rational universe that sprang from a divine Mind. As it happens, this is the particular view of the world that I now find to be the soundest philosophical explanation of a multitude of phenomena encountered by scientists and laypeople alike.

Three domains of scientific inquiry have been especially important for me… The first is the question that puzzled and continues to puzzle most reflective scientists: How
did the laws of nature come to be? The second is evident to all: How did life as a phenomenon originate from nonlife? And the third is the problem that philosophers handed over to cosmologists: How did the universe, by which we mean all that is physical, come into existence?” (p. 91)
In the book he explains how he--though growing up the son of a Methodist minister--became an atheist, and what, in turn, caused him to reconsider the whole question. He is not yet a Christian, but he clearly expresses profound respect for the Christian faith.

In both my antitheological books and various debates, I have taken issue with many of the claims of divine revelation or intervention. My current position, however, is more open to at least certain of these claims. In point of fact, I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected… If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat. (pp. 185-186).

He includes two appendices written by Christian thinkers. The first is a critical appraisal of the New Atheism, written by Roy Abraham Varghese, a devout Syrian Rite Catholic. The second is entitled, “The Self-Revelation of God in Human History,” by the well-known Anglican leader, N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham.

Anthony flew over the cuckoo’s nest of atheism and seems to be on his return flight. C.S. Lewis took a similar path. He grew up in the church, became an atheist as a young man, found atheism to be intellectually untenable, became a Deist, and eventually a Christian. We may hope and pray for the same happy ending for Anthony Flew.

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