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Flew the coop

Religion | How a prominent atheist philosopher made the revolutionary decision to become a theist

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

College freshmen taking Philosophy 101, in which the professor is trying to challenge Christianity, have likely encountered the writings of Antony Flew. Mr. Flew has been called the most influential atheist philosopher in the world, and his arguments against the existence of God are staples of many college anthologies and textbooks. Now he says that he believes there is a God.

Mr. Flew still does not accept any revealed religion, including Christianity. He has simply become a "theist," or, as he says, a "deist," believing that God created the world but no longer has a personal relationship with it. Nevertheless, as philosopher Angus Menuge says, for "one of the 20th century's most famous atheist philosophers" to become a theist is "huge news in philosophy."

The news broke when a forthcoming interview with Mr. Flew in the Christian philosophy journal Philosophia Christi was posted on the internet. The interview is a conversation between Mr. Flew and Gary Habermas, a philosophy professor at Liberty University whom Mr. Flew credits with helping him change his mind. Mr. Flew has also announced his new position in letters to philosophy journals and in an upcoming introduction to a new edition of his classic book on the subject, God and Philosophy.

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Key to his conviction that there must be an intelligent mind behind the universe is the nature of DNA. As Nancy Pearcey, author of Total Truth, explains it, "At the heart of life, at the center of each cell in every living thing, is a language, a code, or what we would call information. There is no known natural process capable of producing information. A message or information is diagnostic of an intelligent source."

Mr. Habermas has debated Mr. Flew several times, and the two had become friends. He told WORLD that the first inkling he had that Mr. Flew was changing his thinking came after their nationally televised debate in 2000. In their ensuing correspondence, Mr. Flew conceded some of Mr. Habermas's arguments. Mr. Flew vacillated, sometimes saying that he thought he was becoming a theist but then concluding, "I'm an atheist with big questions."

Mr. Flew asked for titles of books on Intelligent Design. He wrote Mr. Habermas that he was finding William Dembski's mathematics in The Design Inference over his head but that Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box is an "incredible book." That title argues that the minimal cellular and biochemical requirements for life display an "irreducible complexity" that cannot be random but must have been designed. In January 2004, Mr. Flew told Mr. Habermas that he had definitely become a theist.

Mr. Habermas says the impact on the atheist movement is similar to what would happen in the evangelical world if Billy Graham or J.I. Packer renounced Christianity. Atheists have gone into damage-control mode, insisting that Mr. Flew is just proposing a hypothesis or that he is accepting only a very minimal God so that the change is no big deal. But, as Mr. Habermas told WORLD, for a leading atheist spokesman to believe in a Creator whom he calls God is a very big deal indeed.

For the 81-year-old Mr. Flew, renouncing his life's work and the reason for his fame is a matter of intellectual honesty. "My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato's Socrates," he says. "Follow the evidence, wherever it leads."

What holds him back from Christianity? Mr. Flew cannot believe in a God who would consign anyone to hell. Nor does he believe in an afterlife. But Mr. Habermas says Mr. Flew now concedes that the accounts of Jesus' resurrection constitute better evidence than that presented for most miracles. He also appreciates the Bible and is attracted to the person of Jesus.

Mr. Menuge, the author of Agents Under Fire, which applies Intelligent Design to the field of philosophy, points out that C.S. Lewis too started as a theist and ended as a Christian. "Flew is a truly remarkable man with a mind as clear and severe as sunlight, and we can hope that although he says he is only a theist, God is continuing his alien work and drawing him to faith."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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