Antony Flew, one of the world's leading philosophers, has changed his mind about God. And he has agnostics worried.
Some are mystified and others are angry. Typical of many responses is this one skeptical blogger: "Sounds to me like an old man, confronted by the end of life, making one final desperate attempt at salvation." Richard Carrier of The Secular Web even accuses him of "willfully sloppy scholarship."
His pedigree in philosophy explains the recent media frenzy and controversy. Raised in a Christian home and son of a famous Methodist minister, Flew became an atheist at age 15. A student of Gilbert Ryle's at Oxford, Flew won the prestigious John Locke Prize in Mental Philosophy. He has written 26 books, many of them classics like God and Philosophy and How to Think Straight. A 1949 lecture given to C. S. Lewis's Oxford Socratic Club became one of the most widely published essays in philosophy. The Times Literary Supplement said Flew fomented a change in both the theological and philosophical worlds.
Flew taught at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele, Reading, and has lectured in North America, Australia, Africa, South America, and Asia. The Times of London referred to him as "one of the most renowned atheists of the past half-century, whose papers and lectures have formed the bedrock of unbelief for many adherents."
Last summer he hinted at his abandonment of naturalism in a letter to Philosophy Now. Rumors began circulating on the internet about Flew's inclinations towards belief in God, and then Richard Ostling broke the story in early December for the Associated Press. According to Craig Hazen, associate professor of comparative religions and apologetics at Biola, the school received more than 35,000 hits on their site that contains Flew's interview for Philosophia Christi, the journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. At his home in Reading, west of London, Flew told me: "I have been simply amazed by the attention given to my change of mind."
So what exactly is the reason for and nature of his "change of mind"?
Flew has had to assure former students that he does not now believe in revealed religion. "Even one of my daughters asked if this meant we were going to say grace at meals," he said. "The answer is no."
Flew is also quick to point out that he is not a Christian. "I have become a deist like Thomas Jefferson." He cites his affinity with Einstein who believed in "an Intelligence that produced the integrative complexity of creation." To make things perfectly clear, he told me: "I understand why Christians are excited, but if they think I am going to become a convert to Christ in the near future, they are very much mistaken."
"Are you Paul on the road to Damascus?" I asked him.
Comedian Jay Leno suggested a motive for the change on The Tonight Show: "Of course he believes in God now. He's 81 years old." It's something many agnostics have said more seriously. However, Flew is not worried about impending death or post-mortem salvation. "I don't want a future life. I have never wanted a future life," he told me. He assured the reporter for The Times: "I want to be dead when I'm dead and that's an end to it." He even ended an interview with the Humanist Network News by stating: "Goodbye. We shall never meet again."
Flew's U-turn on God lies in a far more significant reality. It is about evidence. "Since the beginning of my philosophical life I have followed the policy of Plato's Socrates: We must follow the argument wherever it leads." I asked him if it was tough to change his mind. "No. It was not hard. I've always engaged in inquiry. If I am shown to have been wrong, well, okay, so I was wrong."