The recent reports that the prominent atheist philosopher Antony Flew has changed his position to one far more accommodating to theism, have sparked much controversy. Rationalist International, for example, has denounced the reports, which it describes as a “sensationalist campaign in the internet,” and has reprinted a 2003 letter responding to similar rumors from last year, in which Flew says, “Those rumors speak false.”
In that very letter, however, Flew makes an important concession — one which I find to be quite dispositive in the argument over the existence of God: Flew concedes that the theist position is as consonant as the naturalist/atheist position is with the scientific facts about the origins of the universe: “I recognize that developments in physics coming on the last twenty or thirty years can reasonably be seen as in some degree confirmatory of a previously faith-based belief in god [sic], even though they still provide no sufficient reason for unbelievers to change their minds.”
As to whether these developments have convinced Flew to accept a theist position himself, Flew says directly, “They certainly have not persuaded me.”
However, Flew has indeed conceded what must be seen as the criticial point. It is this: that atheism has, at its base, a leap of faith exactly identical to that which theists make. Theists look at all the evidence we encounter in the natural world and conclude that it is consonant with belief in an intelligent, all-powerful being behind it, whom we call God. Atheists look at the same evidence and conclude that this cosmos must have all just happened somehow. The critical point is that neither position is provable.
Flew’s great innovation in his 1950 article “Theology and Falsification” was to point out the first half of this formulation: that the belief in God is not scientifically falsifiable and hence not a scientific statement. Well and good. Flew is exactly correct, if we are willing to narrow our concept of science to a concern for only that which is materially provable — a perfectly reasonable position. What Flew failed to do, however, and what is indeed impossible to achieve, was to prove that the atheist case is scientifically falsifiable and hence a truly scientific position. It is neither. What Flew’s clever argument did was to place theists on the defensive by suggesting that their position was uniquely unscientific. It is most decidedly not, and never has been so.
The argument succeeded brilliantly, however, even though it had already been answered by writers such as C. S. Lewis. The great Oxford don Lewis had pointed out, in his book Miracles, published in 1947, that there are only two possible philosophies, or worldviews, in our world: Christianity (under which he which placed all theist orientations) and Hinduism (in which he included all naturalist/materialist philosophies). Lewis’s argument made it clear that contrary to the claims of its adherents, materialist philosophy had no fundamental philosophical advantage over theist positions.
Hard as he tried, Flew’s argument did nothing to change that, although he did succeed in emboldening materialist philosophers and their adherents and in placing Christians on the defensive. It is interesting, moreover, that Flew should have made this case in a paper for the Socratic Club, a weekly Oxford religious forum led by Lewis. Clearly it was devised as an answer to Lewis’s argument in Miracles, but it is a definite failure on that count, even though it became a popular atheist argument for more than a half-century.
Today, despite the hopes and dreams of his fellow atheists such as the Rationalist International, Flew has indeed shifted his ground to a position far more accommodating to theism. In a recent interview with Dr. Gary Habermas, Flew moved toward what he openly agrees is a Deist position, and he made many further concessions under questioning from Habermas, including the following crucial one: “a knock-down falsification … is most certainly not possible in the case of Christianity.”
The introduction to the interview summarizes Flew’s current position as follows: “in January 2004, Flew informed Habermas that he had indeed become a theist. While still rejecting the concept of special revelation, whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic, nonetheless he had concluded that theism was true. In Flew’s words, he simply ‘had to go where the evidence leads.'” I am not certain at this point that it is fair to characterize Flew’s position as theism, but it is undeniable that he has now conceded the main point: that neither atheism nor theism has any special, fundamental, philosophical advantage or disadvantage over the other. That is a huge change.
Flew appreciates the magnitude of this development, noting the following in a summation near the end of the interview: “This is an important matter about rationality which I have fairly recently come to appreciate. What it is rational for any individual to believe about some matter which is fresh to that individual’s consideration depends on what he or she rationally believed before they were confronted with this fresh situation. For suppose they rationally believed in the existence of a God of any revelation, then it would be entirely reasonable for them to see the fine tuning argument as providing substantial confirmation of their belief in the existence of that God.”
From a philosophical perspective, that is all that the theists need: to have the argument back on level ground. It is indeed the correct philosophical position and the right scientific one, and Flew is to be commended for his willingness to “go where the evidence leads.” The conclusion is a simple one: Atheists have no greater claim to scientific truth or rationality than theists do. If theists are allowed to argue on the same footing as atheists, it will be better for science and philosophy alike. That makes Antony Flew’s recent change of thinking very important indeed.