Natural Theology from a Former Atheist: A Book Review of Anthony Flew’s “There is a God” Part I

Just about any Christian who is at all familiar with apologetics has probably heard of the famous Socratic Club. Founded in 1941 at Oxford University, the Socratic Club was an open forum for debates between atheists and Christians. The head of this forum from 1942 to 1954 was none other than the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis.[1] It is widely known that the Socratic Club helped Lewis to build his defenses of the Christian religion and served as a launchpad for many of his written works.

But just because the Socratic Club was led by a Christian did not mean that it was dominated by Christians. It also served as a launchpad for many great atheist thinkers, one of whom was a young man by the name of Anthony Flew. Of the Socratic Club, Flew wrote, “the Socratic principle I saw exemplified there-of following the evidence wherever it may lead-increasingly became a guiding principle in the development, refinement, and sometimes reversal of my own philosophical views.”[2]

Flew had rejected his Christian upbringing and became an atheist by the age of fifteen. This rejection of Christianity and theism was brought on by what he now calls “two juvenile inconsistencies: (1) the problem of evil was a decisive disproof of the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God; and (2) the “free-will defense” did not relieve the Creator of responsibility for the manifest ills of creation.”[3]

In the summer of 1950, Anthony Flew plunged headlong into the philosophical waters when he read his paper “Theology and Falsification” to the Socratic Club at Oxford. This paper was met with considerable acclaim and was published in multiple journals.[4]

And just as Lewis became one of the most prolific writers and champions of Christianity and theism, Anthony Flew went on to become one of the most prolific writers and champions of atheism. He wrote numerous books and scholarly papers arguing against theism, as well as participating in several monumental debates over the course of his career in philosophy.

Then in 2004 the late Anthony Flew sent shockwaves across the philosophical community when he announced that he had become a theist. This dramatic reversal of his position was met with cynicism and outright hostility. I remember Richard Dawkins even saying that Anthony Flew had lost his mind because of his age. His book, “There is a God” was both an answer and a challenge to his critics. In part one of this review I will be discussing the strengths and weakness of his monumental work, and in part two I will analyze its theological impact.

Strengths and Weaknesses

On the very first page of the book, Anthony Flew wrote “Ever since the announcement of my “conversion” to deism, I have been asked on numerous occasions to provide an account of the factors that led me to change my mind.”[5]  Upon reading this, one thing immediately leaped out at me; why deism? As I read through the book, I found myself hoping that Flew would explain this. He was a brilliant philosopher, so I was hoping that I was in store for an excellent articulation and defense of his deist position. Perhaps he would have a stellar argument for deism that I had never heard. There was none. I came away disappointed. His deism is simply assumed, and I still find myself wondering what justification he had for it.

Flew said that he believed in the God of Aristotle, a God that is a “self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient Being.”[6] While I most certainly respect that view, I cannot help but view it as a semi-contradiction. The way I have always understood the classical deist philosophers such as Voltaire and Thomas Paine is that they do not ascribe any specific attributes to the deity other than its action as a creator or prime-mover followed by non-intervention. In short, God creates, then God withdraws, and that is all we can know about God. Thus, when Flew ascribed these attributes to God, he is to my mind deviating from classical deism. From God’s one act of creation how does he discern that God is omnipotent, omniscient and immutable? One could argue that such attributes are only knowable through special revelation as opposed to general revelation. Simply put, can we demonstrate these attributes purely from natural theology? Does the creation reveal enough to say that God is somehow omnipotent? Natural theology, despite its importance, has severe limitations, and I feel Anthony Flew had perhaps made an unintentional leap without even realizing it.

Here, Flew’s thesis of ‘following the evidence wherever it leads’ is weak. He did not provide any evidence that the deist view of God is the correct one, and that is my greatest criticism of the book.

That said, overall the book is excellent, and it has many strengths. First of all, he provides a devastating critique of atheism (particularly the ‘New Atheism’) and naturalism. He quips “Since we cannot accept a transcendent source of life, we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance from matter.”[7] He argues that atheism and naturalism are simply assumed, that such biases cloud their judgment and that they are unable to ‘follow the evidence wherever it leads.’ He throws down a gauntlet challenge to the atheists and naturalists: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?”[8]

And although he was a deist, he was very fair to Christians. He speaks very favorably of Christianity, a religion that is frequently under attack. He says, “I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true.”[9] He is even gracious enough to include an Apologetics 101 style defense of the resurrection of Jesus from N.T. Wright. It is a powerful way to close the book, but it left me wondering if he had seriously investigated the claims of any other religion besides Christianity.

[1]. Anthony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 23.

[2]. Flew and Varghese, There Is a God, 42.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid., 43.

  1. Ibid., 1.

[6]. Ibid., 155.

[7]. Ibid., 86- 87.

[8]. Ibid., 88.

[9]. Ibid., 185.

Image Source: Derek Bennett Attribution Via Flickr

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2 thoughts on “Natural Theology from a Former Atheist: A Book Review of Anthony Flew’s “There is a God” Part I

  1. “I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true.”

    I didn’t read the book. Did he ever explain why? How can a scientist make a statement like that unless he is conversant in the world of religion and religious history. I can understand that this was the religion he grew up in and was most familiar with, and the debates were between atheists and Christians, it seems not including any other theists or deists. Do you think there were psychological/sociological factors involved? As an apostate of atheism, he would encounter vitriol and rejection from his former compatriots, and Christians would treat him kindly, hoping he would move in their direction and provide them with validation. Just think of the money he would make on the publishing and speaker circuit. “…world’s most notorious atheist,” sounds like hype that would work well on The 700 Club.

    It sounds like what you are saying is Flew took a leap of faith, and atheists would have a right to jump all over him for claiming this is sourced in empiricism, rather than in meaning.

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