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

Theological Analysis and Impact

In part one of my book review of “There is a God” I argued that Flew’s theological deism is questionable, if not suspect. The theological impact of this book, however, is vast with regards to natural theology. Indeed, it is the best book containing arguments for the existence of God based on natural theology that I have read in a great many years. I will highlight several key points in this final section of my review.

First of all, I very much appreciate and respect that he said “my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology. It has had no connection with any of the revealed religions.”[1] Anthony Flew had no direct experience of God, no mystical encounters, no supernatural revelations. He really did follow the evidence, and the evidence led him to theism. This fact is important because all too often we have a tendency to place theism in a category of blind existentialism, or what Francis Schaeffer would have called ‘upper-story.’ Belief, the critics so frequently charge, is entirely devoid of reason. It is faith divorced from and without logic. I feel we see this even more in our culture today. People seek mystical encounters with God. They want supernatural revelations. We want to experience God, but this kind of experience is frequently divorced from reason, and thus it cannot be articulated, validated or defended. As a theologian, I know this plays right into the hands of our critics. Is it any wonder that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher portray Christians as being totally illogical?

I have heard many Christian ministers and even apologists say that modernism is completely dead; that we are thoroughly in a postmodern world and the way Christians must witness to the secular world is entirely different; that people want to hear about our “experiences.” I have had my experiences and encounters, yes, but I beg to differ. Modernism is very much alive and well in our culture today and no more do we see this than in the area of science and naturalism. This former atheist confronts philosophical naturalism head-on, demonstrating that theism does not have to be divorced from reason and logic, showing instead that a kind of theism can be arrived at by simply weighing the evidence in the world around us. I thank God for Anthony Flew for he has handed us arguments for the existence of God from natural theology and reason alone.

He lays his cards on the table and says “Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature.”[2]

In chapter five, Flew argues for design. He notes that there are regularities in nature and how these regularities are all so mathematically precise that they must be tied together.[3] His point is that the complexities we see in the operation of the natural laws are best explained by a lawmaker. He quotes Paul Davies, who said “Atheists claim that the laws [of nature] exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted.”[4]

In chapter six, Anthony Flew makes a brilliant analogy. What if someone checked into a hotel room, found their favorite music play on the cd player, found their favorite books on the desk and their favorite drinks in the fridge? If all of those things were in the room waiting for the person, someone must have known they were coming. He appeals to the anthropic principle, arguing that our universe is finely tuned. For example, Flew states that if the speed of light or the mass of an electron had been even slightly different, then no planet capable of producing human life would have even been possible.[5] The naturalists have tried to explain this away by saying that we live in a “multiverse” and that our universe is just one drop in an endless ocean of universes. Flew pokes several holes in this theory, saying there is no evidence to even support the theory and that it is purely speculative.[6] Furthermore, he argues that even if the multiverse theory were true, it does not remove the need for God or “eliminate the question of a divine Source.”[7] Indeed, why does our universe support life out of the endless billions of them?

In chapters seven and eight he articulates a classically theistic argument; ‘why is there something rather than nothing’? In chapter seven, he argues that there is no law in nature that instructs it to produce end-directed and self-replicating entities.[8] He demonstrates how the big bang theory is a game changer. Now that we know the universe had a beginning, we must in turn ask why that beginning occurred. He states how “empty space” does not always mean “nothing”; it is often implied that something existed prior to the big bang. But even if this were true, no matter how we say the universe originated, it does not answer the profound question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’[9]

Anthony Flew’s book “There is a God” has far more strengths than it does weaknesses. Its brilliant arguments are an open challenge to atheists, agnostics and naturalists. It provides a well-reasoned defense of theism for theists of all stripes, and I think it is wonderful that this former atheist wrote such an intellectually honest book.

But in conclusion, I would have had one more personal challenge for him. He asked “Where do I go from here? In the first place, I am entirely open to learning more about the divine Reality, especially in the light of what we know about the history of nature.” [10] In a book that is all about ‘following the evidence wherever it leads’, he suddenly came to an abrupt halt and seemed content to remain at a safe distance. It reminds me of Moses who fell just short of the promised land. He said that as a boy, prayers for him were nothing more than a duty and that he had no desire to attempt to commune with God.[11] I wonder what would have happened if he had opened his heart and sincerely tried to commune with God?

Indeed, God met another intellectual giant and turned that former atheist into the “most reluctant convert in all of England.” The way I see them, although C.S. Lewis and Anthony Flew may have ‘locked horns’[12] more than 64 years ago at the Socratic Club, both of them went down similar roads, of ‘following the evidence wherever it leads’; only C.S. Lewis went one step further. Perhaps in looking forward to a deeper understanding of the divine reality, Anthony Flew should have first looked backwards to that very Socratic Principle which so shaped the lives of these two men and their intellectual journeys. Perhaps the evidence would have led him to the same God that Lewis encountered, a God that had been waiting for him all along.

[1]. Ibid., 93.

[2]. Ibid., 88-89.

[3]. Ibid., 96.

[4]. Ibid., 111.

[5]. Ibid., 113-115

[6]. Ibid., 119.

  1. Ibid., 117.
  2. Ibid., 131.

[9]. Ibid., 141-143.

[10]. Ibid., 156-157.

  1. Ibid., 10.
  2. Ibid., 22

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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