When I was a young atheist, the well-known British philosopher Antony Flew was perhaps the world’s most prominent advocate of atheism. The legendary Bertrand Russell was already dead and gone. Another atheist, Carl Sagan was better-known than Flew, but not for his atheism. Admittedly, Madelyn Murry-O’Hair was far more famous than any them, at least in the U.S. (though I doubt anyone would have tagged “the most hated woman in America” with the word “prominent”). Richard Dawkins, meanwhile, had recently written The Selfish Gene, but his public advocacy of atheism in books such as The Blind Watchmaker (1986) lay several years in the future.
Today most people probably think of Flew as the atheist who late in life changed his mind and converted to deism. That conversion is probably what I most admire about the man. He was intellectually honest, the rare individual willing to publicly state that he had been mistaken, regardless of the effect on his reputation.
Some have argued that Flew, who died earlier this year, was past his mental prime at the time of his conversion. They have comforted themselves with the notion that because of cognitive decline Flew became susceptible to intelligent design arguments which in his youth he would not have found convincing. I think that misunderstands the man. As I see it, Flew’s change of mind is neither surprising nor, in the context of his agnostic atheism, the result of declining mental ability. Rather, it was the result of his approach to the question of God’s existence.
The Presumption of Atheism
Flew came to prominence at a time when most thoughtful religious skeptics identified themselves not as atheist but as agnostic on the subjerct of God’s existence. Flew argued (successfully, it appears in retrospect) that the skeptic position should be embraced as athesim not agnosticism. He did so by arguing that the burden of proof is on the side proposing a proposition. For the same reason that we place the burden in criminal cases on the prosecution—namely the difficulty of proving a negative—so we should do so for the assertion that there is a God.
The result was that the term atheist effectively went from meaning “someone who disbelieves God’s existence” to meaning “someone who disbelieves God’s existence has been demonstrated”. It went from being a negative conclusion about God’s existence to being a negative conclusion about the evidence for God’s existence.
Flew was aware, of course, of arguments which put God’s existence in doubt, such as the problem of evil. But he knew that the problem of evil only applies if God is defined as omnibenevolent, something not all believers necessarily assert. In particular, minimalist deism does not insist on God’s goodness. Thus the primary matter which separated Flew’s atheist position from minimalist deism was his judgment that there was insufficient evidence for the existence of a creator.
True to form, and honest to the bone, in later years, once he became aware of viable arguments for the existence of a creator, Flew embraced minimalist deism.
For my part, I always thought the presumption of atheism was incorrect, or at least inappropriate. The burden, in science (and society generally), properly belongs on whoever is attempting to change the consensus viewpoint. Imagine, for example, a quantum physicist who claims that quarks do not exist, but rather than making a case for his negative position, instead rests his case on the claim that the burden of proof is on all the other quantum physicists who believe in quarks. Prove it to me, he tells them.
What would likely be the response from his fellow scientists? Would they find his aquarkism convincing? Highly unlikely. Much more likely he would find himself ignored or ridiculed until he himself presented good evidence for his negative point of view.
In science, if an established proposition has been found to be more useful and successful than its competitors, it receives the benefit of the doubt. Anyone who wants to challenge that proposition will find the burden of proof is on them. Why, in a world in which the vast majority believe in a creator, should we expect anything different?
The Warren-Flew Debate
My own exposure to Antony Flew began during my first quarter at college—philosophy 101. One of our textbooks was the Flew-edited anthology, Body, Mind and Death. This was, it should be mentioned, a couple years before I became an atheist. Flew had little or no influence over my own conversion to disbelief, but after turning atheist I began to cast around looking for other atheists I could learn from. I looked first to Bertrand Russell, but in Russell I found several important points of disagreement—I was not a Bertrand Russell sort of atheist.
What about Flew? I was introduced to Flew’s atheism by a coworker on an archaeology dig who happened to be a Christian missionary for the Church of Christ. Upon learning I did not believe God existed, he was eager to proselytize. He told me about a four-night debate on the existence of God between Antony Flew and Thomas Warren of the Church of Christ, held in 1976. He claimed that Warren demolished Flew in short order, along with any intellectual justification for atheism.
I bit, and bought the transcript of the debate, the Warren-Flew Debate on the Existence of God (book, video), (For good measure I bought a second book, the Warren-Matson Debate on the Existence of God, another four-night debate which took place in 1978.) A full analysis of the debate between Thomas Warren and Antony Flew will have to wait, but let me say that the notion popular among theists that Warren won the debate strikes me as bizarre. Although I can understand that Warren’s confident tone may have created a visceral feeling in his followers that he was triumphant, any attention to the argument of the debate itself must reverse that judgment.
Warren revealed himself to be incapable of understanding the concept of evolution. His central argument was that it’s impossible to explain how a human being could evolve from something non-human. Either the first human being was a baby which therefore was born of a non-human mother, or else the first human being was a human mother who, inexplicably was non-human at birth. In fact, this was but one of several impossibilities which Warren was convinced impaled the atheist: human from non-human, intelligence from what had no intelligence, consciousness from non-consciousness, and life springing from rocks and dirt—all simply impossible. And because these things are impossible, atheism is dead in the water—so Warren maintained.
Scientists hardly consider these events impossibilities. Warren, however, was adamant that evolution is defeated by a chicken first or egg first dilemma. Either the first human baby was born of a non-human mother, or a non-human baby somehow transformed itself into a human mother—Warren found it impossible to conceive of any other alternative—ipso facto God is necessary to get the human species started.
To his credit, Flew did not laugh out loud. Patiently he explained to Warren how one thing can so gradually transform into another that you can not pinpoint the moment at which it transformed. He provided the example of someone gradually becoming bald, and another example of a language evolving from one form into another until speakers of the latter cannot understand the former. All this sailed over Warren’s head. In the end, Flew spent much of the debate simply explaining the basics of evolutionary theory—not to Warren (that was a lost cause), but to the audience.
But in a sense, Flew did lose the debate. Arguing for the presumption of atheism to an audience of Christians was not a winning strategy. The presumption of Christianity is theism, not atheism. Most Christians find atheism incomprehensible and (since to them it deprives life of all meaning and value) also abhorrent. That was certainly the case in 1976. The audience for this debate was never going to accept a presumption of atheism. Their initial presumption—like Warren’s—was that atheism is a non-starter.
A Different Way to Atheism
Instead of championing atheism as the default until theists provide adequate evidence, it is possible for atheists to take another, more activist tack. Rather than leaving all the intellectual effort to the theist, as if believers have a hill to climb, I would argue that it is better to engage them on a level field—or even admit that it is we atheists who must charge uphill. We should begin by admitting that atheism is predicated on the assertion of a natural worldview, just as theism is built on supernaturalism. Yet the question is not whether naturalism or supernaturalism ought to be the default position—rather, the question to be settled is which worldview best fits the facts of existence as we have them.
Had Flew’s atheism been of this sort, he might might have been better prepared to present atheism in a context that is positive and sensible rather than negative and scary.
Consider Warren’s assertion that consciousness cannot come from that which has no consciousness and thus never could have come into existence without God. Thanks to the legacy of Flew, the typical atheist response today is to ask where the evidence is for God, and follow it up by asking why scientists don’t consider the concept of God necessary (or even useful) in the study of consciousness. Good questions, but they do not upset the theist applecart—after all, scientists have not explained consciousness yet, have they? Nor do these questions make atheism sensible and comprehensible except as a merely skeptical or negative predisposition. To Warren and his Christian audience, atheism seems to rely on “faith” that scientists will eventually have an explanation for consciousness.
A more useful approach, I believe, is to admit that there is a difficulty here for the atheist—but also one for the theist. The difficulty for the atheist lies in explaining how the brain can create our consciousness and cause us to have thoughts and feelings. And yet, there is strong evidence that it does so. We know that tumors and strokes and lobotomies—things that damage portions of the brain—can cause loss of (or warp) consciousness. Even drugs and alcohol alter our consciousness. This stands as prima facie evidence that the brain somehow controls consciousness; it supports the atheist position that the brain causes consciousness. And since scientists can trace the evolution of the brain, it makes sense to believe that consciousness evolved concurrently with it.
That may not mean much to someone like Warren who is incapable of understanding basic evolutionary concepts. But there is another side to this: explaining the mind-brain interaction is a serious difficulty for theists as well. How can soul (mind) and brain interact? How does a soul become intertwined with a specific physical brain? How do we explain the effects on the soul that brain damage seems to cause? From questions like thse we see that similar difficulties exist for the theist as exist for the atheist, and this is because the dependent relationship of consciousness and mind on the brain is today undeniable.
When debating theists, it makes sense for atheists to try to hammer these points home. If the soul or mind is spiritual, how can it interact and intertwine with our very physical brain, even to the extent that it appears to be affected by damage to the brain? It would seem that to be affected by something physical, the soul would need to have a physical aspect. Grant that, however, and you must then explain how the soul’s physical aspect interacts with its non-physical aspect. This is a real difficulty. It is a difficulty the atheist resolves by saying that everything is physical, even our wonderful minds and our lovely feelings. That move simplifies things, even if it doesn’t entirely solve the problem. But the theist needs a different answer, and that is not easy to come by.
Instead of developing positive arguments for atheism, Flew primarily relied on his confidence that the burden of proof rests on the advocate of theism. Show me the evidence, was his mantra. It is the mantra of most armchair atheists today. In one sense, Flew’s argument for the presumption of atheism has been very successful—among freethinkers. But it’s come at the cost of developing strong arguments for atheism.
As I wrote earlier, thanks to Flew’s influence, the definition of an atheist effectively switched from “someone who disbelieves God’s existence” to “someone who disbelieves God’s existence has been demonstrated.” Instead of being a negative conclusion about God’s existence, atheism was reinterpreted as a negative conclusion about the evidence for God’s existence. It meant atheists could stop studying the board (to use a chess metaphor), stop looking for winning moves, and confidently put the burden on the opponent to make the game interesting.
Well, they have done so. While atheists relaxed, theists have been studying the board, developing new and stronger moves. For example, William Lane Craig resurrected the Kalam Cosmological argument in light of modern cosmology embracing a big bang singularity. And Alvin Plantinga developed an evolutionary argument against naturalism which is downright brilliant. (I wish I’d thought of it myself.) Theists have come up with other new moves as well, such as the Fine-Tuning argument.
The result was predictable. When Flew was finally exposed to these new moves (e.g. interpreting the big bang as evidence of a Kalem-esque single point of creation) the mantra “show me the evidence” had to stop. In reality, theists have always had evidence for their position, but now they have new evidence based on the scientific study of the origin of the universe. Sure, most scientists prefer string theory or weird ideas about multiverses over God as an explanation for the universe appearing to come into existence out of nothing, but from a philosophical perspective a God hypothesis which can’t be tested is (more or less) just as valid as string theory or multiverses which can’t be tested.
So Flew became a deist. He adapted a minimal deism which made no unwarranted claims about the nature of God. It was a deism in keeping with the evidence he had come to accept. He still rejected notions of a personal God, of miracles, of afterlife, of salvation. But given new evidence for a single point of creation, Flew was honest enough, brave enough, and decent enough to accept the God hypothesis.
For that I admire the man, and I regret his death.