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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Monday, November 05, 2007

"The Turning of an Atheist"

I can't let this article by Mark Oppenheimer, from the New York Times , pass without comment here, though I expect that just about every blog on the net must be responding to it today.

Oppenheimer has investigated the background to a new book by (supposedly) Antony Flew. Flew was one of the most influential philosophers of religion in the second half of the twentieth century, but at 84 he seems to be little more than a husk of the man he once was.

The position that Flew now adopts is evidently neither atheism nor a traditional religious one, but some sort of philosophical deism. That's fine. It's a respectable enough position to take.

The problem is that it's unclear that he has much understanding of the book's arguments, and he seems to have been in no position to a write new a book on the subject or even to sign off on something patched together by collaborators or ghostwriters. The new book There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind was evidently written by Flew's "co-author", the Christian apologist Roy Varghese, who did shuffle in some material by Flew from emails and an interview. Varghese was clearly responsible for the substance of the book, including its scientific arguments. Another layer of polish was apparently added by an evangelical pastor, Bob Hostetler, who is not credited as an author. In discussion with Oppenheimer, Flew is unable to recall people whom "he" discusses in the book, or to comment meaningfully on their work.

Putting it with distressing bluntness, Flew appears to be suffering not just nominal aphasia and the ordinary effects of old age, but some kind of dementia. His name is on a book that he did not write and scarcely seems to understand. It has been packaged not to advocate the rather anti-religious deism that he's evidently presented in public as recently as last year, but merely to discredit atheism in the services of a group of conservative Christian apologists who have persuaded him to tag along with their project and lend it his famous name.

Flew was once a, well, "notorious atheist" ... but I certainly wouldn't care if, at the height of his considerable powers, he had concluded that some sort of deism is actually the most likely world picture. Maybe he'd even have convinced me - I rather doubt it, but I'm not totally close-minded about it. It's all arguable. In any event, the world could probably do with some high-powered advocates for the philosophical deist position, if only to liven things up.

If he had published a real book before his decline, presenting a powerful and forthright case for deism, it would have been welcome. He doubtless would have made a worthy contribution to philosophical debate.

Even now, if he'd had enough clarity to produce his own book, perhaps with a lot of editorial help, and if it had carried a title and a slant representing what seems to be his real position, this might have been of some value. (Bending over backwards to be fair, it's even possible, if rather unlikely, that Varghese's arguments have some intellectual merit, but that's not the point; he could simply have published them in a book appearing honestly under his own sole authorship.)

I find it hard to imagine the mentality of those who have taken advantage of Antony Flew's situation in this way. If Oppenheimer's reportage is even half accurate, the exploitation of a forgetful old man and his distinguished career is despicable.

This leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.


Blake Stacey said...

All sorts of little details about this book seem like dishonest packaging. Start with the subtitle: while philosophers and other intellectuals had likely heard of Flew — his debate with William Lane Craig seems like a moderately big deal — but was there ever a time when he was "the World's Most Notorious Atheist"? To quote one godless blogger, he was "the world's leading atheist a fair number of my atheist friends hadn't heard of".

And while we're talking about superlatives, I also find this one highly suspect:

In his [sic] book, Flew calls Paul Davies "arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science."

Paul Davies isn't even good at spreading bad science, not compared to Michael Behe or Deepak Chopra. Among the "Templeton crowd", he has no greater standing than, say, Freeman Dyson.

And of the expositors who write good science, it's not hard to spot a few who surpass Davies by any measure of notoriety or influence. Stephen Hawking, let's say. Has Paul Davies ever guest-starred on The Simpsons? The quotation provided by Oppenheimer reads like the fulsome praise of a creationist, puffing up the reputation of some poor bloke — an engineer, say, — who happened to criticize Darwin.

Anonymous said...

It's a pretty despicable act, using Flew like they have. How low will some believers go for Jesus? Down on your knees and....lie. Seems like creationists will twist anything they see as giving an advantage. Pathetic.

Pleasure meeting you and V. last night too!

Russell Blackford said...

Blake - there possibly was a period, maybe in the 1970s, when Antony Flew and JL Mackie were among the most famous living atheists - before that, they were overshadowed by Bertrand Russell. There was a long period when Flew and McIntyre's anthology New Essays in Philosophical Theology (published in the 1950s, I think) was the book to read to get a sense of the mid-century philosophical debates, with Flew as the non-believer in the editorial team.

The later part of Flew's career - when he still had all his powers - was more as a bulldog for Robert Nozick's political philosophy; Mackie died; and we've since had people like Richard Dawkins who aim their work more at a general audience.

But then again, there weren't many people at all who were famous for their argumemts for atheism during the 1980s and 1990s. It became kind of taboo to be criticising religion in a forthright way.

Brian - it was great to meet Veronica Guy, and your good self, and Claudia (sp?) last night. I hope V didn't miss her plane to Perth after we delayed her in the airport bar. I was going to take some pics of the occasion with my little digital camera, but was too busy drinking Guinness and slagging off various ...ahem ... "characters" from the Dawkins site.

Blake Stacey said...

Despite my best efforts, I continue to learn something every day. Thanks!

I'd be interested to know about the rise of this taboo. (With luck, we're seeing its fall today.) Has anyone tried to write a history about that, or do we need to go and ask people who have been critical of religion since the 1970s?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Blake, hopefully everything I just said is accurate. It's a bit impressionistic ... bear in mind that I'm writing from personal observation, and my observations of intellectual life in Australia may not generalise (even to the rest of Australia).

But I think I'm not the only one with an impression that robust criticism of religion became increasingly politically incorrect in academic circles during (about) the 1980s - at the same time that a lot of other changes (some arguably good; some bad) happened about what was it was acceptable to say. I think it was all part of the idea that we must not criticise other cultures and other "ways of knowing".

Beyond academic circle, it was never all that acceptable to be aggressively critical of religion.

It would be interesting if someone could do a scholarly study of my above claims.

One other thing that seems to have happened since the 1970s - and Eddie Tabash observed something like this recently as well - is that while secular philosophers have tended to desert philosophy of religion as a dead field, American religious thinkers have been assiduous about encouraging young Christian scholars into the field. Tabash has similarly claimed that the religious in the US have been assiduously cultivating young Christian scholars into constitutional theory in an effort to break down the separation of church and state over there, with arguments against the separationist doctrine.

As far as philosophy of religion goes, this has happened to an extent where Christian philosophy has become almost dominant within philosophy of religion in the US, though certainly not in academic philosophy in general.

Russell Blackford said...

By the way, there are quite a lot of items on YouTube featuring bits from a recent interview with Antony Flew. It's fairly easy to track these down if anyone would like to form a view of Flew's current state of mental acuity.

My observation is that he's still able to toss around expressions like a fortiori quite freely, but he is, to say the least, not thinking quickly. He also seems to be in a bad way physically.

Of course, neither of those things, in itself, is proof of dementia or that he is unable to write a book - a task that doesn't require rapid real-time thinking. I wouldn't draw unfavourable conclusions solely from his interview performance, but have a look for yourselves and see what you think.

Steven Carr said...

How recent was that interview?


Russell Blackford said...

I thought it was pretty recent, but I don't know - it was just an impression.

Anonymous said...

Dear friend:
here is why Schroeder is a Crank and Flew is false: