My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism

A Discussion between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas

Antony Flew
Department of Philosophy
University of Reading
Reading, England

Gary Habermas
Department of Philosophy and Theology
Liberty University
Lynchburg, Virginia

My cmnt: You can read this discussion (including footnotes) in full at Evangelical Philosophical Society. I also highly recommend purchasing and reading the book “Taking Leave of Darwin” by British rationalist Neal Thomas. Both Flew and Thomas are (or were for most of their adult lives) atheists who have been persuaded by the scientific evidence that the first cause of the universe and of life has to be a non-material Being who could be called God. Paul Davies, a world renowned physicist, has written similarly in his book “The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning” (1992) that while non-religious, ‘through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.’ (pg 16)


Antony Flew and Gary Habermas met in February 1985 in Dallas, Texas. The occasion was a series of debates between atheists and theists, featuring many influential philosophers, scientists, and other scholars.1

A short time later, in May 1985, Flew and Habermas debated at Liberty University before a large audience. The topic that night was the resurrection of Jesus.2  Although Flew was arguably the world’s foremost philosophical atheist, he had intriguingly also earned the distinction of being one of the chief philosophical commentators on the topic of miracles.3  Habermas specialized on the subject of Jesus’ resurrection.4  Thus, the ensuing dialogue on the historical evidence for the central Christian claim was a natural outgrowth of their research.

Over the next 20 years, Flew and Habermas developed a friendship, writing dozens of letters, talking often, and dialoguing twice more on the resurrection. In April, 2000 they participated in a live debate on the Inspiration Television Network, moderated by John Ankerberg.5  In January, 2003 they again dialogued on the resurrection at California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo.6

During a couple of telephone discussions shortly after their last dialogue, Flew explained to Habermas that he was considering becoming a theist. While Flew did not change his position at that time, he concluded that certain philosophical and scientific considerations were causing him to do some serious rethinking. He characterized his position as that of atheism standing in tension with several huge question marks.

Then, a year later, 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.”7

The following interview took place in early 2004 and was subsequently modified by both participants throughout the year. This nontechnical discussion sought to engage Flew over the course of several topics that reflect his move from atheism to theism.8  The chief purpose was not to pursue the details of any particular issue, so we bypassed many avenues that would have presented a plethora of other intriguing questions and responses. These were often tantalizingly ignored, left to ripen for another discussion. Neither did we try to persuade each another of alternate positions.

Our singular purpose was simply to explore and report Flew’s new position, allowing him to explain various aspects of his pilgrimage. We thought that this in itself was a worthy goal. Along the way, an additional benefit emerged, as Flew reminisced about various moments from his childhood, graduate studies, and career. 


Habermas: Tony, you recently told me that you have come to believe in the existence of God. Would you comment on that?

Flew: Well, I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system, although I am open to that. But it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before. And it was from Aristotle that Aquinas drew the materials for producing his Five Ways of, hopefully, proving the existence of his God. Aquinas took them, reasonably enough, to prove, if they proved anything, the existence of the God of the Christian Revelation. But Aristotle himself never produced a definition of the word “God,” which is a curious fact. But this concept still led to the basic outline of the Five Ways. It seems to me, that from the existence of Aristotle’s God, you can’t infer anything about human behaviour. So what Aristotle had to say about justice (justice, of course, as conceived by the Founding Fathers of the American Republic as opposed to the “social” justice of John Rawls9) was very much a human idea, and he thought that this idea of justice was what ought to govern the behaviour of individual human beings in their relations with others.

Habermas: Once you mentioned to me that your view might be called Deism. Do you think that would be a fair designation?

Flew: Yes, absolutely right. What Deists, such as the Mr. Jefferson who drafted the American Declaration of Independence, believed was that, while Reason, mainly in the form of Arguments to Design, assures us that there is a God, there is no room either for any supernatural revelation of that God or for any transactions between that God and individual human beings.

Habermas: Then, would you comment on your “openness” to the notion of theistic revelation?

Flew: Yes.  I am open to it, but not enthusiastic about potential revelation from God. On the positive side, for example, I am very much impressed with physicist Gerald Schroeder’s comments on Genesis 1.10  That this biblical account might be scientifically accurate raises the possibility that it is revelation.

Habermas: You very kindly noted that our debates and discussions had influenced your move in the direction of theism.11  You mentioned that this initial influence contributed in part to your comment that naturalistic efforts have never succeeded in producing “a plausible conjecture as to how any of these complex molecules might have evolved from simple entities.”12  Then in your recently rewritten introduction to the forthcoming edition of your classic volume God and Philosophy, you say that the original version of that book is now obsolete.  You mention a number of trends in theistic argumentation that you find convincing, like Big Bang Cosmology, Fine Tuning, and Intelligent Design arguments. Which arguments for God’s existence did you find most persuasive?

Flew: I think that the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries.  I’ve never been much impressed by the Kalam cosmological argument, and I don’t think it has gotten any stronger recently. However, I think the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it.

Habermas: So you like arguments such as those that proceed from Big Bang Cosmology and Fine Tuning Arguments?

Flew: Yes.

Habermas: You also recently told me that you do not find the Moral Argument to be very persuasive. Is that right?

Flew: That’s correct. It seems to me that for a strong Moral Argument, you’ve got to have God as the justification of morality. To do this makes doing the morally good a purely prudential matter rather than, as the moral philosophers of my youth used to call it, a good in itself. (Compare the classic discussion in Plato’s Euthyphro.)

Habermas: So, take C. S. Lewis’s argument for morality as presented in Mere Christianity.13 You didn’t find that to be very impressive?

Flew: No, I didn’t.  Perhaps I should mention that, when I was in college, I attended fairly regularly the weekly meetings of C. S. Lewis’s Socratic Club. In all my time at Oxford these meetings were chaired by Lewis. I think he was by far the most powerful of Christian apologists for the sixty or more years following his founding of that club. As late as the 1970s, I used to find that, in the USA, in at least half of the campus bookstores of the universities and liberal art colleges which I visited, there was at least one long shelf devoted to his very various published works.

Habermas: Although you disagreed with him, did you find him to be a very reasonable sort of fellow?

Flew: Oh yes, very much so, an eminently reasonable man.

Habermas: And what do you think about the Ontological Argument for the existence of God?

Flew: All my later thinking and writing about philosophy was greatly influenced by my year of postgraduate study under the supervision of Gilbert Ryle, the then Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in the University of Oxford, as well as the Editor of Mind. It was the very year in which his enormously influential work on The Concept of Mind14 was first published. I was told that, in the years between the wars, whenever another version of the Ontological Argument raised its head, Gilbert forthwith set himself to refute it.

My own initial lack of enthusiasm for the Ontological Argument developed into strong repulsion when I realized from reading the Theodicy15 of Leibniz that it was the identification of the concept of Being with the concept of Goodness (which ultimately derives from Plato’s identification in The Republic of the Form or Idea of the Good with the Form or the Idea of the Real) which enabled Leibniz in his Theodicy validly to conclude that a Universe in which most human beings are predestined to an eternity of torture is the “best of all possible worlds.”

Habermas: So of the major theistic arguments, such as the Cosmological, Teleological, Moral, and Ontological, the only really impressive ones that you take to be decisive are the scientific forms of teleology?

Flew: Absolutely. It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks the fact that Darwin himself, in the fourteenth chapter of The Origin of Species, pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already possessed reproductive powers. This is the creature the evolution of which a truly comprehensive theory of evolution must give some account. Darwin himself was well aware that he had not produced such an account. It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to Design.

Habermas: As I recall, you also refer to this in the new introduction to your God and Philosophy.

Flew: Yes, I do; or, since the book has not yet been published, I will!

Habermas: Since you affirm Aristotle’s concept of God, do you think we can also affirm Aristotle’s implications that the First Cause hence knows all things?

Flew: I suppose we should say this. I’m not at all sure what one should think concerning some of these very fundamental issues. There does seem to be a reason for a First Cause, but I’m not at all sure how much we have to explain here. What idea of God is necessary to provide an explanation of the existence of the Universe and all which is in it?

Habermas: If God is the First Cause, what about omniscience, or omnipotence?

Flew: Well, the First Cause, if there was a First Cause, has very clearly produced everything that is going on. I suppose that does imply creation “in the beginning.”

Habermas: In the same introduction, you also make a comparison between Aristotle’s God and Spinoza’s God. Are you implying, with some interpreters of Spinoza, that God is pantheistic?

Flew: I’m noting there that God and Philosophy has become out of date and should now be seen as an historical document rather than as a direct contribution to current discussions. I’m sympathetic to Spinoza because he makes some statements which seem to me correctly to describe the human situation. But for me the most important thing about Spinoza is not what he says but what he does not say. He does not say that God has any preferences either about or any intentions concerning human behaviour or about the eternal destinies of human beings.

Habermas: What role might your love for the writings of David Hume play in a discussion about the existence of God?  Do you have any new insights on Hume, given your new belief in God?

Flew: No, not really.

Habermas: Do you think Hume ever answers the question of God?

Flew: I think of him as, shall we say, an unbeliever. But it’s interesting to note that he himself was perfectly willing to accept one of the conditions of his appointment, if he had been appointed to a chair of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. That condition was, roughly speaking, to provide some sort of support and encouragement for people performing prayers and executing other acts of worship. I believe that Hume thought that the institution of religious belief could be, and in his day and place was, socially beneficial.16

I, too, having been brought up as a Methodist, have always been aware of this possible and in many times and places actual benefit of objective religious instruction. It is now several decades since I first tried to draw attention to the danger of relying on a modest amount of compulsory religious instruction in schools to meet the need for moral education, especially in a period of relentlessly declining religious belief. But all such warnings by individuals were, of course, ignored. So we now have in the UK a situation in which any mandatory requirements to instruct pupils in state funded schools in the teachings of the established or any other religion are widely ignored. The only official attempt to construct a secular substitute was vitiated by the inability of the moral philosopher on the relevant government committee to recognize the fundamental difference between justice without prefix or suffix and the “social” justice of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.

I must some time send you a copy of the final chapter of my latest and presumably last book, in which I offer a syllabus and a program for moral education in secular schools.17  This is relevant and important for both the US and the UK. To the US because the Supreme Court has utterly misinterpreted the clause in the Constitution about not establishing a religion: misunderstanding it as imposing a ban on all official reference to religion. In the UK any effective program of moral education has to be secular because unbelief is now very widespread.

One thought on “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism

  1. I think it’s key in human dealings to recognize growth versus decay of the mind. Hearing this presentation come from an former athiest, I’m impressed. If I heard it come from a former Christian, I would be much unimpressed.

    Like

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