Thursday, September 24, 2009

A "Pilgrimage of Reason": An Atheist Finds God

Book Review: There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Antony Flew (HarperOne, 2007)

For much of his distinguished philosophical career the universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading (Britain), Calgary (Canada) and Bowling Greed State (Ohio), Antony Flew was one of the world's most prominent atheists. Flew remains one of the most prominent figures in the field of analytic philosophy, having published such important works as New Essays in Philosophical Theology, God and Philosophy and The Presumption of Atheism. Flew was not like the "new atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens), angry, contemptuous of all religion and on a campaign to "evangelize for disbelief. Rather, Flew was simply convinced that there was not sufficient evidence to support belief in the existence of an almighty, non-material, non-spacial Being who created the universe. His position was clear and not clouded by emotion or anger: the traditional arguments for the existence of God (argument from design, cosmological and moral arguments, etc.) were simply invalid. As a philosopher, Flew understood himself to be bound to follow where the evidence led, and for most of his career where it led was to this: "To believe there is a God, we have to have good grounds for the belief. But if no such grounds are provided, there exists no sufficient reason for believing in God, and the only reasonable position is to be a negative atheist or an agnostic".
But in 2004 at a speaking engagement in New York City, Flew announced that he had changed his mind: "after more than six decades of atheism, I announced that I had changed teams, so to speak." This book explores both the reasons for Flew's atheism and the reasons for his embrace of theism.
As Flew makes clear, the change in his thinking was not due to a religious experience (at least, not to religious narrowly defined) but to what he calls a "pilgrimage of reason". In short, Flew came to realize that atheism can not account for the way the universe is. A summary of Flew's current thinking offers an indication of why he changed his mind: "I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe's intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source." The important story here, the story that Flew is kind and courageous enough to share with us, is that what vanquished his atheism was science.
For Flew, there are three fundamental questions which he came to see that atheism could not adequately answer but that theism could: How did the laws of nature come to be? How did life as a phenomenon come to be? How did the universe come into existence?
With regard to the first question, Flew found himself agreeing with the physicist (and fellow Englishman) Paul Davies that "there must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical,orderly nature of the universe is rooted". Not only are the laws of nature not self-explanatory but they seem to "fine-tuned" to produce conscious life. The atheist view of the law of nature simply existing as brute facts or existing as the result of an irrational process simply seemed incredible. Theism, with the laws of nature rooted in a cosmic rationality seemed to be much more in accord with the evidence.
With regard to the second question, Flew found himself impressed with the views of the physicist Freeman Dyson: "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming". A key issue for Flew was the recognition that we must not only explain the origin of life but we must also account for the reproduction of life. This requires, even in the most simple forms of life, DNA which is a biological code and a code is information and information is the produce of design. The replication of even the most simple forms of DNA is hugely complex and theories of evolution do not explain this but presuppose it. DNA, Flew concluded, bears the stamp of a Mind (in coming to this view he was much influenced by the mathematician David Berlinsky).
Then there is the third question. Here, Flew was impressed by "Big Bang" cosmology because it clearly indicates that the universe had an origin (and will have an end as well). How can we account for the fact that space/time and the laws of nature had an origin and, hence, are contingent and not necessary? Like some cosmologists, Flew came to see that the only adequate explanation was a God who is uncaused, a God who can "program" the universe for life, complexity and intelligibility.
Flew's embrace of theism has certainly disturbed some (the atheist Richard Dawkins attempted to dismiss the whole event). What does this turn in Flew's thinking tell us? It tells us that coming to a belief in God is not the result of "blind faith" and that what faith is really about is an attempt to make sense of the universe in a way that deals with its complexity, beauty, contingency, intelligibility and rationality. It also tells us that science in no ways leads to a "presumption of atheism" and that in the final analysis atheism has serious philosophical deficiencies.
But Flew's message is not designed to comfort Christians but to challenge us. Flew has seen, at least partially, what should always be at the center of the Christian faith: a disciplined search for truth. As St. Augustine said long ago, faith is "faith seeking understanding".


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