12/13/2004: I should be ashamed....
For the proprietor of a blog that puts on sufficient airs to use the word "philosophical" in the title, I've had nothing to say about what was apparently the biggest news in philosophy of religion in quite some time. On the Xianity mailing list last Thursday night, one of the resident Christian apologists on the list forwarded to us a reference to a Biola University webpage featuring the breathless announcement that Antony Flew, acknowledged (at least until recently) as one of the foremost atheist philosophers of religion, had "converted to theism" (or as the referenced webpage puts it: "Atheist becomes Theist").
I'm not sure exactly what to make of the interview, which is by Gary Habermas of Liberty University, a one time debate opponent of Flew's who supposedly (according to the interview) has maintained a cordial relationship and correspondence with Flew (the interview references that correspondence at several points). Some passages of the interview, taken out of context, makes Flew look quite sympathetic to Christian theism while being very unsympathetic to Muslim theism:
HABERMAS: What critical evaluation would you make of the three major monotheisms? Are there any particular philosophical strengths or weaknesses in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam?And in other passages, Flew seems quite sympathetic to Christianity:
FLEW: If all I knew or believed about God was what I might have learned from Aristotle, then I should have assumed that everything in the universe, including human conduct, was exactly as God wanted it to be. And this is indeed the case, in so far as both Christianity and Islam are predestinarian, a fundamental teaching of both religious systems. What was true of Christianity in the Middle Ages is certainly no longer equally true after the Reformation. But Islam has neither suffered nor enjoyed either a Reformation or an Enlightenment.
The statements of predestinarianism in the Qur’an are much more aggressive and unequivocal than even the strongest in the Bible.
As for Islam, it is, I think, best described in a Marxian way as the uniting and justifying ideology of Arab imperialism. Between the New Testament and the Qur’an there is (as it is customary to say when making such comparisons) no comparison. Whereas markets can be found for books on reading the Bible as literature, to read the Qur’an is a penance rather than a pleasure. There is no order or development in its subject matter. All the chapters (the suras) are arranged in order of their length, with the longest at the beginning. However, since the Qur’an consists in a collection of bits and pieces of putative revelation delivered to the prophet Mohammad by the Archangel Gabriel in classical Arab on many separate but unknown occasions, it is difficult to suggest any superior principle of organization.
One point about the editing of the Qur’an is rarely made although it would appear to be of very substantial theological significance. For every sura is prefaced by the words “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” Yet there are references to Hell on at least 255 of the 669 pages of Arberry’s rendering of the Qur’an (34) and quite often pages have two such references.
Whereas St. Paul, who was the chief contributor to the New Testament, knew all the three relevant languages and obviously possessed a first class philosophical mind, the Prophet, though gifted in the arts of persuasion and clearly a considerable military leader, was both doubtfully literate and certainly ill-informed about the contents of the Old Testament and about several matters of which God, if not even the least informed of the Prophet’s contemporaries, must have been cognizant.
This raises the possibility of what my philosophical contemporaries in the heyday of Gilbert Ryle would have described as a knock-down falsification of Islam: something which is most certainly not possible in the case of Christianity. If I do eventually produce such a paper it will obviously have to be published anonymously.
HABERMAS: I ask this last question with a smile, Tony. But just think what would happen if one day you were pleasantly disposed toward Christianity and all of a sudden the resurrection of Jesus looked pretty good to you?
FLEW: Well, one thing I’ll say in this comparison is that, for goodness sake, Jesus is an enormously attractive charismatic figure, which the Prophet of Islam most emphatically is not.
HABERMAS: So you think that, for a miracle, the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is better than other miracle claims?One is almost surprised that Flew doesn't start confessing Jesus as his Lord and Savior right there. But that wouldn't be quite consistent with the very first page of the interview:
FLEW: Oh yes, I think so. It’s much better, for example, than that for most if not of the, so to speak, run of the mill Roman Catholic miracles. On this see, for instance, D. J. West. (35)
HABERMAS: You have made numerous comments over the years that Christians are justified in their beliefs such as Jesus’ resurrection or other major tenants of their faith. In our last two dialogues I think you even remarked that for someone who is already a Christian there are many good reasons to believe Jesus’ resurrection. Would you comment on that?
FLEW: Yes, certainly. This is an important matter about rationality which I have fairly recently come to appreciate. What it is rational for any individual to believe about some matter which is fresh to that individual’s consideration depends on what he or she rationally believed before they were confronted with this fresh situation. For suppose they rationally believed in the existence of a God of any revelation, then it would be entirely reasonable for them to see the fine tuning argument as providing substantial confirmation of their belief in the existence of that God.
HABERMAS: Tony, you recently told me that you have come to believe in the existence of God. Would you comment on that?Which makes me wonder how much of Flew's apparent sympathy to Christianity in this interview is evangelical "spin" or "wishful thinking" (basically, this interview is to be published in a journal published by Biola University, and remember that not only is Biola an evangelical school, but indeed the name "Biola" originally derived from "Bible Institute of Los Angeles"), and how much is simple courtesy being shown by him to his evangelical friend.
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 Rawls (9)) 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.
At any rate, one has to read the interview, and some of its sympathies to theism (as opposed to the Deism which Flew considers his current position) in conjunction with other comments he's made (here, to Richard Carrier and The Secular Web; pay special attentio to the section labelled "Update (December 2004)):
Flew has now given me permission to quote him directly. I asked him point blank what he would mean if he ever asserted that "probably God exists," to which he responded (in a letter in his own hand, dated 19 October 2004):So, basically, Flew's deism rests on an argument which I think one member of the Xianity mail list characterized quite well:I do not think I will ever make that assertion, precisely because any assertion which I am prepared to make about God would not be about a God in that sense ... I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations.Rather, he would only have in mind "the non-interfering God of the people called Deists--such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin." Indeed, he remains adamant that "theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience," exactly as he argued in "Theology and Falsification." Regarding J. P. Moreland using Flew in support of Moreland's own belief in the supernatural, Flew says "my God is not his. His is Swinburne's. Mine is emphatically not good (or evil) or interested in human conduct" and does not perform miracles of any kind. Furthermore, Flew took great care to emphasize repeatedly to me that:My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species ... [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms.[emphasis added --LRC]
Flew, if anything, is persuaded by a "God of the Gaps" argument that the initial development of life cannot be explained without recourse to a Aristotelian intelligent agency. It's a debatable point and I think he's behind the scientific curve on it, but in any case that's his position.It is unfortunate, in this regard, that Flew seems to be ignorant of the current state of science in this area (an ignorance that, for better or for worse, is shared by a large segment of the population, from the most educated to the least) that he is actually finding such an argument compelling.
So what to make of this incident? Right now, not much. I had this to say on the Xianity list, myself:
Actually, Flew's new position isn't that far from mine as I've stated earlier around these parts (though not for a good long while). I'm agnostic with respect to the existence of a "God" that is viewed as a prime mover, world spirit, everything and anything, etc. Or in other words, I don't personally think that Deism, pantheism, etc., is correct, but I don't know that they are incorrect. Such a god might exist, but frankly, even if it did its effect on my life is so non-existent that he might as well not exist.Basically, any indications that Flew is any more open to conversion to Christianity strikes me more as Christian spin-doctoring and wishful thinking than anything else.
I am an atheist with respect to Yahweh, Allah, The Holy Trinity, and any other gods which are depicted as personal beings who "love" (or hate us) and with whom we can and/or should have a personal relationship with. There's plenty of evidence out there that there is no loving yet all powerful personality behind everything there is, and our belief in such a being is simply wishful thinking. And, near as I can tell, Flew is still in agreement with me there.
Now, that is. Who knows what his position might be tomorrow.
Len on 12.13.04 @ 09:57 PM CST