One Flew over the Cukoo's Nest

Our cats woke me up at 5:15 a.m. Sunday…no, check that:  at 4:15 a.m Sunday (clock change!).  Thought I’d make the best of it by starting “Anthony Flew’s” new book (I will explain the “scare-quotes” in a moment).  The book just jumped off the bookstore shelf.  It is called:  There is A God:  How the World’s Most Notorius Atheist Changed his Mind.   The title looks like it reads, There is No God, but the “No” is crossed out and the “A” is penciled in.  A picture of Flew is in the background, but upside down!  A blurb on the front of the book by Francis Collins reads: “Towering and courageous…Flew’s colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized.”  The upshot is that Flew, who argued philosophically for decades in favor of atheism has now changed his mind and admits that the evidence points to there being a god.

Now if you are in my line of work, you just have to read a book like this.

The book has two main parts.  The first is a more or less autobiographical section on how Flew came to atheism and how he changed his mind and what that has meant.  The second part provides a set of reasons or evidences for theism (or at least deism).  It is written in an engaging, conversational style aimed at a very wide audience.

The news that Flew had abandoned atheism broke in 2004, and it has been a big deal to a certain crowd of people in the “science and religion dialogue.”  Evangelicals:  “Aha!  Told ya so! One more for our side!”  Militant Atheists: “He’s apostate.  Of course, he’s old. He’s facing death and is afraid all of a sudden.  He’s senile. He’s being manipulated.” 

But the book doesn’t read like that.  “Flew” writes like a man who has always been on the quest for truth, wherever it leads, and it has lead to a change of mind.  “He” tells us that he has changed his mind in the past, for instance his conversion from socialism to free market economics.  He cites plenty of scientists, theologians, and philosophers, and tells how their arguments eventually won him over. 

Any intellectually honest person would have to remain open to the possibility of new evidence or arguments that might lead one to change position, even on the most fundamental of questions.  Publicly changing one’s mind in the face of severe criticism, ostracism, or even the possible loss of friendship or employment takes a certain kind of courage.

So I was happily reading this book Sunday morning, thinking “good for you, Anthony Flew.”  But let me quickly note that, in a very important sense, I don’t care whether Flew is atheist or theist or deist.  I don’t care in the sense that these types of stories do very little as such to influence my own views on such important questions.  I find the first part of the book–the autobiographical part–interesting because I always feel a kinship to anyone on a sincere search for truth, beauty, or goodness–however it turns out.  It does not matter to me, in a sense, whether I find truth where they do, beauty as they do, or goodness the same way they do–although if we don’t come out the same way I am very interested in the reasons (maybe I should change my mind…).  But ad hominem won’t do.  I won’t change my mind because, for instance, prominent philosopher Anthony Flew happened to change his.  Nor would you.

On the other hand, the second part of a book like this does matter to me, because it is based on the arguments and evidences.  However, this book is very light-weight in that department, and there are plenty of good books with much more substantial discussion of the relation between science and religion.

Basically, this was just a bit of light reading for me, with a dash of admiration for a person who thinks for “himself.”

Now about the “scarequotes”:  When the sun finally got warm on Sunday morning, we took a stroll up to the corner store to get the newspapers and some breakfast.  When I got home, I opened up the New York Times Magazine section to find a feature article by Mark Oppenheimer: “The Turning of an Atheist.”  In this piece, Oppenheimer draws attention to a fact I more or less ignored.  On the cover of the book, the author is listed as “Anthony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese.”  I usually take “with” authors and ghostwriters for granted, because many of these prominent writers engage “helpers.”  With professors, it is often graduate students–sometimes acknowledged, often not.  Sometimes its professional editors.  Whatever…it is common practice, and I assume that the author of record assents to everything written in the book (although as Oppenheimer reminded me, basketball great Charles Barkley once claimed to have been misquoted in his own “autobiography“!).

I had never heard of Varghese before, but apparently he runs something call the Institute for Metascientific Research.  Here is the Institute’s self-description: is a project of the Institute for Metascientific Research.  The IMR is a debate and dialogue forum for the interface between science, philosophy and religion.  Numerous philosophers and scientists have participated in the conferences organized by the IMR such as the symposium at Yale University on the theme “Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind” and most recently “Has Science Discovered God?” 

In his essay on the making of There Is A God, Oppenheimer raises serious questions about the authenticity of “Flew’s” book.  It may be that Flew was not just misquoted, but manipulated.  If Oppenheimer is to be believed, this book may be intended strictly as propaganda in support of Varghese’s efforts to promote the idea that science can demonstrate the existence of God.  It is presented in such a way as to imply to a reader on the fence regarding the God question:  a very smart philosopher who was an atheist now believes in god, so you should too!  But is this Flew’s intent?

Oppenheimer wanted to find out.  He reports,

In August, I visited Flew in Reading. His house, sparsely furnished, sits on a small plot on a busy street, hard against its neighbors. It could belong to a retired government clerk or to a career military man who at last has resettled in the mother country. Inside, it seems very English, with the worn, muted colors of a BBC production from the 1970s. The house may lack an Internet connection, but it does have one very friendly cat, who sat beside me on the sofa. I visited on two consecutive days, and each day Annis, Flew’s wife of 55 years, served me a glass of water and left me in the sitting room to ask her husband a series of tough, indeed rather cruel, questions.

In “There Is a God,” Flew quotes extensively from a conversation he had with Leftow, a professor at Oxford. So I asked Flew, “Do you know Brian Leftow?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think I do.”

“Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?” Leslie is discussed extensively in the book.

Flew paused, seeming unsure. “I think he’s quite good.” But he said he did not remember the specifics of Leslie’s work.

“Have you ever run across the philosopher Paul Davies?” In his book, Flew calls Paul Davies “arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science.”

“I’m afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!”

He said this with a laugh. When we began the interview, he warned me, with merry self-deprecation, that he suffers from “nominal aphasia,” or the inability to reproduce names. But he forgot more than names. He didn’t remember talking with Paul Kurtz about his introduction to “God and Philosophy” just two years ago. There were words in his book, like “abiogenesis,” that now he could not define. When I asked about Gary Habermas, who told me that he and Flew had been friends for 22 years and exchanged “dozens” of letters, Flew said, “He and I met at a debate, I think.” I pointed out to him that in his earlier philosophical work he argued that the mere concept of God was incoherent, so if he was now a theist, he must reject huge chunks of his old philosophy. “Yes, maybe there’s a major inconsistency there,” he said, seeming grateful for my insight. And he seemed generally uninterested in the content of his book — he spent far more time talking about the dangers of unchecked Muslim immigration and his embrace of the anti-E.U. United Kingdom Independence Party.

As he himself conceded, he had not written his book.

“This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!”

When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”

So even the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter: Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author from Ohio, rewrote many passages, especially in the section that narrates Flew’s childhood. With three authors, how much Flew was left in the book? “He went through everything, was happy with everything,” Varghese said.

Cynthia DiTiberio, the editor who acquired “There Is a God” for HarperOne, told me that Hostetler’s work was limited; she called him “an extensive copy editor.” “He did the kind of thing I would have done if I had the time,” DiTiberio said, “but editors don’t get any editing done in the office; we have to do that in our own time.”

I then asked DiTiberio if it was ethical to publish a book under Flew’s name that cites sources Flew doesn’t know well enough to discuss. “I see your struggle and confusion,” she said, but she maintained that the book is an accurate presentation of Flew’s views. “I don’t think Tony would have allowed us to put in anything he was not comfortable with or familiar with,” she said. “I mean, it is hard to tell at this point how much is him getting older. In my communications with him, there are times you have to say things a couple times. I’m not sure what that is. I wish I could tell you more. . . We were hindered by the fact that he is older, but it would do the world a disservice not to have the book out there, regardless of how it was made.”

Oppenheimer deals with all of this in an even-handed way.  Maybe Flew did change his mind, maybe he didn’t.  Maybe he was manipulated (Oppenheimer’s essay also tells about the strenuous efforts of atheist Richard Carrier’s attempts to win Flew back to the unfaithful fold), but maybe those who felt they needed Flew in their camp were not acting out of malice but a mixture of wishful thinking and over-zealousness.

Let me return to my earlier point:  this story can tell us something of the book trade, something of the intensity of the “political” battle between the professional Theists and the professional Atheists, something of intellectual honesty, something of the fragility of the life of the mind, something of the pathos of aging.  But it tells us next to nothing about God or science or religion.  I don’t wonder why it was written (however it happened to have been written), but if you are seriously seeking the truth about the big questions, this book wasn’t written for you.

The “science and religion” dialogue and debate is important.  It addresses the most profound questions of origin and meaning, destiny and purpose.  But too often this “dialogue” is carried out in public in the most superficial ways, leading any intelligent inquirer to think it nothing more than just an intellectual cukoo’s nest. That’s too bad.  I am glad that people like Dawkins and Collins, Dennett and Dembski bring public attention to the questions, but I regret that they are often merely polemical, ideologically driven, and ultimately misleading.

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