The Magazine

What Hath God Wrought

When an elderly philosopher meets a Dallas business consultant.

Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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There Is a God

How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind

by Antony Flew

with Roy Abraham Varghese

HarperOne, 256 pp., $24.95

Whether or not He has taken the trouble to exist, God seems to be safely beyond clinching arguments. Debates on the question, in the absence of secure definitions, indisputable axioms, and recent sightings, tend to go in circles, occasionally pausing to get entangled in leftover anthropomorphic metaphors.

They can still be fun, as full of brilliant gambits and clever traps as a good chess match. (See, for instance, the transcript of the 1948 BBC confrontation between Bertrand Russell and the Jesuit scholar Frederick Copleston.) But they always end in a draw, because in matters of religion, the usual order is first the conclusion, then the arguments to get you there--something like the Queen of Hearts' preference for sentence first, verdict afterwards.

There Is a God, the foregone title of this new contribution to the perpetual debate, promises questionable arguments, and it doesn't disappoint; but there are several other questionable things before you even get to them. There is a God? Maybe--though this book, like all books, can't be said to prove it. But the immediate question is whether, as the subtitle suggests, there is a notorious atheist who changed his mind and wrote a book called There Is a God.

Antony Flew is a distinguished British academic philosopher, but he was never the world's most notorious atheist, and he didn't write this book. Flew, who is now 84, established, in some 30 books, a reputation as a modest yet formidable skeptic, but Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ayn Rand, and Madalyn Murray O'Hair collected far more notoriety as atheists during his lifetime. And recent books by a phalanx of "new atheists"--Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), and Michel Onfray (Atheist Manifesto)--have outsold and outscoffed Flew's best-known book, God and Philosophy (1966), a nuanced, careful case for doubt.

He appears to have changed his mind a few years ago to the extent of thinking that a detached deist sort of deity got the universe going. But as he admitted when interviewed by Mark Oppenheimer for a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, this book was written not "with" but entirely by a Christian apologist named Roy Abraham Varghese, a business consultant and author based in Dallas who has known Flew for over 20 years.

Varghese claims in the article that the book was partly composed out of Flew's remarks in conversations and letters, and that he had read the manuscript and approved it. But when asked by Oppenheimer, Flew seemed unfamiliar with several writers quoted extensively and praised in the book, and his limited participation is suggested to a reader of any of his earlier books by the subtlety, style, and wit that have suddenly gone missing.

It does offer some interesting biographical details that the philosopher himself must have provided. He grew up as the son of an eminent English Methodist preacher and theologian and lost his childhood faith while still in secondary school. Flew insists (unless it's just Varghese insisting) that he argued himself into the skeptical wilderness in the first place, and arguments finally delivered him out of it. It was a purely rational mode of metaphysical transportation. But the arguments are essentially the same as the ones he had spent a half-century dissecting and rejecting while teaching and debating on both sides of the Atlantic, and there's an obvious prodigal son aspect to the story, even if Flew hasn't made it all the way back to his father's devout Methodism.

You suspect that Pascal's remark about the heart having its reasons that reason doesn't know applies, without Flew, or reason, knowing it.

The book rests its case for God on a scientific makeover of the traditional "argument from design" (in which the rational order of the cosmos entails a divine designer). For Varghese/Flew, the fact that the vast expanse of galaxies and time has been reduced in modern physics to a few laws and equations that can be written on a blackboard suggests supernatural ingenuity as opposed to just scientific ingenuity at doing all the math that comes with a large universe.

Varghese, like other theists, makes much of the set of narrow parameters needed to nudge the white-hot chaos immediately following the Big Bang toward the formation of stars and planets and molecules that allowed the emergence of carbon-based life as we know it. Throw off the coordinates a little and we aren't here, and neither is much of anything else.