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.

Theoretical speculation among physicists about what is known as the anthropic principle seems to have moved well beyond his providential account of it. But for Varghese and, apparently, for Flew, it can only mean fine-tuning by an omnipotent being with a keen mathematical mind who generously created the entire universe for the sole purpose of establishing (after a waiting period of about 13 billion years) occasionally intelligent life--us--here on earth.

All this amounts to no more than Flew's newly professed deism, an encore for the Enlightenment's divine watchmaker who meticulously fashions the universe, winds it up, and lets it run without miracles or other meddling. But Varghese can't resist offering, in Flew's persona, tentative but eager endorsements of Christianity that can sound a bit like a pitch for some double-action detergent: "No other religion enjoys anything like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. If you're wanting omnipotence to set up a religion, it seems to me that this is the one to beat!"

If you're wanting a question-begging assertion, it seems to me this one is hard to beat. I lost my own mild-mannered, small-town Protestant faith at about the same adolescent age that Flew lost his, but you don't have to be a skeptic to be put off by the complacent, comfortable tone of this book. It's the sort of thing that incensed Kierkegaard.

For instance, there's the analogy that Varghese offers to make his point that the universe was divinely devised just for us. Suppose you arrive at a hotel in some place you've never visited. You're amazed to get to your room and find your favorite music playing, your favorite snacks and beverages laid out, the latest book by that writer you like on the desk, and so on. You would "certainly be inclined to believe that someone knew you were coming."

The actual Hôtel de l'Univers we find ourselves in looks a little different. It has billions of empty rooms inimical to us and to all life, many of them on fire. We occupy a corner of the obscure room assigned to us, much of it being uninhabitable or under water, and while managing pretty well there at the moment we know that, in the fullness of time, if we succeed in sticking around that long, the source of the room's heat and light will fry us to a crisp just before going out, and that the whole hotel will finally go to pieces, as will the pieces, leaving a pitch-dark nothingness where no reservations are accepted.

If I were Varghese, I'd call the front desk and complain. Maybe an omnipotent agent did thoughtfully arrange these accommodations for us, and the reason they're so dicey and dangerous is--well, Varghese recruits a Panglossian theologian or two to assure us that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Voltaire being unavailable, I will offer on his behalf a few equally plausible possibilities. Maybe a designer deity exists, but He doesn't resemble the God of the theologians. He resembles Rube Goldberg, because a better exercise in elaborately precarious and ironic indirection can't be imagined. Maybe the universe was designed by a quarrelsome committee of gods, in which case the wasted space and the delays and cross-purposes and the eventual collapse of the whole project are just what we might have expected.

Maybe the Epicureans were right. The gods exist, but they are serenely unaware of our existence. Being infinitely more intelligent than ourselves, they have no interest in us and our prosperity, opinions, or sexual habits, just as we have no interest in the private lives of the gnats that live for a summer's day in the woods at the edge of town. Or maybe, "god" being "dog" spelled backwards, the ultimate reality is a Supreme Canine who pensively excretes universes capable of giving rise to similarly perfect, productive creatures. We are just here to walk them.

Drawing inferences about a supernatural orderer and His (Her, Its, Their) characteristics from cosmic order (and from our little cliffhanging niche in the midst of that vast impersonal order) is hazardous work, as David Hume demonstrated more than two centuries ago. Flew made it look even more hazardous in God and Philosophy, and as recently as the new introduction he wrote for the book, reissued by Prometheus in 2005, he was still saying that such cosmological arguments will seem persuasive only to someone who already believes in God. If he's finally been bowled over by them, it's worth noting that they leave eminent cosmologists like Steven Weinberg as unmoved as the Unmoved Mover.

We are all up against the fact that, as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it's queerer than we can imagine. Orthodox atheists are left guessing, too, having to pull life and consciousness out of a hat made of matter in motion, or chemical soups, or God-knows-what. There's plenty of room for conjecture.

Some scientists, including Einstein, have thought that if modern theoretical physics were to blur into something vaguely religious, it would have to be some version of pantheism, like Spinoza's, or Eastern religions like Taoism and Buddhism, not Western monotheism with its dualistic matter/spirit baggage. And since the uncertainty principle established by Heisenberg and Schrödinger leaves subatomic particles in a quantum quandary until we observe them, others have detected the shades of metaphysical idealists like Berkeley and Schelling lurking in the more rarefied precincts of physics.

Are we somehow cocreators of a universe that returns the compliment by creating us? Instead of arguing, philosophers might be better off adopting the open-minded curiosity of a William James and looking into mystical or aesthetic experiences. (Even the scathing skeptic E.M. Cioran said that, when he heard Bach, he believed.) Like arguments, they prove nothing, but they assume less.

We might as well let Einstein have the last word. He did metaphorically mention God frequently ("God does not play dice with the universe," etc.), but he offered no arguments and he sharply rejected traditional notions of a judging, intervening, miracle-working personal God. He despised dogmas and fanaticism, but thought that a modest, open-ended religious approach to the cosmos was better than a completely irreligious one. His remarks about the uncanny intricacies of the universe convey awe combined with deep humility. He compares us to a small child entering a vast library full of books in strange languages, dimly perceiving there is an order there but unable to grasp its significance. And he remarked, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

Luckily, there's plenty of it to go around.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.