Obituary: Professor Antony Flew

Antony Flew, philosopher. Born: 11 February, 1923, in London. Died: 8 April, 2010, aged 87.

IN THE vast majority of cases, it is perfectly acceptable to change one's mind. Ideas, tastes and feelings cemented in the psyche at a young age are always subject to alteration as time passes, and occasionally those changes in a person's way of thinking can affect others. In the case of Antony Flew, a man who, for 66 years, was a devout atheist who became one of the world's leading authorities on the existence, or lack of, a higher being or intelligent designer of planet earth, things were a little more complicated.

Born in London, Antony Garrad Newton Flew was the son of a Methodist minister. Flew snr was keen for Antony to take an interest in the question of religion, but, by 15, his son had already lost his faith. His rationale was that there could not possibly be an omnipotent being whilst the existence of evil persisted.

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He was educated at St Faith's School, Cambridge, before moving to Kingswood School in Bath. The Second World War postponed his enrolling at university, but his time was not wasted as he became an RAF intelligence officer whilst studying Japanese.

When the war ended, he took a place at St John's College, Oxford and read Greats. His undergraduate studies included classes in classical philosophy and his interest led him to the Socratic Club, whose president at the time was one CS Lewis. Flew liked the Christian apologist Lewis and described him as "an eminently reasonable man", but his moral views on the existence of God fell short of convincing. Flew found the more scientific forms of the teleological argument were by far the most persuasive.

During his time at St John's, Flew established himself as a brilliant philosophical thinker. He graduated with a first class degree and won the John Locke Scholarship in Mental Philosophy in 1948. A year later, he was employed at Christ Church as a lecturer in philosophy.

Flew continued his education under the supervision of Oxford professor Gilbert Ryle. Inspired by Ryle and his hero, the famed Scot David Hume (on whom he would eventually become a world authority), he wrote his first influential paper, "Theology and Falsification", which he presented to the Socratic Club; the underlying principle of it was that "God" is meaningless and indistinct as a concept.

His career then took him from Oxford to Aberdeen, where he lectured in moral philosophy. It was during his time in Aberdeen that he published his first book, A New Approach to Psychical Research, which indulged one of his more eccentric interests, that of paranormal phenomena.

From Aberdeen, he moved to Keele University in Staffordshire, where he took up the post of professor of philosophy, which he held for almost 20 years before moving to Reading University in 1973 and retiring in 1982. Having "retired" he held the post of professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, Canada, on a part-time basis.

As a lecturer, Flew had a reputation for being extremely passionate and boundlessly energetic: a favourite question for undergraduate students was: "Is it better to be a satisfied pig or a dissatisfied Socrates?"

As a philosopher and atheist, Flew was a considered individual who had great respect for theology and religious ideology. He was certainly no Dawkins for his time, and held no militant views on the existence or otherwise of an all-powerful deity. His stance was one of a scientific outlook; assume there is no God until there is concrete evidence of one. He regularly debated with theologians and enjoyed religious discourse, even as an atheist. His aim was not to antagonise or denigrate the beliefs of others, more to emphasise the possibility that the religious position might be untenable and that, as such a possibility existed, it should be discussed.

He also openly encouraged religious teaching in schools, on the basis that some moral education was better than none, a situation he adjudged to be increasing.

But he was highly critical of the theory of life after death and was quoted as saying "I want to be dead when I'm dead and that's an end to it. I don't want an unending life. I don't want anything without end."

In 1975, he wrote his book Thinking About Thinking: Do I Sincerely Want to Be Right? in which he included the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. His rendition of it goes thus:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing". The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, "No true Scotsman would do such a thing".

Over the course of his long and distinguished academic career, Flew was the author of some 23 philosophical works, including that first classic paper, "Theology and Falsification". Written when he was only 27, it is purported to be the most quoted philosophical work of the past 60 years.

In 2004, Flew, by then the author of numerous influential intellectual papers on the subject of the absence of a God, dropped the academic equivalent of an atomic bomb. An active and prevalent atheist for more than 40 years, he announced he had changed his mind and that he believed there was a God after all. This wasn't a "hands-on God" who took a daily interest in all matters earthly, but he felt there was too much evidence in our world for it to have been conveniently constructed from a long chain of happy coincidences. As he put it so succinctly, he was happy to believe in an "inoffensive, inactive god".

There had been rumours since 2001 that Flew had succumbed to the lure of theology, and he had even written a response entitled Sorry To Disappoint, but I'm Still an Atheist! However, in 2007, he published There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind.

Despite this apparently heartfelt shift, he still had no affection for the full-on Christian God, the one who pops in and makes wholesale adjustments almost at will, and he certainly had no love for other religions. His view of Islam was that it was "best described in a Marxian way as the uniting and justifying ideology of Arab imperialism".

There were many who were angered by his change of direction, followers who had used his works to justify their own position and whose own works had been majorly influenced by his for years, even decades. Others accused a United States Christian group of taking advantage of an old man, apparently writing books in Flew's name with little input from the professor himself.

In truth, his position seemed to change only very slightly. He had always been open to the idea of a higher being, to the concept of intelligent design, and he felt that the advances of science in the intervening years had provided him with the subtle proof that he needed to make such a significant statement.

In the video Has Science Discovered God, he states: "As people have certainly been influenced by me, I want to try and correct the enormous damage I may have done."

In 1952, Antony Flew married Annis Harty, with whom he had two daughters.