John Haldane: Keeping faith with beliefs of a lifelong atheist

DUE to the troubles afflicting particular faiths and denominations – Islamic terrorism, religious Zionism, Anglican disputes over gay clergy and bishops, Roman Catholic humiliations over clerical abuse, and the like – public attention has shifted from the more general and deeper question of whether belief in God is credible.

Yet, that is the more important issue overshadowing mortal failings.

Polls of religious affiliation, or of public scepticism, are of some passing interest, but the larger question calls for a more intensely focused enquiry of the sort that is the business of philosophers. While they continue to ply their trade, however, it remains rare for their thoughts and conclusions to reach the wider world. Looking back over the 20th century only a few names reached into popular consciousness: Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and then only very superficially.

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But those who followed the debates were aware of another figure, less brilliant but more easily intelligible, and more determined to communicate his ideas. This was the long-time atheist and scourge of religion, liberalism, socialism, and other doctrines he deemed senseless and sentimental, namely Antony Flew who died this month. Over his long and distinguished career, Flew held positions at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading as well as in universities in Canada and the United States. A consummate master of English, Flew was "defined" in a philosophers' jokey lexicon of names as "a device for blowing smoke into church", and that he did with great vigour over five decades. But then things seemed to change, and suddenly Flew was being celebrated by evangelical Protestants as a convert to creationism. Now with his death, a row has been revived as to whether that was lying propaganda, or whether, if true, it was a consequence of senility.

The truth was more complex and is worth recording both in tribute to Flew's intellectual honesty and as a corrective to the over-simplifications, and even fabrications, of some in the popular media. I also have a personal interest since I am sometimes cited, erroneously, as one of the people who "converted" Flew to Christianity.

In November 2007, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article entitled The Turning of an Atheist. The author, Mark Oppenheimer, had written before on religion in America. Less than two weeks after its publication, however, this article had become his best-known work. For in it he drew from and entered into the world of internet religious polemics, touching the charged issue of whether or not one of the best-known philosophical atheists had turned from nothingness to God.

Oppenheimer wrote that: "Depending on whom you ask, Antony Flew is either a true convert whose lifelong intellectual searchings finally brought him to God or a senescent scholar possibly being exploited by his associates." Whatever the true answer, however, there are points in the Flew affair that should give anyone involved in debating God and religion cause to pause and to consider how far one should be willing to go in campaigning for one's convictions.

I have a privileged perspective on one aspect of the affair, for I am a character in the story. In 2004, an American businessman and amateur philosopher convened a meeting at New York University between Antony Flew, an Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder and myself for the purpose of producing a documentary film of an extended encounter and discussion on the subject of the existence of God.

What was notable was that in the course of this, Flew yielded to arguments favouring the existence of God and also to ones defending this against the counter-argument from suffering and moral evil. Our meeting was entirely congenial, and Flew and I talked agreeably before, during and after the filming. On our return to the UK, I sent him extracts from earlier debates with other atheists, and he in turn sent me an introduction he had written to a reprint of his well-known book God and Philosophy, in which he set out his new attitude to the arguments in favour of the existence of God.

So far as I was concerned that was the end of things. But shortly after the fires began to burn. Associated Press and other agencies picked up the story and very soon the internet was aflame with praise or denunciation. Atheist groups sought to defuse the significance of the reports, suggesting that they were confused or even deceitful; or else proposing that if accurate they were to be explained by Flew's mental decline. Religious believers meanwhile sang praises and thanksgiving for the return of a lost soul and began to heap glories upon him.

In fact, Flew's position was simply that while there is evidence in nature of intelligent creation, there is also evidence to suggest that who, or whatever, created the world is not concerned with the welfare of its creatures. This is certainly not traditional theism and, as Flew himself pointed out, it could even be described as a form of a-theism.

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Certainly I had, and still have, no reason to think Flew embraced traditional religious beliefs; and nor do I have any reason to think he regarded Christianity as at all plausible. Indeed, its doctrine of a loving creator God is one that he took to be at odds with the facts of the universe.

Where his thinking led him finally I do not know.

The ongoing arguments and controversies surrounding Flew's announced abandonment of atheism are a reflection of the state of religious and anti-religious polemics in the US. By contrast, until recently the issue of Flew's change of position received little commentary in Britain; but with his death that may change.

If so it will be further evidence of the debasement of intellectual debate, for what matters is not the prejudices of the parties but the truth or falsity of the "God-hypothesis" and the quality of the arguments for and against it. Those are ancient issues that remain with us, challenging the hearts and minds of the wise and the otherwise. And the deliciously paradoxical conclusion is "don't believe everything you read in the papers".

• John Haldane is professor of philosophy at St Andrews University.