It is with profound sorrow that I wish to comment on the passing of Antony Flew, one of the leading British philosophers of our time, who died at the age of eighty-seven. For more than a half century, he was considered one of the most important atheist philosophers in the world, a position that he modified near the end of his life.
Flew was the son of a Methodist minister who said that he prayed for his son every day after learning of his atheism. Flew established his reputation as an analytic philosopher with the 1950 publication of his influential paper “Theology and Falsification,” which was reprinted time and again. Here he argued that the concept of an all-powerful and loving God was nonfalsifiable and hence devoid of meaning. In his book The Presumption of Atheism (1976), he said that atheism must be our starting point, that the burden of proof rested with theism, and that he found the evidence for God insufficient. He also said that there was a lack of evidence for survival after death.
Flew contributed to a wide range of topics in his lifetime: He was sympathetic early in his career to psychical research (1953), but he later abandoned belief in paranormal phenomena. His publications on Hume were noteworthy. Flew was influenced by Hume’s religious skepticism and by his conservative politics. Flew began as a Marxist socialist yet ended up in Margaret Thatcher’s inner circle of advisors. He wrote books on the history of Western philosophy, how to think straight, libertarianism versus egalitarianism, and Darwinian evolution. He was always difficult to pigeonhole, since he invariably took independent positions. His main principle, he said, was “to follow the evidence wherever it leads.” He was an evocative lecturer who delivered his talks with great enthusiasm.
May I be permitted to say something of my own personal friendship with Tony Flew, which went back over half a century? Indeed, he was my closest friend and colleague in the British Isles. It began in 1958 when I published a technical paper in Philosophical Studies criticizing a basic criterion of Flew’s linguistic “ordinary language” philosophy. “Has Mr. Flew Abandoned the Logic of Ordinary Use?” I asked. He took my criticisms in good spirit, and we became friends. Our collegial friendship continued when I invited him to spend a year as visiting professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1970–1971; and it culminated in later years when he became a contributor to both Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines. He and I served as vice presidents of the Rationalist Press Association in Britain, and he joined the Secretariat of the International Academy of Humanism. He allied with Sidney Hook, as I did in the early 1970s, defending the university against violence. I am pleased to say that Prometheus Books published half a dozen books by him, including God and Philosophy (2005). We shared many ideas and values but sometimes differed. I remember being bowled over when I asked him to endorse a statement issued by the International Academy of Humanism, which among other things defended “social justice.” He responded, “Paul, would you mind if I did not sign this statement?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I do not believe in social justice,” he replied, “given all of the misuses done in its name.”
To which I replied, “I understand your point of view, Tony. Of course, do not sign it.”
Of considerable significance today is the great furor that erupted when Flew announced in 2004 that he believed in God. Christians took him to their bosom. However, his revised position was a minimalist one. Flew made it clear that he did not accept the Christian or Islamic God, the doctrine of heaven and hell, the efficacy of prayer, revelation, salvation, or ethics rooted in theology. He argued that he was a deist (like Jefferson and Franklin), not a theist with some conception of a personal God. Rather, his position was similar to that held by Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan. He argued (mistakenly, I think) that DNA research had demonstrated the complexity of nature and life and that this pointed to intelligent design. He also appealed to Aristotle’s classic argument that postulated a prime mover.
On the contrary, I would argue that one does not need to invoke God to fill the gap; it is possible to account for the origin of life in physical-chemical naturalistic terms. Some atheists attributed his conversion to dotage, which he vigorously denied.
The role of Antony Flew in the secular-humanist-atheist world demonstrates the importance of diversity and the need to have an open mind about provocative ideas.