The first time I can recall ever hearing the name Antony Flew was in my college apologetics class. My crazy teacher, always trying to prove a point, had said something along the lines of “even this famous atheist, Antony Flew, changed his mind and now believes in God! That proves that God exists!” My inward reaction to this was twofold: I thought, “Well, then, he must not have been a very convinced atheist” and “That invalidates any atheistic arguments that this person must have had, because in the end he himself wasn’t even convinced by them.”
Since then, I’ve heard of Antony Flew from time to time, but the only thing I knew about him was that he was famous for being an atheist-turned-theist. He came up once again as I was reading a book (which I’ll talk about next week but it’s hard to explain) and the author provided three reasons why Antony Flew abandoned his atheism. They were “the laws of nature, the existence of the cosmos, and the presence of life”¹. After some research, it looks like his conversion was more specifically due to the teleological argument, or intelligent design and the developments surrounding it which had come out over the course of his lifetime².
I was intrigued by this old man’s story. He became an atheist at age 15, spent 66 years arguing against the existence of God, and then, at age 81 in 2004, he denounced it all and admitted a new belief³. His story isn’t the same as Lee Strobel’s or Francis Collins’, who were “atheists” in their young lives because they had never quite considered their beliefs or the evolution they were taught in high school science class. C.S. Lewis also has a famous conversion story, but even he became a Christian at age 33 before becoming possibly the most well-known apologist in recent history. Antony Flew is different.
Flew died around the same time as Christopher Hitchens. I came onto the atheist scene in 2016, but I became more than familiar with the works and influence of Hitchens, while I had heard barely a word of Flew’s atheistic accomplishments. No one told me that Flew was behind the idea of the famous No True Scotsman fallacy, or that it was his idea to consider atheism as negative (“I don’t believe there is a god”) rather than positive (“I believe that there is no god”) by default. This proposition, put forth in his book The Presumption of Atheism, is a huge idea that has completely shaped what atheism is and how it is defined. Yet it is rarely mentioned that Antony Flew was the great atheistic mind behind it. It seems to me that Flew was the Richard Dawkins of his time, considered “the world’s most notorious atheist,” yet because he later converted, no one wants to mention that he ever was.
Most of what I ever hear about Antony Flew is from Christians. The author of the book I’m reading brags about what it is that converted Flew, and my apologetics teacher tried to prove Christianity true because someone like Flew changed his mind in the end. But I don’t think that his conversion invalidates any of his work as an atheist. He had so many good arguments, and the only one that overcame him was that of intelligent design. His arguments for secular morality and the viciousness of the Christian God are no less legitimate than they were before; as a matter of fact, Flew didn’t even convert to Christianity. Because of what he saw as evidence of design, he became a deist who believed in some cosmic creator, but he still despised the god of Christianity, and even more the god of Islam.
I think that just because Antony Flew spent the last six years of his life a deist, this doesn’t mean that the other 66 years as an atheist should be entirely ignored. It was noble of Flew to say that he would follow the evidence where it leads, and when, for him, it lead to deism, he wasn’t afraid to admit that he had been wrong. But for those of us who remain atheists, we have a lot to thank him for.
¹ The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief by James S. Spiegel. 2010.
², ³ Antony Flew on Wikipedia