Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Battle for Antony Flew's Mind

I greatly enjoyed Antony Flew's There Is a God, especially as Flew traces his own journey, revisiting his famous arguments against God's existence, showing how he came to doubt those arguments, and "followed the evidence to where it leads"; in Flew's case, to the existence of God.

In the Nov. 4, 2007 New York Times Magazine Mark Oppenheimer writes about Flew's odyssey in "The Turning of an Atheist."

Right away Oppenheimer's essay gives one the feeling that he's not thrilled that Flew now believes in God as he writes that, over his lifetime, Flew was a professor at "a series of decent regional universities." "Decent?" This reminds me of a time when I was teaching in India. One night I strolled the streets of the city of Kurnool and saw a furniture store called "Decent Furniture." I assume the owners misunderstood the meaning of this word, at least in English. "Decent" furniture is, well, "decent," you know, "OK furniture." But not exceptional by any any means.

Oppenheimer says that Flew's book is "written in simple language for a mass audience." Not really. Perhaps a lot of people will buy Flew's book but the masses will fail to understand its most crucial elements. Flew's arguments will be "user-friendly" only to those who already have a philosophical background sufficient to frame them. I think Flew's book is well-written, but will remain obscure to the masses.

Oppenheimer asks: "But is Flew’s conversion what it seems to be? 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." Oppenheimer visited with Flew, and writes: "With his powers in decline, Antony Flew, a man who devoted his life to rational argument, has become a mere symbol, a trophy in a battle fought by people whose agendas he does not fully understand." So, either Flew is a vibrant scholar or he is a senescent scholar. But perhaps this is a false dichotomy? And it "depends on whom you ask?" How about asking Flew himself. But if Flew is "senescent" then of course he will not know it.

Flew, believes Oppenheimer, has been exploited by evangelical theists. Oppenheimer implies that, indeed, Flew is a "senescent scholar," which means a "less than decent scholar." Thus, if such is true, then it takes much if not all away from his "conversion." ["Senescence refers to the biological processes of a living organism approaching an advanced age (i.e., the combination of processes of deterioration which follow the period of development of an organism). The word senescence is derived from the Latin word senex, meaning "old man" or "old age" or "advanced in age"."]

Oppenheimer writes of Flew's senescent state as one of "blissful unawareness": "When Flew met Christians who claimed to have new, scientific proof of the existence of God, he quickly became again the young graduate student who embarked on a study of the paranormal when all his colleagues were committed to strict rationalism. He may, too, have connected with the child who was raised in his parents’ warm, faithful Methodism. Flew’s colleagues will wonder how he could sign a petition to the prime minister in favor of intelligent design, but it becomes more understandable if the signatory never hated religious belief the way many philosophers do and if he never hated religious people in the least. At a time when belief in God is more polarizing than it has been in years, when all believers are being blamed for religion’s worst excesses, Antony Flew has quietly switched sides, just following the evidence as it has been explained to him, blissfully unaware of what others have at stake."

So does one have to "hate religious people" to be a real atheist? That is, does one have to take on the spirit of Richard Dawkins to be truly atheistic? I think not, as many anti-Dawkins atheists are saying. And to bring up Flew's Methodist upbringing commits the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy. If only Flew had hated religious people and had not been brought up as a Methodist he never would have signed such a document! But then, of course, had Oppenheimer never been raised/trained/etc. as he has, he'd never write an essay like this. Perhaps to be in one's "right mind" one must: 1) be an atheist; and 2) hate religious people. In that case Flew has truly lost his mind.

NOTE: Stanley Fish wrote this response in the nytimes to Oppenheimer: "In an article published Sunday — November 4 — in the New York Times Magazine, Mark Oppenheimer more than suggests that Flew, now in his 80’s, did not write the book that bears his name, but allowed Roy Varghese (listed as co-author) to compile it from the philosopher’s previous writings and some extended conversations. Whatever the truth is about the authorship of the book, the relation of its argument and trajectory to the argument... stands."