“Famous Atheist Now Believes In God” from ABC News

I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’s submitted this by now…

A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God more or less based on scientific evidence…

At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England.

Flew said he’s best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people’s lives.

“I’m thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins,” he said. “It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose.”

His thoughts bring up an interesting discussion: Can atheism and deism be one and the same? Since atheism puts its faith in science, could the concept of a God be rationalized scientifically? As simplistic an idea as that we’re a just a botched science experiment in a much more grandiose world, or that scenarios played out in movies like “The Matrix” could indeed be real.

The article goes on to point our that Flew “still does not believe in an afterlife.”

Yet biologists’ investigation of DNA “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved,” Flew says…

Here’s the whole article from ABC News/Associated Press.

64 thoughts on ““Famous Atheist Now Believes In God” from ABC News

  1. God as a source for matter is really nothing more than a placeholder for any real explanation.  However, in that deism is more of a “God created the universe and sat back,” it’s really not so much in conflict with science.  Still, Johnathan Miller will be upset.

  2. I have been self-identifying as a Deist for some time now and I do not see a conflict between Deism and science what-so-ever.

    Take cosmology for example… the Big Bang … a Deist can say … yep, sounds good … “something … lets call it God for lack of a better term” caused the Big Bang then took an extended vacation.

    Evolution is the same…

    I believe in evolutionary theory, big bang theory, and others … yet see no conflict with the idea of Deism.

    From Wikipedia

    <blockquote>Deism is belief in a God or first cause based on reason rather than faith, distinguishing it from theism. Deism is usually synonymous with “natural religion” in 18th century Enlightenment writings. Deism originated in 17th century Europe, gaining popularity in the 18th century Enlightenment especially in America as a modernist movement inspired by the success of the scientific method. Deists emphasize the exclusive application of reason and personal experience to religious questions. Deism is concerned with those truths which humans can discover through a process of reasoning, independent of any claimed divine revelation through scripture or prophets. Most Deists believe that God does not interfere with the world or create miracles

    God to me is a place holder term, much like Helio states above. A Deist is constantly modifying, changing and adapting his or her world view to fit new facts, IMO this is the difference between a Deist and a

    Theist .. and why I see some parallels and commonality between a Deist and an Atheist, almost a semantic difference as opposed to a religious one.

    If tomorrow someone were to determine what caused the big bang, it would not change my world view per se, but it would give me a new name for the ‘placeholder’ …

    (Again, I hope the above makes sense… I really need to caffinate more before commenting to posts such as this smile )

  3. Can atheism and deism be one and the same? Since atheism puts its faith in science, could the concept of a God be rationalized scientifically? As simplistic an idea as that we’re a just a botched science experiment in a much more grandiose world, or that scenarios played out in movies like “The Matrix

  4. Oooo, one atheist recants!  I guess the rest of us had better close up shop and go home then …

    I’m always tempted to agree with the Intelligent Design theorists—and say it was aliens that did it.  If the argument’s good for proving God did it, it works just as well for little green men.

  5. Anthony Flew’s abandonment of atheism in face of the complexity of the world has distinguished precedent: David Hume, in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” published in 1779, set up the argument from design (where does all this design come from?), knocked it down (well, where does God come from?), but finally conceded the necessity of God because he had no better explanation for the existence of th apparent order in the world.

    Now we do have a better explanation, at least for the “complexity of nature”: natural selection and evolution.  As to the origin of the Universe, we’re still in the dark.  But as Hume pointed out, before giving in due to failure of imagination, the supposition of a God doesn’t explain anything.

  6. GM- Do you know about “Hoyle’s Howler”?  Fred Hoyle, astronomer extraordinaire, said aliens must have seeded the Earth with life.  Same problem as with the Big Guy in the Sky.

  7. ’m always tempted to agree with the Intelligent Design theorists—and say it was aliens that did it.  If the argument’s good for proving God did it, it works just as well for little green men.

    True ‘nuff … and then I would modify my hypothosis and ideas to accept that data smile

    As I said before, that is the (IMO) core difference between a Deist and a Theist … outside of the absentee landlord world view smile

  8. I call myself an Atheist now, but can’t help having remnants of my Apathetic Agnosticism.  I don’t believe in gods, and I admit that I don’t know and I don’t really care.

    God as a source for matter is really nothing more than a placeholder for any real explanation. 

    Yeah, for me “goddidit” is as valid an answer (as in, one I’d offer up if asked about anything unexplainable), as “that’s just nature,” or “sometimes things just be’s that way!”  I really and truly don’t care about the origins of the universe, or if there’s some sort of mystical reason for my existing.  I’m here now, I have my own reasons for being and doing, and I hope to make the best of life while I’m still living.  If after I’m dead, anything I’ve done continues to have a positive influence on someone that’ll suffice as an “afterlife.”

    Flew’s saying that there “must have been intelligence” involved isn’t exactly “proof” per se.  It’s still merely his opinion. He has every right to it, I’ve no quarrel.

    Maybe I’m just jaded, but the story seems to be meant to give believers a warm-fuzzy; or more likely a point to argue: “See, even an avowed Atheist says there’s a God!”

  9. I find it terribly sad when someone gives up on the search for truth and settles for the fantasy explanation and for no more reason than the belief that “things are too complex”. Bunk! I don’t find anything in this universe really complex at all, everything is built up from simpler components, being a software designer and programmer helps in this view since I build “complex” applications from nothing but “0s and 1s”. I think it’s probably man’s difficulty in grasping the idea of great spans of time, billions of years, and how the most minute changes can have such great results that causes otherwise great thinkers to falter.

    It sounds to me like this professor has fallen into the “first cause” trap. Why do people do that? There is such an easy out: “what caused god”. And if you come back with “god has always been here” you are negating the idea of “first cause” that you used to “prove” god in the first place. Is an infinite universe(s) so difficult to grasp?

    I like John’s view of god as a placeholder idea (if folks are honest about it) but I prefer to just leave that “place” blank until some scrap of evidence presents itself. I think some folks just can not handle the idea of an “unanswered question” or a “blank line on the questionnaire”. Actually, I don’t leave that place blank myself. My guess is that our limited 3D view of existence prevents us from understanding the reality of the other (currently suggested) 7 dimensions. Perhaps universes sprout endlessly from that realm in a stream of “big bangs” like the bursting of CO2 bubbles on the surface of my beer. Perhaps not. If you go for the god excuse then you are just giving up the quest.

    Contrary to what most folks think, atheists do allow for the possibility of a god. We just haven’t seen any evidence for the assortment of gods that have paraded by over the ages. Not one! We have, however, seen plenty of lies and copycats that provide evidence that these gods do not exist (e.g. Jesus is an obvious rip-off from the Mithra and Apollonius fables) and never existed. Usually these gods were nothing but creations of the power hungry amongst us; a tool for the control of the populace. So to quote one of my heroes – “Homey don’t play dat!”.

  10. I’m glad Unsomnambulist picked up on this story (I did send a headsup to Les).

    To the point: As famous as this guy is supposed to be, I’d never heard of him before this story appeared.  I suspect he may be falling prey to senility, since the argument from design is a very old and easily discredited one.  He used much more elaborate arguments in defense of atheism in his earlier years (I particularly like the one about the burden of proof being on the believers).

    According to the article, Flew states “My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato’s Socrates: Follow the evidence, wherever it leads.”

    Alright, Mr. Flew, where’s the proof that an intelligent being is responsible for the existence of life?  Claiming “there is no other possible explanation” is just admitting to a lack of information, or at least imagination.  And Mr. Flew does not seem to consider that there are very simple forms of “life”, for example viruses.  Was an intelligence necessary to create these, also?

    I can very well imagine that a precursor molecule to DNA or RNA was capable of making simple copies of itself.  But since no process is perfect, this automatically starts the process of evolution, since those molecules better at reproduction increased in number.  “Complexity” comes all by itself.  Intelligence is a product of evolution, not the other way around!

    Perhaps this is just Mr. Flew’s Christmas present to the believers, and he will “recant” his belief and go back to atheism after Christmas.

    If not – Les, I sense a power-vacuum developing here…  perhaps its time for you to change careers! cool smile

  11. Spocko…

    I tend to agree with all you wrote, but for one semantic … and it is probably just semantics:

    If you go for the god excuse then you are just giving up the quest.

    I would modify that (as we are discussing Deism, Theism and Atheism) to

    “If you go for the “Theist God” excuse, then you are giving up on the quest”

    cool hmm

    I also conceed that my idea of “god” as a place holder is a difficult one to hold, takes alot of intellectual honesty (and self-doubt) and can lead to all sorts of fallacies and dead ends … which is why I continually test it and look at things … While blanks are nice, it is hard to discuss “       ” so some sort of semantic is required … I could have used foo or bar instead of “god”… but what the hell smile

    sometimes ya gotta open your skull, put your mind in your hand and examine it as if you have never seen it before – I try to do this on a yearly basis … using things from the neuroliguistic programming set such as Robert A. Wilso and the like … Prometheus Rising is a great book to try it with smile

  12. I saw this article the other day and I found it to be frustrating.  My immediate thoughts were very similar to Spocko’s.

    The thought that the universe is far too complex to have just happened is truly a stupid thought.  Who are we to say that something is too complex?  Compared to what?  Just because we don’t yet know or understand how something works, does not make it “too complex”.  It is nothing but a copout.

    And better yet, that “place holder” idea still doesn’t work, because it still doesn’t explain where the “place holder” came from.  Why is it so difficult to say, “I don’t know where the universe came from, but perhaps we will find out someday”.

  13. John Hoke says…

    I would modify that (as we are discussing Deism, Theism and Atheism) to “If you go for the “Theist God

  14. First of all, the guy is 80-something. He may be going through one of those stages of grieving, preliminary to the expected end of his own life. He probably deserves a bit of a break, from the news media AND from us.

    Second, think of this: How many of you were previously religious? Was there a worldwide news story about your “conversion” when you became an atheist or agnostic? “Former Christian Admits to No Longer Believing in God!” Nope. All this means is that our media, like most everything else in our society, is bent by the overwhelmingly goddy atmosphere in which we live.

    It’s unpleasant that this recanting story gives the godders another empty point to giggle and crow about—“Nyah, nyah! See?? See?? You atheists and scientists and,  y’know, liberals and stuff, you’re like, wrong! I’m just glad I have the, like, peace and beauty of knowing Jesus Christ as my own, uh, personal savior!”—but it’s probably not terribly important.

    Personally, I felt our atheist cause was done a much greater injury when Charles Darwin and Madalyn Murray O’Hair both recanted so publicly on their deathbeds, and screamed to the Sweet Baby Jesus for forgiveness.

  15. Interesting piece for a blog entry. However, ABC determined this to be news?  hmmm

    Les, you might thumbtack decrepitoldfool’s 364th-time definition of Atheism somewhere around here, save him some time.

  16. Hank- which Charles Darwin are we talking about?  The evolution guy did not recant on his deathbed- another myth, albeit an old one:

    Shortly after Darwin’s death, a certain Lady Hope spoke to a gathering in Massachusetts.

    She had, she maintained, visited Darwin on his deathbed.  He had
    been reading the Epistle to the Hebrews, had asked for the local
    Sunday school to sing in a summerhouse on the grounds, and had
    confessed: “How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution
    as I have done.”  He went on, she said, to say that he would like
    her to gather a congregation since he “would like to speak to
    them of Christ Jesus and His salvation, being in a state where
    he was eagerly savouring the heavenly anticipation of bliss.”

    The story was widely quoted and lives even today, despite the fact that Darwin’s daughter Henrietta, who was at his deathbed, said that her father had said no such thing, and that no Lady Hope had been present.

  17. Sounds like someone is 81 and trying to cover all his bases—ya know—Just in Case!

    To my mind we could, but not necessarily are, a cosmic abberation. The universe is so vast that why could’nt life in the form we understand it form on our tiny dot of a planet? We could just be a comic fluke the .00000000000000000001% chance that life would occur, but when the universe has more GALAXIES than grains of sand on all the worlds beaches then I think that even that small chance for life to exist is not just a possibility but is a certainity—as demonstrated graphically by us for example!
    You humans think SO small!
    Peace

  18. Ahem. Re: comment on Darwin and O’Hare. I said that with elephant-sized tongue in whale-sized cheek.

    By the way, Unscrewing the Inscrutable http://uti.dinggraphics.com/index.html has a story BY Anthony Flew in which he says “Sorry to disapppoint, but I’m still an atheist.”

  19. I don’t really care that a 80-something philosophy professor turns Deist because he can’t cope with modern cosmology.

    The “Sorry to Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist!” story is dated 08/31/2001, though?

  20. Good point, Hank, but that’s just cause DoF hasn’t written a biography yet…

    the other (currently suggested) 7 dimensions

    DAMN! The ONE time I actually know nothing of what Spocko is referring to & am interested (because I previously made up that number of dimentions because of being the number of God since I didn’t actually know of any theories beyond the 4th) yet he LEAVES ME HANGING! ah, the irony.

    I really like reading this post…

  21. To my mind we could, but not necessarily are, a cosmic abberation. The universe is so vast that why could’nt life in the form we understand it form on our tiny dot of a planet? We could just be a comic fluke the .00000000000000000001% chance that life would occur, but when the universe has more GALAXIES than grains of sand on all the worlds beaches then I think that even that small chance for life to exist is not just a possibility but is a certainity—as demonstrated graphically by us for example!
    You humans think SO small!

    Actually, due to the nature of some chemical elements, the emergence of amino-acids is very likely in most similar environments.  The amino acids which ultimately make up the bodies of every living organism on the planet are nothing more than combinations of complementary elements that have a chemical affinity for each other.  Once those compounds were formed in a way that allowed them to persist they were off and running. 

    In conclusion to my ramblings, the emergence of “life” is probably as common as the number of planets that are kind of like ours.  The development of that life into something with the self-awareness to appreciate such things is a much smaller probability.

  22. I first saw this story posted on a right-wing blog and it was amazing to see the excitement it generated.  By looking at the title of the column and the subsequent comments, one would think that Flew had just been baptized.

    IMO we’re seeing a few dynamics at work here.  One is in the way the way that conservatives define god and the other is that Flew, in his twilight years, failing to discover absolute proof that god does not exist, begins to question his assumptions.

    When questioned in response to this article, he was asked what he would mean if he ever asserted “god probably exists”?  He replied, “I don’t think I will ever make that assertion.”

    So why the perceived change of heart?

    My one and only piece of relevant evidence (for an Aristotelian God) is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species … [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms. – Antony Flew, Dec ‘04

    From an atheistic perspective it’s a bit easier, although still disconcerting, to understand Flew’s thought process.  In failing to discover an absolute negative theory of the existence of god, Flew has fallen into a personal, philosophical dilemma.  One we’ve seen here many times, namely ‘If you cannot prove that god does not exist, then the possibility of his existence must be true.’  Remember, we cannot prove that Mr. Smee did not create the universe either.

    The last part does not run contrary to atheism but it lends itself more toward gnosticism.  I would imagine, after years in the church and the ministry that I will be faced with a similar dilemma in my waning years.

    Two things that Flew makes absolutely clear are that he does not believe in any sort of after-life and that we won’t know his complete thoughts on the subject until his next book is published in 2005.

  23. I always love the “irreducible complexity” argument of creationists.  What criteria are used to decide if a structure (eye, flagellum, etc) was “designed” or “evolved”? 

    Other than saying: “Yup, it sure looks designed to me.”

    Currently reading “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter.  A different perspective and a good read.

    SG

  24. The fact that Flew has had a change of heart, of sorts, is significant primarily because he was one of England’s best known atheists and one of the most active promoters of that viewpoint on that side of the big pond.

    The problem is that his position hasn’t shifted all that much so the big victory celebration so many theists seem to be engaged in is kinda silly. Especially for those theists who’ve never heard of him. So it’s certainly a significant admission on his part, but not as significant as it’s being made out to be.

    I think it’s telling how desperate some of these folks are for outside validation of a belief system they secretly worry is a fantasy that they get so worked up when a prominent atheists says he thinks that some sort of intelligent being had a hand in getting it started after all. It’s not like he’s the first atheists to ever change his mind and it’s not like he went out and became an ordained minister as a result.

  25. it’s not like he went out and became an ordained minister as a result.

    Hey, I resemble that remark. I am an ordained minister – of an ignostic Internet church and I have the PDF to prove it.

  26. That above comment was mine – again. Between her sneakily logging me out and her in, having a bad cold, and no indication who is currently logged in, I seem to be losing this battle. Les, can you change the ownership of the above or delete this and the above comment?

    And please add a “you are logged in as” line to the preview page?

  27. Well, from what I understood of Flew’s letter explaining himself, he hasn’t had ANY change of heart.  He just acknowledged that current scientific discoveries could easily be used as supporting evidence both by believers and atheists:

    In short, I recognize that developments in physics coming on the last twenty or thirty years can reasonably be seen as in some degree confirmatory of a previously faith-based belief in god, even though they still provide no sufficient reason for unbelievers to change their minds. They certainly have not persuaded me.

  28. From what I’ve seen, Flew’s view seems just to be a reiteration of Kuhn’s argument that evidence underdetermines theory.  It’s just that Flew widen the claim beyond just science and noted that evidence taken without theoretical context doesn’t necessarily guarantee the aptness of either science or religion. 

    The choice between faith and skepticism is based on other factors, or at least should be based on other factors.  That’s what it seemed to me that Flew was saying.  Though I’m not particularly familiar with the body of Flew’s work, so I’m speculating from the little bits of his work that I’ve read.  All in all, I think Flew is making a less controversial claim than people think.  Indeed, Kant made a similar argument from the theist perspective back in the 18th century.  Also I think it’s something that most people already knew anyways.  Who doubts that faith is indeed a matter of faith and not a matter of evidence?

  29. P.S.  I also think that Flew makes a similar point to Michael Ruse (whom I referred to in some earlier comment).  He might also be noting something to the effect of: science and religion aren’t necessarily incompatible, though science and some doctrinal points from various religions might not be.  For example, you can’t seriously understand plate tectonics and really believe in a young Earth, unless you accept the further belief that God made the world look older than it is.  Then you would have to believe that God tricks us.  Then you would have to either accept that God is not omnibenevolent, or that somehow being mistaken about the age of Earth is somehow good for us.  That’s a lot of things to have to believe to accept that the world is infact only a few thousand years old.  It seems more reasonable to accept that early Christian theologians made a mistake in their estimation of the age of the planet (indeed, the bible never says how old the Earth is, at least not that I’ve noticed).

  30. This is in response to the earlier question about atheists vs. deists…
    What rankles is that everyone assumes that no god means no religion…I am not so sure that all atheists are areligious, they simply don’t believe in God.

    Also, to the comment on place holding being theism in disguise:  it’s not.  Place holder could be any sort of explanation, scientific, godly, ungodly, 42, whatever.

    SS-that 6,000 year calculation was conjured up in the 1800s or thereabouts by people who went through the Bible and tried to calculate a point of creation from the ages of people listed and the times mentioned.  In other words, even from a christian POV, it’s total bull.

  31. In the seventeenth century, Bishop Ussher established the creation of the Earth as happening on Oct. 23, 4004 B.C., at 9 A.M. if memory serves.  He did this by adding up all the “begots”.

  32. In the seventeenth century, Bishop Ussher established the creation of the Earth as happening on Oct. 23, 4004 B.C., at 9 A.M. if memory serves.  He did this by adding up all the “begots

  33. zilch says:

    In the seventeenth century, Bishop Ussher established the creation of the Earth as happening on Oct. 23, 4004 B.C., at 9 A.M. if memory serves.  He did this by adding up all the “begots

  34. What I want to know is how he got through all the begots!  I tried to read the bible once but I kept falling asleep during Exodus and had to give up the cause.  It was downhill from there wink

  35. Shana- after Genesis, the OT is pretty much all downhill, although some of the rules in Deuteronomy are rather amusing. My favorite is 22:11- “Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woolen and linen together.”  I used to sing in a quartet called Linsey-Woolsey, and I expect we’ll sing in Hell together, for having poked fun at the Lord like that.  At least we’ll have a good-sized audience…

  36. “I think it’s telling how desperate some of these folks are for outside validation of a belief system they secretly worry is a fantasy that they get so worked up when a prominent atheists says he thinks that some sort of intelligent being had a hand in getting it started after all.”

    I was thinking the same about the atheists who spent the time to post multiple entries to each other on this thread.  smirk

  37. Not sure why you think our discussion here is a form of seeking outside validation. None of us here are anywhere near as worked up about this as some Christians I’ve talked to are. At least a half-dozen True Believers who know I’m an atheist have gone out of their way to mention this news item to me.

  38. Consi, nice try wink

    Only one problem – who is the prominent theist that says that it started without any kind of intelligent being having a hand in it? Did the Pope recant?

  39. Les,

    here’s a quote from the ABC News article:

    NEW YORK Dec 9, 2004 — A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God more or less based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday.

    At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England.

    Flew said he’s best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people’s lives.

    I’m thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins,” he said. “It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose.”

    I would quote the emphasized part to the True BelieversTM… Shouts of PRAISE THE LORD seem premature, if it took Flew a couple of decades to turn from atheist to Deist at 81, a baptism isn’t likely to be in the cards.

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