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Atheists Who Found God, a chapter from IS ATHEISM DEAD?

December 21, 2021

This excerpt is from Chapter 21, “Atheists Who Found God: Sartre, Flew, and Camus” from my book IS ATHEISM DEAD?

Antony Flew
Antony Flew was one of the foremost atheists of the twentieth century. He declared himself an atheist at fifteen and went on to a brilliant career in philosophy. While at Oxford in the academic year 1949–50, Flew often attended C. S. Lewis’s Socratic Club, and although he thought Lewis “eminently reasonable,” was nonetheless unconvinced by his arguments for God. In fact, it was in 1950 that he wrote an essay titled “Theology and Falsification,” which ended up becoming the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the previous fifty years. In 1976, he wrote another landmark work titled The Presumption of Atheism. Though often regarded as the leading academic atheist of his time, Flew was never as bitterly polemical as the so-called “New Atheists” who followed him.

“My whole life,” he said, “has been guided by the principle of Plato’s Socrates: Follow the evidence, wherever it leads.” But where it eventually led him, to the shock of many of his followers, was to seriously question atheism and then flatly reject it. It was in 2004 that the most famous academic atheist of the century declared that he had come to believe in God. More specifically, he believed in an intelligent Creator of the universe and was now a Deist. The bitter howls of those feeling betrayed by the atheist genius they had followed were not long in coming. That December he wrote: “I have been denounced by my fellow unbelievers for stupidity, betrayal, senility and everything you can think of and none of them have read a word that I have ever written.”

The summer following this I found myself at a C. S. Lewis conference in Oxford, England, where in a forum at St. Aldates Church—just across the street from the famous Christ Church Meadow—I got to meet Flew and hear him talk about his conversion. He recounted his repulsion at the idea of a vengeful God who would cast people into eternal tortures and made clear he could not believe in that God, but affirmed his belief in an intelligent Creator—in “the Aristotelian God,” as he put it. For him the facts were clear as a bell, and there was no going back. The advances in science over the previous decades—specifically the arguments for the fine-tuned universe—had rendered atheism logically untenable. The attacks continued, but Flew had been around this block and was not about to take them lying down. When Simon Fraser University’s Raymond Bradley published his criticisms of Flew’s position in George Soros’s Open Society journal, Flew wrote a letter to the journal calling the piece “extraordinarily offensive” and put Bradley in the category of “a secularist bigot.”

Flew was so convinced of the scientific arguments for design that he even took the step in 2006 of signing his name to a letter advising the British government to be willing to include “Intelligent Design” in school curricula. The following year in an interview with the Christian ethicist Benjamin Wiker, Flew spoke of his “growing empathy with the insight of Einstein and other noted scientists that there had to be an Intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical Universe.”

In 2007, to make his new stance and arguments unmistakably—almost cheekily—clear, he wrote a book titled There Is a God, once more explaining that the new scientific evidence showed there was insufficient time for life to come into being from non-life, as he and so many had believed. Others who had achieved top distinction in the academic world, and who had come to Flew’s conclusion decades earlier, knew from personal experience that his book would provoke rage. Dr. Francis Collins, called it “[t]owering and courageous . . . Flew’s colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized.” Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale’s Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology and a Christian, called the book “fascinating” and said it would “come as a most uncomfortable jolt to those who were once his fellow atheists.” And Dr. Ian H. Hutchinson, the head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, said the book would “incense atheists who suppose (erroneously) that science proves there is no God.” But Flew didn’t care whether his new thinking might upset some people, saying “that’s too bad” and again directing them to “follow the evidence,” as Socrates had suggested.

“The philosophical question,” he said, “that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies, is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and ‘coded chemistry’? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.” Flew stands alone in his passage from being one of the most celebrated advocates of atheism to coming to believe in God, daring to say so, and explaining himself publicly.

Because Flew came to faith in God a few years before his death in 2010, and wrote of it, news of his conversion received the attention it deserved. But Camus’s and Sartre’s conversions were almost entirely unreported. Nonetheless, now we know the whole truth: that these three most famous and most thoughtful philosophers of the twentieth century all found their way beyond atheism and even beyond agnosticism, all the way to God himself.


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