This is the second post evaluating Antony Flew’s journey toward God. I recommend that you read my first post, “From Atheism to Theism: A Journey Toward God,” before you read this post. The first post has been updated in light of Charles Halton’s comment. In his comment, Charles included a link to an article published in the New York Times Magazine in which the author is critical of the way Flew’s book was written. Visit my post and read Charles’ comment. I will address the charges made by the author of that article in a postscript after I finish my review of Flew’s book.
When Antony Flew changed his mind and declared that he now accepted the existence of God, the atheist world reacted with anger and disdain. As one of the endorsers of his book wrote: “When Antony Flew, in the spirit of free-thinking, followed the evidence where he thought it led, namely, to theism, he was roundly denounced by supposed free-thinkers in the severest of terms. He had, it seemed, committed the unpardonable sin.”
Now, Flew has written a book, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2007), in which he recounts his journey from atheism to theism. However, the negative reaction to his book is expected to be fierce, primarily by those who deny the existence of God. As another endorser of the book wrote: “His colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized by his story, but believers will be greatly encouraged, and earnest seekers will find much in Flew’s journey to illuminate their own path toward the truth.”
Before he turned to theism, Flew wrote many books and articles that reflected his anti-theism belief, including God and Philosophy and The Presumption of Atheism. One of his most influential works was his lecture “Theology and Falsification” in which he said that any religious statement can be made significant by the many qualifications made concerning that statement.
In The Presumption of Atheism, Flew established a principle that is still used by atheists today. This principle states that in any discussion about the existence of God, the burden of proof rests on those who are defending the reality of God and that atheism should be the default position in the discussion.
Flew gives three reasons he abandoned atheism and accepted the reality of the existence of God. The most amazing thing is that Flew became aware of the existence of God not because he read the Bible or he went to church. According to Flew, he became convinced of the existence of God because of the implications of recent scientific discoveries.
His statement contradicts what atheists proclaim with vigor, that is, that science proves conclusively that God does not exist. Flew’s statement also goes contrary to the popular view among some Christians that science and faith are mutually exclusive.
The first reason Flew presented for changing his mind was that “recent work on the origin of life pointed to the activity of a creative Intelligence” (p. 74). One question that became the basis for his journey back to God was “How did life as a phenomenon originate from nonlife?” According to Flew (pp. 90-91), “the origin of life cannot be explained if you start with matter alone.” This declaration was made at a symposium in May 2004 in New York. In that symposium Flew declared that he believed in the existence of God because recent studies reveal that the complex DNA arrangements required to produce life demand that a creative Intelligence be involved.
When Flew was asked if studies on the origin of life pointed to a creative Intelligence, he answered (p. 75):
Yes, I now think it does . . . almost entirely because of the DNA investigations. What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together. It’s the enormous complexity of the number of elements and the enormous subtlety of the ways they work together. The meeting of these two parts at the right time by chance is simply minute. It is all a matter of the enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence.
One idea that has been presented to defend the possibility that life can arise by change is what is called “the monkey theorem.” This view says if a large number of monkeys are put together in front a computer keyboard and type randomly, given enough time, the monkeys eventually will compose a Shakespearean sonnet. Or, as the Wikipedia puts it:
The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a particular chosen text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Flew wrote in his book (pp. 75-78) that Gerald Schroeder, an Israeli scientist and the author of The Science of God, has presented a point-by-point refutation of the “monkey theorem.”
According to Schroeder, an experiment was conducted by the British National Council of Arts in which six monkeys were placed in front of a computer and allowed to type randomly. After one month the monkeys typed fifty pages but did not produce a single word.
Schroeder observed that in English there are two one-letter words: “I” and “a.” An “I” or an “a” is a word if there is a space before and after the word. After calculating the number of letters and characters in the keyboard, Schroeder concluded that the likelihood for a monkey to write a one-letter word is 1 chance out of 27,000.
Schroeder then applied the same principle to a Shakespearean sonnet. The sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” has 488 letters in the sonnet. Since there are 26 letters in the alphabet, then the likelihood of writing the 488 letters of the sonnet in its proper order is 26 multiplied by itself 488 times. The result would be the number 10 to the 690th power. The number is so immensely large that it could never be reached.
When this number is compared with the millions of arrangements that are needed to produce life, the possibility that life arose by chance is minimal. Flew then concluded (p. 78): “If the theorem won’t work for a single sonnet, then of course it’s simply absurd to suggest that the more elaborate feat of the origin of life could have been achieved by chance.”
Of course, Flew was highly criticized for his views. Richard Dawkins said that Flew was appealing to a “god of the gaps.” Flew, however, presents a good defense of his position (pp. 123-132). In defending his view, Flew quotes physiologist George Wald who said that “we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance” (p. 131). And then Flew concludes:
The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such “end-directed, self-replicating” life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind.
To that I say: Amen!
Antony Flew, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2007.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Studies on Antony Flew