by Denyse O'Leary
In late October, celebrated (former) atheist Antony Flew's long-awaited There IS a God, with Roy Varghese, appeared. It is an elegant little book, as one might expect from a British philosopher. Its sparkling clarity does more than illuminate Antony Flew's change of mind on the subject of God. It provides a window into the true views of great twentieth century scientists who are routinely portrayed as atheists. Flew is in an excellent position to correct the record because he understands clearly the concepts they were wrestling with. But more on that in my upcoming review.
I do not review apologetic literature in this space, and I am not making an exception here because There IS a God is not an apologetic in any meaningful sense. It is a retraction of earlier (negative) views on the existence of God, on account of new evidence from science about the nature of the universe. Flew's prior prominence as an atheist merits a closer look at the evidence that convinced him to change his mind, which I will shortly address in a followup review.
Flew did not become a Christian but a deist - that is, a person who believes that the existence of the universe is best explained by a divine mind that is not part of the universe but rather outside it. Some of his Christian friends would like him to become a Christian, just as some of his atheist friends would like him to revert to atheism. As of this writing (December 31, 2007), he has done neither.
When the book first appeared, its substance was overshadowed by a controversy over whether Flew really wrote it. The implication, drawn out at length by Mark Oppenheimer in The New York Times, was that Flew was senile and was being manipulated by zealous Christians.
Flew denied that, stating,
"My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 percent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I'm 84 and that was Roy Varghese's role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I'm old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking."
In any event, a long "hit" book review in the Sunday Times by Anthony Gottlieb confirms suspicion that the theists and the atheists had been fighting over Flew for years. The theists won, and the atheists are now determined to trash his value in consequence. For example, we read:
Oddly, Flew seems to have turned into an American as well as a believer. His intellectual autobiography is written in the language of an Englishman of his generation and class; yet when he starts to lay out his case for God, he uses Americanisms like "beverages," "vacation" and "candy." It is possible that Flew decided to make some passages easier on the ears of American readers or that an editor has made trivial emendations for him. But it is striking how much of Flew's method of argument, too, has changed from that in his earlier works, and how similar it now is to the abysmal intellectual standards displayed in Varghese's appendix. In fact, Flew told The New York Times Magazine last month that the book "is really Roy's doing."
Oh, come on. If Flew had suddenly, dramatically, turned back to atheism, would the same people suggest that he was senile or that he didn't really write the (later) retraction? Is that truly the atheists' best shot? Then their case is worse than I had realized. As a matter of fact, people who are senile tend to confirm their earlier views more strongly, rather than change them decisively. Change might require intellectual resources they no longer have.
In my view, the authorship attribution, "with" Roy Varghese, is the weak point that those who wish to discredit Flew latched on to and tried to exploit. The word "with", in respect to authorship attribution, is ambiguous. It can mean that the author has accepted help with style. But it can also imply that the named author could not write publishable work.
For example, if a world heavyweight champ who never went to school but has an inspiring story to tell writes an autobiography "with" a popular sports journalist, we needn't be in much suspense about which of the two is literally writing the book. To raise the question is to risk sounding naive. But Flew has written dozens of challenging books, so the question of whether he could still do so matters. Most critically, it impacts the reader's willingness to take his change of mind seriously.
In fact, Flew is identified as having written most of the book (pp 7-158) and Varghese as having written the Preface (vii-xxiv), the Introduction (pp. 1-6), and a long Appendix (161-183). There is also a long appendix by Anglican bishop N. T. Wright (pp 185-213) on the veracity of accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. But that long essay, while quite interesting, seems quite distinct from Flew's account of how he came to be a deist and Varghese's supporting documentation.
I found myself impatiently flipping through the book trying to figure out who Roy Abraham Varghese even is, and finally took to the Internet, where I learned:
Roy Abraham Varghese, author of The Wonder of the World, is the editor and author of various books on the interface between science and religion. Of these, Cosmos, Bios, Theos, included contributions from 24 Nobel Prize winners and was described as "the year's most intriguing book about God" by Time magazine. This was the best-selling book from the publishing house Open Court. Cosmic Beginnings and Human Ends won a Templeton Book Prize in 1995. Great Thinkers on Great Questions was published by OneWorld of Oxford, England, and distributed worldwide by Penguin. God-Sent and the best selling God-Fleshed were two works of popular theology published by Crossworld Herder, the US division of the German publishing house Herder and Herder. Varghese was a panelist at the science and religion forum in the Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1993. He was also an invited participant in the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders held at the United Nations in August 2000. He has organized several conferences with dialogues between noted atheists and theists including a conference at Yale University on Artificial Intelligence. He has worked on conferences and publications with some of the best-known atheists in the English-speaking world, ranging from Antony Flew and Sir Alfred Ayer of Oxford to Marvin Minsky of MIT as well as with prominent scientists (including a number of Nobel Prize winners).
Varghese has been elsewhere described as a "businessman and amateur philosopher." If this information is in the book, it is not emphasized.
I am not the only person who has noticed this problem. John Haldane, Director of the Centre for Ethics, Policy and Public Affairs in the Department of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, had a ringside seat during the flap, and records:
... the predictable reactions to a book published last month entitled There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind, described as being "by Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese." I quote the form of the authorial assignment for it is part of Oppenheimer's suggestion that Flew had little if anything to do with the book and that it is the latest and most brazen attempt by a member of the theist forces to co-opt a declining mind to their cause.
Haldane doesn't buy the thesis:
As with the defences and denunciations on the weblogs, readers will interpret these statements and Oppenheimer's article in line with their own prejudices, but to my mind the presumption should be in favour of innocence.
I don't buy the he-didn't-write-it thesis either. As I was already aware of the controversy, I read the book carefully as an editor might, and I think that there is no question that Flew wrote the material that appears under his name. And if he didn't, he would certainly have tried to. I remember Flew from the compulsory first year religion course at the U (1967), and after all these years, ... this is still Flew. But it is also true that substantial portions of the book were contributed by Varghese, who is a "with" author and by Wright, who is not named on the cover.
That's one irritant and another has been the publisher's billing of Flew as "the world's most notorious atheist." Many have scored cheap goals by pointing out that Flew was never that. He might be better defended as (formerly) the world's best-respected academic atheist. Throughout his section of the book, a hallmark of Flew's style is a meticulous search for the best evidence, wherever it leads. I can hardly doubt that the many distinctions he earned were just and that his change of mind was reasonable. But "notorious"? Not Flew. Not unless others made him so by their calumnies.
Why did the publisher bill him thus? No big story there. Truth in advertising, I have been through the process myself with The Spiritual Brain, from the same publisher. I am well aware of the readiness with which a vigorous marketing team latches onto a vision they can really RUN with - and the dreadful difficulty of substituting a more mundane and realistic description of a book.
In my view, the book should have been attributed as follows: "Anthony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese", not "Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese", as it actually is, with appropriate notice on the jacket of an appendix by Bishop Wright, who is a highly regarded New Testament scholar. By choosing to reduce Varghese and make Wright almost disappear, the publisher unintentionally creates an opening for some to claim that Flew wrote no part of the book. But the evidence is against that, as most readers will see.
I will shortly post a review proper. In the meantime, I strongly recommend There IS a God as a key work in helping us understand the significance of evidence for design in the universe.
Update note January 12, 2008: Roy Abraham Varghese advises me that "notorious" was Flew's own self-deprecating choice. I wouldn't have guessed, but Marketing must have loved it.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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