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One Flew over to the other side... almost.
on 27 March 2011
While the designation of Flew as `the world's most notorious atheist' might be talking him up somewhat, the book charts the eminent philosopher's journey from arguing for atheism to a deistic position. It discusses his previous arguments for atheism and the rebuttals his oponents made, and moves on to the contemporary arguments that persuaded him to change his mind, and the ones the didn't.
It's important to note that there has been some controversy with this book. While Flew had already made his change of mind public several years earlier, some felt that Varghese had taken advantage of an old man in mental decline (most notably Mark Oppenheimer's piece in the New York Times). The criticisms have been roundly debunked by a number of people who knew Flew, and indeed, Flew himself offered this clarification:
"I have rebutted these criticisms in the following statement: "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 per cent 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. That is my book and it represents my thinking.""
While I don't feel the need to defend the legitimacy of the book against the ad hominem attacks, I was keenly aware of these accusations while reading the book. I noticed a distinct difference between the main text of the book and the appendix attributed specifically to Varghese, and for these reasons, I will continue with the view that the positions put forward are the thoughts of Flew unless specifically stated otherwise.
The first part of the book deals with Flew's career and previous positions and arguments, and I found it very interesting, as well as his appraisal of the debates he has had. One of the things that really struck me about Flew is that he is much more generous and willing to engage and interact with those he disagrees with than might be said about the so called `new atheists'. Indeed it would seem that his former allies in unbelief are even unwilling to give Flew anything beyond scorn. Most of the time he does not go into the arguments in any real detail, often summarising his response in one or two sentences.
The second part deals with the arguments which convinced him that there exists a deistic `infinite Intelligence'. The major arguments he cites are `the laws of nature' - that there appears to be a rational intelligence behind the universe; `fine tuning' - that the universe appears to have been set-up for us; and DNA and emergence of life.
There follows two appendicies. The first is an essay from Varghese entitled "The `New Atheism': a critical appraisal of Dawkins, Dennet, Wolpert, harris, and Stenger. In my opinion, the arguments put forward in this section are rather more inferior than the ones put forward by Flew. The second is a dialogue between Flew and N.T. Wright called "The self-revelation of God in Human history" dealing with the evidence for the resurrection. Flew seems to think that Wright puts forward the best case for the resurrection that he has seen, though while being somewhat open to the claims doesn't seem to find them persuasive. I agree that Wright makes a very good case, and the answers he gives to Flew's questions were very interesting, but inevitably Wright fleshes out these issues in greater depth in his own works.
I don't think the book is intended to be an argument for deist belief so much as a chronicle of Flew's journey and thoughts, and in that sense I doubt it will necessarily change anyone else's mind. It is a shame that his opponents resorted to petty ad hominem attacks on someone following the evidence where they saw it to lead. If you're looking for rigorously defended philosophical or apologetic debate, this is not the book for you. If you want to see what a great philosopher thought and how he changed his mind, this is an interesting read.