Don't give creationists power of attorney

Just giving everyone a heads up. If you're an atheist and you're starting to get a little demented make sure someone is there to protect you from religious people with an axe to grind. The story of the so-called turning of Antony Flew is sad, and really very cruel, as IDers and religious ideologues have clearly exploited a man in decline.

TWO YEARS LATER, Flew's doubts have disappeared, and the philosopher has a reinvigorated faith in his theistic friends. In his new book, he freely cites Schroeder, Haldane and Varghese. And the author who two years ago was forgetting his Hume is, in the forthcoming volume, deeply read in many philosophers -- John Leslie, John Foster, Thomas Tracy, Brian Leftow -- rarely if ever mentioned in his letters, articles or books. It's as if he's a new man.

In August, I visited Flew in Reading. His house, sparsely furnished, sits on a small plot on a busy street, hard against its neighbors. It could belong to a retired government clerk or to a career military man who at last has resettled in the mother country. Inside, it seems very English, with the worn, muted colors of a BBC production from the 1970s. The house may lack an Internet connection, but it does have one very friendly cat, who sat beside me on the sofa. I visited on two consecutive days, and each day Annis, Flew's wife of 55 years, served me a glass of water and left me in the sitting room to ask her husband a series of tough, indeed rather cruel, questions.

In "There Is a God," Flew quotes extensively from a conversation he had with Leftow, a professor at Oxford. So I asked Flew, "Do you know Brian Leftow?"

"No," he said. "I don't think I do."

"Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?" Leslie is discussed extensively in the book.

Flew paused, seeming unsure. "I think he's quite good." But he said he did not remember the specifics of Leslie's work.

"Have you ever run across the philosopher Paul Davies?" In his book, Flew calls Paul Davies "arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science."

"I'm afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!"

He said this with a laugh. When we began the interview, he warned me, with merry self-deprecation, that he suffers from "nominal aphasia," or the inability to reproduce names. But he forgot more than names. He didn't remember talking with Paul Kurtz about his introduction to "God and Philosophy" just two years ago. There were words in his book, like "abiogenesis," that now he could not define. When I asked about Gary Habermas, who told me that he and Flew had been friends for 22 years and exchanged "dozens" of letters, Flew said, "He and I met at a debate, I think." I pointed out to him that in his earlier philosophical work he argued that the mere concept of God was incoherent, so if he was now a theist, he must reject huge chunks of his old philosophy. "Yes, maybe there's a major inconsistency there," he said, seeming grateful for my insight. And he seemed generally uninterested in the content of his book -- he spent far more time talking about the dangers of unchecked Muslim immigration and his embrace of the anti-E.U. United Kingdom Independence Party.

As he himself conceded, he had not written his book.

"This is really Roy's doing," he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. "He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I'm too old for this kind of work!"

When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort -- slightly more, anyway. "There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this," Varghese said. "There is stuff he'd written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it."

So even the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter: Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author from Ohio, rewrote many passages, especially in the section that narrates Flew's childhood. With three authors, how much Flew was left in the book? "He went through everything, was happy with everything," Varghese said.

Cynthia DiTiberio, the editor who acquired "There Is a God" for HarperOne, told me that Hostetler's work was limited; she called him "an extensive copy editor." "He did the kind of thing I would have done if I had the time," DiTiberio said, "but editors don't get any editing done in the office; we have to do that in our own time."

I then asked DiTiberio if it was ethical to publish a book under Flew's name that cites sources Flew doesn't know well enough to discuss. "I see your struggle and confusion," she said, but she maintained that the book is an accurate presentation of Flew's views. "I don't think Tony would have allowed us to put in anything he was not comfortable with or familiar with," she said. "I mean, it is hard to tell at this point how much is him getting older. In my communications with him, there are times you have to say things a couple times. I'm not sure what that is. I wish I could tell you more. . . We were hindered by the fact that he is older, but it would do the world a disservice not to have the book out there, regardless of how it was made."

It is clear, reading the article, that they have convinced a man named Antony Flew into accepting these silly arguments from design. They wrote a book, ostensibly about his conversion, and convinced him to put his name on it while he's completely unable to understand or even remember the contents. It is also clear that this man is not the same one who wrote on atheist philosophy. They may claim this as some great victory that they turned an atheist - which is questionable in this case - but even if they convinced Dawkins or Hitchens it's all just missing the point. It's not about dogma and popes and figureheads for atheists. Converting some famous atheist changes nothing with regard to the absence of evidence for their ideas or their pseudoscience. This ultimately will change no one's mind, if anything the fact that they were willing to exploit an old man in such a tawdry fashion is just a reminder of how wrong these people are. They're vultures, or as PZ would say, ghouls.

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It is clear, reading the article, that they have convinced a man named Anthony Flew into accepting these silly arguments from design.

Except his name is Antony Flew.

But as you say, it's not, nor was it ever, Flew's personal conclusions that were important, but the arguments themselves. It's like the old Lady Hope story of Darwin's "recantation". Even if true, its irrelevant, as the theory did not rest on his say-so. It would be as if Columbus denied discovering a new world (or a new way to reach the far east as he saw it) on his death bed. So what? The evidence would trump him.

I'm not sure they've convinced him of anything... I think they've just confused the hell out of him. Poor old guy.

The people responsible had better pray like hell that there is NO god, because if there is, they will rot in hell for eternity to pay for their reprehensible actions. paging Pastor Bob, Paging Pastor Bob... Please report to the down express elevator.

Actually, the most reliable indicator that he's lost his marbles is that he supports the UKIP, who are a single-issue joke party populated almost entirely by weird racists, bigots and assorted borderline-nazi lunatics.

Just sad.

I agree with Dunc. I think they took a nice and trusting old guy, who's days of rigorous logic and reason are behind him, and are getting him to agree with pretty much anything they want, using his name to advance their own purposes. It's very sad and pathetic to see.

Flew's arguments remain valid. Dogmatic theists have trouble dealing with the 'invisible gardener':
At last the Sceptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"
so they prefer to manipulate an old man in his dotage.