Of feeling, God and Antony Flew

From a New York Times Magazine piece about Antony Flew. Here is the most shocking part:

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.

The book in question is There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. I was going to take some time out to read it out of curiosity, but I'll scratch it off my "to-read" list. Antony Flew's take on tired old arguments I was a bit curious about, but a ghost writer, not so much.

The author of the profile above makes the point that sociological parameters have probably had a strong shaping affect on Flew's trajectory toward theism. This certainly seems plausible, there is a large literature which points out the reality that conversion from one religion to another is usually facilitated by personal connection. Generally people rationalize their changed beliefs post facto; after social or personal parameters have done their work and the individual has re-identified they then freely avail themselves of the philosophical arguments extant within their new world-view. The number one predictor of one's religious orientation in a society characterized by pluralism is parental orientation. Another major factor is marriage. And finally there are many youth who change religion under the subtle but persistent influence of their peer groups.

So to a good first approximation religion is primarily a sociological and psychological phenomenon. Too many atheists view religion through the lens of philosophy & theology because these external markers loom so large in the verbal domain, and it is through explicit reflection and communication that unbelievers experience and comprehend religion. True, we see the practices which manifest in the lives of believers, but we do not as a matter of course experience the social and psychological dimensions of the religious phenomenon. And importantly, these dimensions often operate at the reflexive subconscious level of cognitive awareness, so religious believers themselves will often portray their adherence as a matter of rational and systematic reflection. I have had many experiences where converts explain how their new faith "made more sense" for a wide range of reasons, and yet they never mentioned that their interest was likely piqued by their relationship with an individual who was of that religion! (I already would have known of that particular background condition because I knew the individuals and the history of their relationship)

What does all this mean practically? It means that unbelievers should be very aware of the limits of rational discourse in eroding religious belief. Though most humans are too stupid to understand philosophy in any case, a typical Christian understands the Argument from Design as well as a typical American who believes in evolution understands evolution. An acceptance of evolutionary theory is a badge that one is enlightened and gives due respect to high priests of the modern age, scientists, and a notional genuflection to St. Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin or Al-Ghazali serve an equivalent role in the spiritual lives of most believers. An engagement with these great thinkers is overwhelmingly orthogonal to the primary bases of religious belief. Antony Flew is a case in point, even though he is a philosopher it seems likely that social and psychological parameters played a far larger role in his conversion than philosophy!

Note: It goes without saying that when it comes to politics or religion if I disagree with someone I won't really engage these topics seriously (that is, with intent to affect some change or be affected by change) unless there is a cordial and friendly relationship. I myself have many views that many of my friends find objectionable, but they have difficulty pillorying or dismissing them as they might want to because I am a rather affable person.


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I remember one of my friends getting quite excited when Flew first announced his turn to theism. I was pretty dismissive then, but this ghostwriting thing takes the cake. In general, the reasons most people have for being believers or atheists are almost all phenomenally stupid.

Some unbelievers reject religion at the level of explicit belief. If they are laidback enough guys this can make for some interesting discussions. But in my experience, most just dislike religion at a gut level, for whatever reason, and aren't particularly reflective or thoughtful about it. Arguments tend to be beside the point there too. In most cases, such people can be entirely ignored.

Some unbelievers reject religion at the level of explicit belief.

well, many unbelievers have 'epiphanies.' but i think these are just conscious expressions of subconscious tendencies. if god truly lives in your psyche i doubt an atheist epiphany would be persuasive or even occur.

also, correcting for IQ i would be surprised if atheist "rationales" for why they do not believe exhibit similar unsophisticated circularities as theist "rationales" for belief. i suppose could say that subconscious presuppositions are the root of the matter and the conscious argumentation is window dressing.

The repeated claim that Flew was "the most notorious atheist" is really annoying. I mean seriously, until his change of heart I had barely heard of him. Far more people had heard of Dawkins. If people were competing for the title of most notorious atheist Dawkins would leave Flew in the dust. It's simple dishonesty by those who want to make this seem like a big deal.

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 04 Nov 2007 #permalink

well, i knew of flew. and so i also knew he was always more of an agnostic in the emphases of labels! so, the title is problematic in that

1) if you didn't know of flew, he obviously couldn't have been that notorious

2) if you did know of him you would know he was always more of a negative than positive atheist. that is, his atheism was one of presumption than aggressive refutation

The curious thing is that Flew as a young man collaborated with Alasdair MacIntyre, who really did go from atheism, or at least Marxism, to christianity, and now teaches at Notre Dame; and is a more considerable philosopher by any reckoning.

The stuff in the article about the EU and the muslims rings entirely true. I actually rang Flew up a few years ago when one of the first iterations of this story came out; and all he wanted to talk about was the iniquities of the EU.

well, flew has always been right-leaning. not too surprising. i think flew is more of a 'catch' than macintyre because of his focus on the god question.

Don't forget C.S. Lewis, though I don't believe he was famous for anything before his conversion.

A lot of atheists do not have any stronger reasons for their beliefs than many Christians. How many times have I heard someone say something like 'When I was 9 I asked my sunday-school teacher X question and she couldn't answer it, and I have been an atheist since.'

The difference, tom bri, is that atheism is the null hypothesis to start with. You don't need a strong reason to hold it, you need a strong reason to reject it.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 06 Nov 2007 #permalink

Caledonian, seems that the experience of thousands of years contradicts this. For whatever reason, possibly a quirk in our mental wiring, the 'null hypothesis' has in fact (if not in logic) been that the Earth was created. The idea that something came from nothing just does not seem to set well with our makeup.

To reject the evidence of our common experience and senses requires an act of will. So atheism is the null hypothesis in a strictly logical sense, but humans are not noted as a particularly logical species.

My point above was that it is fine for Dwakins and other heavy thinkers to be atheists, but the actual reasons most atheists in my experience give for their belief are not rooted in logic or knowledge of the issue, but simply in prejudice. I am not suggesting anyone here is in this position.