I first met Dr. Antony Flew in 1997. I invited him to debate Dr. William Lane Craig on the topic “Does God Exist” at the University of Wisconsin. He agreed, and the debate occurred on February 18, 1998. The events of that evening played an important role in Dr. Flew ultimately rejecting atheism and concluding God does exist. I was privileged to have a front-row seat as these events unfolded.
The time has come to tell the story, for two reasons. My main purpose is to honor of Dr. Flew and hold him up as an example for all truth-seekers. My second reason is to ensure the events leading to Dr. Flew’s conversion are accurately recorded, as there continues to be some debate on atheist websites as to just what happened.
Over the past decade or so a new generation of atheists have come to prominence, sometimes known as the “New Atheists,” such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Lewis Wolpert, Victor Stinger, and Sam Harris. They seem to share an attitude of disdain and even hatred for anyone who believes in God. Their modus operandi seems to be promoting their agenda at all costs, based on an a priori commitment to their position, regardless of evidence or arguments to the contrary.
In stark contrast is the posture of Dr. Flew, an equally committed atheist, but one who was fair, honest, and intellectually curious, committed to following the evidence wherever it leads. He models the attitude and posture everyone should seek to embody.
This commitment to intellectual honesty and following the evidence wherever it leads resulted in Dr. Flew rejecting his life-long atheism in his later years. He told much of this story in There is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
Flew’s conversion to theism was met with shock and horror by many atheists. Some explained away his conversion by claiming he had lost his reasoning abilities. He vigorously denied this, saying, “I have been denounced by my fellow unbelievers for stupidity, betrayal, senility and everything you can think of and none of them have read a word that I have ever written.” (Wavell, Stuard [19 December 2004], "In the beginning there was something." The Sunday Times)
There is more to the story of Dr. Flew’s conversion that needs to be told. The time has come to fill in these details of his incredible journey, to paint the full picture of a man who was both a gentleman and a scholar, a model for our day when so many are behaving like neither gentlemen nor scholars.
Dr. Flew’s academic pedigree is of the highest caliber. His graduate degrees in philosophy are from Oxford University and the University of Keele. He taught philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Keele, the University of Calgary, and finally the University of Reading.
During his career, Dr. Flew wrote over thirty philosophical publications, which set the agenda for atheism for most of the 20th century. One of his most important articles was “Theology and Falsification,” which he first presented as a paper at the Oxford University Socrates Club, chaired by C.S. Lewis, in 1950. It was then published and has been reprinted more than any other philosophical publication of the 20th century. He also published God and Philosophy and “The Presumption of Atheism,” which in many ways defined the central issues of discussion between atheists and theists for the past fifty years.
How I met Dr. Flew
I first made Dr. Flew’s acquaintance in 1997. I was living in Milwaukee, pursuing doctoral studies in Philosophy at Marquette University, and ministering to professors at the University of Wisconsin. As I discussed spiritual issues with non-believing professors, the majority just dismissed belief in God as silly—the type of thing a person believes in before they “grow up” intellectually.
In this environment, I began to wonder what might cause unbelieving faculty to consider the possibility of God’s existence. I had recently read the famous debate between Bertrand Russell, the leading atheist of the early 20th century, and Frederick Copleston, a prominent Christian philosopher of the same period. They had debated the question “Does God Exist?” on BBC Radio in 1948, and the debate had been anthologized in many books since then (and a recording of the debate is online here).
It occurred to me that the fiftieth anniversary of that famous debate was fast approaching. What if we had a commemorative debate on the same topic at the University of Wisconsin by the philosophical “heirs” of Russell and Copleston? That would be just the type of event to re-ignite interest among faculty and others on campus in whether there is, in fact, good reason to believe God exists.
It was obvious who the participants in the debate should be. For the reasons above Dr. Flew was the perfect person to defend the atheistic position. I immediately thought of Dr. William Lane Craig as the Christian best suited to support the view that God exists. Dr. Craig holds doctorates in both theology and philosophy and has developed further a number of the arguments that surfaced in the Copleston-Russell debate.
The Game is Afoot!
Not knowing what to expect, I wrote to both Drs. Flew and Craig, inviting them to participate in what we titled the “50th Anniversary Debate on God’s Existence.” To my great surprise and joy, both quickly responded, each with an enthusiastic “yes.” Both were aware of the other’s work and thought a live debate to commemorate the Copleston-Russell debate was a great idea.
Next week I’ll continue the story as we all prepared for this historic debate. Until then, grace and peace.