On the 11th of February, 1923, a British Methodist minister and theologian named Robert Flew and his wife Winifred gave birth to a boy they named Antony. He attended St. Faith’s School in Cambridge and Kingswood School in Bath. Despite his being raised by a Christian intellectual, he had concluded by the age of 15 that there is no god.
He went on to study at
the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and was a Royal Air Force intelligence officer. After a period with the Inter-Services Topographical Department in Oxford, he was posted to Bletchley Park in June 1944.
After the war, Flew achieved a first class degree in Literae Humaniores at St John’s College, Oxford. Flew was a graduate student of Gilbert Ryle, prominent in ordinary language philosophy. Both Flew and Ryle were among many Oxford philosophers fiercely criticised in Ernest Gellner’s book Words and Things (1959). A 1954 debate with Michael Dummett over backward causation was an early highlight in Flew’s career.
For a year, Flew was a lecturer in philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. Afterwards, he was a lecturer for four years at the University of Aberdeen, and a professor of philosophy at the University of Keele for twenty years. Between 1973 and 1983 he was professor of philosophy at the University of Reading. At this time, he developed one of his most famous arguments, the No true Scotsman fallacy in his 1975 book, Thinking About Thinking. Upon his retirement, Flew took up a half-time post for a few years at York University, Toronto.
…While an undergraduate, Flew attended the weekly meetings of C. S. Lewis’s Socratic Club fairly regularly. Although he found Lewis to be “an eminently reasonable man” and “by far the most powerful of Christian apologists for the sixty or more years following his founding of that club,” he was not persuaded by Lewis’s argument from morality as found in Mere Christianity. Flew also criticised several of the other philosophical proofs for God’s existence. He concluded that the ontological argument in particular failed because it is based on the premise that the concept of Being can be derived from the concept of Goodness…
During the time of his involvement in the Socratic Club, Flew also wrote the article “Theology and Falsification,” which argued that claims about God were meaningless where they could not be tested for truth or falsehood. Though initially published in an undergraduate journal, the article came to be widely reprinted and discussed. Later, in God and Philosophy (1966) and The Presumption of Atheism (1976, reprinted 1984), Flew argued that one should presuppose atheism until evidence of a God surfaces. Flew was also critical of the idea of life after death and the free will defence to the problem of evil.
He was an Honorary Associate of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, and was celebrated for his contributions to political philosophy as well, being awarded the Schlarbaum Prize by the Ludwig von Mises Institute for his “outstanding lifetime achievement in the cause of liberty”.
And then, in January of 2004, Dr. Flew called his friend Gary Habermas on the telephone to inform him that his mind had been changed and that he had become a theist. He said in a later phone call that he felt he had simply been “forced to go where the evidence leads”. You can read the transcript of a subsequent interview between Habermas and Flew here.
In 2007 Flew went on to write a book, “There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind“, Habermas’ review of which can be read here. N. T. Wright himself contributes an appendix to the book arguing for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.
In an interesting twist of fate, Flew’s lifetime of arguing for atheism had been one of the catalysts of the renaissance in theistic philosophy that started in the 60’s and 70’s, major players in which, especially Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, were in turn instrumental in Flew’s own conversion to theism. Flew taunts the “New Atheists” for falling short of the intellectual greatness and philosophical rigor of the atheists of yore.
In May of 2006, Flew was awarded the second “Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth” from Biola University. The award was given to Flew “for his lifelong commitment to free and open inquiry and to standing fast against intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression”.
What finally convinced one of the 20th century’s leading atheist philosophers that God exists? Scientifically rigorous arguments from the empirically detectable presence of design in the world, rendered all the more compelling by recent discoveries in biology.
Antony Flew passed away in April of 2010.