Antony Flew's Bogus Book
I'm mentioned considerably in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about Antony Flew's new book. Fans will want to know about this, and hear some of the backstory from me, filling in some of the blanks left by the article, which was good but inevitably brief for so complicated a story. So here you go.
The Times Article
The article in question, by Mark Oppenheimer, is "The Turning of an Atheist" (New York Times Magazine, 4 November 2007, pp. 36-41). I had known of this article for over a month, as I communicated extensively with Oppenheimer (and the NYT fact-checking office), but I was politely asked not to discuss it until it appeared. Oppenheimer also procured for me an early galley proof of Flew's new "book," There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind ("co-authored" by Roy Abraham Varghese), which I was able to read a month ago and comment on for Oppenheimer (many of my fans have asked me if I knew of this book, and in fact I had already read it, I just could not discuss it until now).
As also reported by the Associated Press years ago, I'm well known for my correspondence with Flew on the matter of his conversion from weak atheism to strong Deism, and anyone who wants the full story about that can read my article on the subject (which has numerous subsequent updates appended to it): Antony Flew Considers God...Sort Of (2004). Now, after reading "Flew's" new book, I was appalled at how badly argued it was, and how obviously it was not written in his style or idiom, but in that of contemporary Christian apologetics (like someone attempting a poor imitation of the style and approach of a Lee Strobel or Gary Habermas). Moreover, from crucial omissions (and distortions of history) it was clear the author could not have been Flew. Unless Flew had gone completely insane.
But I was certain another author was to blame, and not lunacy. And now my suspicions have been confirmed. This book is being promoted as "former atheist" Antony Flew's "long awaited" explanation of why he converted, but it is now known that Flew did not write any of it, and in fact recalls almost none of its contents. Indeed, Flew openly confessed to Oppenheimer that he didn't write a word of it. Oppenheimer also confirmed that Flew apparently knows (or remembers) little of its contents and almost none of the authors or works cited in it, despite the publisher's assurance that he signed off on it (though as Oppenheimer reports, even his publisher confesses doubts about Flew's ability to remember essential details, and it seems evident now that Flew's failing memory is clinically serious).
In my opinion the book's arguments are so fallacious and cheaply composed I doubt Flew would have signed off on it in sound mind, and Oppenheimer comes to much the same conclusion. It seems Flew simply trusted Varghese and didn't even read the book being published in his name. And even if he had, he is clearly incapable now of even remembering what it said. The book's actual author turns out to be an evangelical preacher named Bob Hostetler (who has also written several books with Josh McDowell), with considerable assistance from this book's co-author, evangelical promoter and businessman Roy Abraham Varghese.
However, I don't completely believe the story they told Oppenheimer. The style of the chapters attributed to Flew differs so much from the portions explicitly written by Varghese (such as a lengthy preface), that I suspect Hostetler was responsible for much more than the publisher claims. Whether that's so or not, this is a hack Christian tract, not formal or competent philosophy, nor anything from the mind of Antony Flew. Consequently I won't provide anything like an extensive review of this terrible (and quite bogus) book. I'll only say a few things about it below.
Back to the article. Oppenheimer tells only some of Flew's story, and portrays me in a somewhat snarky way, but everything he says is more or less true, so I can't complain. Although, I must say, I have never been to a chess tournament, or a sci-fi convention (though as a teenager I attended several gaming conventions), and I rarely attend "skeptics' conferences," because I usually find all these things equally boring. So whether I am a "type" you would recognize from such events I can't really say. But I usually find sci-fi fans themselves to be very interesting, so I'll pick "sci-fi convention" and claim I'm like those guys (yeah, that's the ticket). Otherwise, Oppenheimer isn't far of the mark calling me obsessive in a way "both admirable and a little debilitating." My wife would certainly recognize me in that description! But for those who are curious, I have submitted the first draft of my completed dissertation. Though it still awaits the revision and defense stage, I am reasonably nearer to getting my degree.
Otherwise, the rest of what Oppenheimer says, though correct, leaves out some of the backstory. For example, he omits to mention that I was specifically asked by several members of the secular community to initiate a correspondence with Flew. I did not undertake this task on my own initiative. I actually had no interest in him myself. I have never been a Flew fan and, in fact, had never even heard of him until 2001 (when the rumors began), and since then have found little of his philosophy appealing, or even correct. It was only at the urging of colleagues that I undertook to get to the bottom of things in 2004, and it was only Flew's confusing and often bizarre replies that led me to push harder in trying to get him to explain things.
Thus, what Oppenheimer calls a piece de chutzpah, the "four-page" questionnaire I sent to Flew, was actually born of necessity, as Flew was evading direct answers, instead providing vague and confusing details of his belief and evidence. I had to resort to something more organized and direct. In actual fact, most of those "four pages" consisted of empty space for Flew to write answers in (Oppenheimer's description makes it sound like four pages of questions, when in reality there were only fifteen questions). Likewise, Oppenheimer calls my question about Flew's attendance at Quaker meetings "invasive and rather trivial," but in fact I told Oppenheimer that this was among the rumors circulating that I wanted Flew to have the opportunity to confirm or refute, hence it was no more invasive than any of the other questions I was asking. At any rate, Flew showed no reluctance or annoyance in answering this question.
Flew wrote nothing in response to these (and to this date still has not answered them)--yet he completely filled all available space answering the thirteen other questions, including six lines answering the Quaker question, and in some cases up to ten lines plus half the back of the page in answer to a single question. I find it very curious that Flew was so forthcoming on so many questions, except these, not even bothering to explain why he refused to answer them. Yet Flew said publicly and in his letters to me that he believes his god is uninvolved and unconcerned, a mere Aristotelian prime mover, yet at the same time says his god got involved enough to create life and even man, which is not the behavior of the unconcerned. Flew has deliberately avoided even facing, much less attempting to explain, this bizarre inconsistency in his avowed beliefs. I can only conclude that his beliefs are irrational and incoherent.Question Number 12: Do you believe God could be any kind of conscious entity with thoughts, plans, and/or desires?
Question Number 13: If not, then how do you suspect an entity with no thoughts, plans, or desires could (or even would) intelligently organize a universe in a specific way to bring about life? And why did it do such a thing?
That's a part of the story Oppenheimer's account doesn't make clear. Though I understand he didn't have room to go into these things. Nor did he have room to tell his readers what Flew's answer was to the other question Oppenheimer quotes, the one he calls "relevant, if barbed":
Question Number 14: Should we believe claims open to scientific evaluation that are not accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community?
I had added that "I have in mind 'scientific' claims like those of Schroeder and Behe." Flew's answer is as telling as it is appalling: "I do not think we should believe Behe's claims, while Schroeder's claims are not a matter of natural science. What he says about scientific matters is common ground with all his fellow physicists." That Flew believed that is more than a bit shocking. Worse, that Flew thinks any of Schroeder's claims are not "open to scientific evaluation" is disturbing, as is the notion, apparently embraced by Flew, that such claims could be worthy of any stalwart belief.
The Bogus Book
This book never once mentions my name. Or any of the articles I sent to Flew. Nor does it address any of the questions or issues that I raised in my correspondence with Flew. Moreover, the author writing under Flew's name makes a crucial mistake at one point that confirms that he had read none of our correspondence and knew nothing of my letters and attachments to Flew, or Flew's to me. This is more important than it might sound. Because it confirms that this book tells us absolutely nothing about what Flew really believes, or why. It is entirely the creation of a pair of hack Christian evangelicals, and represents only the beliefs, arguments, and concerns of American Christian propagandists. I'll provide only a few examples of what I mean. I could list many more.
First: Not a single argument in this book is anything Flew ever said in his letters to me were his reasons for becoming a theist, except one: the DNA argument, which he phrased very differently, and then rescinded in his letters to me. In his new preface to God & Philosophy he even cited my article in Biology & Philosophy as already refuting many of the claims which are now made in this book about the origin of life (see Richard Carrier, "The Argument from Biogenesis: Probabilities against a Natural Origin of Life," Biology & Philosophy 19.5, November 2004, pp. 739-64). So the author either never read my article, or literally forgot everything it said. I suspect the former, since Flew physically has the article and thus could consult it at will, so a bad memory would be no excuse.
Hence if Flew wrote this, or anyone competent enough to actually read the only article Flew cites against the argument from biogenesis in his new preface to God & Philosophy, I would at least expect a response to the facts and arguments in my article. Instead, the book is written in complete ignorance of its contents, as well as of the fact that I had sent it to Flew, and Flew had confessed to reading it, and had been persuaded by it to rescind his argument from DNA in his final preface to God & Philosophy (as even Oppenheimer documents, and as I show even more clearly in my article on Flew). As a result, on this one argument "Flew's" book stands already refuted on almost everything it says. Only a hack would attempt that. Someone who actually knew what he was doing (or who was actually Antony Flew) would not have left my article without response, as it was clearly the crucial piece that turned Flew around on the only actual argument he has ever made.
The real author not only has no knowledge of my crucially relevant interactions with Flew (even beyond this one example), he also thinks Flew's "biological-scientist friend" who corrected him on the science of biogenesis was Richard Dawkins, when in fact it was me. In his preface to God & Philosophy Flew erred in thinking (and claiming) that I was a scientist (yet another example of his mental decline--Flew had written to me that Dawkins said nothing to him on this subject, and that I was the one who had persuaded him, and cites my article alone in the relevant footnote in God & Philosophy). As a result of this mistake, Flew evidently misled the ghostwriter into believing Flew had been persuaded by a "scientist friend." The author thus picked the most obvious candidate: Dawkins. This is a mistake that Flew would not have made, and would surely have corrected had he ever actually read this book before it went to press.
For example, the author pretending to be Flew claims there hasn't been enough time for abiogenesis. The real Antony Flew knows this is false. In fact he conceded it was false to me in writing, and I quoted him on this fact in my online article. You would think that even a forger who wants the world to think this is Flew's response to his own critics and that Flew remains a theist for sound reasons, would at least have his fictional Flew explain his retraction and re-retract it somehow. Instead, the author appears not even to know that Flew publicly retracted the claim that there hasn't been enough time for abiogenesis. The author is also clearly unaware of the fact that Flew had radically changed earlier drafts of his preface to God & Philosophy to reflect exactly this change of position, even though this was also a matter of public record. Thus no explanation is given for his sudden (though apparently fictional) re-reversal.
There are many more examples of this kind of thing. For instance, I also sent Flew (as an enclosure to one of my letters) an unpublished manuscript by me, "Are Uncanny 'Ordering' Forces Necessary to Explain Life?" which directly rebutted most of the arguments Flew is now being made to advance (in the areas of ontology, cosmology, and biogenesis), yet the arguments in these chapters show no awareness, even indirectly, of the arguments in my unpublished paper that I know Flew has. So either Flew refused to read what I sent him, or read it and forgot everything it said, or Flew didn't even read "his" new book, for surely if he had, he would have told his ghostwriter to anticipate my rebuttals. I similarly sent Flew excerpts from my (at the time unpublished) book Sense and Goodness without God, which again the ghostwriter shows no sign of having read. Surely even if he wasn't going to name me for some reason, he would at least compose his arguments in a way that would address or preempt rebuttals he already knew I would make. Thus it seems clear the actual author didn't read anything I wrote, not even what I had physically sent to Flew.
Second: The book has everywhere the hallmarks of Christian apologetic interests and idioms, but none of Flew's. Curiously absent from the entire book is any discussion of Deism or the God of Thomas Jefferson, which Flew repeatedly emphasized in his letters to me. And also curiously absent are his fulminations against revealed religions and the doctrines of hell. We find in this book not even apologies or retractions or qualifications. The real author clearly had interests and aims completely different from Flew's, and didn't understand Flew's particular passions and ideas, and had no interest in explaining what Flew's real beliefs were, much less why he held them.
Instead, this book is filled with the typical concerns and methods of contemporary Christian apologetics, and as a result sounds nothing like Flew. That the book is written in the recently favored style of Christian apologists is indicated by such Flewless characteristics as:
(1) The launching of chapters and sections with bizarre, quasi-colloquial examples (like baseball stories, lost tribes fiddling with satellite phones, dogs eating a kids homework), leading awkwardly into a very informal argument filled with patent fallacies and practiced rhetoric;
(2) The excessive use of "argument from authority" through the un-academic, reportorial method of over-frequent direct quotation of a series of seemingly random authors, without ever quoting any opponent or critic of their views;
(3) Lengthy direct quotation of what are purported to be conversations without explaining how exact quotation was possible (Were the conversations recorded? Did Flew personally check his exact quotes with everyone he quoted? Is he a skilled stenographer? Even Oppenheimer got no clear answer about this); and
(4) The nature and structure of the arguments, which are more characteristic of the interests and habits of current Christian apologists than of Flew's (like the free will defense, creation ex nihilo, wholesale opposition to evolution theory).
Indeed, one of its chapters even betrays such complete ignorance of basic evolutionary principles that any competent evolution scientist would have an easy field day with the juvenile understanding on display there. The real Flew has written books on evolution theory that exhibit much more competence than that.
All this makes this book a grand and shameless lie, a clear violation of God's commandment against bearing false witness. I know for a fact that apart from the argument from DNA, which Flew later rejected, none of the arguments this book attributes to Flew were among his reasons for converting. Even if they are reasons he embraces now (though I doubt even that), the fact that this book portrays them as what led Flew to believe is a clear act of deceit. So we should not be surprised to find yet more dishonesty. Hence I doubt there is much truth to the fact when Flew is made to appear as though he is seriously considering converting to Christianity, and is made to say he is very impressed by the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead, especially following (so the fictional Flew tells us) the arguments of Anglican bishop N.T. Wright. Wright even participates in the charade by adding a chapter on this, supposedly responding to Flew's last remaining "doubts." For those who are interested in this issue, I had already composed extensive (albeit indirect) responses to Wright's arguments, in both The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005, supplemented by online FAQs on the relevant chapters there) and my online book, Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False? (2006).
Finally, chapters provided by Varghese (actually written in Varghese's name) vent a fireball of rage and calumny against the renowned, popular, and bestselling atheists Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. Chief among his complaints against them is that they ignore Christian responses to their arguments and offer no fully-developed worldview to replace the ones they attack. It is thus a little ironic that my book does exactly that. So if you share Varghese's outrage at the supposed failings of these popular authors, then please read my book, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005), which does anticipate and address Christian responses (based on extensive field experience debating and dialoguing with Christians and reading their books), and does present a complete and coherent worldview to replace the ones I reject. Besides, I actually wrote my book.
Richard Carrier joins us in studio to record a batch of shows! About 13 hours of recording, some of our best shows ever!!
TOPICS INCLUDE: Metaphysics and History of Religion, Biographical questions and atheism, More audience submitted questions, Jesus Mythicism show, Problems with Philosophy show with ChaosLord2004, Carriers Dissertation and Rooks findings show, The Drunk show!, A show for myspace, Carrier meets Ray Comfort, IRRATIONALITY OF THEISM SHOW: LEGACY SHOW!