Monday, November 19, 2007

Antony Flew's Tergiversation

On the occasion of Antony Flew’s new book, There is (no) a God, there has been a small flood of comment from both sides of the aisles: Christians seem very pleased that one of the most respected philosophical atheists of the past century has come to a form of deism, and atheists are not so pleased. When Flew originally produced his transition for an interview with Philosophia Christi, the Christian reaction was quite excited. But now with the publication of this new book, the atheists are having their say.

First of all, I heard about this NYTimes piece on Flew through the CU graduate philosophy e-mail list. The message said that this article is about “Flew’s conversion to Christianity.” The author of the e-mail clearly did not read to the third paragraph where the author noted, “Flew still rejects Christianity.” The e-mail got it wrong for reasons inherent in most of the atheistic reaction to the whole matter: they would rather label and personally attack him than deal with any of the argumentation behind his change of mind.

Before discussing certain portions of the NYTimes article by Oppenheimer, I think it is useful to mention that it appears that Flew did not have as much to say in his own book at it might seem. Through Oppenheimer’s research, he seems to have discovered that much of the book was ghostwritten for and edited through Flew, instead of the other way around. It also does seem that Flew suffers from a certain kind of memory disorder that keeps him from remembering names and dates. Although that is a little disappointing to me (I am currently reading the book), a couple of other things should be noted. Many more books than we are aware of are ghost written and very little is made of it. If the author has the final editing say about what is published, we tend to not be too upset. Secondly, if the philosophical tables were turned, I am not so sure memory lapses about names and dates would matter all that much. And thirdly, by the time Oppenheimer reaches that point in the article, his severe personal distaste for what Flew has done is transparent. The article he writes is the worst form of sophomoric ad hominum bludgery possible.

Oppenheimer attacks the academic qualifications of Flew’s coauthor, Varghese by noting he has none in particular. Oppenheimer’s qualification to asses the arguments involved, according to his byline, is that he, “is [the] coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative and editor of The New Haven Review. He last wrote for the magazine about the Hollywood acting coach Milton Katselas.” Not exactly who I would pick to asses the facts if Alvin Plantinga converted from Christian Theism to deism.

Throughout the article (and the book cites several other similar examples of this kind of behavior on the part of leading “new atheists”), Oppenheimer treats Flew like a doddering old fool. These excerpts are only a taste of what Oppenheimer’s journalistic training has taught him about assessing a situation:

Flew himself — a continent away, his memory failing, without an Internet connection — had no idea how fiercely he was being fought over…

With his powers in decline, Antony Flew, a man who devoted his life to rational argument, has become a mere symbol, a trophy in a battle fought by people whose agendas he does not fully understand.

When at last Flew speaks, his diction is halting,…

This is all in contrast to the one brave atheist who tried to keep Flew in the fold:

Richard Carrier, a 37-year-old doctoral student in ancient history at Columbia, is a type recognizable to anyone who has spent much time at a chess tournament or a sci-fi convention or a skeptics’ conference. He is young, male and brilliant, with an obsessive streak both admirable and a little debilitating.

According to Oppenheimer’s account, Carrier is the genius who is on top of things, and Flew is the puppet who has been coerced into belief in his old age. In fact, Oppenheimer is quite clear about Flew being coerced:

But it seems somewhat more likely that Flew, having been intellectually chaperoned by Roy Varghese for 20 years, simply trusted him to write something responsible.

Intellectuals, even more than the rest of us, like to believe that they reach conclusions solely through study and reflection. But like the rest of us, they sometimes choose their opinions to suit their friends rather than the other way around. Which means that Flew is likely to remain a theist, for just as the Christians drew him close, the atheists gave him up for lost.

Seriously? Flew was blindly lead by the hand for 20 years like a diminutive German attracted to a crazy woman’s candy house in the middle of the forest?

And then there is this gem of cultural projection:

Flew also had a longstanding affinity for conservative politics — he was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher — that made him unusually approachable for some Christians. In the light of his natal comfort with religious folk and his agreeable politics, Flew’s eventual alliance with Christians doesn’t seem so strange.

So apparently, we should not be surprised that an old man, barely able to speak or think clearly should wind up in the hands of Christians because he has a “longstanding affinity” for conservative politics. Not only is that the kind of childish assertion I would disallow in my college-level philosophy papers, it is factually false. For the first several years of his adult life, Flew was a card-carrying member of the Communist party.

So the article was a farce.

So far, the book has at least been enlightening. The first few chapters and sections are dedicated to the various steps in his philosophical atheism, his core arguments, and the reactions he received from all sides. For me, the book has been far more educational than this ridiculous article. I am actually getting a clearer grasp of his atheism than I had before.

The core principle Flew asserts in the beginning of this book is that we all have a duty to follow the evidence where it leads. He may have done exactly that for very real and meaningful philosophical and scientific reasons. If you are to believe Oppenheimer, however, we should follow evidence until it points us toward a God. Then we should start flinging mud.

4 comments:

Steven Carr said...

'Many more books than we are aware of are ghost written and very little is made of it.'

In other words, Flew wrote not one word of it.

Flew talks about 'The Integrated Complexity Argument'.

Clearly, Flew has been reading a lot of books about irreducible complexity, which he has only half-remembered.

Is Varghese going to sue Oppenheimer?

Of course not. He is not going to have Antony Flew on the stand , being asked questions about why he now calls himself 'The Worlds Most Notorious Atheist', when 2 years ago Flew was writing tnat he should have called himself an agnostic.

Brian Slattery said...

You wrote:

Oppenheimer attacks the academic qualifications of Flew’s coauthor, Varghese by noting he has none in particular. Oppenheimer’s qualification to asses the arguments involved, according to his byline, is that he, “is [the] coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative and editor of The New Haven Review. He last wrote for the magazine about the Hollywood acting coach Milton Katselas.” Not exactly who I would pick to asses the facts if Alvin Plantinga converted from Christian Theism to deism.

A cursory Google search of Mark Oppenheimer reveals that:

1. He has a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale, which he received in 2003.
2. He has written two books on religion in America, one published by Yale University Press, the other by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
3. He has taught courses at Wesleyan University and Hartford Seminary, and is currently teaching a course on religion and journalism at NYU.
4. He has written about religion in publications too numerous to name here.
5. The article about Milton Katselas is very much an article about Scientology; again, about religion in America.

You are, of course, entitled to your opinion of Dr. Oppenheimer's article. But before you assail his qualifications, it might be best to look slightly deeper than the article's byline, even though it makes it a lot harder to shoot from the hip that way.

Also, "assess" is spelled with two "s"s. Just FYI.

Phil Steiger said...

Steve-

I do agree that if Oppenheimer is right about how much of the book was or was not written by Flew, then some of my incentive to read through the book is diminished. But because of Oppenheimer's clear personal dislike for Flew's decision, I am not sure I can take his findings at face value. He may, be overstating his case.

Nevertheless, I am not sure that the conclusion, "Flew wrote not one word of it" is justified. There are at the least, as Oppenheimer notes, biographical sections that would have certainly come from Flew himself.

Brian-

Thanks for the clarification, and his deeper qualifications for this article are rightfully noted. You should also note, however, that my remark about his qualifications was a relatively small matter.

He could hold the emeritus philosophy chair at Princeton--in this piece, he chose to make Flew look like an old fool indstead of dealing with any of the actual issues involved. It is always easier to label and mock others than it is to deal with their ideas head-on.

Steven Carr said...

Varghese has practically admitted that Flew wrote none of it.

He certainly is not going to sue the New York Times for Oppenheimer claiming that Flew said 'This is all Roy's doing'.

Varghese knows Oppenheimer was telling the truth.

What issues?

Flew has converted to the god of Aristotle, yet Varghese chose not to put in any meaningful discussion of deism, or of what god Aristotle had in mind.

This is as big a scandal as Salvador Dali signing blank canvases.