Proffesor Antony Flew, the rationalist philosopher who died on April 8 aged 87, spent much of his life denying the existence of God until, in 2004, he dramatically changed his mind.
Flew always described himself as a “negative atheist”, asserting that “theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience”, a position he expounded in his classic paper Theology and Falsification (1950), reputedly the most frequently-quoted philosophical publication of the second half of the 20th century.
He argued that any philosophical debate about the Almighty must begin by presuming atheism, placing the burden of proof on those who believe that God exists. “We reject all transcendent supernatural systems, not because we’ve examined or could have examined each in turn, but because it does not seem to us that there is any good evidence in reason to postulate anything behind or beyond this natural universe,” he proclaimed. A key principle of his philosophy was the Socratean concept of “follow the evidence, wherever it leads”.
When Flew revealed that he had come to the conclusion that there might be a God after all, it came as a shock to his fellow atheists, who had long regarded him as one of their foremost champions. Worse, he seemed to have deserted Plato for Aristotle, since it was two of Aquinas’s famous five proofs for the existence of God – the arguments from design and for a prime mover – that had apparently clinched the matter.
After months of soul-searching, Flew concluded that research into DNA had “shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved”. Moreover, though he accepted Darwinian evolution, he felt that it could not explain the beginnings of life. “I have been persuaded that it is simply out of the question that the first living matter evolved out of dead matter and then developed into an extraordinarily complicated creature,” he said.
Flew went on to make a video of his conversion entitled Has Science Discovered God? and seemed to want to atone for past errors: “As people have certainly been influenced by me, I want to try and correct the enormous damage I may have done,” he said.
But believers waiting to welcome this most prodigal of sons back into the fold were to be disappointed. Flew’s conversion did not embrace such concepts as Heaven, good and evil or the afterlife – let alone divine intervention in human affairs. His God was strictly minimalist – very different from “the monstrous oriental despots of the religions of Christianity and Islam”, as he liked to call them. God may have called his creation into existence, then, but why did he bother? To that question, it seemed, Flew had no answer.
Antony Garrard Newton Flew was born on February 11 1923 and educated at Kingswood School, Bath. His father, a Methodist minister, encouraged his son to take an interest in religious questions, but he lost any religious faith at the age of 15.
Flew’s studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war, in which he served in RAF Intelligence and was later attached to the air ministry. In 1942-43 he was a state scholar in Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
After the war, he concentrated on Philosophy, winning an exhibition, then a scholarship, to St John’s College, Oxford. He graduated with a First in Greats and scooped the University Prize in Philosophy – the John Locke Scholarship in Mental Philosophy – in 1948. The following year he was appointed lecturer in Philosophy at Christ Church.
As an undergraduate, Flew had become an enthusiast for the new linguistic analysis approach to philosophy propounded by JL Austin and Gilbert Ryle and, as a lecturer, was considered one of its leading advocates. In 1955 he edited Logic and Language: First Series, an influential anthology that popularised the new approach.
He soon began applying the new technique to religious questions and, with Alasdair MacIntyre, edited New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1955). In his study of religion, Flew was greatly influenced by David Hume, on whom he became a leading authority. His Hume’s Philosophy of Belief (1961) became the standard study of the philosopher’s Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Flew’s interests were prolific and wide-ranging, and he applied his linguistic analysis approach to studies of psychoanalysis, psychical research, crime and evolutionary ethics, among other topics.
In political philosophy, Flew defended classical liberalism against the fallacies of egalitarianism, arguing that socialism and social democracy are based on assumptions about the world that are demonstrably false.
He became a leading critic of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls, who had attempted to reconcile liberty and egalitarianism in his critically acclaimed Theory of Justice. In Politics of Procrustes: Contradictions of Enforced Equality (1981), Flew rejected Rawls’s claim that, since people do not acquire their natural talents through moral merit, these talents stand at the disposition of “society”. Moral qualities, Flew argued, are not needed to entitle us to profit from our abilities.
In Sociology, Equality and Education (1976), Flew attacked the malign influence of the egalitarian ideology in education. In the 1990s he was the author of a series of pamphlets for the Adam Smith Institute calling on the then Conservative government to return to educational selection, to widen parental choice and to embrace a more challenging curriculum for brighter children.
In 2002, in reference to the Labour government’s target of getting more working-class children into higher education, he observed that in 1969, when the grammar school system was still in place, the education minister Shirley Williams had proudly boasted that “over 26 per cent of our university population and 35 per cent of students in all institutions of higher learning are of working-class origin”. This, he pointed out, was almost double the level of the second-best European performer, Sweden.
From Oxford, Flew went on to lecture in Moral Philosophy at Aberdeen University before being appointed Professor of Philosophy at the University of Keele in 1954. In 1973 he transferred to Reading University, where he remained until taking early retirement in 1982. Afterwards, he worked on a half-time basis for three years as Professor of Philosophy at York University, Toronto.
Flew was the author of some 23 works of philosophy, including God and Philosophy (1966), Evolutionary Ethics (1967), An Introduction to Western Philosophy (1971), The Presumption of Atheism (1976), A Rational Animal (1978), Darwinian Evolution (1984), Atheistic Humanism (1993) and Philosophical Essays of Antony Flew (1997).
Flew’s volte-face on the existence of God was all the more remarkable given the volume of his writing in the atheistic cause and his vehement denial of internet rumours in 2001 that he had renounced his atheism. His response was entitled Sorry To Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist! In 2007, however, he was able to publish There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind.
He was at various times a vice-president of the Rationalist Press Association, chairman of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and a fellow of the Academy of Humanism. In addition to his permanent academic posts, he held several visiting professorships at universities around the world.
Antony Flew married, in 1952, Annis Harty; they had two daughters.