The Death of Another Deathbed Conversion

Earlier this month, the noted atheist philosopher Antony Flew died of natural causes in Reading, England at age 87. Sadly, the last years of his life were marred by an unseemly public controversy surrounding his final take on God, and hence his intellectual legacy. There is a long tradition of religious proselytizers spreading tales of infidels who run into the bosom of Abraham at the sight of the abyss, and an accompanying literary genre (mostly fiction) of the deathbed conversion narrative. Perhaps the most widely-circulated of these was the hoax, promulgated by the self-styled British evangelist Lady Hope, that in his last days, the agnostic Charles Darwin gave up evolution for Jesus.

In Flew’s case, heaven’s editors did not wait until he was on his deathbed to concoct the story. Even more disgracefully, they apparently enticed or manipulated him into putting his own name on it. And so, the last of Antony Flew’s corpus is a book called There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, which is said to have been “written with” one Roy Abraham Varghese, the founder of the Institute for Metascientific Research that now peddles a DVD called “Has Science Discovered God?” which is premised on Flew’s conversion (let me save you the $34.99—yes, it has). Observers found the sections of the book supposedly authored by Flew to be highly suspect. They contained a number of Americanisms that would have been unnatural for the British-born professor, as well as contradictions of his public statements elsewhere. Flew himself told the New York Times Magazine that the book was “Roy’s doing.”

The truth, which has been tracked doggedly by The Secular Web, is that he never embraced belief in a personal deity or an afterlife. In the end, Antony Flew became a deist, and more than that, confused.  

Did Antony Flew the Coop?

During my years as a philosopher on staff with the secularist think tank Center for Inquiry, I had an insider perspective on this unfortunate process. In 2001, while I was managing editor of Philo, the Center’s academic journal, we received a “letter to the editor” from Flew.

The editor of Philo at the time, Quentin Smith (an exceedingly prolific scholar) had a hard enough time keeping track of his own views, let alone Flew’s. Smith was understandably taken aback by the poorly-developed jottings Flew had submitted to Philo (which, of course, like other academic journals, runs 30-page papers, not letters to the editor). But when he shared its contents with others in the atheist philosophy community, he inadvertently sparked an internet rumor—quickly seized on by Christian apologists—that Flew had become a theist. In 2003, after atheist bloggers had debunked the rumor, Smith, who had apparently forgotten about the earlier incident, ignited it again!

What Flew actually said in his letter was quite modest. He renounced the argument of his much-anthologized paper, “Theology and Falsification” (originally published in 1950), that theism is neither true or false but meaningless: since it cannot be verified or falsified by any possible empirical evidence, it makes no claims at all. He had now concluded that theism is capable of truth and falsehood, and that some facts of current physical cosmology—the so-called fine-tuning of certain fundamental physical constants—provide some degree of confirmation for its truth. Yet he stopped far short of saying that this constituted conclusive evidence of a personal deity, let alone the God of Christianity.

Ironically, Flew’s latter-day rejection of the conclusion of his 1950 paper constituted an advance in his atheism. Most atheist philosophers had long ago abandoned the strict “verificationist” theory of meaning that Flew’s paper presupposes. They now hold that theism is not merely meaningless but false, and that its falsity can be established by appeal to evidence. On this view, it may well be that while some evidence supports theism, the balance of evidence supports atheism.  

Nevertheless, well before the publication of There is a God, Flew’s theological thinking was growing increasingly incoherent, according to reports from my former colleagues, who spoke with him privately during a Center for Inquiry conference in 2005. Flew’s shameless evangelical handlers may have exploited this confusion. They succeeded in putting out a posthumous work by the philosopher while the man was still alive. Still, his former contributions, like the influential “Presumption of Atheism,” retain their place in the history of thought, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt.

Hume Exhumed

It is not just the details of this latest (preemptive) deathbed conversion story that are dubious, but the assumptions on which the entire genre operates. I have never understood how it counts as an endorsement of a belief that someone would embrace it just as he is falling apart, that the real or made-up judgments of a Darwin or Flew carry more weight to the extent that their minds are addled by disease, fatigue, dread, or dementia. Wouldn’t we rather look to the judgments they passed in a calm, cool hour when they were at the height of their cognitive powers? It is hardly a triumph of the logic of Pascal’s Wager that the calculation of costs and benefits only works out in theism’s favor at the moment when one literally has absolutely nothing to lose.

Perhaps the point of the conversion narrative is not to establish the truth of the belief in question but instead to reveal the genuine or “authentic” opinion of the passed master. Yet there is no reason to think an opinion is more authentic simply because it comes later, even when it turns out to have been the last. If any opinions count as authentic it would be those that are autonomously endorsed. Autonomy is diminished by coercion, which is a fair description of the imminent threat of eternal torture in hell. It follows that atheists’ views would become less, not more authentic the closer they felt to the inferno. For analogous reasons, the genuine views of career politicians cannot be gauged by looking to their statements right before election season—with its threat of death by ballot.

James Boswell no doubt hoped for some sort of coerced reversal when he sat down to interview an ailing David Hume on July 7, 1776. What he found was the great skeptic smiling at death. Hume amiably told him that he had entertained no religious belief since he began reading Locke and Clarke, that the ethics of every religion is bad, and that when he hears that a man is religious he concludes that he is a rascal. Searching for a scoop, Boswell pressed Hume on what lay beyond the grave. Hume responded that “it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever” and that the prospect of his personal annihilation gave him no anxiety.

In August, Adam Smith wrote to a mutual friend of Hume’s, Alexander Wedderburn, “[p]oor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God.” Although they were going to lose a friend, Smith observed, at least he would die “as a man of sense ought to.”

Would that we all could be so lucky, Antony.