198 Refuting Atheism

Amidst all the discussion of the “new atheism” enunciated by the likes of Sam Harris (Letters to a Christian Nation) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), knowledgeable refutations of their ancient position are most helpful.  One of the world’s most famous philosophical atheists, Anthony Flew, the author of over thirty works devoted to the denial of God’s existence, recently recanted his position in There Is A God:  How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York:  HarperOne, c. 2007).  Flew’s career, began with a 1950 essay, “Theology and Falsification,” that became, Roy  Varghese says, in the book’s Preface, “the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century” (p. viii).  Thereafter, he set forth what is arguably the past century’s most “systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition of atheism” (p. ix).    

Flew introduces this treatise in a very personal way, noting his recent “conversion” to deism, by stating:  “I have now been persuaded to present here what might be called my last will and testament.  In brief, as the title says, I now believe there is a God!” (p. 1).   He early rejected the faith of his father, “one of the leading Methodist writers and preachers in England” (pp. 4-5), and devoted himself to a fearless search for truth, wherever it led.  As a student at Oxford University, he was influenced by philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein.  He also encountered, mainly in sessions of the Socratic Club, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who was, he says, “the most effective Christian apologist for certainly the latter part of the twentieth century.  When the BBC recently asked if I had absolutely refuted Lewis’s Christian apologetic, I replied:  “No.  I just didn’t believe there was sufficient reason for believing it.  But of course when I later came to think about theological things, it seemed to me that the case for the Christian revelation is a very strong one, if you believe in any revelation at all’” (p. 24).  Indeed, he remembers sessions in the Socratic Club, where Lewis presided, as models for bona fide philosophical investigation.

He has, all his life, tried to follow Plato’s injunction in The Republic, going “where the evidence leads.”  Consequently, he discarded his youthful infatuation with “left-wing socialist” solutions to social and economic problems.  He studied and wrote on a variety of subjects, including parapsychology and evolutionary ethics.  At Oxford he embraced the “ordinary language” philosophy of Gilbert Ryle and John Austin and, as a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, became “the unappointed but nevertheless recognized spokesman in Scotland for ‘Oxford linguistic philosophy’” (p. 39).  In time, however, he became distressed with the essential “trivialization” of philosophy when it is reduced to linguistic analysis and determined to tackle some of the great questions of life, including the existence of God.  

In his 1966 publication, God and Philosophy, Flew set forth his “systematic argument for atheism” (p. 49), following the familiar pattern of David Hume, an argument he now considers an unpersuasive “historical relic” (p. 52).  Successive books sought to demonstrate the atheist case, and they elicited powerful theistic responses, including books by Alvin Plantinga, an American philosopher who “asserted that belief in God is similar to belief in other basic truths, such as belief in other minds or perception (seeing a tree) or memory (belief in the past).  In all these instances you trust your cognitive faculties, although you cannot prove the truth of the belief in question” (p. 55).  Another American, the “Thomist philosopher Ralph McInerny reasoned that it is natural for human beings to believe in God because of the order, arrangement, and lawlike character of natural events.  Such much so, he said, that the idea of God is almost innate, which seems like a prima facie argument against atheism” (p. 56).  

Granting the weighty arguments of his foes, as well as following where the evidence leads, Flew continually modified and recast his positions.  He acknowledged that Hume, his philosophical mentor, failed to consistently follow his denial of cause and effect when he turned to writing history, giving “no hint of skepticism about either the external world or causation” (p. 58).  He also came to believe in “free will, human freedom,” rejecting the philosophical determinism that generally accompanies atheism.  It became clear to him that “the causes of human actions are fundamentally, and most relevantly, different from the causes of all those events that are not human actions” (p. 60).  With the great German philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, he concluded that physical factors merely “incline, but do not necessitate” human actions (p. 61).  If man has a free will, of course, it leaves open the possibility that there is a non-physical (a metaphysical) dimension to human nature.  Coming to believe in freedom, he notes, “is fully as radical as my change on the question of God” (p. 64).  

While changing his mind regarding human freedom, he “calmly considered” and defended his case for atheism.  He publicly debated the issue with eminent theists, such as William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, William P. Alston, and Ralph McInerny, before various audiences, some of them in the United States numbering in the thousands.  These  debates also led to close friendships with evangelical Christian philosophers, including Gary Habermas of Lynchburg College.  In England, he debated Richard Swinburne, “the best-known defender of theism in the English-speaking world, whose classic treatise, The Coherence of Theism is one of the finest books published in the past century.  And the more he debated, the more he wrote, the more he thought, the more he questioned the position he’d defended for a lifetime!  

Consequently, in a debate at New York University in 2004, he “announced at the start that I now accepted the existence of a God” (p. 74).  He explained that his position largely resulted from “developments in modern science that seemed to point to a higher Intelligence” (p. 74).  Design seems overwhelming evident in our DNA, which shows, “by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together” (p. 75).  He was particularly impressed with the arguments of the Israeli physicists, Gerald Schroeder, whose “Intelligent Design” position commands respect—especially when compared with the “major exercise in popular mystification” set forth by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene!  

Flew now believes “that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence.   I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God.  I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source” (p. 88).  He takes this position primarily because of recent developments in science.  But he has “also been helped by a renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments” (p. 89).  In this he “was persuaded above all by the philosopher David Conway’s argument for God’s existence in his book The Recovery of Wisdom:  From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia” (p. 92).  Conway basically defends the position of Aristotle, who insisted the world makes sense only in the light of an ultimate Being who is omnipotent, omniscient, immutable, immaterial, and good.  This ancient, and essentially deistic stance, now seems sound to Flew.

“Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design,” Flew says, “I have since come to see that, when correctly formulated, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God” (p. 95).  Albert Einstein was ever amazed that the universe seemed fundamentally mathematical, containing laws that are “reason incarnate.”  A Divine Mind must have made a rational world.  Accordingly, Einstein said:  “’I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist.  We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages.”  He finds himself mystified by the unknown, but senses that he could learn it all if only he could decipher the languages.  So it is, Einstein concluded, with “’even the most intelligent human being toward god.  We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand those laws.  Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations’” (p. 99).  

Still more, said Einstein:  “’ Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. . . .  This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God’” (p. 102).  Flew cites similar statements by other great physicists, such as Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, and Paul A. M. Dirac.  To these giants may be added current scientists who have similar convictions—Paul Davies, John Polkinghorne, Freeman Dyson, Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich, and Roger Penrose.  Comparing the statements of popular atheists, who claim to root their views in science, with those of truly great scientists, make it clear how ineptly writers such as Sam Harris propound their position.  

Consider, importantly, the question concerning the origin-of-life.  “How,” Flew wonders, “can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and ‘coded chemistry’?” (p. 124).  Asserting that it “just happened that way” makes no sense.  He notes that Harvard University’s “Nobel Prize-winning physiologist George Wald once famously argued that ‘we choose to believe the impossible:  that life arose spontaneously by chance’” (p. 131).  Believing the impossible, however, violates the most basic tenets of logic!  Thus, in time Wald admitted:  “’It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions might be brought into some degree of congruence.  This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—that the stuff of which physical reality is constructed in mind-stuff.  It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life, and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create:  science-, art-, and technology-making creatures’” (pp. 131-132).  “This,” adds Flew, “is my conclusion.  The only satisfactory explanation of the origin of such ‘end-directed, self-replication’ life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind” (p. 132).  

This “infinitely intelligent Mind” is the Source of all that is.  With the growing consensus regarding the Big Bang beginning of the universe, Flew was forced to acknowledge that “cosmologists were providing a scientific proof of what St. Thomas Aquinas contended could not be proved philosophically; namely that the universe had a beginning” (p. 135).  Aquinas, of course, took this as a matter of faith, revealed in Scripture.  But the Big Bang theory pushes one to acknowledge that everything began, ex nihilo, in an instant.  If so, one must be at least open to the possibility that an omnipotent Being brought everything else into being.  

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One of the most gifted advocates of Intelligent Design is David Berlinsky, a Princeton-educated mathematician.  He is “a secular Jew” whose “religious education did not take” (p. xi).  But he thinks clearly and was aroused by the vapidity of many atheistic arguments to write The Devil’s Delusion:  Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York:  Crown Forum, c. 2008).  Fully understanding the nature of science, he also knows its serious limitations.  Thus those atheists who declare their faith under the pretense of scientific certainty demonstrate little more than their own confusions.  “No scientific theory,” he insists, “touches on the mysteries that the religious tradition addresses” (p. xiv).  Still more:  “While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherent body of thought” (p. xiv).  Though he may not accept religious principles, they at least makes sense!

Berlinsky begins by citing and examining a variety of statements by eminent contemporary scientists such as Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, who “is not only an intellectually fulfilled atheist, he is determined that others should be as full as he” (p. 3).  Many of them, spinning endless and often arrogant theories regarding the universe, seem “willing to believe in anything” (p. 4).  But when carefully considered, “Neither scientific credibility nor sound good sense is at issue in any of these declarations.  They are absurd; they are understood to be absurd; and what is more, assent is demanded just because they are absurd.  ‘We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs,’ the geneticist Richard Lewontin remarked equably in The New York Review of Books, ‘in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories’ (my emphasis” (p. 9).  

Nothing is more central to the scientific enterprise than the awareness of the laws of nature.  But great scientists acknowledge, Berlinsky insists, that:  “We do not know why the laws of nature are true, even though we can sense that the question hides some sort of profound mystery” (p. 37).  Consequently, and with good reason, “Every scientist since Newton has placed his allegiance in the world beyond the world” (p. 46).  In part this is because of “the remarkable, strange, and baffling mathematical results that have appeared in theoretical physics over the past twenty years or so” (p. 46).  To many mathematicians, such as Richard Thomas, “’these things cannot be coincidence, they must come from a higher reason.  And that reason is the assumption that this big mathematical theory describes nature’ (italics added)” (p. 46).  There is a mathematical logos giving structure to the deepest dimensions of creation.  

Thus much may be said in defense of the cosmological argument for God’s existence, given its “most powerful statement” by Thomas Aquinas (p. 64).  We understand things, Aquinas argued, following Aristotle, when we fully understand their causes.  To explain why anything exists, he insisted one must posit an Uncaused Cause.  Amazingly, Berlinsky shows, physicists who embrace the Big Bang theory (tracing back all that is to an instant of singularity) find themselves akin to Aquinas!  “The hypothesis of God’s existence and the facts of contemporary cosmology are consistent” (p. 80).  That God is the First Cause of all that exists is but one aspect of the cosmological argument, however.  He also explains “why the universe exists at all” (p. 83).  “If God is one, he is one absolutely, the Hebrew Bible affirms, because not only does he exist, he must exist.  The five simple words of the declaration in Exodus—’I am that I am’—suggest that God’s existence is necessary.  Being what He is, God could not fail to be who He is, and being who He is, God could not fail to be” (p. 84).  

In a chapter entitled “A Put-up Job,” Berlinsky casts a cynical eye on some of the more popular positions espoused by contemporary physicists.  They are perplexed, as was Fred Hoyle, whose research prompted this declaration:  “’The universe,’ he grumbled afterward, ‘looks like a put-up job.’  An atheist, Hoyle did not care to consider who might have put the job up, and when pressed, he took refuge in the hypothesis that aliens were at fault” (p. 111).  Others have propounded a naturalistic “string theory” that promised to fully explain “all nature’s forces” (p. 117).  But the more it was explained the more convoluted became the explanations!  “Some versions of the string theory require twenty-six dimensions; others, ten; and still others, eleven” (p. 118).  “It was an idea,” Berlinsky notes, with his customary wit, “that possessed every advantage except clarity, elegance, and a demonstrated connection to reality” (p. 119).  

The inadequacies of string theory, however, seemed suddenly resolved by imaging multiple universes, known by physicists as the “Landscape” theory.  This “is simply the claim that given sufficiently many universes, what is true here need not be true there, and vice versa” (p. 123).  Given an infinitude of universes literally everything is possible.  Since “it works by means of the simple principle that by multiplying universes, the Landscape dissolves improbabilities.  To the question What are the odds?  the Landscape provides the invigorating answer that it hardly matters” (p. 124).    To Berlinsky, however, such theories are little better than the ancient Ptolemaic epicycles!