Saturday, November 10, 2007

Anthony Flew and other conversions

The buzz in the atheist blogosphere is about Antony Flew, a "notorious atheist" who has converted to deism and published a book. Here's an NYT article, a response by Richard Carrier, a person involved, and PZ's comment on the matter.

The title of the book, There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind, is a bit of a distortion. One of the things you learn from the blogosphere is the names of all the important activists and other people involved in the movement. But I've never heard of Antony Flew, so he's hardly notorious. Apparently, he used to be well-known in philosophy circles. Currently, he seems to be aging badly, and losing his memory (Flew himself says he has "nominal aphasia"). The book, as Richard Carrier will tell you, is transparently the work of Christian apologists putting words into Flew's mouth with the purpose of using his "authority", as if he had any. It's all rather appalling. Talk about liars for Jesus.

I think we can all agree that this is reprehensible, so moving on... there is another issue. Now, I'd like to think that people really can rationally disagree in a debate even when they agree on the facts. Your typical debate is often extremely complex underneath the surface, so it's completely natural for people to disagree, at least on the details. I'd like to think that people are capable of changing their mind rationally, and by their own choice.

But, wow, examples like these sure make it difficult to make my case. Where are all the clear-minded conversions from atheism to theism? Here, Antony is clearly suffering from memory loss and muddled thinking, and he hasn't even bothered to look closely at the book under his own name. And this only got him as far as deism, which is hardly any closer to Christianity than is atheism. Another example is Francis Collins, the famous Christian scientist, and author of The Language of God. Collins shows every sign of having gone through the conversion emotionally and not rationally. Take this quote:
Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith. And that leap of faith seemed very scary to me. After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it -- also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth -- that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.
As PZ said,
If it had been a two part waterfall, would he have converted to Zoroastrianism?
And of course, you hear people all the time who say "I used to be an atheist," but are now, like, devout Christians or something. For example, Kirk Cameron, one of the apologists responsible for the "banana argument", claims that he used to be an atheist. Well, if so, he obviously wasn't a very well-informed one. It would be an insult to the rest of humanity not to point out how woefully ignorant Kirk is.

What I'm saying is that I want to be humble. I want to see intelligent people rationally disagreeing with me. I want to see that people who convert can do so rationally. It's a sign of freedom of thought. And my faith in humanity sort of depends on it. The alternative, after all, is that large swaths of the population are completely irrational in most respects. Perhaps I am just looking in the wrong places. The looming cynicism is clouding my judgement...