Last May, the paper version of Unfair Park published a piece about Garland tech consultant and amateur science philosopher Roy Abraham Varghese, founder of the Institute for Metascientific Research, a one-man, home-grown organization under whose auspices Varghese publishes books, organizes conferences and produces videos marshaled to scientifically prove the existence of God. At the time, Varghese was working on a book with 84-year-old British philosopher Antony Flew -- considered by many to be the most influential atheist of the 20th century -- on his recent conversion to theism, a process Flew in large part attributes to Varghese.
On Sunday, The New York Times Magazine published “The Turning of an Atheist” by Mark Oppenheimer of the Yale Journalism Initiative, exploring the controversies behind the new Flew-Varghese book: There Is a God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind. The Oppenheimer piece chronicles Flew’s declining memory (he apparently doesn’t remember sources or philosophical conversations cited in his book), his halting speech and his reliance on outdated science as well as his over-reliance on Varghese. At one point Oppenheimer calls Varghese Flew’s intellectual chaperone of the past 20 years and hints that Varghese has exploited Flew.
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Flew even concedes he didn’t write There Is a God. “This is really Roy’s doing,” he says in the Oppenheimer piece. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work.”
Varghese admits the idea for the book was his and that he had done all of the original writing, basing it on interviews with Flew and correspondence from Flew, while the finished product was ultimately approved by Flew. This no doubt rattled Varghese, whom Oppenheimer calls an autodidact with no academic credentials. Varghese refused to comment on the article, but he did forward tp Unfair Park a letter he sent to The New York Times. It's below. --Mark Stuertz
First the good news: Antony Flew is alive and well (physically and mentally) contrary to what readers might assume from Mark Oppenheimer’s article, “The Turning of an Atheist” (New York Times magazine, November 4, 2007). Second, the bad news (for his former fellow atheists): he has not retracted his change of position on the question of God, this despite three years of efforts of malign his mental capabilities and the motives of any theists affiliated with him.
I would like to answer three questions raised by Mr. Oppenheimer’s article:
Did Tony Flew write There Is a God? Well, as the cover specifically states, it is written by Flew with yours truly. Oppenheimer says I “made the book sound like more of a joint effort -- slightly more, anyway” implying thereby it was a sorta kinda joint effort but, come now, no one seriously believes this. But, as I had told him, the substantive portions of the book came from a combination of Tony’s published and unpublished writings (and by the way he still does write) as well as extensive correspondence and numerous interviews with him. I would be happy to share these with any investigative journalist. The cute sub-titles and the enchanting anecdotes, I’m afraid, did not originate with Tony although he OKed them.
Oppenheimer asks “if it was ethical to publish a book under Flew’s name that cites sources Flew doesn’t know well enough to discuss.” Well, I specifically told Oppenheimer that several of these quotes were taken from my previous book and that There is a God dutifully documents this (“For the most part, these quotations are taken from Roy Abraham Varghese, The Wonder of the World …”, p.218). Moreover, Tony edited, corrected and approved at least ten versions of the manuscript.
It should also be noted that Tony didn’t stumble on to his answers to the question at hand overnight -- or with this book. As the article rightly notes, the journey began over twenty years ago. Tony, in fact, was a contributor to a book I co-edited in 1992 (Cosmos, Bios, Theos) in which he explored these issues from the other side of the table -- but taking the very same approach that he does here.
Does Tony Flew actually believe in a Creator/Intelligence/God? The article’s lead-in states, “But his change of heart may not be what it seems.” Let me be blunt about this (as I was with Oppenheimer). For three years, assorted skeptics and freethinkers have hounded the poor man trying to get him to recant. Believe me, if there was the slightest indication, the remotest suspicion, that he had retracted his new-found belief in God, it would be plastered all across the worldwide web (and beyond).
Instead, Tony has taken it on himself to respond to every attack on his intellectual integrity in contributions to publications ranging from a rationalist journal in New Zealand to the latest issue of Skeptic magazine in the UK. The attacks on him are always highlighted on the Internet -- his responses are never to be found unless you happen to get hold of the print editions. Not without reason, he now refers to several of the apostles of reason as “bigots”.
A key point missed by the article is that it is not just or even mainly the evidence from science that led Flew to change his mind. The single greatest influence on him was philosophical – specifically the book The Rediscovery of Wisdom by David Conway. It was not a tug of war between, on the one hand Paul Kurtz and Richard Carrier, and on the other, the theist scientists, with the data from science as the rope. The rope was a philosophical one and here Conway, Richard Swinburne, Gerald Schroeder (in his exploration of the philosophical implications of science in The Hidden Face of God), et al were decisive.
Is Tony Flew “all there” mentally? Oppenheimer asks if he is “a senescent scholar” with a “failing” memory. As he himself notes, Tony cheerfully volunteered the fact that he has “nominal aphasia”, the inability to reproduce names. Now, starting at the age of forty, the average human being progressively forgets recent names, events and the like. So nothing out of the ordinary there. Is Tony slower to respond when asked a question than a younger person? No question about that – age certainly leaves a mark with each passing year and he is now eighty-four. But then again there are numerous scholars in their seventies and eighties who have trouble remembering recent names and events. And yet in most such cases, the thinkers concerned have been clear and consistent in their reasoning whether or not we agree with their conclusions. The same holds true for Tony.
When he sets pen to paper (as will be seen in the most recent issue of Skeptic), he is as cogent and coherent as you could want (and also as terse as he was in his 1950 article). The only reason why people ask questions about his mental faculties is because he dared to change his mind. But let’s not forget that his new view of the world is one embraced by many of today’s leading philosophers in the Anglo-American world as well as most of the pioneers of modern science. This is the dirty little secret that the “new atheists” and their drum-beaters never talk about. It’s so much easier to shoot the messenger!
Roy Abraham Varghese