Given the recent attention garnered by the “new atheism” and its spokesmen, it was only a matter of time before a defector emerged from within the ranks. Antony Flew, a lifelong outspoken atheist and Oxford philosophy professor, recently published a book, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, outlining his journey away from unbelief. One piece of promotional material for the book calls it “one of the biggest religions [sic] stories of the new millennium.” He would seem to be the ideal combatant to challenge the new atheists in the battle over belief.
A few reporters and bloggers have raised questions about the octogenarian’s mental competence as well as the motivations of his co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese. Questions about competence aside, Flew is not quite the crusading convert his book title suggests: He did not embrace Christianity, but Deism. As he told Christianity Today, he feels more spiritual kinship with the skeptical Thomas Jefferson than with Jesus. “I understand why Christians are excited, but if they think I am going to become a convert to Christ in the near future, they are very much mistaken,” he said.
Perhaps now more than ever, converts must combat a pervasive cultural cynicism that views conversions – particularly those made during moments of crisis – with suspicion. It was only his decades-long devotion to his Prison Fellowship ministry that eventually silenced those who doubted Charles Colson’s sincerity. Flew’s claims have prompted many to wonder if his rejection of atheism and embrace of a deity is driven less by genuine faith than by the normal fears of old age.
The most persuasive conversion narratives recount not merely emotional surrenders to faith but also intellectual grapplings. Although devout atheists would vehemently disagree, the conversions of men like C.S. Lewis and, perhaps, Flew reveal that intelligent people – trained in rigorous fields such as philosophy and the hard sciences – can embrace faith and tell persuasive stories without extremes of emotional flagellation.