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Wednesday, 7 November 2007

My theory on Flew

Okay, now that I've got my own theory of events, I'm writing a proper post, adapted from my comment on Daylight Atheism here.

Some background, as best I can summarise: Antony Flew was a relatively well known atheist -- not "the world's most notorious", by any stretch, but well known as a philosopher due at least in part to a paper he published in the 1950s on the question of whether God is a scientifically verifiable claim. More recently, however, in his eighties, he has changed his mind on the existence of God.

In 2004, Biola University awarded Flew the "Philip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth". (I am tempted to request that you shoot me if I ever receive an award named for someone thus famed for the distortion of science. In so doing, I reveal my own bias, of course! Still, I really am trying to be fair here). Flew said in his acceptance speech:
In speaking to, or writing for, my fellow professional philosophers I write or speak only about Aristotle's God, who was not concerned with or about human beliefs or behavior. But in speaking to an audience in the United States I cannot do better than to say that I have become, like the young Mr. Jefferson who drafted the Declaration of Independence, a Deist.
There has been more than one insinuation that Flew would have to be senile to accept the arguments for God that he has done. This is too typical of the way some atheists feel about religion in general to be entirely credible. We cannot always understand why any sensible person would believe it, but many otherwise sensible people do. In Flew's case, shifting to Deism shows at least some sign of rigour. Many, indeed perhaps most, of the standard arguments for God will take you little further.

Recently, a book has come out, with authorship credited to Flew and to the evangelical Roy Varghese. A New York Times article questions the book's authorship:
As [Flew] himself conceded, he had not written his book.

“This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!”

When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”

So even the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter: Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author from Ohio, rewrote many passages, especially in the section that narrates Flew’s childhood. With three authors, how much Flew was left in the book? “He went through everything, was happy with everything,” Varghese said.

Cynthia DiTiberio, the editor who acquired “There Is a God” for HarperOne, told me that Hostetler’s work was limited; she called him “an extensive copy editor.” “He did the kind of thing I would have done if I had the time,” DiTiberio said, “but editors don’t get any editing done in the office; we have to do that in our own time.”

I then asked DiTiberio if it was ethical to publish a book under Flew’s name that cites sources Flew doesn’t know well enough to discuss. “I see your struggle and confusion,” she said, but she maintained that the book is an accurate presentation of Flew’s views. “I don’t think Tony would have allowed us to put in anything he was not comfortable with or familiar with,” she said. “I mean, it is hard to tell at this point how much is him getting older. In my communications with him, there are times you have to say things a couple times. I’m not sure what that is. I wish I could tell you more. . . We were hindered by the fact that he is older, but it would do the world a disservice not to have the book out there, regardless of how it was made.”

Richard Carrier, an atheist who corresponded with Flew over his change of mind, has posted his own version of events, along with a theory of his own about the book's authorship:
In my opinion the book's arguments are so fallacious and cheaply composed I doubt Flew would have signed off on it in sound mind, and [the reporter] Oppenheimer comes to much the same conclusion. It seems Flew simply trusted Varghese and didn't even read the book being published in his name. And even if he had, he is clearly incapable now of even remembering what it said. The book's actual author turns out to be an evangelical preacher named Bob Hostetler (who has also written several books with Josh McDowell), with considerable assistance from this book's co-author, evangelical promoter and businessman Roy Abraham Varghese.

However, I don't completely believe the story they told Oppenheimer. The style of the chapters attributed to Flew differs so much from the portions explicitly written by Varghese (such as a lengthy preface), that I suspect Hostetler was responsible for much more than the publisher claims. Whether that's so or not, this is a hack Christian tract, not formal or competent philosophy, nor anything from the mind of Antony Flew.
Carrier's post is interesting but he's biased as heck -- possibly biased as to his own influence on Flew's change of mind (Flew seems to have flip-flopped a bit) and the extent to which Flew would remember it, and definitely biased towards atheism; we can't help that. He does, however, give some interesting details on Flew's book. And apart from the speculation, much of what Carrier says is so entirely consistent with Varghese's statement on the matter, as quoted above, that I'm inclined to believe both.

Here's is Varghese, repeated from above:
“There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”
Here is Carrier on the book:
Curiously absent from the entire book is any discussion of Deism...
...this book is filled with the typical concerns and methods of contemporary Christian apologetics...
Finally, chapters provided by Varghese (actually written in Varghese's name) vent a fireball of rage and calumny against the renowned, popular, and bestselling atheists Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris.
These are strong indications that the overall shape and content of the book aren't Flew's doing -- which they wouldn't be, if Varghese's statement is accurate! It's not at all far-fetched to suppose that Varghese et al are using Flew to promote a worldview that doesn't precisely align with his. It would be possible to do this without actually lying, per se -- just omitting inconvenient qualifiers that Flew might have placed on his position had he been putting the book together himself, and adding in some (credited) bits from other authors that push people towards Christianity particularly.

I can imagine them rationalising it this way, putting it together so carefully from things Flew actually did say, choosing the bits that made the story they wanted. They may well have even used statements from Flew that he later retracted, as Carrier claims. I can imagine Flew agreeing to let them write the book after a bit of pressure, thinking they had the right to the 'data' of his personal story, not paying attention to the way they were writing as if he agreed to the worldview they were promoting with that 'data', and feeling as if he had to go along with it once he'd said yes.

I can even imagine Varghese and possibly Hostetler rationalising that Flew probably would agree with such-and-such an argument, because it makes so much sense... but, though I can imagine them thinking that, I am inclined to withhold belief that they actually did include arguments that Flew didn't agree with. I really don't think they would have needed to. I could have done it without resorting to that.

In short, Flew may simply have decided that he doesn't have the energy to fight the war over subtext in the way his views are being presented by others. Varghese is being somewhat dishonest in presenting the view of the book as Flew's when it is really being pulled towards Varghese's own as a result of the fact that he did most of the work, but that's it.

And yes, Flew's old age may make him less inclined to expend the energy to argue over subtleties. He may also be in decline somewhat intellectually -- we know he's suffering from an inability to remember some things. That probably exacerbates the situation. It doesn't mean that Varghese and Hostetler made the whole thing up, though. With my imperfect knowledge, my current guess is that they merely took a real change of opinion and dressed it up to support their position as much as possible, but probably without lying outright.


Anonymous said...

The two pieces of evidence I found most decisive were these:

(1) In his correspondence with Carrier, Flew explicitly rejected an argument that is made in the book (about the probability of DNA formation). Indeed, it seems the newest edition of Flew's book God & Philosophy, with a rewritten preface, explicitly cites an article of Carrier's as being decisive against such claims.

(2) The fact that Flew professed not to know or remember several people who are quoted at length in the book and whom he's had extensive interaction with.

I think Flew's conversion to deism is quite possibly genuine, though hardly persuasive to others, since he admits he can't formulate much of a coherent argument for it. As for this book, though, it's clear that he's been used by these Christian apologists who gained and then exploited his friendship to use this name as a prop for their cause. Elderly, suffering from memory lapses, and largely cut off from the world (he's retired and doesn't have an Internet connection), Flew probably has little idea what's in the book, and little energy or ability to protest even if he did.

Alon Levy said...

Ebonmuse, I don't think piece of evidence #1 is that clear. In my blog, I explicitly rejected many attacks on new atheism that I now endorse, having seen new information or looked at the situation from a more neutral perspective.

For example, I said there was radical feminism and radical antiracism (i.e. ethnic nationalism), but not radical atheism, citing as evidence the fact that PZ Myers didn't want to deny religious people their civil rights. Today if I were to write a book about it I'd dedicate a fair portion of it to explaining why that line of thinking is wrong, and how in fact radicals keep using it to legitimize extremism. Andrea Dworkin isn't anti-sex because she thinks people will have sex even after the patriarchy is overthrown; PZ Myers doesn't hate religious people because he doesn't think the government should crack down on religious expression.

Lynet, I think your reading of the situation makes a lot of sense. Activists like to think anyone who thought about the situation for a while would see the light and agree with them. They also tend to think their heroes agree with them a lot more than they actually do - witness how every political movement in the US compares itself to the civil rights movement and cites passages from Martin Luther King that purport to agree with its goals.

L.L. Barkat said...

It is interesting to read this after coming back from my errands today. I'd been daydreaming about my writing process, considering how much time it has taken to push this thing (the book) into shape, and how many voices it took to do that. But I was also feeling good that I'd been the one to keep working away in light of all the feedback. And that in the end it had been my hacking, tearing, rebuilding that made the work what it is. Which is all to say that it would be remarkable to me if someone could just sit by and let others just write what they would. But I suppose if one were old and tired... (well, unless that someone were me).

Lynet said...


I'm hesitant to play up the extent to which Flew is of diminished mental capacity. It can explain anything in a manner flattering to our worldview, and in that sense it's much too much like the effect of the 'God hypothesis' on science. I can't help but be suspicious for that reason :-). Moreover, if we want to be outraged, it's always safer to be outraged on the most conservative grounds possible. Large amounts of outrage on small amounts of evidence is a dangerous thing, and it seems to me that we ought to avoid it to the greatest extent possible.

With that in mind, here's how I'd respond to the two pieces of evidence you note.

(1) Varghese may well have used statements from Flew given prior to 2005 in putting the book together. He may not have paid attention to Flew's change of mind, or he may have singlemindedly chosen to ignore it. There are then several possible reasons why Flew might have let these statements pass (assuming that he did see all the chapters attributed to him, as Varghese claims):

- Flew may have changed his mind back.

- Flew may have decided he couldn't be bothered fighting about details.

- Flew may be choosing not to pay much attention to the book.

- Flew may be mentally incapable of paying proper attention to the book.

Saying exactly which of these apply and to what extent requires more evidence than we have, in my opinion.

(2) That is evidence that Flew's mind is not what it was. It doesn't matter so much that it supports the idea that Flew didn't write the book, because we already know from Varghese that Flew did not write the book! On the other hand, it also shows that Flew probably is in a state where he could be manipulated. However, I'm wary of concluding that Varghese took advantage of that deliberately, because it's much easier to imagine him simply trying as hard as he could to get the result he wanted, and being too attached to his own position to realise that Flew was letting him get away with too much.

I'll presume Varghese to be innocent of lying. I'll presume that because it does fit all the evidence I've seen, on the one hand -- but also because it highlights the fact that Varghese is in many ways condemned by his own words. If we really wanted to raise hue and cry over this, the best way to reach a lot of people with it would be to use the possibility with the most even-handed evidence for it -- the one you definitely don't have to be an atheist to give credit to. We've got a great case that Varghese is writing a book that attaches the name of a famous philosopher to a viewpoint that doesn't really reflect that philosopher. Why shout that down with a speculative statement that uses a blanket excuse for belief in God -- the one that always occurs to us -- the one about insanity?


Thanks :-)

By the way, you seem to be trying to make a double point by using the question of radical atheism as evidence of a change of mind...


Ah, but you're engaged with that book. Its whole structure is alive and growing in your head! Of course you care about it! :-)

Alon Levy said...

If I'm making a double point, it's unintentional. Of all the attacks on radical atheism I've made, I don't think any applies or was intended to apply to Paul Kurtz or Richard Carrier, who seem to be the main people saying that Varghese's exploiting Flew. I brought it up mostly because that's probably the only thing on my blog that I completely disagree with.

L. L., from what I'm gathering about your book, it's very different from Varghese's. Your book seems to be inspirational and personal. Those books are almost like fiction in that they sell based on the prose; if you hire a ghostwriter, the ghostwriter might as well get the byline. Conventional non-fiction sells based on the author, especially if he's a famous person or an authority on the subject. Under that condition, it's very easy to let someone else do the heavy lifting, and just look at the final result and collect half the royalty checks.

L.L. Barkat said...

Alon... well, that's a comforting thought indeed. Since I'm not famous, nor am I an authority (well, I think not anyway). That would mean that if the prose is any good, I might collect more than just my advance.

On the other hand, it's interesting that publishers don't expect a book to sell based on its prose. Platform's the thing.