The Case of Antony Flew

Yuck. I picked up There Is No A God, by (or perhaps I should say "by") the ex-atheist philosopher Antony Flew about a week ago and found it, well, odd. The book opens with a forward by one Roy Abraham Varghese, whose name appears underneath Flew’s on the jacket but whose specific role is left distinctly ambiguous (there is no “about the author” for Varghese). The meat of the book, which mixes memoir and argument and is ostensibly written by Flew, is followed by two lengthy appendices; in one, Varghese critiques the Dawkins-Harris-Dennett contingent; in the second, the historian and theologian N.T. Wright responds to questions from (“from”?) Flew along the lines of “what evidence is there for the existence of God?” The whole thing is a somewhat peculiar pastiche, and it left me curious about its origins.

Now Mark Oppenheimer has a fascinating and depressing piece about how Flew's theistic friends, led by Varghese, seem to have taken advantage of his advancing senility to write a book about his adoption of deism, run it by him for approval, and slap his name on the cover.

Here's Oppenheimer:

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.”

Now of course plenty of people have ghostwriters, but most of them aren’t philosophers attempting rigorous arguments about the nature of the universe – and most of them aren’t suffering from memory loss:

In “There Is a God,” Flew quotes extensively from a conversation he had with Leftow, a professor at Oxford. So I asked Flew, “Do you know Brian Leftow?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think I do.”

“Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?” Leslie is discussed extensively in the book.

Flew paused, seeming unsure. “I think he’s quite good.” But he said he did not remember the specifics of Leslie’s work.

“Have you ever run across the philosopher Paul Davies?” In his book, Flew calls Paul Davies “arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science.”

“I’m afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!”

He said this with a laugh. When we began the interview, he warned me, with merry self-deprecation, that he suffers from “nominal aphasia,” or the inability to reproduce names. But he forgot more than names. He didn’t remember talking with Paul Kurtz about his introduction to “God and Philosophy” just two years ago. There were words in his book, like “abiogenesis,” that now he could not define. When I asked about Gary Habermas, who told me that he and Flew had been friends for 22 years and exchanged “dozens” of letters, Flew said, “He and I met at a debate, I think.” I pointed out to him that in his earlier philosophical work he argued that the mere concept of God was incoherent, so if he was now a theist, he must reject huge chunks of his old philosophy. “Yes, maybe there’s a major inconsistency there,” he said, seeming grateful for my insight. And he seemed generally uninterested in the content of his book — he spent far more time talking about the dangers of unchecked Muslim immigration and his embrace of the anti-E.U. United Kingdom Independence Party.

Had Flew merely shifted from atheism to deism and given a few interviews about it, this sort of questioning would seem somewhat unfair - badgering an old man who's just trying to follow his intellectual curiosity where it leads him, even though his synapses don't fire quite the way they used to. But Flew has lent his name to a book that aspires to be taken seriously as an argument for the existence of some sort of God, and if he can't manage an interview, then the book shouldn't have been written in the first place. It's possible, of course, that there's more to this than Oppenheimer has uncovered, though if anything he seems to go out of his way to be fair to Varghese and Co. (“If Flew in his dotage was a bit gullible, Varghese had a gullibility of his own. An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher; it may never have occurred to him that so educated a mind could be in decline.”) But on the basis of his reporting, There Is A God is a disgrace, the publisher ought to be ashamed of itself (ha!), and N.T. Wright, whose reputation is deservedly sterling, ought to disassociate himself from the project. Anthony Flew’s turn to deism seems genuine, but he’s in no position to have his name and reputation associated with a book about so important a topic, and the people responsible for taking advantage of his friendship have brought only scandal to the name of the beliefs they hold so dear.