If Carl Sagan Had Lived Just a Little Longer?

So Antony Flew has changed his mind. Hmm. If Hume had lived to be 81, would he have done likewise? If Nietzsche had lived that long and hung onto his marbles, would he? If Bertrand Russell had lived to be 110, would he? In twenty years, will we be reading (those of us still alive) that Richard Dawkins has?

Who knows. And by the same token, maybe any day now we’ll hear that Billy Graham has finally seen the light, that Jimmy Carter takes it all back, that Jerry Fallwell has caught on at last, that George W Bush has realized it was all a drunken mistake, that Osama bin Laden has decided the hell with it and ordered a few pallets of whiskey. You just never know.

But it’s interesting that the headline writers put Flew’s change of mind so misleadingly. ‘Atheist Philosopher, 81, Now Believes in God’. Well, no, not exactly, as the article makes clear. Flew still doesn’t believe in ‘God’ in the sense in which most people understand (and use) the word – most people including atheists. That is, when that word is used in routine conversation, most of us including non-believers understand it to refer to a particular kind of deity and not just any and every kind of deity – in fact we understand it to refer to a fairly specific deity. A personal one, a person, a man, a vast (infinite) powerful all-knowing deity, who receives prayers and makes things happen in the world. That ‘God’ is a sort of literary character, and we all have an approximate idea of what he’s like. (Not as witty as Lizzy Bennett, not as interesting as Hamlet, not as irritating as Clarissa Dalloway.) That’s not the God that Flew has decided he believes in.

A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God — more or less — based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday. At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe…Flew said he’s best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people’s lives. “I’m thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins,” he said. “It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose.”

A person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, he supposes. Not exactly the guy who pointed the admonitory finger at Eve and Adam, or the guy who told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. More like a purposeful intelligent Big Bang – like the god of the deists, as Flew points out.

Well, I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system, although I am open to that. But it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before…But Aristotle himself never produced a definition of the word “God,” which is a curious fact…It seems to me, that from the existence of Aristotle’s God, you can’t infer anything about human behaviour.

And so on. But of course all the godbotherers will be jumping up and down anyway, rejoicing at another lamb gathered into the flock. Whatever.

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