While investigating William Lane Craig I came across two people whose names were not previously well known to me – Bart Ehrman and Antony Flew. I had a bit of a closer look at them and found them to be interesting cases because they both moved on the atheist-theist spectrum as illustrated below, but in different directions.
This spectrum illustrates a range of possible positions between “strong atheism” on the top and “literal fundamentalism” on the bottom. I might not have accurately captured all of them. It should be noted that as you get closer to the bottom, you approach a specific God and in the context of this discussion we can assume that this is a Christian God. As you approach the more fundamentalist position, evidence disappears as a factor. I don’t mean that evidence itself disappears, but rather that evidence is looked at differently by people with these positions – evidence becomes something that needs to be explained, rather than being an essential element of an explanation. (See my article on evidence.)
For ease of reference, we can consider this spectrum in light of a nine-point scale:
These are my own descriptive terms. None of them are intended to be pejorative, with the possible exception of “Agnostic Fence Sitting”. This category is for those who want to apply Pascal’s wager but, despite trying their best to believe in a God so as to not be punished eternally for failing to do so, are still not able to really truly believe due to the lack of evidence. In other words: “there’s not really any evidence, but I’ll lean towards the God premise just in case”.
Let’s compare the history of Ehrman and Flew.
These are based on rough estimates. Bart Ehrman’s crisis of faith that cured him of fundamentalism happened in the mid-1980s and was followed by about 15 years of liberal Christianity. Flew was tending towards a deistic belief, or a belief in an “Aristotelian god” or a First Cause, in his mid-70s as early as 2001.
In 2007, There is
no A God was published by Harper
One under Flew’s name, even though the book was largely written by the
“co-author” Roy Varghese and “copy edited” by Bob Hostetler. Flew’s contribution seems to have amounted to
granting approval and allowing earlier work to be incorporated in the book.
Note that Flew’s regular publisher was Prometheus Books, whose publishing goal is described as addressing “the educational, scientific, professional, library, popular, and consumer markets”. Prometheus does have a few books on the topic of religion, but a brief look at the titles indicates that they have a skeptical orientation, in line with the founder’s intent (Paul Kurtz also founded the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, an organisation of which Flew was a fellow). Harper One’s area of publishing interest is described as “the full spectrum of religion, spirituality, and personal growth”. It doesn’t take much skepticism to think that perhaps Harper One was selected as the publisher because Prometheus would not have been able to provide editors who would be as “accommodating”.
I am perhaps being a bit unfair in labelling Ehrman as a weak atheist. It is true that Ehrman explicitly denies being an atheist, is antagonistic to New Atheists and claims to be an agnostic. However, when speaking to Justin Brierly on Premier Radio’s Unbelievable program, Ehrman described his position in terms that correlate with weak atheism. Ehrman is certainly not a strong atheist but, given that his position is sufficiently similar to mine, I feel justified in asserting that he is a weak atheist.
The question of whether Ehrman is an atheist (of any type) or not is related to another sort of question: where exactly is the line between “atheists” and “others” and the line between “Christians” and “others”?
I would have thought that for a Christian, the line depends on the nature of their belief. If a Christian is a fundamentalist, then a wishy-washy type who is willing to interpret the Bible (and is not born again) is not a proper believer. For an atheist, someone who thinks “there is probably something out there” is suffering from precisely the same type of delusion as the fundamentalist; just not to the same extent (we could call this “Deluded Lite”).
The moves that Flew and Ehrman made on the spectrum are, I believe, as illustrated below:
Now, on this diagram, it looks like Ehrman has undergone a significantly greater change, but there is no real scale involved. To get a better understanding of the major changes of position, we perhaps should look at them differently.
So, in other words, Erhman went from someone who believed it all, to someone who reckoned that there is sufficient evidence to support the assertion that there was a human known as Jesus, but not much else. Despite this, I’m reluctant to count him as a true opponent to William Lane Craig in a debate because he seems to shy away from the most likely explanation for a story as amazing as that of Jesus in the almost total absence of any supporting evidence outside the Bible. That it is fiction.
Flew, on the other hand, went from someone who didn’t believe a thing to someone who was willing to credit God with creating the universe, but not much else. Despite this, there are plenty of people willing to claim that Flew’s conversion is a great victory for theism (even though he specifically did not convert to theism). Why is this?
Well, let’s look at a few interesting facts.
Biola University is not known for being a deist university.
Now I have previously stated that I don’t really count Ehrman as being a true “opponent” to William Lane Craig. This also means that I don’t count Ehrman as a “convert” to atheism, even though his position is almost completely consistent with my atheism.
A small part of my reasoning relates to the fact that Ehrman remains a New Testament scholar, who believes there actually was a Jesus and who seems ambivalent about the Bible. However, the vast majority of my reasoning relates to the single fact that it does not matter who Ehrman was before losing God, or indeed after. My personal lack of belief is neither strengthened by a conversion of a theist to agnosticism nor weakened by the conversion of an atheist to deism. The pope could convert to atheism, and it’d make no difference. Richard Dawkins could come out as a closet fundamentalist, and it’d make no difference. My atheism is an entirely personal lack of belief on my part.
Now that that is out of the way, I want to state that I am appalled by the way some people treated Flew. It is very sad to watch footage of a man who was clearly showing signs of mental deterioration, evident as early as 1998 during the debate with Craig at Biola University, as he is paraded around by smug theists. (Remember footage of tired and confused allied soldiers making televised announcements on behalf of Saddam Hussein? It’s rather similar, except Flew was never returned.)
There is a notorious interview between Lee Strobel and Flew in which Strobel shamelessly, and relentlessly attempts to put words in Flew’s mouth (when the interview was held is unclear but the first reference on the internet that I could find is dated November 2006). Of particular interest in this interview is that not only does Flew appear to be not at his best, but he also clearly states twice that he is not going to write a book and implies it a third time. Flew does not mention having just written a book (There is
no A God was
already mentioned as being circulated in pre-print as early as September 2006).
· 4’:39” onwards
o Flew: “I haven’t even begun to think about this book that I am certainly not going to attempt to write”
o Strobel (jocular): “We’re going to get you to write it”
o Flew: “Oh no you’re not”
o Flew: “I’m not going to write the book”
· 9’:05” onwards
o Flew: “Well, I think, ah, if we were involved in a discussion for this book, that would have to be considered, yes. I think it’s a reasonable thing for someone to argue. It doesn’t mean it’s the right, but it’s certainly right for someone to say that, that”
o Strobel: (incomprehensible vocalisation but probably) “Yeah”
o Flew: “Yeah and I think that that is in fact what theists would want to say in some way, wouldn’t it, the whole purpose of this creation was to produce believers.”
I strongly recommend that people listen to at least two debates, one between Flew and William Lane Craig from 1998 and a more recent one between Ehrman and Craig. Compare the clarity of thought exhibited by Flew and Ehrman and just ponder whether the likes of Craig and Strobel should be fisting the air and claiming victory for the Lord because Flew became a deist.
One last thing … I’ve tried, but I’ve not been able to find any reference to claims by high profile atheists that Ehrman becoming an agnostic should be considered as some sort of victory for atheism. For anyone trying to prove me wrong, I’d happily accept something said by Dawkins (and any who post articles at the Dawkins Foundation site), Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Smith, Krauss, Law and Shermer. The clarity of the statement should approach the title of Gary Habermas’ article (Atheist Becomes Theist – Exclusive Interview with Former Atheist Antony Flew) or that of the book crafted by Roy Varghese (There is
no A God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind).
This article blends information freely available from Wikipedia, Richard Carrier’s blog, Mark Oppenheimer’s NY Times article, and audio and video of debates involving Strobel, Craig, Flew and Ehrman. My thanks to the people who made this information available.