Answers From a Famous Ex-Atheist About God

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Answers From a Famous Ex-Atheist About God

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Imagine for a moment being one of the world’s foremost atheists. You’ve basked in the fame of academic circles for 50 years and have written more than 30 books, many of which are hailed as hallmarks of atheistic thought. You’re highly respected, honored as one of the world’s brightest minds.

Then, suddenly, you announce you have reversed course and now believe in God.

You can imagine the reaction from most of your colleagues and the secular press—mostly anger, scorn and a withering hail of criticism.

What made you sacrifice your reputation and good standing among many of your peers, knowing full well how unpopular your belief in God was going to be, especially in an increasingly secular and atheistic society?

“I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God.”

It’s a fascinating story, and one that holds many valuable answers for young and old alike who have asked the most basic and most important question: Does God exist?

It’s not often that you can view this topic from the other side of the aisle—from one who had been a champion of atheistic thought and had based his life and teachings on the premise that God did not exist.

Who is this person? His name is Dr. Antony Flew, an Oxford professor who spent 50 years teaching philosophy and constructing clever arguments to support an atheistic point of view.

Why did he change his mind? And more importantly, why did he go public about his acceptance of God’s existence, knowing the damage to his reputation among his colleagues that would follow?

Prior to his death in 2010, Dr. Flew wrote a book in 2007 titled There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, explaining why he had reversed his long-held position and what had compelled him to admit he had been wrong. It’s not often that we see a premier philosopher who was an atheist explain why he changed his mind and came to believe in a divine Creator. His reasons are great answers to those who question God’s existence.

A principle to guide your life

In his book Dr. Flew mentioned that early in life, he came on a principle that would guide his career: Follow the evidence wherever it leads, no matter how unpopular that may be.

In his youth, he thought the evidence at that time backed an atheistic perspective, namely, that the scientific data and philosophical reasonings pointed more toward a belief that God did not exist.

Yet, he mentioned, from the 1980s on, the evidence started turning against atheism and toward a Creator God. He then had to reluctantly reassess his beliefs.

“I now believe,” he came to admit, “that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science” ( There Is a God , p. 88, emphasis added throughout ).

In particular, he offered three lines of evidence that convincingly led him to his belief in God.

How did the laws of nature come to be?

The first of these has to do with the origin of the laws of nature.

Dr. Flew was quite candid about his former atheistic views on the laws of nature, which are the standard explanation against God’s existence. Yet he would later call this type of reasoning “the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of dogmatic atheism” (p. 86).

This is the assumption that things in the universe exist as they are and should be accepted as such without much further thought. It had been his defense against any questions about the ultimate origins of what exists.

He noted: “Take such utterances as, ‘We should not ask for an explanation of how it is that the world exists; it is here and that’s all’ or ‘Since we cannot accept a transcendent source of life, we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance from matter’ or ‘The laws of physics are “lawless laws” that arise from the void—end of discussion.’ They look at first sight like rational arguments that have a special authority because they have a no-nonsense air about them. Of course, this is no more sign that they are either rational or arguments” (p. 87).

As the growing body of evidence in science and technology pointed increasingly to a more theistic explanation of the universe, he asserted that these standard atheistic explanations were becoming antiquated and untenable.

“My departure from atheism was not occasioned by any new phenomenon or argument,” he said. “Over the last two decades, my whole framework of thought has been in a state of migration. This was a consequence of my continuing assessment of the evidence of nature. When I finally came to recognize the existence of a God, it was not a paradigm shift, because my paradigm remains, as Plato in his Republic scripted his Socrates to insist: ‘We must follow the argument wherever it leads’” (p. 89).

He admitted that the accumulation of the evidence in the last two decades now supported the existence of a Creator God, and he had the courage, personal integrity and humility to accept this conclusion—no matter how personally disagreeable it had been for him.

He mentioned that the evidence dealing with the laws of nature increasingly indicated a Superior Mind was operating at a cosmic level.

“The leaders of science over the last hundred years,” he wrote, “along with some of today’s most influential scientists, have built a philosophically compelling vision of a rational universe that sprang from a divine Mind. As it happens, this is the particular view of the world that I now find the soundest philosophical explanation of a multitude of phenomena encountered by scientists and laypeople alike.

“Three domains of scientific inquiry have been especially important for me … The first is the question that puzzled and continues to puzzle most reflective scientists: How did the laws of nature come to be?” (p. 91).

One of the most enigmatic aspects of the laws of nature is that these invisible forces act on matter and energy, but are not matter or energy themselves. For them to work, they had to be in place before matter and energy existed, and they are not tangible objects. To believe all these intricate laws that act in unison somehow appeared together at just the right time, with just the right force, without some organizing Intellect behind them, defies logic.

“The important point,” Flew brought out, “is not merely that there are regularities in nature, but that these regularities are mathematically precise, universal, and ‘tied together.’ Einstein spoke of them as ‘reason incarnate.’ The question we should ask is how nature came packaged in this fashion. This is certainly the question that scientists from Newton to Einstein to Heisenberg have asked—and answered. Their answer was the Mind of God” (p. 96).

So, although it may not be well known, a number of cosmologists and physicists have admitted that the orderly laws of the universe point to something bigger and grander than the universe itself!

Flew quoted numerous of these scientists, like the famous cosmologist Paul Davies, who affirms: “Science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Atheists claim that the laws [of nature] exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted” (p. 111).

Flew concluded: “Those scientists who point to the Mind of God do not merely advance a series of arguments or a process of syllogistic reasoning. Rather, they propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision that I personally find compelling and irrefutable” (p. 112).

How did life originate from non-life?

Flew’s second line of evidence for a belief in God has to do with the great difference that exists between life and non-life.

“When the mass media first reported the change in my view of the world,” he related, “I was quoted as saying that biologists’ investigation of DNA has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved.

“I had previously written that there was room for a new argument to design in explaining the first emergence of living from nonliving matter—especially where this first living matter already possessed the capacity to reproduce itself genetically. I maintained that there was no satisfactory naturalistic explanation for such a phenomenon” (p. 123).

Pondering over this question, Flew came to the conclusion that a self-replicating living thing being produced by chance from non-life utterly defies all odds. Self-replication means that something has within itself the ability to copy components of its being and pass traits and the mechanism itself to future generations.

Indeed, that copy has to be so perfectly reproduced that it can perpetuate itself in turn, and yet it also has to carry an additional system that permits it to adapt to a changing environment to improve its chances of survival.

As a philosopher, Flew pointed out: “Most studies on the origin of life are carried out by scientists who rarely attend to the philosophical dimension of their findings. Philosophers, on the other hand, have said little on the nature and origin of life. The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and ‘coded chemistry’? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem” (p. 124).

He came to see that scientists don’t have a satisfying answer to this question.

“Carl Woese, a leader in origin-of-life studies,” he explained, “draws attention to the philosophically puzzling nature of this phenomenon. Writing in the journal RNA, he says, ‘The coding, mechanistic, and evolutionary facets of the problem now became separate issues. The idea that gene expression, like gene replication, was underlain by some fundamental physical principle was gone.’

“Not only is there no underlying physical principle, but the very existence of a code is a mystery. ‘The coding rules (the dictionary of codon assignments) are known. Yet they provide no clue as to why the code exists and why the mechanism of translation is what it is.’

“He frankly admits that we do not know anything about the origin of such a system. ‘The origins of translation, that is before it became a true decoding mechanism, are for now lost in the dimness of the past, and I don’t wish to … speculate on the origins of tRNA, tRNA charging systems or the genetic code’” (pp. 127-128).

Although there is an increasing body of knowledge about how DNA and RNA work, scientists still don’t have a clue about how all these coding systems originated, which Flew concluded do point to a Superior Intelligence at work. 

He asked: “So how do we account for the origin of life? The Nobel Prize-winning physiologist George Wald once famously argued that ‘we choose to believe the impossible; that life arose spontaneously by chance.’ In later years, he concluded that a preexisting mind, which he posits as the matrix of physical reality, composed a physical universe that breeds life … This, too, is my conclusion. The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such ‘end-directed, self-replicating’ life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind” (pp. 131-132).

Did something come from nothing?

Flew’s third line of evidence is the very existence of the universe.

In his early years, Flew believed that the universe had always existed, a popular belief at that time. If something had always been around, he reasoned, there was no need to bring up a Creator to explain it. But new scientific discoveries made him question this premise and whether something could come out of nothing.

“In fact,” he related, “my two main antitheological books were both written long before either the development of the big-bang cosmology or the introduction of the fine-tuning argument from physical constants. But since the early 1980s, I had begun to reconsider. I confessed at that point that atheists have to be embarrassed by the contemporary cosmological consensus, for it seemed that the cosmologists were providing a scientific proof of what St. Thomas Aquinas contended could not be proved philosophically; namely, that the universe had a beginning.

“When I first met the big-bang theory as an atheist, it seemed to me the theory made a big difference because it suggested that the universe had a beginning and that the first sentence in Genesis (‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’) was related to an event in the universe …

“If there had been no reason to think the universe had a beginning, there would be no need to postulate something else that produced the whole thing. But the big-bang theory changed all that. If the universe had a beginning, it became entirely sensible, almost inevitable, to ask what produced this beginning. This radically altered the situation” (pp. 135-137).

Of course, atheists and secular scientists came up with counterarguments for the growing evidence for a universe with a beginning. Over the years all kinds of unlikely explanations have appeared.

“Modern cosmologists,” he pointed out, “seemed just as disturbed as atheists about the potential theological implications of their work. Consequently, they devised influential escape routes that sought to preserve the nontheist status quo. These routes included the idea of the multiverse, numerous universes generated by endless vacuum fluctuation events, and Stephen Hawking’s notion of a self-contained universe” (p. 137).

Flew found all these arguments to be desperate attempts and quite unconvincing.

He concluded: “The three items of evidence we have considered in this volume—the laws of nature, life with its teleological [or purpose-exhibiting] organization, and the existence of the universe—can only be explained in the light of an Intelligence that explains both its own existence and that of the world. Such a discovery of the Divine does not come through experiments and equations, but through an understanding of the structures they unveil and map” (p. 155).

Thus the existence of a divine Creator is a certain fact of logic. As Scripture attests: “From the beginning, creation in its magnificence enlightens us to His nature. Creation itself makes His undying power and divine identity clear, even though they are invisible; and it voids the excuses and ignorant claims of these people [who would deny Him]” (Romans 1:20 Romans 1:20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
American King James Version×
, The Voice).

Professor Flew died in 2010, but his intellectual and philosophical pursuit led him to accept the existence of an intelligent Creator—a surprising outcome for him, but one that was based on his lifelong premise that one should follow the evidence wherever it leads.

We hope his example, as well as the irrefutable evidence he was compelled to examine, will help others resolve the question of whether God exists. And by answering in the affirmative, it is the natural starting point for one’s journey of faith in developing a relationship with this awesome God who made us!