Back from this week’s trips to London, Birmingham and Bristol and practising for Friday’s WaveForms set at the Salisbury Centre.
In London I had the treat of an hour in the huge Waterstones in Piccadilly with gift vouchers hoarded from birthdays and Christmas. In the end I used only one of the vouchers, buying Money, Sex, War, Karma by David Loy and Ten Zen Questions by Susan Blackmore, both of which I’d wanted to read for a while and were ‘typical Lamont books’. Not so typical was one I also picked up called There Is A God (How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind) by Anthony Flew. I dithered about this, as many do when faced with books that challenge their cherished opinions, but decided it was short, affordable and interesting. And it is. Flew is an academic philosopher, very much of the 20th century school of atheism. His arguments against the existence of God, which he repeats before showing how he changed his mind, are heavy-duty logical ones, which seem to contrast with the likes of Dawkins and Dennet, the current flagwavers. They don’t come out well from this, although I have to admit I haven’t read Dawkins; nonetheless I’ve heard him in discussion and he reminded me of pub discussions on the topic where it boils down to ‘anyone who isn’t an atheist is a wimp who can’t face up to life, like I can of course’. Even as the scourge of believers, Flew seems to have treated them with respect. I wondered if I’d be persuaded, which I found rather threatening and appealing at the same time. Part of me has always wanted to believe, and I’m very attracted to the aesthetics, arts, myths, poetry, social support and community aspects of theistic religion.
What I found struck me as very strange. Flew states explicitly that his ‘conversion’ was purely an intellectual one. Recent developments in science, particularly big bang physics and DNA coding, undermined some of the premises on which he’d based some of his arguments for atheism. He stresses that he felt no emotional involvement and still has none. In fact, although his critics accuse him of conversion to Christianity (Dawkins accuses him of some weird term which translates as – wait for it – ‘heresy’!), he’s nothing of the kind. In fact he’s become a deist – someone who believes the universe was created and set in motion intentionally by an intelligence, which then had, and has never had, any further contact with his creation. No revelation, no intervention in history, no rules, no moral codes, no requirement to worship etc. Which makes me think, what’s the point? If a God set the shop up and disappeared forever, what’s the practical difference between that and no God? I think you’d have to be a professional philosopher to even count that as a life change.
Reading the reviews on Amazon it seems there’s all sorts of controversy about whether the Christian philosopher who co-wrote the book with Flew had too much influence and whether Flew was actually together enough to have written it, being elderly. Fascinating stuff.
My position? I’d love to believe in a loving, personal God, but I don’t. I think the existing religions contain a lot of powerful truths in poetic form. I think many who argue for atheism do so out of misguided machismo and they annoy me as much as evangelical believers. I think the greatest truths in religion are things to do, not things to believe, and the things to do in Zen Buddhism are the things that speak most clearly to this particular bundle of thoughts.