Tuesday, November 06, 2007

On shoddy journalism, and rude atheists

Look, the article alleges some fairly serious misconduct on the part of certain individuals. These people have answers for those allegations which I was able to get by e-mailing Gary Habermas. Oppenheimer could have presented Varghese's side if he had wanted to. He was available for comment, and perhaps did comment. Even if Varghese is guilty as sin for doing everything he is accused of doing, It's just plain irresponsible journalism to not represent his counterclaims. What part of shoddy don't you understand?

Whatever the arguments are, they have to be addressed on their merits. Flew may have changed his mind for inadequate reasons. He's enough of a philosopher to realize that he can't expect people to agree with him because he's Flew.

Why is this so intolerable to the hard-core atheist crowd. Why the character assassination? The mere fact of Flew's conversion to deism undermines the hard-line atheist conviction that there are no real, intelligent ex-atheists. This is the atheist equivalent of the "There are no atheists" position amongst Chrstians, and it was in response to a comment of that sort that I made the claim, which got me into a fight with presuppositionalists, that the claim that there are no atheists is silly. The idea is that once you really realize that the evidence is against theism, you can never turn back. What are they supposed to say now? That Flew wasn't a real atheist? The he was "really" a believer all along?

I'm guessing (and it's just a guess) that Flew has been dismayed at the "zero-concession attitude" that has been taken by many atheists. I mentioned Mackie, and while he lived beore the ID movement arose, I never saw him refer to Swinburne, his frequent intellectual opponent and design argument advocate, as an idiot, with or without capitalizing the first two letters. I think some of his responses to Plantinga were more acerbic than his responses to Swinburne, but here again, nothing so rude. When I see people suggesting that those inclined to accept ID are not even smart enough to be attending college, then I start wondering if we have a person here who is capable of engaging an ideological opponent in a serious conversation. And at that point, I almost wish Flew were still an atheist so that he can dress them down.

And believe me, it grieves me when Christians are rude to their intellectual opponents.


Unknown said...

What are they supposed to say now? That Flew wasn't a real atheist? The he was "really" a believer all along?

No, they can't say that. So they say he's lost his mind. *Sigh*

Anonymous said...

"Why is this so intolerable to the hard-core atheist crowd. Why the character assassination?"

Well, sometimes people act with a real lack of character, and it's worth pointing this out and condemning it. In this case, the salivating over Flew's rather meager and almost seemingly disinterested embrace of deism amongst evangelicals really IS remarkably ghoulish, and if you think it helps your cause to say that this judgment is just a defense mechanism on the part of non-believers, I guess you have to go with whatever tactics satisfy your needs.

But speaking as a non-believer who has plenty of full on Christian believing friends I think are perfectly intelligent, the argument that I'm threatened by Flew's deism seems pretty silly to me.

"The mere fact of Flew's conversion to deism undermines the hard-line atheist conviction that there are no real, intelligent ex-atheists."

This, as I noted, makes no sense.

There are plenty of intelligent people who believe in god: but seeing as being intelligent does not prevent one from being wrong, that is neither here nor there as an argument for belief in a god.

Flew seems to have been convinced by arguments that, frankly, seem pretty darn flimsy to me. But it's no real skin off my back: lots of theists buy those arguments (though many other theists agree that they are bunk and use different arguments instead, or are just fideists).

What is of note, however, is the spectacle here. None of Varghese's "side" really seems to contradict the article: it just sort of sidesteps the more embarrassing implications and somehow manages to continue to avoid the fact that the book is being promoted as Flew's, when in fact Flew has many times said that he really isn't in a state to write or really even consider the arguments or scholars rigorously.

Flew, again by his own admission, doesn't seem able or willing to spend lots of time considering the counter-arguments to his new position, or the scientific scholarship involved, and so forth. Which is, in fact, not a really a big deal: no one is obligated to while away their remaining years on this or that intellectual debate. He can believe whatever he likes.

But when Flew is treated as a sort of trophy by everyone from creationists to, well, creationists (since more mainstream believers seem to find the situation sort of icky as well), and presented as a sort of argument from authority for theism, that, like it or not, calls into question the issue of what sort of authority Flew is on the matter.

The whole thing is made even more ghoulish and silly in the face of the fact that if you want to argue that there are intelligent believers, there are plenty of folks in the prime of their lives and careers defending theism. It's not like any of this spectacle was particularly necessary to make that point.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

I was going to respond, but bad said most of what needs to be said, so I'll restrict myself to two points:

(1) Oppenheimer plainly did talk to Varghese. He first mentions having done so on page 2 ("Varghese told me in August"), and then mentions confirming something Flew said with Varghese on page 5, indicating that he talked to Varghese after talking to Flew, so Varghese would not have been blindsided by Oppenheimer's account of his encounter with Flew. That does not mean Oppenheimer showed him a draft of the article, but nor is that standard practice for journalists. I don't know how that would have changed things, as the most damning parts of the article are matter-of-fact statements about things Flew has said, and I don't see what Oppenheimer is supposed to do to be more responsible there, short of dragging a second journalist around with him through the entire course of writing the article to make sure he wasn't making things up wholesale.

(2) If you care so much about letting people hear both sides, link to the Oppenheimer article so your readers aren't dependent on people like bad and me to tell them what the article said. Wait, never mind, I'll provide the link myself.

IlĂ­on said...

"And believe me, it grieves me when Christians are rude to their intellectual opponents."

Well, there is "rude" and there is rude, and they are two vastly different things.

"Rude" is the emotive accusation that some persons make in an attempt to deflect attention from the various weaknesses of their own argument(s) to the blatant unfairness of someone else pointing it out.

Victor Reppert said...

What I said is threatened is the thesis that no intelligent person who knows the case for atheism can ever become a theist. It's not a thesis all atheists subscribe to, but it seems to me to be commonplace in the Dawkins wing of the party. It's one thing to be an atheist, it's another thing to call theism a delusion, a sure sign of irrationality.

Is the argument from the authority of Flew being made? Maybe someone can quote something that makes the appeal to authority. Maybe by some overly excitable Christians, but I can't imagine anyone of even Habermas' stature making such a claim. If Christians are making this kind of appeal to authority, then let me remonstrate with them and point out that arguments have to be evaluated on their merits, and that authority, in philosophical matters, doesn't amount to much. Looking at the William Dembski treatment of Flew's book, it looks as if he thinks the arguments found therein are good ones. Whatever you say about him, you can't say he appeals to Flew's authority. Since Flew required a good deal of help in getting the book written, the argument from authority is further weakened.

I still am disappointed in the journalism of this paper. Varghese had responses to the criticisms directed at him. He wasn't unavailable for comment. Where was his defense against these charges?

Anonymous said...

' And at that point, I almost wish Flew were still an atheist so that he can dress them down.'

Dress them down? I guess we will have to wait for that until Varghese writes Flew's next book.

By the way, when did Flew ever write 'There is certainly no God' as a True Atheist (copyright William Lane Craig) would have done?

Anonymous said...

Varghese writes that Flew will be writing an article for Sceptic magazine.

I guess even the most hard-core atheists are more reasonable than moderate Christians.

At least, I see a distinct lack of invitations to Bart Ehrman to write in Christian magazines.

But then, everybody knows that atheists behave differently from Christians, as they are so rude, hard-core and intolerant.

Anonymous said...

'Not without reason, he now refers to several of the apostles of reason as “bigots”'

I guess Victor doesn't have to wait for Varghese's , my apologies, Flew's next book, to find out what gentlemenaly term Flew will come up with.

Layman said...

meager and almost seemingly disinterested embrace of deism

The guy flew from England to California to accept an award at the "conservative Christian" college Biola. He put his name on what he knew was a hugely controversial book and edited at least 10 drafts. He has an article coming out in Skeptic on the same issue.

These are hardly the actions of a disinterested bystander.

Anonymous said...

Shoddy journalism?

You bet!

A reputable journalist would have interviewed the author of the book he was writing about.

But Oppenheimer went straight to Flew's house.


The Uncredible Hallq said...

Vic: Varghese had responses to the criticisms directed at him. He wasn't unavailable for comment. Where was his defense against these charges?

Hallq: :rolleyes

bad: None of Varghese's "side" really seems to contradict the article: it just sort of sidesteps the more embarrassing implications

That, and the fact that in the article, Varghese was quoted talking about the book's authorship, saying basically the same things he felt the need to bolivate so strongly about in the letter. What, exactly, are you thinking Openheimer should have done? Quote Varghese saying "Oh, yes, Flew has some trouble remembering names," immediately after recounting Oppenheimer's own experiences proving Flew had a lot worse troubles than that? Now that I mention it, I kinda wish Oppenheimer had done that because it would have made Varghese look even more foolish--but the failure to do so is hardly an instance of being unfair to Varghese. Indeed, it's much better with Varghese's angry letter being published informally, because now there's no question that maybe he has something more worthwhile to say in response to Oppenheimer.

Anonymous said...

Look, people change their minds from one side to the other all of the time. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. That's the nature of the arguments.

Theists are not irrational to believe, and neither are atheists irrational not to believe.

There will be Christians who will use Flew for propoganda purposes, and there will be atheists who will try to discount his conversion to deism. But no intelligent person will agree with Flew simply because it's Flew.

I do find it interesting how that some Christians like Layman are adamant that Flew isn't being manipulated, while some atheists seem adamant that he is being manipulated.

For me it's simply a factual matter. Are Christians manipulating a senile man? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I'm interested in this question, that's all, and I have no stake in the outcome.

If they are, it shows a certain level of desperation, and if they aren't, it won't change my mind on the issues.

Layman said...


I never said I was adamant. I developed an opinion after reading the NY Times piece, the posts here, and based on the previous news articles and discussions I had seen about Flew's conversion.

It seems the adamant on this issue are more typically atheists than Christians.

Steve said...

I guess I think the whole business of using Flew as a football to try to score points on either side of a theist/atheist debate is just sad. That said, my take on the article and on the Flew interviews I've previously read is that his description of his more recent altered views on theism are just not clear or consistent. Certainly declining cognitive skills may be part of the issue.

Does it matter? Well, the reason I was interested in Flew was precisely because it is so hard to find a philosopher who acknowledges that his or her views have been altered by strictly philosophical arguments for or against theism. Awhile back I commented on the Prosblogian blog and asked whether anyone knew of a philosopher who changed position toward theism and the only response suggested was Flew. As someone trying to keep an open mind, I find this state of affairs inexplicable.

exapologist said...

I think it's clear that atheists -- even well-informed atheists --can change their minds. Look at Peter Van Inwagen and Daniel Howard-Snyder, for example. Whoever thinks they're stupid because they switched sides is himself stupid.

But that issue seems to me to be a red herring here. Look, it just does seem that what Habermas, Varghese, et al are doing here is manipulative of Flew and opportunistic. That's the *only* issue of relevance here: it has no bearing on the epistemic status of theism, or on whether it can be reasonable for a well-informed atheist to become an atheist.

For Varghese to play the victim card is a pathetic red herring. I remember being put off by Habermas' debate with Flew on the resurrection way back when. In that debate, you have a bunch of theists vs. Flew. I thought that was tacky then, and still do now. I should note that despite all that, I thought Habermas clearly won the debate hands down. But again, that's not relevant to the point at hand. The same goes with Habermas' earlier interview w/ Flew several years back in Phil Christi. I was excited, as a Christian, that Flew was abandoning atheism, but I nonetheless found Habermas' interview off-putting. (and this by someone who had read and relished every dog-gone book Habermas had put out at the time).

There are lots of smart, informed, and ethical theists out there -- Richard Swinburne, William Alston, Michael Rea, Dean Zimmerman, John Hawthorne (and Victor Reppert!) come readily to mind. Also, their arguments merit serious attention. So again, this isn't the issue. The issue is the unethical manipulation and off-putting opportunism. If Richard Swiburne or (per impossibile?) Alvin Plantinga were to suddenly start deterioriating mentally, and Paul Draper, J.L. Schellenberg, and Richard Gale were to suddenly bombard them with mail correspondence (because, say, he no longer used the internet) about the case against theism, would that be ok? And if we then wrote and massively edited a book with his name on it, would that be ok, too? We wouldn't hear a peep from theists? Hmmm.. I'm sorry, but I have my doubts.

So again, I think theists should stop obfuscating the point at issue (unethical manipulation and unseemly opportunism) with red herrings ("we're being persecuted!", "You'll never accept that a well-informed atheist's conversion!" etc., etc.)

The Uncredible Hallq said...


I hadn't been aware about Van Inwagen and Howard Snyder. Where would you recommend going to read more about that?

exapologist said...

Hi Chris,

Howard-Snyder briefly mentions his conversion to theism in the intro. to the book he edited on the evidential argument from evil. Van Inwagen discusses his conversion from atheism to theism in his essay "Quam Dialecta" in the volume, God and the Philosophers (edited by Tom Morris, I believe).



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