Case in point is Joe Carter of Evangelical Outpost:
A cryptic letter to the journal Philosophy Now, though, hints that Flew may be conceding that there is more to natural theology than he had previously thought. The former Oxford don uses a critical evaluation of Richard Dawkins’ work as an opportunity to point out “the limits of the negative theological implications of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.”
Though he refuses to reveal what he believes until the release of the next edition of “God and Philosophy” in 2005, he says that his commitment “remains that of Plato’s Socrates: ‘We must follow the argument wherever it leads.’”
So why does it matter that a retired philosopher is abandoning atheism for a Spinozian deism? The main reason is that few philosophers have thought longer or harder about atheism than Flew. When someone of his stature gives up the “faith” then it appears that we truly have entered what Alister McGrath refers to as “the twilight of atheism.”
The other reason is that Flew's shift lends an air of intellectual respectability to the blending of naturalism and deism, what I’ve previously dubbed “neism.” Flew may not be the theologian that I claimed the movement needed. But he could be a harbinger of what is to come.
What has evangelicals like Carter so excited? Antony Flew himself sets matters to rest:
I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word 'atheist' in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as 'atypical' and 'amoral'. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify - to show to be false - what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as "the religious hypothesis." The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity.
I can suggest only one possible source of the rumours. Several weeks ago I submitted to the Editor of Philo (The Journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers) a short paper making two points which might well disturb atheists of the more positive kind. The point more relevant here was that it can be entirely rational for believers and negative atheists to respond in quite different ways to the same scientific developments. ...I recognize that developments in physics coming on the last twenty or thirty years can reasonably be seen as in some degree confirmatory of a previously faith-based belief in god, even though they still provide no sufficient reason for unbelievers to change their minds. They certainly have not persuaded me.
So, Flew allows that modern physics does not appear to positively and completely disprove the God of Shifting Definitions commonly believed in by people (or at least apologists) in the West and, in fact, if the Definitions Shift Enough, some elements of modern physics might even be read as confirming this so-called God. That is seen by some as sufficient to decide that maybe Antony Flew is becoming a deist of some sort.
Is it any wonder that so many nonbelievers look up religion as little more than wish-fulfillment writ large? It seems as though almost anything even vaguely related to their religion can become infected by the same viral error of logic.
Update: Joe Carter has pointed me to an article on the Secular Web which contains more information about Antony Flew thinking about how strong of a case can be made for some sort of deism. Is this news? Not particularly. Every good philosopher takes the time to think carefully about arguments that are contrary to their own position. I try to do it every time some believer emails me in an attempt to convert me, though I confess it is difficult considering how common it is for them to send arguments that are old, long-refuted, and poorly presented.
Is it news that he thinks some of the arguments may be good? Again, no - every good philosopher will acknowledge that those who disagree have at least some interesting or fair arguments. For example, I think that some of William Lane Craig's arguments are very interesting and relatively strong - not persuasive, but interesting.
Richard Carrier writes:
He affirms that he is not a Christian--he is still quite certain that the Gods of Christianity or Islam do not exist, that there is no revealed religion, and definitely no afterlife of any kind (he stands by everything he argued in his 2001 book Merely Mortal: Can You Survive Your Own Death?). But he is increasingly persuaded that some sort of Deity brought about this universe, though it does not intervene in human affairs, nor does it provide any postmortem salvation. He says he has in mind something like the God of Aristotle, a distant, impersonal "prime mover." It might not even be conscious, but a mere force. In formal terms, he regards the existence of this minimal God as a hypothesis that, at present, is perhaps the best explanation for why a universe exists that can produce complex life. But he is still unsure. ... For now, I think his view can best be described as questioning, rather than committed.
Not only is this not the news that some evangelicals would like to make it out to be, but just the opposite is the case. It would be news if Flew had never done this because it would suggest a certain level of closed-mindedness.
It is much more respectable for a person to say something like "Well, these arguments here really aren't so atrocious, so let's assume that they are valid and see where they lead me..." This might lead to a change of heart and it might not, but it's not at all a bad idea. Right now, it seems as though Flew considers certain arguments as not really being so awful, as being arguably persuasive on some minimal level, and is considering seriously where they might lead.
The only thing that might be "news" is that we know about it. Did you read about the last time that I came across a theistic argument that appeared like it might be valid at first and that I worked through for a while? No? Well, that's because I don't announce it, even vaguely. I'm not in the same position as Flew so I don't find myself writing about various projects I am working on, but it doesn't mean that the same thing hasn't happened.
Carrier makes it clear, too, that Flew's impression that these arguments have some validity is in part based upon his not having read any relevant scientific literature from the past five years or so:
He is most impressed, he says, by Gerald Schroeder's book The Hidden Face of God: How Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth (2001), but Schroeder (a Jewish theologian and physicist) has been heavily criticized for "fudging" the facts to fit his argument--see Mark Perakh, "Not a Very Big Bang about Genesis" (1999); and my own discussion in "Are the Odds Against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept?" (2000), as well as my peer-reviewed article "The Argument from Biogenesis," soon to appear in Biology & Philosophy. Flew points out that he has not yet had time to examine any of the critiques of Schroeder. Nor has he examined any of the literature of the past five or ten years on the science of life's origin, which has more than answered his call for "constructing a naturalistic theory" of the origin of life. This is not to say any particular theory has been proven--rather, there are many viable theories fitting all the available evidence that have yet to be refuted, so Flew cannot maintain (as in his letter to Philosophy Now) that it is "inordinately difficult even to begin to think about" such theories. I have pointed all this out to him, and he is thinking it over.
So what we have is a little bit more than the internet rumor that it first appeared to be, but quite a lot less than the breaking news that some evangelicals would have it be. I suppose that from an evangelical perspective, anyone seriously reconsidering their position is important news because it shows a lack of "faith" and "faith" is what it's all about.
From a skeptical, scientific perspective, however, this is quite normal. Every good scientist seriously reconsiders their position when new ideas are offered and every good skeptic always holds their positions on a provisional basis. The fact that some Christians find this significant whereas nonbelievers don't do much more than shrug their shoulders simply underscores the differences in their approaches to beliefs and investigations of the world.
If Flew does end up changing his mind, that could be interesting because it would be unusual. The fact that Flew is thinking about whether he should change his mind and even suspects that perhaps he might is not all that interesting because it's not all that unusual. If he does change his mind, how people react will depend upon the reasons he offers. It's normal for those of use who adopt a skeptical rather than a faith-based methodology. I doubt, though, that many believers will really understand that.
Update 2: I didn't write about this before because I honestly expected an update from Joe that might result in changes (I emailed some critiques of what he had written and he said that he would make updates in light of them), but so much for being hopeful. Joe Carter, it appears, just can't maintain a civil tongue when talking about atheism because he has to maunder at the end:
Flew may be willing to “follow the argument wherever it leads” but he shouldn’t expect it to convince his fellow disbelievers. Examination of the evidence isn’t going to cause them to abandon atheism. They simply have too much faith.
The first thing to note is that this is a very general statement and, as such, applies to all atheists. He doesn't say that "there will always be some atheists who won't be convinced," he simply says that Flew's "fellow disbelievers" won't be convinced. What justifies such a blanket assertion about all atheists?
Nothing, not a single thing — aside from, perhaps, Carter's personal prejudices. Indeed, the mere fact that Carter currently (and without sufficient justification) believes that Flew will convert to some form of deism through the power of logical argument and evidence should demonstrate, at least to Carter's mind, that some atheists could and would convert away from atheism. For some reason, though, that isn't sufficient for him to overcome his prejudice.
Then, finally, there is the insistence that atheism is a matter of "faith." This is a tired old canard might be accurate in the case of some atheists, but it is unquestionably a false accusation to make about atheism generally. It is, in my experience, simply a means by which people attempt to deflect criticisms of faith on their own part. It seems as though they recognize that effective arguments against the use of faith can be mounted and, in order to avoid them, find it easiest to simply accuse everyone else of using faith as well, thus "leveling" the playing field. Pity that the charge isn't really true, at least in any way that it needs to be.
People shouldn't wonder, then, why I would accuse evangelicals like Joe Carter of misrepresenting facts to suit their religious prejudices. Individuals like this simply aren't honest or serious.