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Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

Antony Flew's unnecessarily slow road to theism

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

March 11, 2024

n 2004, the infamous atheist Antony Flew came out in favor of theism, to the dismay of his extensive fan club, including such no-nonsense materialists as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. This weekend, I thought I'd get the deets on his conversion by reading Antony's 2009 book on the subject, entitled, "There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind"1. Spoiler alert: Flew's last-moment conversion was not so much to the Christian God as it was to a sort of "unmoved mover" like that proposed by Aristotle in book IX of his Metaphysics2.

As with other prominent atheists, Antony's original disbelief was inspired in part by the "problem of evil," which is just a subset of the more general concerns of atheists that "God wouldn't have done it that way," a complaint we often hear from Darwinists in their opposition to the idea that a supreme power had a role in evolution. As Darwin himself wrote:

"I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [a family of parasitoid wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars"3.

But what strikes me about all such arguments is that they assume that the intellectual apparatus of human beings is up to the job of performing such advanced moral calculus in the first place.

Consider an analogy:

A five-year-old tells us that God does not exist. And why not? "Because," says the child, "no God would erect dull old school buildings in places where He or She could have erected an amusement park or an ice-cream parlor instead."

Where does one even begin in disabusing the child of this theory about God? Any thorough-going rebuttal would have to include a discussion of social contracts; nutrition; education; zoning laws; the social, psychological and economic importance of private property... and the fact that God is, at best, a mediate cause when it comes to the construction of amusement parks and ice-cream parlors on planet Earth.

In other words, the child's ignorance is so profound that we can only shake our heads and conclude that, "Children simply lack the understanding necessary to opine intelligently on such topics."

Are we not in the same presumptuous and hubristic position as that child when we profess as adults to pronounce authoritatively on the topic of ultimate realities? Even rationality itself cries "halt" at some point, as Immanuel Kant reminds us in "The Critique of Pure Reason," wherein he hoists the rationalists by their own petard, proving rationally that there are metaphysical achievements to which Reason itself can never obtain, that there are, in short, things that we as human beings can never know4.

But Kant is only interested in rational knowledge. There is another form of knowledge, one of which tribal people have always been aware: namely, that which comes to us in the form of visions from psychoactive substances, particularly those that we classify as psychedelic. It will be said that these visions are hallucinations, not knowledge, but therein lies the rub. Given Whitehead's critique of bifurcationism, we see that there are no objects "out there" apart from our sensations of them, that we organize an originally inchoate atomic world into patterns that we can manipulate for our own purposes. Given this standard for "reality," we cannot glibly dismiss psychedelic visions as non-real. They are rather a different way of seeing what is out there5 6. Whether such visions are useful or not is another question, but it would take some highly debatable hair-splitting to argue that they are not real. Indeed, in light of Whitehead's thesis, it's not immediately clear what we even mean when we talk about the word "real" with a capital "R," as if there should be only one way of definitively seeing what is "really" out there in the inchoate world of atomic potentials that surround us. Is the 'real' world the one that just happens to be perceived by Christian Science teetotalers? If so, one thinks with the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live: "How convenient!"

Like almost all philosophers, Flew completely reckons without drugs.

But like almost all philosophers, Flew completely reckons without drugs. And so Antony Flew uses endless words over the course of a long lifetime only to come to a conclusion that he might have embraced in one single afternoon with the help of psychedelic substances. That's why I always think of the following quote by Quanah Parker of the Native American Church whenever I see folks like Flew attempting to prove or disprove god with human language:

"The White Man goes into church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus"7.

Just so, "the philosopher goes into his study and writes about ultimate realities, the drug user goes into his den and experiences ultimate realities."

And what about Darwin? His caterpillar argument is one based on human mood, the way that Darwin personally sees the world. Darwin was a dyspeptic, both physically and mentally. The question then arises: what metaphysic might he have held had he ingested substances that inspire and give one a sense of the wholeness of life, that nature is alive and has things to tell us?

My point here is that psychedelics in general inspire the user with an intense conviction of meaning in the world and that all discussions of ultimate realities are inadequate that ignore this fact. This, then, is the shortcoming of Antony's "tell-all" book about his glacially slow conversion to theism, the fact that he reckons without drugs - a fault for which he is scarcely alone, of course, since almost every western philosopher has reckoned without drugs since Plato. It is just that their excuse for doing so is starting to wear thin in the 21st century, thanks to the increasing reports of beneficial drug effects that are being published both by ethnobotanists and those drug researchers who are involved in the so-called "psychedelic renaissance."

Nor am I alone in citing the importance of mind-altering substances when it comes to philosophical investigations. Here is what William James wrote on this subject in "The Varieties of Religious Experience":

"No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded"8.

Author's Follow-up: March 11, 2024

picture of clock metaphorically suggesting a follow-up

Another spoiler alert: Flew's new Weltanschauung was inspired in large part by his discovery of the vast sophistication of the DNA code. He also credits the work of philosopher David Conway, especially his critique of David Hume.


1 Flew, Antony, There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, 2007 (up)
2 The Unmoved Mover, Britannica, (up)
3 Dr. Warren D., Allmon, Darwin and Insects, Paleontological Research Institution. , 2022 (up)
4 Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Pure Reason, (up)
5 Whitehead, Alfred North, The Concept of Nature, (up)
6 Sjo╠łstedt-Hughes, Peter , Process Psychonautics: Whitehead and Psychedelic Research, 2023 (up)
7 Quanah Parker: The Last Chief of the Comanche, The Cowboy Accountant, the white man goes into (up)
8 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Philosophical Library, New York, 1902 (up)

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William James knew that there were substances that could elate. However, it never occurred to him that we should use such substances to prevent suicide. It seems James was blinded to this possibility by his puritanical assumptions.
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