Antony Flew and I found God this year. We had different reactions to the discovery.
Mr. Flew, an 81-year-old professor of philosophy in Britain, had been a leading champion of atheism for the past half-century. He has now hesitantly accepted a version of what's called the argument from design. He says the "unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life" shows that "intelligence must have been involved."
But in a panel discussion taped in May, Prof. Flew cautioned, "I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots--cosmic Saddam Husseins." What's more, on the secularist Web site www.infidels.org, writer Richard Carrier says he has contacted Prof. Flew and reassures his fellow atheists that the professor is proposing only a "tentative, mechanistic Deism" and continues to deny the possibility of an afterlife.
So that's how Prof. Flew responded to his encounter with the Divinity. Me, I got baptized.
Perhaps the argument for nonbelief most identified with the professor was what he called "the presumption of atheism." Here, atheism is understood in its negative sense: The atheist doesn't assert that there is no God; he simply doesn't accept that a legitimate and meaningful concept of God exists. For such an atheist, the burden of proof lies, as it does in law, with those who make the positive assertion--that is, for those who believe.
The presumption of atheism seems to me to be at the heart of all scientific reasoning about religion. And as I'm someone who loves and believes in science, it was a major stumbling block for me most of my life. After all, why would anyone believe without proof in that for which there is no evidence in the first place?
It was in my re-reading of the Romantic poets William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge that I felt this stumbling block dissolve. What finally occurred to me--what tipped the scales in favor of baptism--was that the presumption of atheism proceeds without respect for the human experience of God's presence. Thinkers like Prof. Flew dismiss this experience because they make the mistake of applying the scientific method of analysis, of taking things apart, to an inner life that can only be known as a whole.
Of course, the human mind can be deceived. But there are some matters in which internal human experience can neither be usefully dissected nor practically gainsaid. One may refuse to accept that there is a meaningful concept of God as one may refuse to accept that there is a meaningful concept of beauty or love. But what is such a refusal in balance with the kiss of your soul mate, or the playing of a Bach cantata, or the overwhelming awareness of God's guidance and care?
When Prof. Flew looks to DNA and the mysteries of creation for God, I propose that he's looking in the wrong direction. Let him, rather, talk to a recovering alcoholic in whom God stands surety for the diseased will, or visit a Salvation Army shelter where God has taught a despairing soul its worth. Let the professor--in the name of experiment--sit in solitude and give silent thanks and feel the almost instantaneous repayment in the coin of vitality and joy. In such situations, I refuse to acknowledge that there is a legitimate and meaningful concept of there being no God. The burden of proof is all on atheism.
Like an art critic who proclaims the genius of a blank canvas and then stands sneering as the millions pass it by for yet another look at the Sistine Chapel, scientific atheism seeks to proceed from nothing when human experience is the only reasonable place to start.