Antony Flew and the Presumption of Atheism, Part 1

Most people today who have listened to or taken part in debates about theism and atheism will almost certainly have heard some atheists argue that atheism should be the default assumption, and that the burden is upon the theist to prove the existence of God, and unless and until the theist succeeds in doing so, we should assume the correctness of atheism.

This argument goes along with the definition of “an atheist” as “one who lacks a belief in God” as opposed to the older, traditional definition “one who believes that God does not exist.”

The philosopher Antony Flew is largely responsible for both these ideas.  Flew was the hardiest defender of philosophical atheism through much of the mid to late twentieth century.  Ironically, in his retirement, after a thorough study of Aristotle (for which he had never before had time), Flew eventually became persuaded that he had been mistaken, and that Aristotle had in fact demonstrated the existence of a God.  See Flew’s  There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, 2004.  Flew, I should note, was persuaded by Aristotle of a philosophical highest being, a God of the philosophers—he never accepted any kind of personalistic theism or creed, such as Christianity.

I have great respect for Flew’s philosophical courage in publicly announcing his change of mind about atheism, the idea he had spent much of his life promoting.  Nevertheless, I have less respect for some of Flew’s earlier ideas, especially those put forward in his 1976 paper “The Presumption of Atheism,” which is locus classicus (if something from 1976 can be a ‘classic’) of the twin ideas that “atheism” should be understood as “lack of belief in God” rather than “disbelief in God” and that the burden of proof should fall on the theist, or what amounts to the same thing, that atheism is the default position.

I actually have quite a good deal to say about this topic, since it is a critical one, and since it still looms large in the public discourse about God (although, as we shall see, not so much within the philosophy of religion).  I will note that, as a matter of historical fact, Flew’s argument was for a time uncontested within the philosophy of religion, then became contested, and we have now arrived at a point where almost no philosophers of religion straightforwardly affirm Flew’s view anymore.  This situation has been the result of a variety of criticisms of Flew, but largely due to the work of Alvin Plantinga.  The atheist philosopher Keith Parsons sees Plantinga’s work pretty much as having “rolled back” the discussion to its pre-Flew condition:

Keith Parsons on Plantinga

In other words, we philosophers are already over the “atheism merely means a lack of belief in the existence of God” (Very well, but if it is an unwarranted rejection of a warranted belief it is an irrational lack of belief—so its rationality requires justification, i.e. argument), and the “atheism is the default position” (it isn’t, since correctly functioning belief warranting cognitive capacities could well produce a belief in God, such that such belief has rational warrant, as a warrant basic belief—for atheism to be the default position, this would have to not be the case, and this will not be the case only if positive atheism, i.e. the nonexistence of God, is true—thus the atheist must show that God does not exist; else, belief in God is almost certainly cognitively warranted by the proper functioning of the human cognitive powers that regularly and reliably produce belief in God, since this is the way in which God has created human beings and their cognitive powers).

The general public, however, is not yet over Flew’s Folly (as I might call it), because the public always lags behind the discussion within a given field.  It will catch up soon enough, however, partly through the efforts of people like me, who write about it.

If I am to address Flew’s “The Presumption of Atheism” in a serious way, this will be a very long post indeed. So what I have decided to do is to address it several posts. I’ve titled this one “Part 1” and have written this as a bit of a Preface.  But I do want to address one point of substance in this post, and then leave the rest for future posts:

Flew’s Faulty Analogy of the Presumption of Atheism to the Presumption of Innocence

Flew suggests that “the presumption of atheism” should be considered analogous to the presumption of innocence in the American legal system (stemming from British common law).  But this analogy is bad.  Why?

The presumption of innocence is based on an evaluation of relative evil: that it is worse for an innocent person to be falsely convicted of a crime than for a guilty person to be falsely acquitted of a crime.  William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, gives the classical statement of this principle (although it is a common, found in many jurists):


To make the analogy go, Flew would need recourse to a similar principle to this, that it is much worse to believe something false than to fail to believe something true.

He might, for example, appeal to the position of William K. Clifford in his “The Ethics of Belief”:


Or more readably:

“Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer…. Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his belief with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away…. If [a] belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence [even though the belief be true, as Clifford on the same page explains] the pleasure is a stolen one…. It is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town…. It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

The difficulty here, however, is that Clifford’s ethical principle is much more dubious than Blackstone’s. Everyone can see the manifest injustice of an innocent person being condemned.  On the other hand, it is far less clear that we have an extremely strong moral duty with respect to our belief formation.  Consider Clifford’s highly evocative language: “desecrated” “purity” “unworthy” “stain which can never be wiped away” “sinful” “duty” and “wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone.”

Can Clifford’s position, or one like it, be reasonably maintained? No, it cannot. It is generally agreed that William James, the American pragmatist philosopher, definitively showed why this is the case, and that is that Clifford’s principle, if taken seriously, would essentially paralyze the greater part of human belief formation, that human beings are almost never in possession of “sufficient evidence” by Clifford’s standards, and that, if we significantly lower the standards of “sufficient evidence” below those Clifford insists upon, the principle becomes trivial, since almost every belief would be warranted.

What James argues, persuasively I think, is that belief formation in human beings is not, can never be, and should never be a completely disinterested process carried out by some sort of robotic pure “rational observer.”  James points out, correctly, that we form beliefs because we are interested parties, because we care about the truth.

Here is James’ answer to Clifford:


Or in more readable form:

There are two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of belief—ways entirely different, and yet ways about whose difference the theory of knowledge seems hitherto to have shown very little concern. We must know the truth; and we must avoid error—these are our first and great commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws. Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing anything at all, not even A.

Believe truth! Shun error!—these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford.

James’ point is very clear: not one thing, but two things, are at stake: the good of knowing the truth and the evil of believing in error. Not only is it not obvious that the evil of believing in error far outweighs the good of knowing the truth, it seems highly probably that it is directly false.  We know, for example in science, that a bad hypothesis is often better than none at all; if we do not at least conjecture concerning the truth it appears that all our intellectual efforts will be in a state of perpetual paralysis.  We would be, epistemically, like a general who refuses to give orders until he knows all the facts about the battle—but owing to the fog of war, such a general will never give any orders, and will those never win any battles or wars.  At the very least, Clifford’s principle itself, that the evil of believing a falsehood is far worse than the good of knowing the truth is itself one that Clifford cannot believe with sufficient evidence to satisfy his own standard.  How could he know such a thing with certainty?

To bring this to a close and return to Flew, with a nod to Plantinga, Flew is essentially enjoining us to a kind of Cliffordian caution. However, this caution is an unwarranted one. If theism is true, then a failure on our parts to know the truth of this is not only a great evil, but the greatest possible evil for human beings, and knowing the truth of God not only a great good, but the greatest possible good for human beings.

In belief-formation, as in so many other areas of human life, the advice “do not act until you are certain” results only in paralysis of thought; the old adage “nothing ventured, nothing gained” comes much nearer to the truth.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, I was doing some more research and found this interesting PDF handout.

3 comments on “Antony Flew and the Presumption of Atheism, Part 1

  1. I think it’s also significant that no one who espouses a cliffordian approach actually takes it himself. In practice this is always like the mock definition of skepticism: rigorously applying unmeetable evidentiary standards to things you don’t want to believe.


  2. Matt says:

    I agree, the analogy with law is pretty weak. I think it is important to distinguish between believing and claiming.

    I might believe that the moon is made of cheese. This belief may influence my behaviour to a greater or lesser extent and so has a social consequence. It might be reasonable for my peers to challenge that belief if my behaviour is impacting on others.

    If I claim that the moon is made of cheese then the “burden of proof” is with me. I’m saying “this is how things are” and I ought to be able to back it up. My evidence may or may not get traction in my social setting. It depends what passes for truth where I live.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      You make a key point about the social nature of argument / persuasion. As far as I can see, my “burden of proof” is either embedded in this social context (as in the agreement, for good reason, that the prosecutor in a trial bears the burden) or else is something pragmatic. A Greek sophist would say that the “burden” is simply a natural one, not a moral one, which reduces to “if you want someone to believe you, you have to convince them.” For the sophist, that authorizes any kind of manipulative rhetoric and propaganda. Neither atheists nor theists have always been above sophistical rhetoric.


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