Christian conspiracy or journalistic overkill?

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • November 30, 2007

antonyFlew.jpgJournalism is not really about objectivity or neutrality. There are biases in the choice of story, biases in perspective, biases in the way we do stories, especially the language we use.

How we talk about an event or an issue can betray our prejudices and at the same time warp and twist what others hear or read. The “neutrality of facts” is quickly undone with adverbs and adjectives, sometimes so subtly that the audience, and sometimes even the storyteller, are unaware of what is really happening.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Antony Flew.

Most of us will be forgiven for not knowing who he is or why his story is so important, but in reality Flew represents the latest battleground in the ongoing struggle between people of faith and militant atheists.

Born and educated in London, Eng., the son of a Methodist minister, he first established his reputation as an up-and-coming philosopher and atheist as an undergraduate attending weekly seminars hosted by C.S. Lewis. While admitting to an admiration for Lewis he found his theology suspect and strenuously argued against the existence of God. In 1966 he published God and Philosophy, in which he argued that without proof, the non-existence of God should be assumed. He forcefully re-iterated this position in 1984 with the publication of The Presumption of Atheism. His books sold like hotcakes and he was suddenly in big demand.

Flew was all-in-all the model of a very Modern British Philosopher and a standard reference for anyone wanting to argue against faith and in favour of secularism. As such, the odds are he would have remained a relatively minor figure in the host of sceptics, non-believers and secularists. But in 2004, he gave an interview to Gary Habermas, an American Christian theologian and frequent sparring partner, which was published in Philosophia Christi under the headline: “Atheist Becomes Theist.” Thus the uproar began and continues to this day.

With the recent publication of his latest book, There is a God, the arguments are bound to get fiercer. You need look no further than The New York Times Magazine of Nov. 4 for evidence. Entitled “The turning of an atheist,” the article paints a portrait of a sad old man living out his last days in a tiny house, befriended by a cult of extreme Christians and used and abused in the culture wars of Fundamentalist Christians vs. Fundamentalist Secularists.

On the one hand the article is a model of journalistic rigour. Balanced with quotations from major players on both sides, a suspicion of fraud and conspiracy, it is an effort to unearth how such a fundamental shift could have taken place. It could be seen by the casual reader as simply another human-interest tale told nicely. Except one paragraph near the beginning of the article gives away a perhaps unconscious bias.

“Depending on whom you ask, Antony Flew is either a true convert whose lifelong intellectual searching finally brought him to God or a senescent scholar possibly being exploited by his associates. The version you prefer will depend on how you interpret a story that began 20 years ago, when some evangelical Christians found an atheist who, they thought, might be persuaded to join their side.”

Right away we have a predatory group in search of a target. And in fact, in the mainstream press evangelizers, especially Christian ones, are always seeking to convert, whereas atheists are never seen as having any motivation other than the exploration of truth and reason.

Christians are described in the article as being associated with Jerry Falwell, or  “conservative Christian schools.” There is clearly an organized movement to propagate the existence of God but no movement on the other side in the telling of this tale. What atheists who do appear have in common is a desire to simply bring Flew to his senses and make him understand that he is “a trophy in a battle fought by people whose agendas he does not fully understand.”

In some sense you have to sympathize with Mark Oppenheimer, the author of the piece. He has this inexplicable mystery: How did an atheist come to believe in God? It used to be that Saul’s conversion to Paul on the road to Damascus was the norm; we now live in a time when the journey is only believable if it goes the other way.

To explain Paul today we need conspiracy, senile dementia and suspect actors with suspicious political and theological beliefs. Alas, no one wants to take Paul at his word any more.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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