Stalin was an atheist -- so am I

Antony Flew will go to hell. So will the rest of us who reject Jesus Christ as our savior, according to Bible-believing Christians.

But Flew, an 84-year-old English philosopher, is a hot item in some evangelical circles. In 2006, Biola University -- a private Christian college in Buena Park -- gave Flew its Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth, an honor named for the law professor and author considered the father of Intelligent Design. At the award ceremony, Flew rejected Christianity to an audience whose university mission statement includes, “We believe that we exist to serve God and His Great Commission in reaching the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Flew isn’t your garden-variety non-Christian, however, which helps explain his recent celebrity among evangelicals. Before 2004, Flew was a world-renowned atheist whose 1950 essay “Theology and Falsification” predated by decades the anti-religion musings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other skeptics prominent today. I stumbled upon his writings and comments on the improvability of God when my own agnosticism started giving way to outright nonbelief. To an atheist, Flew’s conversion to any belief in the supernatural would have been just as likely as Iranian President Mahmoud “Israel should be wiped off the map” Ahmadinejad celebrating Hanukkah.

And that’s exactly what happened -- Flew’s conversion, not Ahmadinejad’s. In late 2004, Flew admitted that he had changed his mind and believed, based on scientific evidence, in some sort of God. Flew wasn’t a Christian, but a deist -- as he made abundantly clear:

“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,” he said. “It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose.”

As Mark Oppenheimer details in his Nov. 4 New York Times Magazine article, both committed atheists and ardent believers courted Flew in the three years between his announced conversion and the recent publication of his book, “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” Flew was once a star to atheists; now he’s a token for the religious who crave to be associated with an intellectual heavyweight who’s built a career on using reason to dismantle belief -- and is now poised to employ his powerful logic to make the case for belief.

What was lost in the tug of war, according to the Times, was what Flew actually believed and whether the science and philosophy attributed to him in “There is a God” is, in fact, his. The Times ends up telling the story of a frail, retired Oxford University professor who was probably coaxed by his religious coauthors and others into accepting the philosophical claims in his supposedly groundbreaking book, much of which likely isn’t his work. (Perhaps a better title would have been, “If I Believed It.”)

Flew’s questionable transformation from atheist into evangelical poster boy exposes a clumsy yet common tack in the modern god wars: argument by association. We atheists are familiar with it, which often goes something like Bill O’Reilly’s absurd observation in his recent debate with Dawkins (fast-forward to 2:35 to see it): “I will point to the worst mass murderers in modern times -- Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot -- all confirmed atheists, all people who wanted to wipe out religion.” Ouch. Here’s to hoping I die before atheism drives me to genocidal rampage. (Click here to see a detailed production on the devastation my forbearers have wreaked on humanity.)

To be fair, atheists are often guilty of similar foolish arguments, including the tired claim that today’s Christians share the same faith as the 15th century Spanish inquisitors -- the extremists who imprisoned, tortured and killed individuals deemed insufficiently Catholic. More commonly, Western Muslims and Jews are often linked to their more extreme counterparts waging a holy war in the Middle East, in a similar way atheists sometimes conflate loony abortion-clinic bombers with Sunday churchgoers.

As it is most commonly used, the goal of argument by association is guilt by association: You’re supposed to shame me into adopting religion as a way to save my soul from the moral bankruptcy that ensnared Stalin and Hitler. I’m supposed to shame you into thinking that the delusion demanded by your moderate religious belief shelters the fanatics who wage holy war.

But in Flew’s case, Christians turned around the traditional argument by association used in the God wars: They contorted Flew’s beliefs to associate the former atheist with their cause instead of using them to shame nonbelievers. Flew’s case illustrates just how silly this argument by association can be. Not only is Flew not a Christian; he has also openly mocked the belief of those who are using him as a weapon. Similarly, Albert Einstein’s ruminations about God are often used to reconcile the empiricism of science with the faith of religion. And, similar to Flew, what Einstein actually meant when he referred to “God” gets obscured. (Dawkins gives a convincing account in the preface to his book, “The God Delusion.”)

Indeed, the goal of such a practice is to bolster your claim not by arguing its merits, but by pointing to others who happen to claim what you (or your opponents) claim. Such is the folly of religious argument by association: a tug of war that says nothing about what people believe, but who believes what.

And that brings me to what I’ve wanted to say for some time: I know that Josef Stalin was an atheist, and I couldn’t care less.

Paul Thornton is a researcher for The Times’ editorial page; click here to read more of his Opinion Daily columns. Respond at