February 24, 2018

A Minimalist God?

A Minimalist God?

This was written for The Independent in December 2004.

I’ve always loved reading Anthony Flew. As a philosophy student in the 60s and  a recent convert to Christianity, I was intrigued by the dogmatism of his atheism. Given that he has been a leading atheist for half a century, his conversion to a kind of theism, now at the age of 81, is even more intriguing. Flew justifies it by saying simply that he ‘has to go where the evidence leads.’ And in an interview with Gary Habermas he makes it clear that the evidence leads him towards recognizing God as First Cause of the universe; towards an ‘Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence.’

Flew attributes his change of mind to theistic arguments supported by scientific discoveries: like big bang cosmology, fine tuning and Intelligent Design reasoning. This is not so surprising. There is a concern in big bang cosmology that all the basic parameters of the universe, both at a cosmic level and at the level of elementary particles, had to be sorted within the first few seconds of the universe. And it is difficult to understand how that might happen randomly in any way without a Designer. Linked to these cosmological questions are the issues of the basic structures of the universe, which tax the intelligence of the greatest scientists.  The overwhelming sense from much of contemporary science is that research is a process of design detection, searching out orders, codes, matrices and systems of conveying information. Again, it becomes difficult to dismiss the idea that such intricate systems may be the outcome of intelligent planning or to exclude, out of hand, the notion of Designer.

The fine tuning argument is also significant. It points out that many other possible configurations of the physical universe than those which provides the necessary conditions of life could conceivably exist, and they leave us with the problem of why these do exist. Evolutionary theory posits complex molecules without addressing the question of their generation. Flew points out that Darwin’s argument began with a being which already possessed reproductive powers, yet Darwin realized that he was unable to  account for why this should be the case, a fact, Flew says, constantly overlooked by Richard Dawkins. For Flew, there is now a more obvious conclusion, since findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have  added great weight to ‘an enormously powerful argument to design’ The evidence points to a purposive creation of life, rather than an accidental one.

Flew’s position is thus no longer that of an atheist but he is also anxious to point out that there are limits to his theism. Although he is prepared to consider revelation, resurrection and life after death, and indeed thinks that for a convinced Christian belief in these is not irrational or absurd, such belief is not part of his own position. Nor does he see himself likely to move into any kind of credal faith, aligning himself with religious worshippers. His own conversion is based simply on a single step out of unbelief, taken because of arguments supported by evidence which seems reasonably conclusive. One atheistic commentator has added in a slightly relieved tone that his change from atheism to theism is therefore only a change to belief in a minimalist God.

Yet the concept of a minimalist God is a problematic one. What kind of God could it refer to? One who created the universe – elementary particles, strong and weak forces, atoms and molecules, yet, for example, has no relation to the emergence of a clever humanity? Or could it be a God who was intelligent enough to create galaxies, and amazingly intricate communication systems like DNA, yet not intelligent enough to communicate with humankind?  Although Flew does not believe in revelation, and may not feel that the Book of Genesis provides a useful account of creation, he does not seem to have quite this kind of minimalist God in mind either. In fact when pressed as to whether his ‘First Cause’ embraced omniscience Flew admits, that a First Cause, if there is one, has clearly produced everything that is going on, and this implies creation ‘in the beginning.’

Flew is interested in finding out what the universe is actually like and has taken the step of standard scientific humility. It has led to a change of mind about what undergirds our existence. And certainly, the first step of acknowledging God does not easily become the full journey. But it can be like stepping on to a slippery slope. For the God who is Creator of heavens and earth is not easily minimalized or  limited, whatever freedom we have to form our own concepts. And just as we acknowledge our parents, not just as first cause, but as parents who relate to us, in a similar but more total sense it becomes easier to know God, not as a remote First Cause, but as our Creator-Parent, in whom we live and move and have our being.

December 2004 The Independent