Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Warren-Flew Debate, Thomas B. Warren & Antony G. N. Flew

The Warren-Flew Debate, Thomas B. Warren & Antony G. N. Flew

This debate occurred in Denton, TX at North Texas State University on September 20-23, 1976. Both Warren and Flew possessed doctorates and were trained in philosophy and the utilization of logic. The exchange is monumental for several reasons, but for one it meets the assertion that Christianity does not make logical or rational sense. In this debate, Thomas Warren uses the same tools of logic and rationality employed by atheists and agnostics to respond to and defeat their attacks against Christianity.

It would be good for one to know that Flew had signed a debate proposition that was unique among atheists which reflected his atheism and his conviction for it. Flew affirmed in the debate that “I Know That God Does Not Exist”. This is different than other atheist debates who attempt to shift the burden of proof to those who are theist—they must prove God exists or atheists win by default. In the debate, they both were supposed to argue their points of view in the affirmative; i.e., in the second half of the debate Warren affirmed “I Know That God Does Exist” and Flew denied in the negative.

Prior to reading the debate, I failed to notice that Warren’s book Have Atheists Proved There Is No God? was available to Flew prior to the debate. Had Flew read the book where Warren answers the best attack atheist can muster and outlines the case for biblical theism? Yes, he had…thoroughly it appears. Brother Garland Elkins, longtime friend of Warren, testifies:

Brother Warren told me that during his debate with Mr. Flew he walked over to his table and saw that Mr. Flew had a copy of brother Warren’s book entitled, Have Atheists Proved There Is No God? (See the book review written for this book prior.) Brother Warren said that the book was very worn around the edges indicating that Mr. Flew had used it much in his studying.--Garland Elkins, “A Renowned Atheist Renounces Atheism,” Yokefellow, Vol. 32, No. 1, January 2005, p. 2.

One wonders how much Warren impacted Flew. Brother Roy Deaver, who assisted brother Warren at the debate, makes an interesting observation about the shock Flew may have experienced when confronting true New Testament Christianity (as opposed to Catholicism or Denominationalism) being similar to what the skeptic Robert Owen had experienced when he encountered the same with Alexander Campbell. Deaver observed:

So far as he [Flew] was concerned ‘Christianity’ meant Catholicism and denominationalism. He had never before encountered simple New Testament Christianity. And, he had never before encountered an opponent of Dr. Warren’s caliber. Dr. Flew, son of a Methodist minister, knows full-well that truth cannot be established upon the basis of feelings (emotionalism, subjective experiences). It must have been quite a shock to him when brother Warren said: “Dr. Flew, we fight that kind of thing just as much as you do. On that point you are just speaking to the wrong crowd.”--Roy Deaver, “The Warren-Flew Debate,” Biblical Notes, December 1976.
I found Dr. Warren’s exchange with Flew about personal “religious experience” intriguing. Keep in mind that Flew is the one who brought up various religious people claiming a vision or some other experience as proof for Christianity or God, not Warren, who rejected such “experiences”. To me, it seems as if Flew’s own past experiences were wrapped in this argument (as some religious do seek to establish their credability on emotionalism.) After Flew launched into this, when he was supposed to be in the negative criticizing arguments affirmed by Warren, brother Warren replied:

Dr. Flew spent a great deal of his time about religious experience. Did you hear me say anything about “religious experience”? Did I make any argument thus and so that “someone has had a religious experience and therefore God exists?” I said nothing at all about that. Dr. Flew, I fight that as well as you do. There are people all over this country who claim “Oh a miracle occurred, a miracle occurred here and there.” “Well, let’s see one.” “No, it happened over yonder. Somebody else knows how and where it happened.”

It’s just like every evolutionist knows somebody else who knows how to prove it. Dr. Flew can’t prove it. “There is somebody over in some other university.” Now if you go over to that university, he’ll point you to some other university. “There is some learned man in Munich or Austria.” Or “there is somebody in New Zealand or Australia.” Or “there is somebody in California or Harvard that knows how to do it.” But when you get there, they don’t know how to do it. “There is somebody in the last century.” “Darwin did it.” Well, Darwin didn’t think he did. Dr. Flew sometimes argues as if Darwin gave a deductive argument, but that won’t stand.

No, I did not make the argument on “religious experience” Dr. Flew. You are talking to the wrong crowd of people when you are talking about that. And I suggest that you stay with the affirmative arguments. I am at a complete loss to know why you ignore the arguments I do make and invent other arguments and reply to them! It is sort of like Jones says “x is false”, but Jones says “Ah, that is not right, y is true.” When there is no connection between “x” and “y”.
One should take note that Antony Flew was not unqualified for the debate. If one does much reading among respected philosophers, Flew’s name readily comes to the surface. Roy Deaver commented on Flew’s credentials and evident failure in the debate, and it is interesting reading since Deaver’s role was to read Flew’s books to assist brother Warren in reply:

Dr. Flew knows full-well what a sound argument is. He knows that argumentation is not assertion and is not insinuation. He constantly chides and ridicules religious people for refusing to make a sound argument. He constantly calls upon them to face up to the task of proving their position. The “Law of Rationality” holds that “We ought to justify our conclusions by adequate evidence.” Dr. Flew respects this law. Dr. Flew (of all people) did not refuse to make a sound argument because he did not know what a sound argument is!

Literally hundreds of people have expressed to me their disappointment because Dr. Flew refused to make an argument. He raised questions. He chided. He insinuated. He indicated that he would eventually get around to actual argumentation. But, he never did. He did a lot of talking and philosophizing, but he never did get down to the task of trying to prove his point. (Dr. James Bales observed: “A philosopher often spends his time throwing dust into the air, and then complains because he cannot see.”) One person said: “Dr. Flew would approach the microphone as if he were really going to do something this time, and then…just fizzle.”

It seems to me that the weak and disappointing efforts upon the part of Dr. Flew really show the force, the power, and the value of the debate. If Dr. Flew COULD have made a sound argument the conclusion of which would have been “I know that God does not exist” Dr. Flew WOULD have done so. The fact that Dr. Flew DID NOT proves that he COULD NOT, and that HE KNEW THAT HE COULD NOT! Dr. Flew’s failure to make an argument also indicated his profound respect for Dr. Warren. He knew that every word he said would be carefully and thoroughly examined by brother Warren, and that no error would be allowed to pass unnoticed. Dr. Flew could not make an argument which would stand up under the light of logical examination. -- Roy Deaver, “The Warren-Flew Debate,” Biblical Notes, December 1976.
In preparing for this review, I did additional research by watching the DVD of the Warren-Flew Debate plus an interview of Thomas Warren reflecting on the debate 20 years later. Both videos are available from World Video Bible School.  

Brother Warren passed way on August 8, 2000. I am sure he would have been pleased but saddened, that Antony G. N. Flew finally acknowledged that God existed but failed to follow through on the implications of an intelligent God before he (Flew) passed away. For more information about Flew’s renouncement of atheism, see his final book There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind which will be the subject of a future book review.

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