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Unholy Alliance

November 5th, 2007 · 3 Comments

Well, this is just depressing. I had expressed puzzlement a few years back when Antony Flew, the British philosopher best known as an articulate defender of atheism, professed conversion to deism for what struck me as rather poor reasons. But hey, people change their minds for dubious reasons all the time, and I didn’t give it much thought after that.

But an article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine presents rather an uglier picture. Flew, now clearly somewhat senile, has been batted about like a ping-pong ball by various culture warriors eager to claim him as a trophy, culminating in a book recently published under Flew’s name, but actually ghostwritten by a creationist friend.

The “scientific” basis of Flew’s change of heart appears to have been the work of creationist propagandist Gerald Schroeder, by all appearances a crank and colossal fraud whose success as an author of pop books is predicated entirely upon his nonexistent reputation as some sort of distinguished scientist. While Schroeder’s Wikipedia page currently misidentifies him as a former “MIT professor,” most bios make do with the slipperier assertion that he “taught at MIT,” which as far as anyone can determine means he hung around as a teaching assistant for several years after earning his doctorate in physics and earth science there in the ’50s. Similarly, bios generally note that he then “moved to” Israel’s prestigious Weizmann Institute, but remain uniformly silent on the position he occupied there. There’s nary a hint of him on the Institute’s website, nor any other online references to his work there outside Schroeder’s own vague bios, which suggests a research program consisting largely of inquiries into the most effective detergent for cleaning Erlenmeyer flasks. A cursory scan on Google Scholar for his contributions to the peer-reviewed literature turns up a handful of articles of radon diffusion in soil from the ’60s. My point here is not to engage in credentials snobbery, but to observe that the “eminent scientist” pose Schroeder adopts is based wholly on a carefully phrased (and mercilessly flogged) resume that’s the equivalent of my billing myself as “formerly of the American Enterprise Institute” on the grounds that I interned there one summer in college. This tactic has successfully gulled any number of laymen into taking Schroeder’s pseudoscientific babble seriously as a representation of contemporary research—including, alas, Antony Flew.

In short, a gang of religious ideologues took advantage of an old man’s trust and failing faculties in hopes of claiming a celebrity mascot. I think I need a shower now.

Tags: Religion



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 LP // Nov 5, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    When I worked in nursing homes, you’d see this kind of thing now and then — family members or “family members” turning up with a notary public and various legal documents, hoping to get Granddad’s signature before he was declared incompetent. This is equally upsetting, and maybe a little sadder because legal processes exist to protect the elderly and senile from people trying to get control of their property, but not from people essentially trying to vandalize their life’s work.

  • 2 Lee // Nov 6, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    The saddest quote was this one:

    “The statement which I most regret making during the last few months was the one about Habermas’s book on the alleged resurrection of Jesus bar Joseph. I completely forgot Hume’s to my mind decisive argument against all evidence for the miraculous. A sign of physical decline.”

  • 3 Gene Callahan // Nov 21, 2007 at 4:21 am

    I sat next to Flew at dinner several years ago. He could not remember his own PhD student at the same table, and after dinner he did not recall that we were bringing him home and simply wandered off on his own.

    So, while I don’t approve of this use of Flew:
    1) It’s quite possible he had been very good friends with some of these people and read some of these philosophers without being able to remember them; and
    2) At least one atheist similarly was interested in *keeping* Flew as a celebrity mascot.

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