The Editor’s View: Meeting The Gardener

Antony Flew is no longer an atheist, and that’s no small thing. For over half a century, the English philosophy professor had been the elder statesman of intellectual atheism. In 1950, he published what would become a famous essay, “Theology and Falsification,” wherein he argued that the concept of God is meaningless insofar as it ends up asserting nothing.

To demonstrate the point, Flew told a parable: Two men happen upon a field of flowers and weeds. One of the men exclaims that there must be a gardener to tend the field. The other argues that there is no gardener. Determined to discover the truth, the two friends wait. No gardener ever appears. But maybe the gardener is invisible, the believer offers. So the two set up barbed wire and barriers around the field, knowing that an invisible body is a body nonetheless. Still, no gardener stumbles into their fence. Unwilling to let go of his conviction, the believer finally argues that perhaps the gardener is not only invisible, but incorporeal, undetectable, scentless, and silent—”a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.”

His friend will have none of it. After this raft of qualifications, what’s left of the original assertion that there’s a gardener who tends the field? What’s the difference between an invisible, in  corporeal, undetectable, scentless, and silent gardener, and no gardener at all?

As influential as Flew’s argument proved to be among an entire generation of thinking atheists, the student of the Intelligent Design movement will quickly note the flaw in the parable. With one small modification, we can change the entire flavor of the story: Imagine instead that the two friends stumbled upon the same field of flowers and weeds, but notice immediately that the flowers grew in several neat rows, spanning across the square clearing. The presence of a recognizable order makes it all the more reasonable to believe that there was a gardener to arrange the order—this is the key contention of Intelligent Design proponents.

Now, half a century later, the 81-year-old Flew himself seems to agree. “It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism,” he wrote recently in Philosophy Now magazine.

And in a new video, “Has Science Discovered God?”—quoted in an Associated Press story by Richard Ostling—Flew notes that new research on DNA “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved.”

Unlike some of the more religiously atheistic figures in the public square today—one thinks of the insufferable Dan Barker, whose traveling road show generously shares his idiocy with many villages—Flew is intellectually honest. “My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato’s Socrates,” he told Ostling. “Follow the evidence, wherever it leads.”

That evidence has not, as of yet, led him to Christianity—whose God he still describes as an “omnipotent Oriental despot,” a kind of “cosmic Saddam Hussein.” Furthermore, he continues to reject the notion of an afterlife.

Nevertheless, he has traveled far on the engine of reason alone. Now there remains only the power of grace to bring him the rest of the way. Our religion is revealed, not discovered. A hazy outline can be had through the power of our minds, but the fullness comes only through the unmerited initiative of God.

Let us pray that the Gardener Whose existence Antony Flew now recognizes steps into the clearing and meets him face to face.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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