The sharp intellect of philosopher Antony Flew exceeded that of Bertrand Russell by some accounts, as did his devastating critique of theism. And yet, the final years leading up to his death in 2010 were fraught with scandal as Evangelical apologists recruited him to their cause, even publishing a co-authored book in which Flew ostensibly made the case for a Christian-type god. It is estimated that in coming decades almost a third of us will die with some level of dementia. This story is a brutal reminder of how vulnerable dementia is to exploitation. It is also a brutal reminder of how morally corrosive religious certitude can be.
For Evangelical Christians, the greatest good in the world is winning converts. A Christian who wins a convert saves a soul that would otherwise be condemned to eternal torture. According to traditional Roman Catholic theologies in which modern Evangelicalism has its roots, only true believers are exempt from this fate.
With the stakes so high, intellectual and moral sleight of hand in order to win converts or keep people from deconverting becomes a lesser evil than leaving souls to suffer damnation.
Evangelical missionaries, often genuinely decent people driven by compassion, choose this lesser evil even if it means they have to engage in distasteful manipulation or deceit. As they should! That’s what moral reasoning is about: being able to weigh the consequences of our actions and choose the lesser evil or the greater good.
The problem isn’t that Evangelicals, like the rest of us, weigh alternatives on a sort of moral balance. The problem is that fundamentalist dogmas simply outweigh normal moral constraints on behavior. If one truly believes in a God who demands sacrifice (a white dove, an unblemished lamb, Abraham’s son, Yeshua-born-of-a-virgin) in order to forgive sin; if you believe that the only way out of Hell is to partake of this sacrifice, most anything becomes justified in order to get other people to drink the blood.
Through history, Christians have taken this responsibility very seriously. Conquistadors reportedly baptized native infants and then ran them through with swords on the outside chance that they might have human souls. Public torture of apostates helped to keep the Faithful faithful during the Middle Ages. Even today in India and Africa, Evangelical missionaries stage “miracles” or manipulate desperate people with education, medical care, or even basic necessities like drinking water as here-and-now rewards of conversion.
On the scale of such zeal, most home turf moral transgressions in the service of faith seem small indeed. Sins that catch the public eye include things like evangelists rewriting American history so that the founding fathers appear to be biblical Christians, “friendship missionaries” targeting vulnerable foreign students without revealing their ulterior motive, a filmmaker fabricating an anti-Semitic snuff film under the guise of piety, or born-again officers bullying Air Force cadets to accept Jesus. Behaviors like these might seem worthy of little more than an eye roll. But such behaviors offer us an opportunity to understand how absolutist, mind-controlling dogmas can get good people to do ugly things, large and small.
A recent New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer (The Turning of an Atheist; NYT Magazine; 11/4/07) ; exposes a good example of this pattern in action. About four years ago, British philosopher Antony Flew, a life-long atheist now in his eighties announced that he believed in some sort of god. Possibly this god was simply a prime mover, possibly it was a person-god. Flew’s public statements were sometimes contradictory. Nevertheless, Flew made a published appeal in support of intelligent design, among other things, and over the course of several years he became the darling of evangelicals in search of a credentialed ally. Flew was a “catch,” courted hard and won. Recently, two public defenders of Biblical literalism, self-funding apologist Roy Varghese and evangelical pastor Bob Hostetler even helped the aging philosopher write a book, There is a God, which tells the story of how and why he converted from atheism to a fuzzy deism with theistic overtones that are fuzzier yet.
There is a catch. Antony Flew, possibly for several years, has been showing signs of dementia. Looking back on the second election of Ronald Reagan, my psychologist friend Geoff comments: “How could the American public have voted for that guy? His Alzheimer’s was obvious by the end of his first term.” In hindsight it was. The same may someday be said of Flew. When he first announced his reversal, fellow atheists were dismayed and believers thrilled. But it is only in hindsight, in a context of unambiguous dementia that Flew’s recent years can be understood.
The DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists has this to say about Alzheimer’s: The course of Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type tends to be slowly progressive, with a loss of 3-4 points per year on a standard assessment instrument. Various patterns of deficits are seen. A common pattern is an insidious onset, with early deficits in recent memory followed by the development of aphasia, apraxia, and agnosia after several years (any one of the three is sufficient to make the diagnosis). . .
Oppenheimer interviewed Flew, offering no diagnosis but simply reporting what he saw. If his observations are reported accurately, characteristic symptoms of Alzheimer’s are present in interviews, Flew’s recent public appearances, and written conversations between Flew and atheist author, Richard Carrier. The article reads like a mental status exam:
- Memory impairment: could not recall the identities of old colleagues (e.g. Brian Leftow, Paul Davies) when given their names, could not recall the content of his earlier books (John Leslie), forgot and then remembered timeless philosophical arguments—conclusions were swayed back and forth in beliefs by most recent conversations or changes in recall.
- Aphasia: halting diction, loss of technical vocabulary (e.g. abiogenesis) self-described “nominal aphasia.”
- Disturbance in executive functioning: manifest confusion responding to abstract argumentation–demurring, passive assent, contradictory statements, didn’t write and couldn’t maintain content awareness of book published in his name.
Indicators of cognitive blurring can be seen firsthand in a recent interview of Flew conducted by evangelical apologist Lee Strobel (available on You-Tube). With this level of observable dementia, and with a decrement of 3-4 IQ points per year, one might hypothesize that Flew is nearing the decade mark. In fact, having begun with a particularly robust mind and level of mental activity, it is possible that he has been fending off debilitation even longer. Symptoms such as those described by Oppenhiemer, even if they are currently patchy and inconsistent, let us know what to watch for in coming years. Apraxia means losing the ability to carry out motor activities. Agnosia means losing the ability to recognize or identify objects, including people you love. Alzheimer’s is a fate no-one would wish on anyone but an enemy and few would seek to exploit to their own advantage.
Is it not incredible, given this state of affairs, that people who claim to serve the God of Goodness and Truth would put Flew’s name to their own cherished arguments about what is right and real? If Flew showed symptoms of dementia like those witnessed by Oppenheimer and Carrier and then someone convinced him to donate his financial assets rather than his good name to their cause, criminal charges could apply!
For me, the real curiosity in the Flew story in not whether a once-brilliant philosopher caught in the throes of cognitive decline dies professing atheism or some form of faith-based belief. Rather it is the fascinating psychological question the story raises: Why would men who earnestly care about god concepts and goodness engage in the shameful behavior of manipulating and then speaking on behalf of an elder with diminished capacity?
One simple answer is that such behavior works. In evangelical circles, “Flew’s” book will receive wide distribution, and few readers will be the wiser. It will be an effective tool for proselytizing young skeptics and arming campus missionaries. All’s fair in war, they say. And surely, if one seeks only dominion, any manner of behavior can serve the cause. Questions of good and evil are in some ways irrelevant to the end. But if one seeks, truly, to serve Love and Truth, then questions of good and evil, of decency and fairness and integrity are the end. Roy Varghese and Bob Hostetler, at least from their public statements, are not Machiavellians who generally insist that the end justifies the means. Rather, something has gotten them to violate what one might assume are their own deeply held principles.
Oppenheimer offers a partial explanation: “An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher; it may never have occurred to him that so educated a mind could be in decline.” This seems credible. Varghese has little to gain and much to lose from one simple punch line that has emerged along with evidence of Flew’s impairment: How can you tell an Oxford philosopher is senile? He announces there is a god.
But beyond this partial explanation lies another. Bear with me while I try to lay it out.
Evangelism requires certitude. It simply doesn’t work to send out missionaries who say, “My best guess is that my God is real.” Or “The evidence is mixed, but some parts of the Bible seem divinely inspired.” Fortunately, the Evangelical narrative is beautifully adapted to provide the needed certitude.
The powerful emotions and personal transformation that can sometimes accompany conversion, worship and prayer in any religion get interpreted as unique to Christianity. They are evidence of God’s love, personal salvation from hell, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s mind. Doubt, in Evangelicalism, is evidence of weak faith or even temptation by Satan, the Father of Lies. In the most sophisticated Evangelicals, it is something to be admired—and overcome. “Tolerance” means being fuzzy headed about good and evil. It means moral relativism or moral indifference of the worst kind. Developing attachments to unbelievers, except to convert them, is seen as dangerous—being unequally yoked. Contradictions within the faith are relabeled as divine mysteries that make belief all the more wondrous.
Maintaining appropriate Evangelical certitude, then, requires that one cultivate certain habits of the mind—an aversion to some kinds of inquiry, a will and ability to close mental doors, a faith in faith itself, a subsuming of curiosity to the higher cause, a wariness of seeing the world through the eyes of another, a funky sort of disconnect between compassion (good) and empathy (dangerous).
If we consider these habits of the mind in combination with the atonement-salvation-damnation doctrines mentioned earlier, we get a sense of how Varghese and Hostetler could fall into the trap they did. Combine a theology of desperate urgency and a mindset that actively disables the limited human ability to protect ourselves against self-deception, and the best among us are vulnerable. The weakness is not in the men but in man. It lies in our vulnerability to specific kinds of dogmas and in the ways that the Evangelical complex (and others) have developed immunity against self-correction.
Varghese and Hostetler sought to advance human wellbeing by advancing Evangelical Christianity and they instead did harm to both. Why? Because it is not enough to be well intentioned, we must also be right. What I mean by right is anchored to the real world contingencies that govern human well-being and the well-being of the world around us. The only protection any of us has against doing harm in the service of good is a set of mental habits that remind us that we may be mistaken and force us to ask those questions that can show us wrong.
These habits require that we cultivate a child’s delight not in mystery but in discovery and that we maintain an adult’s grudging appreciation for correction. The scientific method, which has been called “what we know about how not to fool ourselves” seeks to systematize these habits of mind. Our great wisdom traditions including Christianity seek to elevate them under the name of humility. Among other things, humility demands this: When looking at the shameful plight of someone like Varghese or Hostetler, I seek to understand the forces that bind them and to remember that there, but for grace, go I.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.