During Antony Flew’s final active years, 2006 through 2008, he gave public aid and comfort to controversial people on incendiary subject matter. Flew maintained friendships and business arrangements with Christian activists. Probably his most serious provocation was to express illiberal opinions about teaching evolution in tax-supported science classrooms.
On the last day of 2006, Christopher Morgan and Abul Taher reported in the London Sunday Times, “It has emerged that 12 prominent academics wrote to Tony Blair and Alan Johnson, the education secretary, last month arguing that [Intelligent Design] should be taught as part of science on the national curriculum. They included Antony Flew…”
There are at least two theories about such behavior. One theory holds that heartless people whom he trusted exploited an old man in the terminal grip of senile dementia, tricking him to turn his back on the commitments of a lifetime. Richard Dawkins furnishes an example of this. A transcript of some of Dawkins’ more trenchant remarks is on the Unlinks page of this blog.
Another theory holds that Flew’s opinions had long been more nuanced than some people assumed. His views on education in particular may simply never have been as polarized toward secularism as others’.
Never write a letter, never throw a letter away
If that 2006 letter still exists, then it is hard to find. For this story, I contacted nine signers and two other people who may have helped organize the 2006 campaign. The canvass produced a working draft and an assurance that the draft is close to what was sent. I don’t own the draft and won’t reproduce it here. It is easily described, however, since much of it restates public-domain material. Quoted material in bold italics will hereafter indicate source material for the letter.
Our tale begins in 2002. Flew was still an agnostic. The British Humanist Association organized a letter to the Prime Minister, which Flew signed. Nobody, so far as I can tell, has ever claimed that Flew’s signing this letter was explained by dementia.
The BHA letter concerns the wording of a provision of the English national science curriculum then in effect for older students. Pupils should learn “how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example Darwin’s theory of evolution).” Throughout what follows, this snippet of regulation will be called “The Provision.”
The BHA letter’s recommendations are specific and straightforward. Tighten requirements “to prevent creation stories being taught as anything other than religious myths,” provide guidance to educators and pupils that “creationism is not a scientific hypothesis,” and begin instruction in Darwinian evolution early in a student’s career.
Creationists also wrote a letter on the same general subject, sometimes called the “Estelle Morris” letter, named for the official whom the letter addressed.
That letter argued that The Provision allows discussion of alternative theories of origins in science class, while acknowledging that regulations require that Darwinian Evolution must be presented as “the dominant scientific theory.” The letter discusses the general value of making critical comparisons of competing theories in science education, and then says,
We find it most inappropriate that some well-meaning scientists have given the impression that there can only be one scientific view concerning origins. By doing so they are going way beyond the limits of empirical science which has to recognise, at the very least, severe limitations concerning origins. No one has proved experimentally the idea that large variations can emerge from simpler life forms in an unbroken ascendancy to man. A large body of scientific evidence in biology, geology and chemistry, as well as the fundamentals of information theory, strongly suggest that evolution is not the best scientific model to fit the data that we observe.
The letter concludes
We ask therefore that, where schools so choose, you ensure an open and honest approach to this subject under the National Curriculum, at the same time ensuring that the necessary criteria are maintained to deliver a rigorous education
One point easily lost in the rancor is that some same rational person, especially one without scientific training, might have signed both 2002 letters. They talk past each other. BHA focuses on the need to limit the scope of The Provision, while the Morris letter argues that there are valid discussion subjects within The Provision’s direction. A compromise implementing both recommendations would have been trivial to engineer.
In some sense, Antony Flew apparently did ultimately sign both letters. The body of the 2006 draft closely paraphrases the longer bold-italic paragraph from the Morris letter, and ends with the shorter one verbatim.
The curriculum changes, but the debate gets stuck
In 2004, a new national curriculum, without The Provision, was adopted for implementation in September 2006.
Discussion about The Provision continued while it was in effect. In early 2005, education undersecretary Lord Filkin wrote to the House of Lords,
In all aspects of the science curriculum, we encourage pupils to consider different ideas and beliefs, and how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting evidence. Intelligent design theory is not part of the National Curriculum. The National Curriculum for Science states that students must learn that the fossil record is evidence for evolution and how variation and selection may lead to evolution or extinction. Intelligent design theory could be discussed in schools, but only in the context of being one of a range of views on evolution that students might consider and evaluate against the evidence.
These remarks finesse a distinction between what is taught somewhere in the curriculum, and what is taught specifically in science classes.
In the United Kingdom, public religious education is mandatory. Even while Flew was an agnostic, he generally favored religious education as preferable to no instruction in ethics and morals in the schools. Policy also favors an “across the curriculum” approach rather than compartmentalization of subjects.
In September 2006, just as the new national curriculum came into effect, a group called Truth in Science distributed slickly produced instructional packages to every secondary school in the country. The packages, which criticized Darwinian theory and promoted intelligent design, included a teachers’ guide which cited The Provision, even though it was no longer in effect.
The film Unlocking the Mystery of Life contains the same material as the media component of the packages, according to the teachers’ guide. The 67 minute film is available online here,
In the early fall of 2006, the British Humanist Association joined with Ekklesia, a Christian think tank, to protest the Truth in Science initiative.
The BHA-Ekklesia letter did not mention that the Truth in Science package was based on a curriculum that had been replaced.
The letter Flew signed in 2006 responded to the BHA-Ekklesia letter. If it followed the draft, then it had four paragraphs. The first described the BHA-Ekklesia letter and the Truth in Science initiative. The second would “applaud” the Truth in Science initiative, citing The Provision, as if it were still in effect, and quoting part of the 2005 Lord Filkin statement explaining The Provision. The rest was closely based upon parts of the 2002 Estelle Morris letter, as described earlier.
It is altogether unclear how both the evidently well-financed Truth in Science organization and a group of its academic sympathizers acted on the basis of an old curriculum and belatedly lobbied the government about its correct interpretation. But that is what apparently happened.
The point of this post is not to comment on whether Flew’s views about teaching intelligent design were wise educational policy. The concern is whether or not these were truly his views.
The Times reporters were correct. Flew signed a letter which argued that intelligent design “should be taught as part of science on the national curriculum,” but as that curriculum existed in 2002. Flew was apparently unaware that The Provision no longer held or that Lord Filkin’s remarks in 2005 were inapplicable in 2006. He was not alone in that.
Nobody claims that Flew was incompetent in 2002. There is no reason to exclude that both the BHA letter and the Estelle Morris letter each reasonably reflected parts of his views at that time. He signed one of them. The other contains material that seems consonant with the trend of Flew’s thinking during 2002 (see earlier posts in this series), although he was still an agnostic.
There is no reason to suppose that Flew radically changed his views about science education after 2002. In 2006, an opportunity presented itself to sign what was substantially a restatement of the letter he might have partially agreed with, but hadn’t signed in 2002. Flew took it.
Would Flew have signed a letter protesting the new curriculum’s treatment of intelligent design? It is hard to say, since he wasn’t publicly asked. According to the Times article, the government did allow discussion of design in religious education. Under an “across the curriculum” policy, the relatively narrow science-related issues likely to interest Flew, the deist and philosopher, could then come up in science class.
The new science curriculum itself held that “Pupils should be taught … that there are some questions that science cannot currently answer, and some that science cannot address” (Part 1d of Key Stage 4 science). Part 4, using broad language, requires discussion in science classes about social impacts of scientific decisions.
That should be enough to get the Planter, Flew’s God, into the discussion. Since Flew himself professed no quarrel with evolution by natural selection, he may well have been satisfied with where the new curriculum drew its line between science and the philosophy of science.