Admittedly I have not followed the debate over the new atheism in any detail. Probably it’s because atheism was never at the center of my personal intellectual struggles (mine lay elsewhere), but I do enjoy understanding why people think what they do and what impact those beliefs have on their conduct. These facts are at the heart of any good biography. Along those lines is an interesting article by Carl Sundell, “Atheism Yesterday and Today” (New Oxford Review). It provides a quick look at some famous and/or infamous non-believers as well as individuals who switched from atheism to belief in God. The most surprising bit of trivia is about Jean-Paul Sartre. Toward the end of his life the French existentialist and Marxist was “observed to take an interest in Judaism and the messianic idea.” Sundell notes that according to “his friend Benny Levy, who interviewed him several times during his last weeks of overwork and declining health, Sartre ceased to be an atheist.”
The article covers such rancorous infidels as Ayn Rand and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, both of whom lead rather messy lives. (Rand was notoriously promiscuous and O’Hair was murdered by a former employee.) The article discusses current trends, as represented by the late Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Among atheist “converts,” Sundell mentions English scholar Anthony Flew (1923-2010), a prominent anti-religious evangelist until 2004. Flew switched to Aristotelian deism, stating that he followed the evidence of his research wherever it lead him. He wrote the book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Other ex-atheists include Francis Collins, former head of the Humane Genome Project and Allister McGrath, author of The Dawkins Delusion. For related comments, I’ve discussed Christopher Hitchens in an earlier post and also noted Paul Vitz’s study of famous atheists. Vitz was a former skeptic turned Catholic, and is a widely published expert on psychology.