• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Concentrating the Mind

“Depend upon it, sir,” said Samuel Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Recently, the most famous atheist of the last generation died believing in God. Philosopher Antony Flew wrote about his almost-last-minute conversion to theism in There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (HarperOne, 2008).

It now emerges that the most famous atheist, at least in Britain, of the previous generation died perhaps, also, believing in God. A. J. Ayer, Oxford philosopher, father of logical positivism, and fervent antagonist of all things theistical, apparently had a near-death experience during which, as he confided to one of his physicians, he encountered a “Divine Being.”

“I’m afraid,” he said, “I’m going to have to revise all my books and opinions.”

He didn’t do that, however, and publically made no mention of this experience. But he did, interestingly, spend more and more time in his last months with one of the great Christian philosophers of his time, Frederick Copleston, a Jesuit: a man he loved to claim he had bested in a BBC radio debate years before, but the man he most wanted to converse with as death neared.

One or even two swallows do not make a spring, and some famous atheists have made it quite clear that they’ll have none of that deathbed conversion nonsense. David Hume, according to the same Boswell who recorded Dr. Johnson’s grim humour about impending death, faced his own imminent demise with equanimity and even cheerfulness.

But even Voltaire’s swashbuckling atheism cracked as death approached. Stephen Jay Gould is said to have made kind remarks about God late in life.

And one wonders–courteously and charitably, I trust–as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other bold proclaimers that “There is no God” near their life’s end, whether they, too, will give God at least one more chance.

Indeed, one prays that God will do the same by them.