Deconstructing Ravi Zacharias (Part 4)

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Photo Credit: emurray via Compfight cc

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In the closing moments of Ravi’s talk, he mentions that without God, there is no recovery (or as I understood it, no redemption or salvation). He then follows with the famous Pascal’s Wager: “If you rejected him, and you turned out to be wrong, that was a huge gamble you took in life.”

He then mimics Pascal talking to an audience of atheists: “Look, boys, if I’ve been wrong, what is your test for meaning? Happiness. But I’ve been happy. So if I die, I die.  But if you boys are wrong in rejecting him, you’ve got a king-sized headache coming at the end of it, for having rejected the one who made you and framed you.”

I have already debunked Pascal’s wager in one of my earlier articles, False Dichotomies, but the gist of it is that Pascal assumed that one only had to choose between Christianity or nothing. The reality is much more complicated — one can choose to be a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a universalist, a Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, “spiritual but not religious,” and so on and so forth. What if one of those others are right instead of Christianity? Some researchers have estimated that there are around 4,000 religions all over the world today. So it’s not a 50-50 chance as Pascal would like you to believe, but only around 0.025 percent. Even if you only consider the 5 major world religions, that still just a 20% chance that you’re correct. The odds are still against you and you have also taken a huge gamble, my friend.

This talk of “rejection” is also inaccurate and misleading. A study by Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago finds that 67% of people stay with the religion they were born with (in a paper entitled Counting Flocks and Lost Sheep: Trends in Religious Preference Since World War II). So for most people, it is not even a question of rejection but simply of staying faithful to what one was raised to believe — a sensible reaction given the harsh cultural and social ramifications of turning one’s back on one’s religion in many societies. In many middle-eastern countries, for example, the punishment for rejecting Islam is death.

Even some “Christian” groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses have a practice called “shunning” to those members who reject their faith. A friend of mine, Gamahiel Tutor, a former JW elder, related to me his personal experience of this when he questioned the church officials too much. When he finally couldn’t take it anymore and turned away, he was “shunned” which meant that his former friends and relatives regarded him as dead to them. They wouldn’t talk to him nor have any sort of relationship with him.

Can one really be accused of “rejecting” God when it just so happened that one was born into the “wrong” religion and the price of conversion was too high, or one never got a chance to hear about Jesus, or one heard about it from an unconvincing source?

Besides, I find it absurd and unjust that a decision you make in this life affects your afterlife for all eternity. And that decision is made in circumstances that can hardly be called fair. One is supposed to trust secondhand sources (not God himself) for this monumental decision — and sometimes these sources are not credible enough. One is called to “have faith” instead of being presented with convincing evidence. If my single encounter with Christianity is with a bumbling Christian who cannot answer my skeptical and probing questions with nothing other than, “Just believe and pray. God will answer you in the stillness of your heart,” or some other useless advice like that, can I be faulted for rejecting the message due to the poor delivery of the messenger or his refusal to engage in a more critical discussion?

Look at it this way. If I were to send a message to my son through a friend saying, “Please buy 5 apples and 2 oranges,” but my friend wrongly relays the message and my son shows up with 2 apples and 5 oranges, do I put the blame on my son or on my friend? In fact, the blame might even be on me because I might not have double-checked to make sure my friend got the message right in the first place. I would never punish my son for getting it wrong because of the messenger’s faulty delivery.

That being said, I find the entire idea of there being no more chance at redemption after death absurd if God were indeed loving and just (and if the soul does indeed exist). Why would he make it so if he were loving and just? Apologists, of course, have crafted several replies to this but so far none of them have satisfied me and I remain unconvinced. If that is enough to warrant me an eternity in hell, then so be it. I probably couldn’t stand to be in such a “heaven” with a megalomaniacal deity and his minions anyway.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Deconstructing Ravi Zacharias (Part 3)

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Photo Credit: Gatis Gribusts via Compfight cc

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In Part 1 of this series, I outlined the three main arguments in Ravi’s talk, “Why I Am Not An Atheist.” Today  I will deal with the second point — that without God, there is no ultimate meaning, therefore no hope.

The Christian apologist William Lane Craig, in a discussion with atheist philosopher Shelly Kagan, made the same argument. Since the naturalist does not believe in an afterlife and since the universe is predicted to end sometime in the far future and everything will die anyway, then there is no ultimate meaning and our lives do not really matter anyway. In other words, the Nazis were neither right nor wrong as they tortured the Jews because everyone’s existence ends anyway.

Kagan was quick to point out the flaw in this sort of reasoning. How do you go from saying “since life has no ultimate meaning” to there is therefore “no meaning AT ALL?” The torture surely mattered to the Jews  who were undergoing it. It mattered even to some Nazis who realized the horror of what they have done afterwards and scarred them for life. To use a more recent example, it is wrong to say that since there is no ultimate meaning, then it doesn’t matter that people were killed or hurt during the recent attacks in Paris or that innocents were also killed or hurt as France retaliated at Syria.

Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold meaning. You give a box of chocolates or a bouquet of roses to your loved one knowing full well those things won’t last more than a few days. You spend time with them, talking, playing games, or watching a movie. Do those things last? No. Are they meaningless? I doubt if you would agree. (I explore these issues in an older essay, Death and the Meaning of Life)

Do our lives become meaningful only because someday after we die, we can sit around sipping heavenly coffee with Jesus, swapping stories about the good old times on earth?

On the contrary, I can use Christianity to argue that life on earth is meaningless (except for around 5 minutes of it). The central teaching of Christianity is that Jesus died for man’s sin and his death acts as a substitute for our own. And so, even if one has done evil most of his life but makes a deathbed confession (like the “good” thief crucified alongside Jesus), he is deemed worthy to enter the pearly gates. So those 5 minutes you spend confessing your sin, feeling sorry for what you have done, and asking Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior, becomes the sum total of your life. Everything else you have done is meaningless. Every little bad or good that you did is rendered moot and pointless.

Now, preachers make that sound like such a grand thing. That God himself gave you that precious chance to “repent and be saved.” But let’s put this back in the context of the examples we used above. It means that the Nazi who tortured and killed Jews, but survived and later on made a deathbed conversion to Christianity, is now in heaven — while the Jews he murdered are now in hell (since Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the messiah). It also means that the terrorist suicide bomber in Paris is roasting in hell alongside the atheist Parisians he bombed (I’m not saying that all Parisians are atheists but I’m assuming some of them were). I hope you see the absurdity of this picture.

Think about that now. How meaningful are the lives of these “souls” now suffering in hell? All their little victories, their art, music, laughter, joy and love were all for nothing because they didn’t accept Jesus’ “offer” of salvation. Zacharias criticizes the meaninglessness of atheistic philosophy yet is blind to the senselessness of his own doctrine. The Buddhist doctrine of karma, reincarnation, and continual striving for enlightenment makes more sense than this.

I myself do not know whether or not there is an ultimate meaning after all, but that does not prevent me from finding meaning NOW, from finding joy and sharing it with my loved ones NOW. Your life matters, not because someone else says it matters, but because you yourself recognize that it does.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Deconstructing Ravi Zacharias (Part 2)

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Photo Credit: waynemah via Compfight cc

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Without God, there is no moral framework.

This seems to be Ravi Zacharias’s key point in his talk, Why I Am Not An Atheist. To illustrate this, he relates an incident from the early days in his career. He was giving a talk at the University of Nottingham when a student stood up and declared, “There cannot be a god because there’s too much evil in this world.”

So Ravi replies. “Wait a minute, when you say there’s evil, aren’t you assuming there’s such a thing as good?”

The student says “Yes.”

Ravi then says, “When you say there’s such a thing as good, there’s such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which you can differentiate good and evil?”

The student hesitates at this, but is later forced to acquiesce and acknowledge a moral law.

Ravi then continues with, “But if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver, but that’s whom you’re trying to disprove and not prove. But if there’s no moral lawgiver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil. What is your question?”

This shuts the student up and delights the audience to whom Ravi is relating the story as they acknowledge his clever reply with cheers and applause.

This is what is called the Moral Argument (or at least one version of it) and it is often used by Christian apologists as some sort of trump card to point out that atheists/agnostics (who are mostly naturalists), have no business talking about morality, or good and evil — because these are not supposed to exist for them, or do so only in a relative fashion. Since there is no objective moral law giver, good and evil become merely opinions and one is just as good as the other. We are like animals, “following the dance of our DNA,” as they like to quote famous atheist and biologist, Richard Dawkins.

My main contention with this sort of argument is that while it is indeed possible to argue philosophically that there MUST be an objective moral law-giver, this law-giver has not seen fit to definitively reveal to humans what these objective laws are. We are still left to fend for ourselves and discover and argue about what these supposed objective laws are — thus rendering them virtually relative.

Note that the moral argument is generic and may be used by almost any sort of theist as long he believes in a god that is basically good and just. So a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, and so on may use the same argument and still come out at odds with each other — as is the case in reality.

My friend Gelo used an argument from a game of chess. Both theist and atheist sees a chessboard with the pieces intact. They have no idea what the rules are so they make it up along the way. The difference is that the theist believes that there is a definitive rule-book somewhere for playing the game while the atheist believes that they can just make things up as they go along. But my point is that that neither rule-book nor rule-maker can be found in a way that is objectively verifiable. And until we are able to do so, then we are then bound by the rules we make up by ourselves and neither of us know any better.

Still the theist may contend that there is nothing stopping the atheist from breaking or changing the rules because he doesn’t believe there are objective rules anyway. E.g. “I’m tired of moving the knight in an L-shape so I’ll make it move in an S-shape now.” Yet I would argue that the theist can do the same thing with this sort of reasoning, “After praying and fasting about it, I believe the Lord has revealed to me that knights should not move in an L-shape but in an S-shape. I obey God rather than men, so I’m moving my knight in an S-shape whether you agree or not.” And we’re left with the same sticky situation.

So while I may grant the theist a philosophical victory in this case, it is of no practical use in reality because morality is still VIRTUALLY relative. Just look at the different ways different nations handle issues like divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and so on. If there were an objective right or wrong to these issues we don’t know it, and we can’t test it nor verify it as objectively true (at least, not in the same way that we can verify that the acceleration due to gravity is approximately 9.8 meters per second squared).

Of course, Christians would contend that the Bible IS the objective rule-book I’m looking for, but the only people who would agree with that would probably be Christians, so that doesn’t sound very objective to me. I have issues with the Bible which I outlined in two past articles called Illusions of Biblical Inerrancy and A Second Look At Biblical Inerrancy so you can Google those if you’re interested. (See also Cherry-Picked Abominations) For now, let it suffice to say that I find it highly suspect that the supposed objective guide for morality would deem it fit to lay down rules against eating crabs and shrimp (Leviticus 11), yet say nothing in objection to human slavery.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Deconstructing Ravi Zacharias (Part 1)

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Photo Credit: mdid via Compfight cc

A Christian friend of mine sent me a video clip of prominent speaker and author, Ravi Zacharias, entitled “Why I am not an atheist.” I had attempted to read a couple of Zacharias books before when I was still a Christian but I never got far.

I had also watched some talks of his before but they didn’t impress me much and I believe one of them even irritated me. Then there was a statement he made on his facebook page that really got my ire and to which I crafted a strongly-worded response. I didn’t get a reply though — which was understandable since there were hundreds of comments on his posts. It should be quite obvious by now that those “encounters” I had with Mr. Zacharias didn’t do much for my opinion of him, even though I knew that many of my Christian friends look up to him as one of the best apologists for the Christian faith.

I could have dismissed that video and just ignored it. But I decided to give it a chance. I should practice what I preach, after all, and give opposing ideas an opportunity to at least be heard — and I wanted to see if my attitude towards Ravi needed to be corrected, since my dislike for him may have stemmed from just emotions. This was also an opportunity for me to really listen to his arguments and see if they hold any merit.

So while I didn’t go to church last Sunday, I spent the better part of two hours listening to a preacher (the video was actually two talks merged into one — but the second one repeated a lot of the ideas mentioned in the first so I guess it was a revised version of the first one that was delivered at a later date). And just to make sure I didn’t miss anything important, I spent some time yesterday also listening to snippets of his talk.

So what are my findings?

Ravi Zacharias is certainly a clever speaker and a gifted storyteller, beyond the average lot you hear on a Sunday morning. I appreciated his setups and punchlines. His clear and graphic descriptions, as well as his engaging and easy manner in connecting with his audience.

I felt though, that his arguments lacked depth and I could see through some of the things he was doing, the way we see through the parlor tricks of amateur magicians. Yes, he can give witty replies to hostile audience members but remember that witty remarks can shut people up but not necessarily answer their questions — or the underlying principles beneath them.

There are three main arguments in his talk. That without God:

1) There is no moral framework;

2) There is no ultimate meaning, therefore no hope;

3) There is no recovery (or redemption).

Because of space limitations, I will deal with each of these in detail in future articles, discussing their merits and flaws, as well as giving a secular humanist perspective. For this article though, I would like to deal with a subtle trick that Mr. Zacharias uses in his introduction.

In the first part of his talk, Ravi talks about studying a number of famous atheists, Antony Flew, Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Then he recounts how Flew, after decades of being a champion for atheism,  turned around and acknowledged his belief in a god (although a deistic one and not the Christian god — yet many Christians like Ravi still like to take this as a victory despite the fact that their theology still places Flew in hell for not believing in the saving power of Jesus); how Oscar Wilde called for a minister on his deathbed because “only Christ was big enough” to cleanse his heart; and how Nietzsche, who coined the phrase ‘God is dead,’ went mad in his final years and kept muttering bible verses he had memorized as a child.

He also says it was Nietzsche who influenced Hitler. And then mentions how China tried the “godless way and it cost them tens of millions of lives.”

And there’s the trick right there. Did you see it? I knew I wouldn’t have seen it before. I would be exactly like one of the people in the audience amazed at his breadth of knowledge and analysis.

But now I know better. Psychologists talk about this thing called confirmation bias, which means that people tend to look for evidence that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and to ignore evidence to the contrary. In this case, Ravi is implying that atheists either turn back to god or end their lives on a miserable note — and he does that by supplying ONLY examples of atheists who did just that.

Yet, in the thousands of years of our history, are we to believe that ALL atheists died miserably or felt the need to be redeemed in the end? I’m sure a lot of them died happy in their disbelief.

In our generation, we have one Christopher Hitchens who, shortly before his death, wrote a letter addressed to the American Atheists in which he says, “I have found…that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before.” He also ends with a naughty phrase, “Don’t keep the faith.”

Also he mentions Hitler and China as shining examples of what happens when people turn to atheism. But that is a flawed premise as well. Hitler never waged his war in the name of atheism.

In fact, he made many statements affirming his belief that what he was doing was “God’s work.” In his own book, Mein Kampf, he said “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” In a speech he gave in Passau in 1928, he proclaimed “We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity … in fact our movement is Christian.”

Mao’s China (along with Stalin’s Russia) is the favorite punching bag of preachers when talking about the dangers of atheism. Yet Mao and Stalin did not kill millions in the name of atheism. Their cause was communism. On top of that, they were heartless and cruel men but these are traits found in both theists and atheists.

We have evidence that irreligious or secular societies need not go the way of Communist China. A paper by Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College cites four different studies in claiming that “Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread. Of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries.”

On top of that the World Happiness Report, an annual publication by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network since 2012, consistently shows that the happiest countries are also the ones that are least religious and most secular (Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Canada).

So no, Ravi, not all atheists die miserably and not all “godless” countries become murder capitals. Get your facts straight.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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