Deconstructing Ravi Zacharias (Part 1)

Photo Credit: mdid via Compfight cc
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.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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13 thoughts on “Deconstructing Ravi Zacharias (Part 1)”

  1. You tell us that Ravi’s real point is that all atheists die miserable or in a change of heart and then debunk that statement. I challenge you, go ask him – out the blue: “Do you think all atheists die miserable or in a change of heart?” And he will say no. Then you will have to face the points he made rather than point you made.

  2. Of course he will say “no” because there is no way he can say “yes” and make a defensible stand.

    However, those are the examples he gave in his talk and even if you or he says that he is making different points, you will have to contend with the underlying motive for him giving those examples — which may show what he really believes rather than what he says he is saying.

  3. Wow. Where to begin? Free thinking me? What do psycholigists call it when someone points out a “fault” in someone else’s argument, ignoring the context of the arguement, and then makes the same mistakes in their response? Ravi’s argument does not make the general claims that you state, but then you go and make generalized statements. No one wants to claim Hitler. Hitler’s supposed Christian claims do not follow Christ’s teachings. He did not give Mussolini a copy of the Bible, but a book by Nietzsche. Another of Ravi’s points were that athieistic thinking allowed the behaviour of Mao and Stalin. Whether they killed Christians in the name of atheism or communism makes little difference to the arguement.
    Happy people and happy cities? Is there no bias there? And how you define (or don’t define) mostly secular cities?
    I have watched Christopher Hitchens “debates” with athiests. It eas very disappointing. He never had any arguements. All he seemed to say was he didn’t think his opponents arguements were strong enough to convince him, while giving nothing to show what might convince him. He did not give reasons that the arguements were not strong enough to convince him and he gave no reasons for his own beliefs. I have yet to meet an athiest face to face whi could tell me that he was not an embarrassment to his own cause. Is it your own confirmation bias that ignores that his brother was convinced that his brother was wrong and now claims a Christian faith?

  4. As I replied to that other guy who made the same objection as you,
    Ravi will not explicitly say “all atheists die miserably” because as I said, that is an indefensible position and I’m sure he recognizes that. But the stories he gives are very suggestive of that idea so one has to wonder, if that is not his point, why does he give example after example of atheists who were miserable or who were now fearful when they were near death?

    Re: Happy people and happy cities? Is there no bias there? And how you define (or don’t define) mostly secular cities?

    The details of the report are there in the website I linked. It is too voluminous to repeat here. Please just go through the report if you want to know how they define what a happy city is. As for “secular” cities, there have been some surveys about this and the most “secular” cities are those with a general population that is least religious (Sorry I’m trying to google an article I found before regarding this but I can’t find it and I didn’t have the foresight to bookmark it before).

    Re: Hitchens

    I’m not so keen on Hitchens as a debater, though I do find him entertaining at times. I did watch that debate he had with his brother, and I agree that he failed to answer some points, but I think he made some good points as well.

    And no, I am not ignoring his brother’s argument or the theist argument. But you have to admit it is difficult to verbalize your every thought in an article that is limited by physical space…so sometimes some articles will seem to go in this direction while others will go in that direction. It also depends on my frame of mind at that time, the angle I am working on, and so on.

    What I think is the strongest argument on the theistic side is the moral argument. Though I am currently leaning towards moralistic relativity, there are some aspects of absolute morality that also appeal to me. Perhaps one day, I may even write about it.

  5. To me, I do not read an “all athiest” idea into it at all. I dont even see it. What i see is that some of the biggest or brightest in that way of thinking wound up with doubts. If there are a million athiests and all of them died happy except the ones who have taken the ideas the farthest, it should cause at least a pause for the rest of the million. To me, that was the only point.

    I am choosing to jump over the happiness part because it is so subjective and the volumes of potential bias in surveys like these are an extrordinarily large side debate.

    I understand the moralistic relative arguement pretty well. For me, i used it was before i became a true Christian. For me, it was something i wanted to believe. Even when i was arguing for it, i knew that i didn’t really believe it, but it helped me supplement my less developed ideology. I wanted it to be true because it would help me justify what i did and did not do.

  6. //What i see is that some of the biggest or brightest in that way of thinking wound up with doubts. If there are a million athiests and all of them died happy except the ones who have taken the ideas the farthest, it should cause at least a pause for the rest of the million. To me, that was the only point.//

    Okay, I agree that is one way to see it, and thanks for pointing that out.

    The “some of the biggest or brightest” remark cuts both ways though as you also have some of the biggest and brightest of Christianity turn away from it…people like Dan Barker, Jerry DeWitt, Teresa Macbain, or John Loftus…and how about preachers still in the closet — those who no longer believe but continue to hold on to their positions because of social/livelihood issues? (See https://www.amazon.com/Caught-Pulpit-Leaving-Belief-Behind/dp/1634310209)

    Shouldn’t that give you pause as well?

  7. //I understand the moralistic relative arguement pretty well. For me, i used it was before i became a true Christian. For me, it was something i wanted to believe. Even when i was arguing for it, i knew that i didn’t really believe it, but it helped me supplement my less developed ideology. I wanted it to be true because it would help me justify what i did and did not do.//

    It is kind of the reverse with me. I used to believe in absolute morality (and am still open to some form of it), but it was observing reality that made me doubt if there ever was such a thing. (Richard Carrier has a chapter on this in Sense and Goodness Without God that I find compelling).

    So it was not that I wanted there to be relative morality so I could do the things I want. I was at a more mature age when I started thinking about this, so no it wasn’t about being able to smoke, drink and have sex with whoever. It was more of a realization that I had.

    “Good” is only good insofar as it is “good for me.” Extend that idea, and it becomes what is good “for us” — and you can keep on expanding the “us” from family to community to country, to all of humanity…and then to all the world — even animals, trees, the environment, and so forth.

  8. And there lies one of the problems with the argument. If it is “good” for me, that can be in contradiction for what is good for someone else. Especially when everyone gets to define what good is. And the greater good can mean that it is not good for a percentage of the people it affects.

    I sometimes compare it to reality. If you see an accident, there is your reality. What you see, hear, remember. Then there is the reality of the people in the accident, varying slightly from each other and from you. Cameras may catch a part of reality also. Put the all together and you still nay not have the ultimate reality.

  9. It definitely gives me pause. When i ead on these subjects, it only makes sense to look at conclusions that people who have been doing it longer than i have made and how they got there. Like all other ideas, i want to see what they used to think and why they changed. It is all just a part of the larger picture.

  10. //And there lies one of the problems with the argument. If it is “good” for me, that can be in contradiction for what is good for someone else. Especially when everyone gets to define what good is. And the greater good can mean that it is not good for a percentage of the people it affects.//

    What’s the problem there? It is only a problem if you assume that there is such a thing as absolute good. What you have described is what is actually happening in reality.

    Even if the evangelical viewpoint were true, the “greater good” will still be not good for a percentage of the people — because they are going to hell! I don’t see how that can be good.

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