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.