Saturday, March 14, 2009

Apologetics, Anecdotes and Aspersions

I agreed to read Ravi Zacharias's book "Can Man Live Without God" because of a deal with my Mom. She would read Dan Barker's book "godless" (see my review) if I would read this book. Another motivation of mine was that I remember listening to a talk by Zacharias when in college and being impressed. But back then I was a Christian. So I wanted to see what I still thought of him. Also, it has been a while since I have read an apologetics book, and this would be a good chance to reassess the Christian apologetics literature.

While Zacharias is certainly eloquent and makes moving speeches and tells powerful anecdotes, he makes almost no arguments. He just states his positions and relies on the implications of his anecdotes to support them. Perhaps this is effective at convincing most people who rely on emotional appeal rather than reasons for belief. I can see why his books are popular among Christians; those who share his beliefs don't need or want arguments, and they would rather have emotional anecdotes. Compare that to Dan Barker's book "godless" which is full of arguments -- one may disagree with inferences or assumptions in them, but at least Barker provides a reasoned basis for his positions.

I was a bit preturbed to find Zacharias using the term: "antitheist" for atheist. I suppose this is because the term atheist has lost most of its perjorative sense. Right from the beginning this illustrates how he intends to convince his reader of his points: use rhetoric, imagery and other tricks to make his opponents look bad. But in reply to his use of the term "antitheist", consider this distinction: There are hundreds or thousands of gods that people past and present believe in. A monotheist rejects belief in all but one of them. An atheist rejects belief in one additional god. So far so good. Hence it is strange that rejecting 100% versus 99% of gods should make one an "anti" something. Rather Zacharias is simply using it as part of his arsensal of attacks on atheists.

Zacharias loves to find examples of well-known atheists who make outrageous claims or do something outrageous, and then lump all the other atheists in the same box as them. The problem is that atheists are as varied as theists. There are probably as many different ethical systems among atheists are there are among theists. His strategy of telling with relish an anecdote of Stalin pulling feathers out of a live chicken implying that atheists have no basis for morality is like me finding something nasty or brutish taught by some religion (say burning slaves to the sun-god) and implying that all theists (Christians included) are heartless slaves of their gods. Zacharias loves to use Nietzsche as a kicking bag for all of atheism. The problem is two-fold. First he takes Nietzsche's aphorisms far too literally. Second, Nietzsche is not a general representative of atheism; I'm sure far many atheists disagree with much of what Nietzsche proposes.

Zacharias summarizes one of his main claims (pg 32): "Antitheism provides every reason to be immoral and is bereft of any objective point of reference with which to condemn any choice". Contrary to this, and plenty of similar claims (and aspersions), it *is* possible to have an ethical system without need to rely on a deity's wrath or reward. Perhaps Zacharias does not read ethics? For example, Peter Singer provides an ethical framework in his book "Practical Ethics". Also Barker, in his book "godless", describes how he went from assumptions similar to Zacharias's to realizing that an ethical system that truly values humans is one that is based on human needs and characteristics, rather than those of a deity.

My biggest disappointment with the book was Chapter 12 "Getting to the Truth". Here is Zacharias's opportunity to argue constructively for how we can find the truth and distinguish truth from falsehood. There are a lot of falsehoods out there, and people could surely use some good instruction on how to discriminate between what is true and false. Here are Zacharias's 3 tests: (1) logical consistency, (2) empirical adequacy, and (3) experimental relevance. After stating these, Zacharias then goes on to ignore (2) and (3) and relies only on (1). Granted, logical consistency is an important identifier of falsehood. But most real-life falsehoods we encounter are logically consistent (or vague enough to it is hard to show them inconsistent). So how is someone to determine from the myriad claims out there (that aren't clearly logically inconsistent) which ones to trust and which ones to reject? Zacharias gives us no help. The answer lies in a field that Zacharias almost completely ignores (except for a few derogatory comments he makes about evolution). It is found in science. The scientific method is our best tool for acquiring knowledge about the world. It consists of three components that work together: (1) observation, (2) hypothesis creation and (3) hypotheses testing. And there are three main tests for hypotheses, these are: (i) logical consistency, (ii) accuracy (how well the hypotheses describe the observations), and (iii) parsimony (how succinct the hypotheses are). Together these methods and tests are extremely powerful tools for discovering truth about the world. One could wish that Zacharias had applied them to the problem at hand.

There are plenty of other points in his book that I would dispute. The main issues, though, are how one can find the truth, and how one seeks to illuminate the truth to others. Apart from insisting on logical consistency, Zacharias seems quite confused on how to find the truth. He certainly does not make a reasoned case that Christianity is true. There are many strong counter-arguments to his case for Christianity that he ignores (such as those found in Barker's book). Furthermore his method for illuminating truth to others is quite deceptive: he discredits viewpoints by recounting examples of extreme followers, by making broad, unsupported attacks on atheism with the aim of nurturing fear amongst Christians of the rise of amoral atheists, and by using anecdotes as justifications or proofs.

On the other hand, perhaps the problem is that I am not his target audience. These are the very tactics used every Sunday by pastors in countless churches to sustain the faith of their congregations and keep followers from venturing beyond the safe havens of the Christian religion. Certainly these tactics have power to retain followers in the faith. Ravi Zacharias is simply one of those pastors who has put his preaching into print. Considering that the prime use of a book like this is to provide arsenal to pastors for apologetic sermons, I think a more appropriate title for his book is: "Anecdotes of foolish, deluded and nasty atheists."