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."


  1. I would encourage you to read John Locke's "Essays on the Law of Nature". You said you are interested in the subject of "discovering truth": what is truth? how do we find it? etc. Also, you make perfectly plausible claims in this blog, but quite frankly, you don't support them with much evidence from the books. What I mean by that is that you opened a sizeable can of worms and only took a few out. Minimally, I would say, you should provide several quotes from the works by other authors you cited in order to fully delineate the situation and arguments on both sides.

    You've opened up a line of argument I hadn't fully thought of before. The reason why this particular blog perks my interest so much is that, in my experience, Dr. Zacharias has always supported his arguments with all three of his points. He first shows the logical consistency of them, then the plausibility of them, and then the an anecdote to prove that the situation actually does exist in reality.

    I'll make it a point to read all the books you mentioned.....eventually maybe.....but I'll get to 'em. Again, I would really encourage you, on the subject of "truth" to read Locke's "Essays on the Law of Nature". Locke would have considered himself a Christian, but he is extremely respected as a political philosopher and has been for several hundred years. Thanks for reading my comment.

  2. Hi Daniel,
    There are some things here in your blog that I can really relate to, having been a person who had fallen away from the faith for some similar reasons as yourself (such as, the anti-intellectual movement that ran in my Baptist church). I don't have a simple faith; it's something I struggled with for several years as an agnostic, and then with bouts of doubt for many years after as a Christian existentialist. Having been through all of that, the one thing I can share with you which constantly worked on my heart and my mind while I was wrestling with a 'what kind of God allows such evil and suffering?' as well as, 'God created a Giant Ponzi Scheme' (you referred to in an earlier blog), has been the sin I've seen in my own heart. I had to look at my own life and be 'honest' with myself, and 'the truth' is that I know I deserve to go to hell. Christ's example on the cross makes me see who I really am, what kind of person I am. The world is full of sinners like me and therefore full of suffering - some of it inherited and some self-inflicted; that's the consequence of sin and freewill. It's our/my fault, not God's. He's provided a way, and it wasn't a cake-walk. It was horrible and gruesome, but that's what true love and sacrifice is like - it's not cheap. That's a self-evident truth in life. So, I'm not going to complain and ask God, "Why didn't you make the atonement not so, um, gory? Really is all this blood necessary? Why don't you just wave a wand and just forgive us." So, the question I have for you is what I ask myself when confronted with evil and suffering, "how will you stand in front of a righteous and holy God and defend your life apart from Christ?"

    I realize this is more of a comment on theology, but as others have mentioned, I really do feel that you have more of a problem with Christian theology. You don't strike me as atheist taking a principled stance against theism.

  3. Anon,

    You write that after looking at your life you "know [you] deserve to go to hell." Why is this? Granted we have all fallen short of our ideals, we've been hypocritical at times and surely acted evilly. But why should one conclude that this deserves some sort of infinite punishment? What is good and right about that? Do two evils make a good? How can sending people to hell be good? Or if one is worried about satisfying justice (the eye-for-an-eye kind), then surely at most the punishment should be at a similar level to the crime or harm. But the Christian hell is far out of proportion to any sort of crime humans can commit.

    If God can arbitrarily impose whatever sort of punishment he likes for any behavior he dislikes, then there is nothing one can say to that kind of God. But if humans created the concept of hell as a means to instill fear in the unbeliever or wavering believer or truth seeker, then I can and should protest. I am not going to let threats of next-worldly punishment keep me from seeking the truth.


  4. If the concept of absolute judgement is a purely human creation, then I believe it would have to be imperfect, because I don't believe imperfect creatures can create moral standards which rise to the level of perfection. The difference between human morality, and God's morality is that his is perfect. If you don't believe in that, I hope you could at least theoritically agree that a perfect being's morality would be perfect (otherwise the being would not be perfect).

    The concept of fear is interesting and hard for me to understand as well, as I read the Bible. More so in the Old Testament, but occasionally in the New Testament, we can see that fear of the Lord is stated to be an essential part of receiving his blessings. However, Jesus also said he came to free us, not to judge and condemn us. This is almost a contradiction in that the fear is of being judged.

    But I ask you to suppose God is real, and you can see that at least as of this moment, we have not been judged and condemened to hell. Which would mean that his perfect love includes the giving of love and mercy for all imperfect humans (at least temporarily). How can he do this with out giving up any perfect sense of morality or justice? Giving perfect love and mercy to those who are not, hasn't always reconciled as being 'right' to me. For my understanding of justice, I needed to see how it 'balances'... and this desire to make sense of it lead me to accept that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. Rather than me having to 'pay' for my imperfections (sins) so I could be worthy of receiving love from a perfect being, he paid for them with his suffering and death on the cross. The fear I have now is that I will take it for granted, and when judgement day comes, it will be like I made a choice - instead of letting Jesus pay for my sins, I will have chosen to pay my own way, and self payments are made in hell.

    Christians who go around preaching fear and telling everyone they will be judged and condemned to hell, don't make sense to me, because of two reasons. 1. Jesus asked us to love others like he did, which numerous examples show included loving sinners. He did not say, we should go throughout the world and warn everyone about being cast into hell. 2. If they want to spread Christianity, it is impractical to use fear, because that tends to just push people away (which you sort of showed in your post)

  5. Interesting.... I have only read his 'The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha' and thoroughly enjoyed it and his very logical approach to spiritual issues. It's always hard to know from a negative review whether the book is truly lacking or the reviewer just has biases that cause them to overlook important dimensions of the work. I have heard a lecture by Ravi and was really disappointed to find his style very similar to what you are pointing out here. Like a politician, the core philosophical underpinnings were covered up with oral flourishes and dramatic pauses... *sigh*

    Interesting biographic similarity though... We both have parents pushing Ravi on us as we question our Christian heritage.

  6. It is hard to judge how unbiased I am. I'm sure I have plenty of biases. I tried to give the book the benefit of the doubt, but the failings, which I failed to see while a Christian, now impact me so strongly that it is hard to see beyond them.

    I guess the other thing that bothers me is how many apologetics books, lectures and sermons I endured that share these same characteristics. It is funny that growing up in a tradition, even a skeptical mind has difficulty seeing its faults.