Thursday, October 29, 2009

State Press defends Ravi Zacharias

ASU's State Press columnist Catherine Smith authored an op-ed piece promoting last night's appearance of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. This was at least her second such op-ed; a prior one was published on September 17.

My letter to the editor, below, didn't get published, but another critic's letter did get published.

Here's mine:
Catherine Smith quotes Ravi Zacharias as stating that "irreligion and atheism have killed infinitely more than all religious wars of any kind cumulatively put together." This statement not only demonstrates Zacharias' innumeracy, it shows that he continues to make the mistake of attributing killing in the name of political ideologies like Stalinism and communism to atheism. I agree that Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot killed more than religious wars, but it wasn't their atheism that caused that killing. Those killed by religious wars, the Inquisition, and witch trials, however, were killed in the name of religion. Out of fairness, there were no doubt political issues involved in many wars over religion as well, but if you take claims of religiously motivated killing at face value, the death tolls for those killed in the name of religion far exceed the death tolls for those killed in the name of irreligion.

Zacharias has a history of attacking atheism with misrepresentations in his books, as documented in Jeff Lowder's "An Emotional Tirade Against Atheism" and Doug Krueger's "That Colossal Wreck," both of which may be found on the Internet as part of the Secular Web (
I first heard of Zacharias back around 1991, when I sat behind someone on an airplane flight who was reading his book (reviewed by Krueger, linked above), A Shattered Visage. The parts I read were truly awful, about the quality of M. Scott Huse arguments against evolution (a step below Kent Hovind and Ken Ham). I didn't bother to attend, but would be interested in hearing any reports of how it went.

UPDATE (November 24, 2017): Steve Baughman has published an exposure of Zacharias' claims to have credentials he does not possess, and to have had academic appointments that did not exist.


OneCrazyMama said...

Yes, I read it via a friend of a friend.

As a Christian, the Ravi's of this world and the people who flock to the auditoriums to hear them/buy their merchandise make my head want to explode.

I'm fine with evolution, and I'm fine with letting others be themselves. I can't stand someone who wants to go around arrogantly trying to stuff "Christian cultural supieriority" down other people's throats.

I've expressed this anger to other Christians only to be chastised and insulted for my "ignorance".

You're not alone in your frustration. Try being a believer who is routinely kicked by people who are supposed to be on the same wavelength. I say tolerance, compassion, peace, love and get called on the carpet for a lack of standards, watering down religion, and being a general-all-around-bad-person.

That State Press article was terribly written and offensive--I might add.

I was googling criticism of Ravi and found your blog. Hope you don't mind the comment.

Thanks, and sorry your letter didn't get published.

Eamon Knight said...

One of Zacharias' associates, a guy called Joe Boot, has been up to my neck of the woods a couple of times for debates. (Recent event:

James said...

The Reasonable Doubts podcast had a good "bonus" episode out a while back, in which Jeremy Beahan from the podcast talks with Danny and Mikyle from the Reason Drive Podcast about their interview with Zacharias in which he ran them ragged. Danny & Mikyle were completely unprepared for Zacharias's fancy apologist footwork, and Beahan provides good insight into the vacuous logic of Zacharias's arguments: Responding to Ravi Zacharias (from the Reason Driven Podcast)

Jim Lippard said...

OneCrazyMama: Of course you are welcome to comment here! Thanks for adding your perspective to the mix.

Eamon: DeSousa debated Boot a couple of times, and also debated Sam Harris? What was that latter debate about?

Boot apparently relies on Van Till/Bahnsen-style presuppositionalist arguments, based on the comments. Does Zacharias take that route, too? And if so, does he argue that not only God is a presupposition of logic and rationality, but the Christian God and Jesus are in particular?

Eamon Knight said...

Eamon: DeSousa debated Boot a couple of times, and also debated Sam Harris? What was that latter debate about?

I don't know anything about the DeSousa/Harris debate beyond that YouTube video (BTW: note Dennett's unmistakable beard in the background). Boot debated DeSousa here this year, and John Schook of CFI three(?) years ago.

Boot apparently relies on Van Till/Bahnsen-style presuppositionalist arguments, based on the comments. Does Zacharias take that route, too?

My only acquaintance with RZ is by way of Boot's appearances here. I don't know if presuppism is the ministry's party line, or just Boot's current favorite argument (I don't recall him using it last time).

Do you know of any decent online takedowns of presuppism? Between my visit to Hams' Funhouse and Boot's, it's starting to irritate me....

Jim Lippard said...


Michael Martin engaged in a debate with Bahnsen protege John Frame in which Martin tried to turn the tables on the transcendental argument for the existence of God--in the process, he makes some good criticisms of the former.

I've not really seen anything published in the epistemological literature about the sorts of arguments made by Bahnsen, probably because there hasn't been one good enough to be published in a philosophy journal in the first place to motivate a rebuttal, as far as I'm aware. (I welcome references to the contrary.)

There are some very smart Christian epistemologists (e.g., Alvin Plantinga), but I'm not aware of any of them that use that kind of presuppositionalism. Plantinga's an externalist foundationalist.

Jim Lippard said...

I also meant to list the late William P. Alston as a second example--also an externalist foundationalist. His book on _Perceiving God_ starts with a great chapter on the epistemology of sense perception, and he then tries to make an analogous case for religious experience as perception of God, which strikes me as possibly the best way to argue for the existence of God. It suffers from its points of disanalogy, however, such as religious disagreement, and from the existence of naturalistic accounts of religious experience.

Jim Lippard said...

James: Thanks for the podcast recommendation. Unfortunately, those particular podcasts don't seem to be available from iTunes (but in the process of looking for it I found a great podcast called "Philosophy Bites"). They can be directly downloaded from the site, however.

James said...

Both Reasonable Doubts and The Reason Driven Podcast are on iTunes. Here are the iTunes links:

- Reasonable Doubts
- The Reason Driven Podcast

tom said...

"Do you know of any decent online takedowns of presuppism?"

I think Jim has the right idea about presuppositionalism; most of the best minds haven't engaged it because presup itself has yet to engage philosophy via its serious and mainstream forums. You won't find it at Oxford and you wont find it in peer-reviewed journals, so far as I'm aware.

That said, presup. can be a pain in the rear, especially when one first confronts it. It is usually presented by - forgive the generalization, but it's 99% fair - some arrogant douchebag who has mastered a single debating trick.

Here's a PDF outline of a talk by one professional philosopher (Gene Witmer) who treats it as such. The talk is at least as much about debating, and how to engage a presuppositionalist, as it is about the epistemology invovled.

DebunkingChristianity once posted a debate he did with Gene Cook, who is a presup. advocate.

The blog "Incinerating Presuppositionalism" has been around for a while. I haven't read the bulk of what's on that site, but based on what I have read, I think the author is very sharp. I'd tentatively recommend it as resource to start further investigation.

Eamon Knight said...

I think Jim has the right idea about presuppositionalism; most of the best minds haven't engaged it because presup itself has yet to engage philosophy via its serious and mainstream forums.

Ah, so it's kind of the Creation Science of philosophy, then? ;-) (Except that the best minds in science have been forced to engage C'ism for socio-political reasons). Thanks; from the outside it's hard to tell what the status is some of these schools of thought.

Jim Lippard said...

James: I saw the podcasts themselves there, but not the particular episodes with Ravi Zacharias. I made the mistake of saying "podcasts" when I meant "podcast episodes."

James said...

Ah, sorry. I have the episodes in my archives, since I subscribe to both, so I didn't realize they'd scrolled off the list.

tom said...

"Ah, so it's kind of the Creation Science of philosophy, then?"

Not to take you too literally, since your question ended with a winking smiley face, but:
I would shy away from the comparison since science has a pretty clear accepted methodology and set of standards, whereas nothing analogous is really available in philosophical debates, which often trace back to unsettled disagreements over "first principles". So it's less clear that presuppositionalists violate a sort of universally accepted philosophical standard the way that creationists fail to meet the standards of science.

However (as Jim alludes to above), mainstream presuppositionalists believe that not only the existence of God, but the existence of the God of a specific brand of Christian theology - trinity, Jesus and all - can be deduced and proven without recourse to scripture. Some advocates of presuppositionalism are actually pretty impressive debaters, and obviously smart people, but just ask yourself if you can take that seriously enough to even roll your eyes at it.

tyler said...

Something a little quick to think about, although I think it's wise to judge everyone by their own individual choice, such as, not blaming religion for the reason people died, but the people that did the killing. I think it's a little unfair for an atheist to claim that those communists or fascists didn't do it in the name of atheism.

Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. all claim that atheism is a dumb word. It expresses a disbelief instead of a belief (although every disbelief is a belief in something else and vice versa). Of course they (Pol Pot, Stalin, etc.) didn't do it in the name of atheism. They didn't say, "IN THE NAME OF NOTHING I WILL KILL YOU." And it is precisely that they DIDN'T believe in God that allowed them to unmercifully kill many people.

Jim Lippard said...

Tyler: Your assertion, "And it is precisely that they DIDN'T believe in God that allowed them to unmercifully kill many people," is what I'm disputing. What evidence do you have for that?

Hitler's belief in God didn't stop him from killing millions of people. Is there any empirical evidence that a belief in God stops a political leader from killing people?

Alvin said...

to Jim

Marxist ideology retains skepticism, non-belief in god at its core to answer Stalin's genocide, as well as Mao, Mao himself does not believe in God according to his memoirs. Hitler's case is complicated, he exhibits more opportunism to tailor whatever he believes in to suit his political goals. He is not a theist, although he claims that he believes in God, its more point-scoring and sloganeering to appease the great majority of Germans in the Catholic Centre party at that time. He's more of a practical atheist just going thru the motions of superficial religion, but he really does not believe in God just in his own ambitions for Germany and himself characterized by personal table talks with his inner circle stating that christianity should be exterminated etc.

Jim Lippard said...

Alvin: Marxism entailing atheism doesn't mean atheism entails Marxism, or that atheism was the cause of the abuses of Marxism, for which I am not aware of any evidence.

I disagree with you about Hitler--there is no evidence of his being an atheist even in the questionable portions of the "Table Talk." See, for summary, this. (A more scholarly reference is Richard Carrier, "Hitler's Table Talk: Troubling Finds," German Studies Review, vol. 26, no. 3, October 2003.

You are mistaken to infer that opposition to Christianity entails atheism. At best Hitler opposes orthodox Christianity in favor of his own pagan-infused heterodox but still theistic views.