RAVI ZACHARIAS IS POSITIVELY APPALLING
Just when you think you have heard from all the evangelical, anti-atheist lobby, there suddenly comes to your attention a new candidate who has been groomed to speak against atheism. However, you would think that he at least does it with some more reasoning and some less rhetoric than Ravi Zacharias.
I had never heard of Zacharias till an acquaintance alerted me to his upcoming talk at IISc. (Bangalore) in December. Zacharias is an Indian Hindu who converted, and has given talks at "many prestigious institutions including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and the UN General Assembly", as if his appearances at these places by themselves make him infallible and worth listening to. Zacharias has written books against atheism, and the reviews of his books suggest the kind of obvious fallacies and cherry-picking he indulges in. But it would not be fair to judge someone based on second-hand knowledge, so I saw some of his videos on YouTube and they appalled me to be frank. There are many there, but here's one that's particularly galling.
Zacharias appalled me not just because of his aggressive, soulful rendition against atheism, but because of his remarkable ignorance about atheism and his nauseating and judicious cherry-picking of examples that apparently serve to "disprove" atheism in his opinion. Zacharias also has that kind of persona that religious leaders have, so unfortunately his ineffectual and straw-man arguments seem to enrapture an already compassionate audience. Here is another set of videos of a talk he gave at Penn State and the ensuing questions. Seriously, it's the fawning audience of thousands which buys into his rhetoric that's scarier than Zacharias himself, whose image is projected on a huge screen behind.
There are several fallacies that Zacharias repeatedly commits, but there are some that are so spectacularly misguided that they are worth representing. First, he talks about some talk that he gave where there was a student with two of his atheist friends. After the talk, the students asked his atheist friends why they did not ask the questions they had prepared for Zacharias. The atheists supposedly answered that Zacharias's points were so persuasive that they simply couldn't counter them. So what does this prove? That atheism is wrong? Or that those two students simply lacked the logic and knowledge to counter Zacharias's ingeniously specious arguments? (As many arguments about faith are). Zacharias's enunciation of half-truths is despicable. Zacharias seems to take their inability to counter his points and their still reiterating their lack of belief in God as proof that even atheism is based on faith, a common strategy used by religious people these days when they know they cannot beat atheism on its own territory.
In another case at the Penn State talk, Zacharias talks about a speech he gave to atheists in Russia. At the end of the talk, a man asked him, "Just what are you asserting"? Zacharias retorted, "Just what are you denying?". His point is that atheists don't even know what they are denying, so their "beliefs" about the lack of God are as much based on "faith" as anyone else's. Actually, the answer to Zacharias's question is simple. Atheists are denying any existence of a supernatural deity who performs supernatural acts. But there is a reason for the question. The question "Just what exactly are you asserting?" actually means to ask, "There are so many Gods and so many religious explanations for so many things in the world. There is no consistent religious worldview shared by everyone in the world. So just exactly what is it that you are asserting when you say 'God' when the word has so many diverse and in some cases, contradictory, meanings?". Again, Zacharias cleverly skirts the question and impresses the audience with what he thinks is a diabolically clever counterquestion, which ironically should trump faith, not atheism.
Zacharias is trying to make a very common kind of allegation against atheism as noted above. And I think we will see this allegation increasingly, given the fact that atheists are being more outspoken. What would be the best way for people of faith to debunk atheism? It's pretty clear that if religious people can brand atheism as being akin to religion, as being based on faith and belief as much as religion is, then it would serve as a first nail in atheism's coffin in their opinion. Zacharias's emphasis continually seems to be on proving that in the end, atheism is as much about belief and faith as anything else. He seems to ignore the simple but important fact that most atheists would be willing to accept the existence of God if provided with due evidence. We cannot reiterate this enough number of times; atheism is a lack of faith, it's not "faith in a lack of faith" as Zacharias and others would have everyone believe. And you know what, I am pretty sure Zacharias knows this. What gets my goat about these people is that they seem to be smart people who would know such things, but still insist otherwise for asserting their faith. As Richard Feynman says, it's dishonest people, not honest fools, that really aggravate us.
Zacharias also keeps on gratuitously neglecting the simple concept of burden of proof. I mean, really, how hard is it to understand that the burden of proof is on the person making the positive assertion? Zacharias keeps on trotting out ad nauseum the assertion that "science has not disproved the existence of God'. Apparently, Zacharias has already freed himself from the burden of proving the existence of God.
And lastly, Zacharias just like others cannot seem to help flog the many-times-dead horse; that atheism and immorality are in some way related. Right from arguments that evolution and the lack of purpose somehow mean that there is no possible reference frame of morality for atheists, to regurgitating the tired old nonsense about Stalin and Pol Pot being atheists, people of faith just cannot stop spouting this nonexistent connection between atheism and immorality. Zacharias as others have done, conveniently neglects the moral travesties in the Bible and other holy books, and also conveiniently neglects the countless moral things that atheists have done. Frankly for me, this connection between atheisms and immorality or religion and immorality is a connection that's after a certain extent neither here nor there, but atheists have to argue about that connection only because of religious people's allegations that immorality and atheism are connected.
In the end, Zacharias uses techniques that any charismatic religious leader worth his or her salt does; use rhetoric and elegant language to sway people, erect as many fallacies and straw men as possible to confuse the audience, cherry-pick away to glory, constantly generalise on the basis of individual incidences, make non-existent connections, and after assuming false premises, use the most impeccable internal logic to draw reasonable-sounding conclusions. It's deplorable. Zacharias needs to be severely reprimanded. And it would be nice if bloggers could expose his hollow arguments and strident rhetoric. In the end, Zacharias is nothing more than a polemical preacher.