An Emotional Tirade Against Atheism

Jeffery Jay Lowder

Updated: May 21, 2000

 

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    "Ravi Zacharias's A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism is an unsuccessful attempt to refute or discredit atheism. He concentrates on some of the more prounounced problems with atheism, as he perceives them, and in the course of this review I will show why some of his approaches fail. I say 'some' because I will address only the most salient errors. A thorough refutation of all of the mistakes in his 200-page book would require another 300 pages or more, as these sorts of things are short in the telling and long in the refuting."

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Review of Ravi Zacharias Can Man Live Without God? Dallas, TX: Word, 1994.

Ravi Zacharias, the former Hindu-turned-Christian apologist, is President of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, an organization dedicated to "presenting the credibility of Christianity as the only reasonable option by which people should live."[1] He has studied at Cambridge and debated the existence of God at Harvard and Yale, and is well known for both his speeches and radio program. Can Man Live Without God? is based upon a speech Zacharias delivered at Harvard humbly titled, "The Veritas Series."

On the first page of the book's introduction, Zacharias accuses higher education of a vast secular conspiracy to discredit theism because it smacks of "moral restraint" (p. xiii-xiv). Yet Zacharias offers absolutely no substantiation for this sweeping claim. Even if we assume that secular universities are antitheistic and not just nontheistic--which is itself debatable--it does not follow that all or even most secular professors are trying to justify an immoral lifestyle. It's possible--and, I would argue, more likely--that nontheistic professors reject theism because they sincerely doubt the truth of theism. Yet Zacharias never even acknowledges, much less discusses, that possibility in his book.

Moreover, as I began to read the book further, I was shocked by Zacharias's inflammatory and patronizing tone. Zacharias describes atheistic critiques of theistic arguments as "linguistic trickery and distortion of truth" (p. xiii) and "emotionally charged outburst[s] against the existence of God ... garbed in intellectual terminology" (p. 30). According to Zacharias, atheist philosophers "hide behind philosophical arguments, heavily footnoted for effect," rather than "admit our hurts, our confusions, our loves, and our passions in the marketplace of life's heartfelt transactions" (p. 6). Zacharias also describes atheist philosophers this way: "every now and then there arises on the educational landscape some new antitheistic voice, arrogantly sounding forth with an air of omniscience, mocking religion and debunking the sacred" (p. 6). He even calls atheists "God-killers" (p. 31)!

At this point, I was tempted to close the book and never open it again. I reluctantly continued, but I did so only because of the sheer amount of praise the book has received from Evangelicals. Word publishing compares Zacharias to C.S. Lewis and Francis Scheaffer. The book received the Gold Medallion award for "best book in the category of doctrine and theology." And a number of prominent Evangelicals--including Billy Graham, Charles Swindoll, R.C. Sproul, Josh McDowell, Leighton Ford, and Norman Geisler--endorse the book. Given these endorsements, I felt a review was in order. Therefore, I want to briefly comment on the book's three main parts and its two appendices. Despite Zacharias's tone throughout the book, I shall do my best to remain as cordial as possible in this review.

Part I: The Antitheistic Worldview

The first section is dedicated to refuting atheism. Not only does Zacharias misdefine the key terms of the discussion, he misdefines the wrong words! First, he misdefines "atheism" by equating it with materialism (p. 17). This is false; a person can consistently deny the existence of God while affirming the existence of abstract objects. Second, he states that he prefers to use the word "antitheism" over "atheism." Yet, as someone who is reasonably familiar with atheist literature, I am not aware of anyone who identifies themselves as an "antitheist."[2] So why does Zacharias insist upon deviating from standard terminology and using the word "antitheism"? He claims that "antitheism" is often a better description than "atheism" (p. 17). Like so many other crucial points in the book, he offers no support for this assertion. I suspect (though I cannot prove) that the real reason Zacharias prefers the word "antitheist" is because of its negative connotations. (I also wonder if Zacharias--whose first two consecutive books attack atheism--is "better described" as an anti-atheist.)

Zacharias next declares that atheism is a worldview (p. 17). However, as Christian philosopher Ronald Nash points out, "A well-rounded world-view includes what a person believes in at least five major topics: God, reality, knowledge, morality, and humankind."[3] Since atheism does not entail any beliefs about epistemology, ethics, or humankind, atheism is not a worldview (though it is an important part of many worldviews).

As I read him, Zacharias then proceeds to state three objections to atheism. I shall briefly comment on each of those objections.

(i) Morality: Zacharias quotes extensively from Nietzsche, who thought that atheism entails ethical nihilism, the view that nothing is morally right or wrong (pp. 18-19). Yet he never explains why atheism entails nihilism. He simply asserts that to be the case and then--for rhetorical effect--quotes vivid passages from the works of Nietzsche in support.

The fact of the matter is that atheism does not logically entail any theory of ethics.[4] (Indeed, Zacharias seems to admit this point when he writes, "For a philosophy that defines life apart from God, there is a plethora of options" [p. 56].) To be sure, an acceptance of atheism means the denial of all theistic interpretations of morality, but that still leaves the door open to all of the various secular theories of ethics. If atheism is true, any one of a number of ethical theories--including nihilism, relativism, and, yes, even objectivism--could be true, in the sense that all such theories are logically compatible with atheism. (Here it is worth noting that Swinburne accepts a naturalistic account of objective morality,[5] whereas Zacharias seems completely unaware of such accounts in contemporary scholarship.[6]) Atheism alone will not determine the true nature of ethics.

At this point, three natural questions arise. First, to the extent that atheism is logically compatible with nihilism, would widespread atheism lead to an increase in immorality? Zacharias thinks so; he even blames atheism for the "large-scale slaughters" committed by Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao (p. 22)! However, as Sagi and Statman point out, "given the influence of religion on modern society, a 'pure' secular society without any traces of religion, suitable as a 'control group,' is hard to find."[7] For example, they point out that Nazi Germany "was the product of almost two thousand years of Christianity, which shaped Nazi attitudes and behavior towards Jews."[8] Thus, "large-scale slaughters" may actually be influenced by religion, not the lack of it. At any rate, as Sagi and Statman note, the claim that immorality is the result of atheism is an empirical hypothesis that must "be confirmed or refuted by empirical research," using a suitable control group.[9] Zacharias's claim that atheism leads to immorality is therefore unproven.

Second, if atheism does not logically entail a theory of ethics, how can atheists settle debates about the nature of ethics objectively? Zacharias claims that the atheist "is hard pressed to adjudicate between conflicting ethical norms" (p. 38). Yes, ethical disputes are often notoriously difficult to resolve, but atheists do not have a disadvantage in this sense. Theists may appeal to a transcendent moral law in order to justify their morality, but such appeals do little to "settle" the dispute if different theists have competing interpretations of the revealed ethical system.

Third, if there is no ultimate purpose to life (as atheism seems to imply), would that rule out the possibility of a coherent theory of ethics? Zacharias asserts that a "reasonable and coherent ethical theory" is impossible if life has no ultimate purpose (p. 39). However, Zacharias never explains why life must have an ultimate purpose in order for ethics to be "reasonable and coherent." For example, why can't an act be right or wrong according to whether it promotes the purposes or goals or preferences of humans and other animals?[10] Larry Arnhart, in his recent book Darwinian Natural Right, defends such a view: he argues that an action is right or wrong according to whether it promotes the biologically-based needs of humans.[11] Whether Arnhart's theory is correct remains to be seen; however, Zacharias needs to consider such ideas before declaring that atheistic ethics are incoherent.

(ii) Argument from Evil (AE): In a chapter that is ostensibly concerned with the problem of evil as it is used by atheists--which he admits is "undeniably the single greatest barrier to belief in God" (p. 45)--I found it incredible that Zacharias completely ignores the evidential argument from evil and instead seems to focus on the logical argument from evil.[12] Indeed, Zacharias does not even discuss any of the formulations of AE defended by contemporary nontheistic philosophers. This would be perfectly understandable in a book only intended for laymen, but later in the book Zacharias is willing to quote Dallas Willard's "three stage" argument for the existence of God and Norman Geisler's ten-premise formulation of the cosmological argument (pp. 190-194). Thus, Zacharias ignores the work of nontheistic philosophers in considering the case for atheism, yet he appeals to theistic philosophers to establish a case for theism.

Zacharias presents two objections to AE. First, he suggests that it is incoherent for atheists to appeal to evil as evidence of the nonexistence of God since objective moral evil could not exist if there is no God (p. 48). Yet, as I argued above, objective moral values are logically possible even if there is no God. And the atheist need not postulate the existence of objective moral values in order to use evil as evidence for atheism. An argument from evil might not contain any normative premises; the atheist could appeal to God's loving nature rather than God's moral nature.[13] For example:

(1) If a perfectly loving God were to exist, then he would not permit the occurrence of any unjustifiable suffering.
(2) But unjustifiable suffering does occur.
(3) Therefore, a perfectly loving God does not exist.

To emphasize the point (though I consider this unnecessary), the atheist might even change the name of the argument from "the Argument from Evil" to "the Argument from Unjustifiable Suffering."[14]

Most importantly, AE may be understood as a challenge to the internal coherence of a theistic worldview. An AE can be understood as saying something like the following:

Look. You theists believe that X, Y, and Z are evil. You theists believe that God is good. You theists believe that good persons are opposed to evil. So you theists need to explain why a god who is good (in your sense of 'good') would allow so much apparently pointless evil (in your sense of 'evil'). If you can't explain it, then that is a problem for the internal coherence of your worldview.[15]

When AE is understood in this way, it doesn't presuppose that there are objective moral values.

Second, Zacharias argues that if atheism is true, the only solution to evil and suffering is death. Therefore, Zacharias suggests that atheists who are in pain but who do not commit suicide are living inconsistent with their atheism (pp. 50-51)! However, Zacharias should have anticipated the objection that atheists will not commit suicide because they sincerely believe this life is the only life they will get, and they want to live that life to the fullest. Granted, atheists will occasionally commit suicide when the pain is too great, but so will theists under similar circumstances.[16]

(iii) Pascal's Wager: Finally, Zacharias argues that atheists will have "absolutely no recourse" if atheism turns out to be false (p. 60). Yet, in a trivial sense, this is false: whether the atheist has any recourse depends on what turns out to be true. If, for example, universalism is true, even atheists will go to Heaven. However, Zacharias might reply that atheists--along with other nonChristians--will have no recourse if his view of God is true, so his point cannot be dismissed so quickly. Nonetheless, there are three objections to this argument. First, the atheist may believe that the probability of Zacharias's view of God actually existing is so small that she does not worry about it, even if she is inclined to take some other view of God seriously. Second, belief is not directly voluntary. To many nontheists, the idea of "deciding" to believe in God is simply no more of a live option than "deciding" to believe that the earth is flat. To be sure, a nontheist could engage in theistic practices in an attempt to cultivate theistic belief, but it is not even clear that on Zacharias's view of God such an attempt at self-deception would suffice to gain salvation. Third, the atheist might reply that Zacharias will have "absolutely no recourse" if certain other theisms (e.g., certain branches of Judaism and Islam) turn out to be true; thus, Zacharias is also risking severe consequences by making "an absolute commitment" to Christian theism. And since neither Judaism nor Islam have any doctrines as a priori improbable as the Incarnation, Judaism or Islam would be a more rational choice than Christianity.[17]

Part II: "What Gives Life Meaning?"

The purpose of the second part of the book is apparently to present a positive argument for Christian theism from the fact that it claims to give meaning to life. According to Zacharias, the fact that each succeeding generation craves meaning is more probable on theism than on atheism (p. xvii). However, there are naturalistic explanations for this fact, and Zacharias fails to consider them. For example, Stewart Guthrie argues that the drive to give life meaning is a "'biological need,' since no organism can live in a world it cannot understand enough to meet its other needs."[18] Without additional argumentation from Zacharias, it is unclear why we should prefer a theistic explanation to a naturalistic explanation on this point.

Zacharias claims that wonder, truth, love, and security are "essential components for meaning" and that only Christian theism satisfies these conditions (pp. 105, 113, 115). Yet as Christian philosophers Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, and Basinger point out, "the burden of proof clearly lies with the believer... What the believer must establish is that nonbelievers who deny cosmic meaning but still claim to possess personal meaning are not justified in maintaining this position."[19] And Zacharias simply fails to meet his burden of proof. First, he fails to show that his four "essential components for meaning" really are necessary for meaning. Second, he fails to show that those four conditions could not be satisfied if there is no God. As Peterson et al observe, "there appears to be no widespread scientific (psychological or physiological) or logical support for the claim that one cannot justifiably claim to have personal meaning if one denies cosmic meaning."[20]

Zacharias also has occasion to attack biological evolution--which he mistakenly refers to as a theory of "the origin of the universe" (p. 80, my italics)--and one of its proponents, biologist Kenneth Miller. Zacharias cites Miller's article, "Life's Grand Design,"[21] as an example of how "materialists" try to remove "the marvel of this universe as the expression of an omniscient God" (pp. 80-83). Yet, as anyone who knows anything about Miller knows, he is not a materialist; he is a practicing Roman Catholic![22] Moreover, it is simply false that the theory of evolution destroys wonder. When I think about all of the living things that have ever existed and what other species could have evolved, I find myself in a deep sense of awe.

Finally, Zacharias appeals to the fine-tuning argument, arguing, "the same data that the Millers of this world use are drawn upon by equally--if not better--qualified individuals who with great academic prowess establish the impossibility of an explanation for this universe--apart from God" (p. 84, my italics). Apart from Zacharias's insult against Miller, there are two problems with Zacharias's comment. First, the evidence that leads biologists and other scientists to accept evolution is NOT the same data that theists cite in support of the fine-tuning argument. The evidence for evolution comes from a wide variety of disciplines, including biochemical and genetic studies, comparative developmental biology, patterns of biogeography, comparative morphology, anatomy, and the fossil record; the alleged evidence for fine-tuning is found in the fields of astronomy, physics, and cosmology. Second, and more importantly, naturalists have pointed out that the fundamental flaw of the fine-tuning argument is its unproven assumption that the values of the physical constants of our universe are unlikely.[23]

Part III: "Who Is Jesus (And Why Does It Matter?)"

In the third part of the book, Zacharias examines and defends "some of the principal teachings of Christ upon which the whole edifice of Christianity stands" (p. 133).

(i) The sinful nature of man: I agree with Zacharias that everyone has fallen short of an ethical standard: their own. I think any reasonable person would admit that they have failed at least once--if not several times--to uphold an ethical standard which they recognize. However, this is where our agreement ends. Zacharias claims that no human being wants to be accountable to anyone and that only an acceptance of the Christian God can correct that condition (p. 136, 143). Yet Zacharias offers no support for that assertion. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that assertion is false. Many non-Christians do want to live a moral life and be accountable for their actions.

(ii) The nature of reality: Zacharias writes that since the days of Greek philosophy, the philosophical quest "has been to find unity in diversity" (p. 147). Apparently, by "diversity," Zacharias means not only physical diversity, but also diversities that pertain to "personality, communication, and love" (p. 148).

Concerning physical diversity, Zacharias writes, "Atheistic evolutionary theory is hard pressed to explain how the diversity that exists could ever have come about from the unity of primordial slime" (p. 148). Now it is certainly a point well-taken that, at present, scientists do not have a naturalistic explanation for how life may have originated from nonlife. But why should that be a problem for atheism? If there is no God, there is no reason to expect that human beings will have an explanation for how life originated from nonlife. As Andrew Ellington, a biochemist at Indiana University points out, "We don't have good historical clues regarding what the first self-replicators were. Unlike single and multicellular life forms, they left no imprint of their passing."[24] Moreover, scientists have not been working in this area for very long; it seems incredibly premature to sign the death certificate for such research given the field's infancy. Finally, to abandon scientific research on a problem and simply claim, "God did it," is to invoke a God-of-the-gaps explanation. Given the track record of such explanations, I think naturalists are perfectly justified in rejecting a "God-of-the-gaps" explanation for the origin of life.

As for Christian theism, Zacharias makes the following howler of an argument: he asserts that Christianity "alone answers the determined philosophical quest for unity in diversity" because the Christian concept of God is a Trinity (p. 147)! "Obviously," Zacharias concedes, "a very legitimate question may be raised as to how there can be a 'three-ness' and a 'one-ness' without equivocation" (p. 149). Indeed. But Zacharias never explains how three can be one--his quotation of C.S. Lewis does not even appear to be concerned with the coherence of the Trinity--or how the Trinity answers the "philosophical quest for unity in diversity."

(iii) The nature of history: Zacharias offers two lines of historical evidence for Christianity: (a) predictive prophecy in the Bible, and (b) the Resurrection.

(a) Predictive Prophecy: Zacharias claims that the prophetic writers of the Bible talked of "the distant future", and offers two examples of such prophecies: Isaiah 9:6's alleged prophecy of the birth of Jesus, and Daniel's alleged prophecy of Alexander the Great.[25]

(1) Birth of Jesus: Citing Isa. 9:6, Zacharias claims that Isaiah predicted Jesus' birth eight hundred years in advance (p. 157). Yet Zacharias offers no justification for this assertion and there is good reason to reject it. First, if we examine this so-called "prophecy" in its full context, Jesus did not match the description provided in vv. 3-5. Whereas Isaiah mentions a king who would free the Jews from foreign domination and restore their kingdom, Jesus did nothing of the sort. Second, v. 6 does not "predict" the birth of anyone; the passage describes a birth that has already taken place: "For a child has been born for us..." (NRSV, my italics).[26]

(2) Alexander the Great: Zacharias claims that Daniel predicted the empire of Alexander the Great a full two centuries in advance (p. 156). Yet Zacharias begs the question by assuming that the book of Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE! Given that many writers have argued that Daniel was written in the 2nd century BCE, Zacharias should have addressed that issue explicitly.

Related Essay:

(b) The Resurrection: As for the resurrection, Zacharias repeats two familiar themes: (1) liberal Biblical scholarship rules out the supernatural a priori; and (2) the resurrection is a historical fact despite the numerous attempts of skeptics to refute it (pp. 161-162). Since I have already addressed both allegations in detail elsewhere,[27] here I will simply make two very general observations. First, Zacharias's allegation about the presuppositions of "liberal scholarship" is yet another example of Zacharias's failure to substantiate key arguments in his book. (His only justification for that assertion is Jon MacQuarrie's analysis of the work of Rudolf Bultmann, as if all liberal New Testament scholars share Bultmann's presuppositions!) Second, Zacharias endorses the transcript of a resurrection debate in which the antagonist was not nearly as familiar with the New Testament as the Christian protagonist; key textual objections to Resurrection apologetics were almost completely absent in that debate.[28] For a much more balanced and empirical debate on the resurrection, interested readers should obtain a tape of the Resurrection debate between Craig Blomberg and Robert M. Price.[29]

Appendix A: "Questions and Answers on Atheism and Theism"

Zacharias includes questions and answers "taken from the Veritas lectures at Harvard University" (p. 181). In the interest of space, I shall limit myself to four of the issues raised there.

(i) Lack of Evidence: The first questioner asked Zacharias how God could condemn atheists for not believing in Him when God "hasn't given them a convincing reason" (p. 181). Like the Apostle Paul (Rom. 1:20), Zacharias claims that nonbelief is not based on the "absence of evidence" but rather "the suppression of it" (p. 183). However, it is difficult to imagine how Zacharias could ever show--without presupposing Biblical inerrancy--that nonbelievers have suppressed the evidence for Christianity. How could Zacharias respond to the counterclaim that he is suppressing the evidence that there are at least some nonbelievers who do not suppress the evidence for Christianity?[30]

(ii) The Evidentialist Challenge: Many atheist philosophers, including Antony Flew, Keith Parsons, and Michael Martin, have argued that the word "atheism" should be defined negatively as the lack of belief that God exists.[31] With atheism thus "negatively" defined, these writers issue the "evidentialist challenge." They argue that in debates on the existence of God, theists should have the burden of proof. In the absence of evidence for theism, atheism--defined as the lack of theistic belief--wins by default. In light of this trend, a questioner asked Zacharias why he presented atheism as if it were a dogma (p. 186).

Zacharias's response is absolutely scandalous. He asserts that atheist philosophers who define atheism negatively "know the philosophical decimation they would experience in trying to defend the absolute negative--There is no God" (p. 187). Therefore, according to Zacharias, they claim there is a presumption of the nonexistence of God (p. 187)! Whether atheism should be negatively defined is beyond the scope of this essay;[32] here I want to make three comments. First, atheist philosophers who define atheism negatively do not argue that there should be a presumption of the nonexistence of God. (Indeed, Flew explicitly states that on the standard usage of terms, his "presumption of atheism" is really just a "presumption of agnosticism!"[33]) To put the point another way, proponents of the evidentialist challenge maintain that in the absence of evidence for or against the existence of God, we should suspend judgment.

Second, it is simply false that it is impossible to prove that something does not exist, for there are actually two ways to show the nonexistence of something. First, one can show that an object does not exist is to show that the object has incompatible properties. For example, square circles and married bachelors cannot exist by definition. Second, one can show that an object does not exist if the object's existence is incompatible with some actual fact about the world. For example, consider the claim that there is a rattle snake on my desk biting my fingers as I type this review. Yet I am unable to detect the snake or its bite with any of my five senses. In this case, the lack of evidence of the snake is actually evidence for the nonexistence of that snake.

Third, atheist philosophers who issue the evidentialist challenge also provide arguments for the nonexistence of God. Flew defends an argument from evil; Smith defends an incompatible-properties argument; Parsons defends an argument from evil; and Martin defends an argument from evil, various incompatible-properties arguments, an atheistic teleological argument, and the transcendental argument for the nonexistence of God.[34]

(iii) Geisler's Argument for Christian Theism: Zacharias recognizes that "theism has to be established before Christianity can be legitimately defended" (p.190). Therefore, he presents Norman Geisler's cosmological argument for the God of the Bible (p. 191). Since Zacharias did not attempt to defend this argument but instead referred his readers to Geisler's writings, I shall adopt a similar strategy. I will summarize the major objections to Geisler's argument and refer interested readers to other sources. First, no one has ever been able to demonstrate a logical contradiction in the idea of an infinite regress of causes.[35] Second, time itself is uncaused if Big Bang cosmology is true.[36] Third, even if the universe had a cause, it is quite a leap to say that the cause of the universe is the God of the Bible.[37]

(iv) Willard's "Three Stages of Evidence": Zacharias's second defense of theism is actually a presentation of Dallas Willard's "three stages of evidence for God's existence," taken from Willard's commentary on the Moreland-Nielsen debate.[38]

(a) The Physical World: Willard's first "stage" of theistic evidence is a cosmological argument. However, it is difficult to see how Willard's version of the cosmological argument fares any better than that provided by Geisler. If Big Bang cosmology is true, then physical space and time "began" with the universe. But if time itself had a beginning, then it must have been uncaused since causal relations presuppose the existence of time. Thus, if Big Bang cosmology is true, "the universe didn't come from anything because it didn't come at all." Moreover, the idea of an uncaused universe is not counterintuitive since all of our metaphysical intuitions regarding causality apply only to events that occur in space and time. Yet if Big Bang cosmology is true, then the "beginning" of the universe is not an event in space and time; rather, it is the very origin of space and time itself.

(b) Design: Willard next presents the argument to design. He seems perfectly willing to grant that biological evolution may very well be true. Yet, he points out, even supposing that to be the case, there must have been some order to the universe before evolution could operate. As he puts it, "However it may have originated (if it originated), that order did not evolve."[39] Therefore, he argues, order exists because "some person designed" it.

Yet both atheism and theism have unexplained brute facts. If atheism is true, order may be a brute fact; if theism is true, the mind of God--which is surely an example of order if anything is--may also be an unexplained brute fact. As Graham Oppy writes, the issue is whether "there is any advantage in trading kinds of brute and unexplained givens by moving from naturalism to supernaturalism. And that plainly depends upon whether there are independent reasons for preferring naturalism to supernaturalism."[40]

(c) The Course of Human Events: As I understand it, Willard's third stage of theistic evidence is as follows. If one's background knowledge includes the belief that the universe was created and designed by a person--as stages one and two suggest--then it is probable that that person would retain an ongoing interest in their creation.[41] Thus, the prior probability of divine intervention is high. Therefore, he suggests that sincere seekers of truth should pay "serious attention to the facts claimed for religious histories and religious experiences."[42] According to Willard, "the existence of the Jewish people and of the Christian church, when one goes into the fine texture of the history, personalities, thought, and experience which make them up," is best explained by the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.[43]

However, even assuming that the universe was created and designed by a supernatural being, it does not follow that that such a being is a moral or loving one; therefore we cannot assume that such a being would desire an ongoing interest in its creation, much less an ongoing loving relationship with its creation. Moreover, Willard's third stage is not an argument. Which historical details are best explained by the Christian God? Willard never says, and therefore his argument does not even get off the ground.

Appendix B: "Mentors to the Skeptic"

According to Zacharias, the purpose of this appendix is "to engage the heart of the antitheistic arguments" and present "what are clearly self-stultifying fallacies implicit in their philosophies" (p. xviii). He does this by summarizing the major points in the philosophies and biographies of Rene Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Sören Kierkegaard, Friedrich W. Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet three of these individuals--Descartes, Kant, and Kierkegaard--were not atheists. Moreover, much of what Zacharias has to say about atheists is nothing more than ad hominem attacks. In the interest of space, I will only discuss Zacharias's comments about Russell's philosophy.

In a nutshell, Zacharias quotes Russell out of context such that Russell's ethical theory appears arbitrary to readers unfamiliar with Russell's writings. Commenting on Russell's famous debate with Frederick Copleston on the existence of God, Zacharias "summarizes" the part where Russell and Copleston discuss the moral argument (p. 182). As Zacharias notes, Copleston asked Russell how he distinguished between "good and bad." Russell's answer: "By my feelings."[44] Zacharias then proceeds to ridicule Russell's answer. Yet Zacharias fails to tell his readers that Russell clarified his answer just six comments later. Russell said, "The feeling is a little too simplifiled. You've got to take account of the effects of actions and your feelings toward those effects."[45] Thus Russell was a consequentialist! This is confirmed in several of Russell's other writings. In Education and the Modern World, Russell wrote, "The fundamental defect of Christian ethics consists in the fact that it labels certain classes of acts 'sins' and others 'virtue' on grounds that have nothing to do with their social consequences."[46] In his essay, "Styles in Ethics," he wrote, "The morality that ought to exist would lay down ends of life rather than rules of conduct."[47] And in "What I Believe," he wrote, "But I do not believe that we can decide what sort of conduct is right or wrong except by reference to its probable consequences."[48]

Zacharias similarly misunderstands Russell's famous comment about "unyielding despair."[49] According to Zacharias, "Russell's summation was that the only sensible posture of life was one of unyielding despair and that any attitude other than despair was merely a seduction of the mind" (p. 70). Zacharias takes this as evidence that Russell believed life in an atheistic universe is meaningless. Yet Russell only spoke of "unyielding despair" in the context of theistic expectations about the meaning of life; Russell went on to write (in the same essay) that the objective meaning of our lives must be "that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good."[50] As Quentin Smith puts it, Russell believed in the "religious meaninglessness" but "ethical meaning" of life.[51]

Concluding Thoughts

Despite all the hype it has received, Can Man Live Without God? suffers from a number of flaws:

1. Although Zacharias recognizes the need for cordiality (p. 19), the amount of insults and name-calling in the book--especially against his so-called "mentors to the skeptic" and contemporary scientific proponents of evolution--is truly appalling. (On the latter, he describes Gould as having a "cultic commitment to atheistic evolutionary belief" [p. 56] and Miller as "driven by arrogance" [p. 83].)

2. Zacharias's defense of theism is totally inadequate. Although Zacharias recognizes that he must establish the existence of God before he can defend Christianity (p. 189), he relegates his "case" for theism to a mere 6 pages--2% of the book--in an appendix! (A much more logical structure would have been to first refute atheism, then defend theism, and then defend Christian theism.) With such little space devoted to arguing for theism, Zacharias is forced to summarize theistic arguments without adequately explicating and defending key premises in his arguments.

3. Many atheists would not recognize what Zacharias calls "atheism." First, Zacharias is simply mistaken when he asserts that atheism is a worldview. (Even naturalism--which has a much broader scope than mere atheism--is not a complete worldview since it lacks any beliefs about epistemology and ethics.) Second, Zacharias associates views with atheism which are clearly not entailed by the nonexistence of God. For example, Zacharias refers to "all of atheism's talk of hope or utopia" (p. 51), but I have never heard of an atheist who based their hope on their atheism or who thought that widespread atheism would produce a utopia. Indeed, Zacharias provides no substantiation for this bizarre claim.

4. Zacharias makes things easy for himself by completely ignoring all of the arguments for the nonexistence of God promoted by atheist philosophers. Indeed, Zacharias does not seem to be aware of any other atheological arguments besides AE (e.g., the argument from divine hiddenness).[52] And even his discussion of AE is deficient: he seems to be primarily interested in the pastoral problem of evil; he never discusses the problem of evil in the context of possible evidence for atheism. Moreover, the book Zacharias endorses as the paradigm example of a theist-atheist debate (p. 9)--Does God Exist? by J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen--is actually worse, for it does not include a discussion of AE beyond the Introduction where Peter Kreeft calls it 'the strongest argument for atheism.'[53]

5. Zacharias's scholarship is not always reliable. He occasionally quotes out of context (e.g., his quotations of Russell) and paraphrases material while presenting it as a verbatim quotation (e.g., his summary of Russell's debate). He incorrectly portrays all evolutionists--including Roman Catholic Kenneth Miller and agnostic Stephen Jay Gould (p. 56)--as atheists. He even fails to supply key references (e.g., his claim on p. 189 that Darwin predicted that atheism leads to violence); but then what else is new for an author who criticizes essays that are "heavily footnoted" (p. 6).

Although I have serious objections to the arguments and tone of Zacharias's book, I want to make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that Zacharias's arguments on religion and ethics are the best that Christian philosophers have to offer. I think that C. Stephen Layman's book, The Shape of the Good: Christian Reflections on the Nature of Ethics, is one of many refreshing theistic contributions to the ongoing discussion about the interface between religion and morality.[54] I hope that my nontheistic colleagues will give Layman's book (and others like it) due consideration.[55]

Notes

[1] Italics are mine. See "RZIM Ministry Description" (<URL:http://www.gospelcom.net/rzim/faqs/ministry_desc.htm>, n.d.), spotted 12 Mar 99.

[2] I am aware of one atheist who refers to "anti-theistic arguments," but even that person always refers to himself as an atheist, not an antitheist. See Keith Parsons, "Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis" (Ph.D. dissertation, Queen's University, 1988?), republished electronically at <URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_parsons/theistic/">.

[3] Ronald H. Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), p. 30.

[4] I owe this point to Ed Stoebenau.

[5] Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Rev. ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 207.

[6] I owe this point to Michael Martin. See Roderick Firth, "Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer," Readings in Ethical Theory (Second ed., ed. Wilfrid Sellars and John Hospers, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970); Richard Boyd, "How to be a Moral Realist," and Peter Railton, "Moral Realism," in Moral Discourse and Practice (ed. S. Darwall, A. Gibbard, and P. Railton, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 37-39, 197-203; Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

[7] Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman, Religion and Morality (trans. Batya Stein, Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1995), p. 111.

[8] Ibid., p. 112.

[9] Ibid., p. 107.

[10] Paul Draper, private correspondence, March 25, 1999.

[11] I am grateful to Keith Parsons for making me aware of this book. See Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (SUNY Press, 1998).

[12] See William Rowe, "The Problem of Evil & Some Varieties of Atheism" American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979), pp. 335-41; Paul Draper, "Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists" Nous 23 (1989), pp. 331-50; and Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). For some recent treatments of the probem of evil written after the publication of Zacharias's book, see Mark Bernstein, "Explaining Evil" Religious Studies 34 (1998), pp. 151-164; and Theodore M. Drange, Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1998).

[13] See, for example, Theodore Drange's formulation of the argument from evil in Drange, pp. 53-54.

[14] I owe this point to Glenn Miller.

[15] Wes Morriston, private correspondence, April 10, 1999.

[16] I owe this point to Glenn Miller.

[17] I owe this point to Glenn Miller.

[18] Stewart Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[19] Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, Reason & Religious Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 248.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Kenneth R. Miller, "Life's Grand Design," Technology Review, February/March 1994.

[22] Professor Miller confirmed that he is "an active Roman Catholic, no matter what Zacharias says" in private correspondence with me on March 28, 1999.

[23] For a response to the fine-tuning argument, see Theodore M. Drange, Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1998), pp. 378-386; Michael Hurben, "On Universes and Firing Squads" (<URL:/library/modern/michael_hurben/univ.html>, 1998); Victor J. Stenger, "Review of The Creator and the Cosmos" (<URL:/library/modern/vic_stenger/ross.html>, 1998); Graham Oppy, "Review of J.P. Moreland (ed.), The Creation Hypothesis" (<URL:/library/modern/graham_oppy/review-m.html>, 1998).

[24] Andrew Ellington, "Interim FAQ: The Probability of Abiogenesis" (<URL:http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-abiogenesis.html>, 1995), spotted May 11, 1999.

[25] For an excellent critique of alleged Biblical prophecies, see Tim Callahan, Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 1997).

[26] I owe this point to Farrell Till.

[27] See Jeffery Jay Lowder, "The Rest of the Story" Philo 1 (1999), forthcoming.

[28] Terry L. Miethe, ed. Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate Between Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew (San Fransisco: Harper and Row, 1987).

[29] Craig Blomberg and Robert M. Price, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? (videotape, Colorado Springs, CO, 1999).

[30] Keith Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989), pp. 19-20.

[31] Antony Flew, God, Freedom, and Immortality: A Critical Analysis (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1984); George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1979); Parsons, 1989; and Martin, 1990.

[32] For a defense of defining "atheism" negatively, see the Atheism Web's "Introduction to Atheism" (<URL:/news/atheism/intro.html>, n.d.), spotted 2 Apr 99. For a defense of defining "atheism" positively, see Theodore M. Drange, "Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism" (<URL:/library/modern/theodore_drange/definition.html>, 1998), spotted 2 Apr 99.

[33] Flew, p. 22. Italics are mine.

[34] Flew, pp. 81-99; Smith, p. 50; Keith Parsons, Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis (Ph.D. dissertation, Queen's University), pp. 157-191; Martin, pp. 281-452, and Michael Martin, "The Transcendental Argument for the Non Existence of God" (<URL:/library/modern/michael_martin/martin-frame/tang.html>, 1996).

[35] Quentin Smith, "Infinity and the Past" in William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 77-91.

[36] Robin Le Poidevin, Arguing for Atheism (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 12-13.

[37] Martin 1990, pp. 103-104.

[38] Dallas Willard, "Language, Being, God, and the Three Stages of Theistic Evidence" in J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1993), pp. 197-217.

[39] Ibid., p. 209.

[40] Ibid., pp. 203-204.

[41] Ibid., p. 213.

[42] Ibid., p. 214.

[43] Ibid., p. 216.

[44] Betrand Russell and Frederick Copleston, "A Debate on the Existence of God" Bertrand Russell on God and Religion (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1986), pp. 138-139.

[45] Russell and Copleston, pp. 139-140. Italics are mine.

[46] Bertrand Russell, Education and the Modern World (New York: W.W. Norton, 1932), p. 110.

[47] Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (New York: Touchstone, 1961), p. 348.

[48] Russell 1961, p. 374.

[49] Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship" Why I Am Not a Christian (ed. Paul Edwards, Simon & Schuster, 1957), p. 107.

[50] Ibid., p. 110.

[51] Q. Smith, pp. 5-7.

[52] For an introduction to the argument from divine hiddenness see J.L. Schellenberg Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

[53] For a balanced, representative debate on the existence of God, see William Lane Craig and Paul Draper, Does God Exist? (videotape, West Point, NY, 1996).

[54] See C. Stephen Layman, The Shape of the Good: Christian Reflections on the Foundation of Ethics (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1991); Robert M. Adams, The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); and J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987).

[55] I am grateful to Glenn Miller, Michael Martin, Paul Draper, Keith Parsons, Wes Morriston, Mark Vuletic, Todd B. Vick, Sally Morem, Ed Stobeneau, Richard Carrier, and Sean Choi for helpful suggestions.


"An Emotional Tirade Against Atheism" is copyright © 1999 by Jeffery Jay Lowder. All rights reserved. The electronic version is copyright © 1999 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Jeffery Jay Lowder. All rights reserved.

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