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Doug Krueger Colossal

That Colossal Wreck

A Review of Zacharias’s A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism (1997)

by Doug Krueger

Related documents:

Addressing Those Colossal Misunderstandings: A Response to Doug Krueger” (1999)

Paul Copan’s response to this essay.

Copin’ with Copan” (1999)

Krueger’s reply to Copan’s response.

An Emotional Tirade Against Atheism” (1999) by Jeffery Jay Lowder

Lowder’s review of Ravi Zacharias’s book, Can Man Live Without God?. Zacharias refuses to link to this criqitue from his website.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (Off Site)

The official website of RZIM.

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.

Incidentally, the title of Zacharias’s book is taken from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, in which a statue of a great king is described. The statue is fallen and broken, and its face is the shattered visage, suggestive, according to Zacharias, of the fallen greatness of atheism. The title of my review is, too, taken from that poem.

a. Zacharias ignores atheism and attacks atheists.

In the first chapter, “Morticians of the Absolute,” Zacharias quickly demonstrates the futility of his endeavor. His target is, presumably, atheism. Atheism denies the truth of the theistic claim that god exists. In order to refute atheism, one would think that what would be needed would be a demonstration of the truth of theism or a refutation of the arguments for atheism. Think again. Instead of attacking atheism, Mr. Zacharias makes the typical apologist’s error of choosing a spokesperson for atheism– in this case Friedrich Nietzsche— and he proceeds to rail against various aspects of that person’s philosophy, character, and influence. Unfortunately, Zacharias displays a poor understanding of all of these areas.

For example, Zacharias states that “Nietzschean dogma” influenced Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini [1], and he spills a great deal of ink insisting that there is a logical connection between atheism, Nietzsche’s views, World War II– and even Hugh Hefner’s degradation of women! Zacharias further elaborates on the supposed connection between Nietzsche and Hitler in chapter three (59-62), but throughout he displays a profound ignorance of several important and relevant issues.

First, atheism is not the result of Nietzsche’s views. There were atheists long before, centuries before, the “god is dead” movement (whose proponents are those whom he calls the “morticians of the absolute” (god)). Thus, refuting some of Nietzsche’s views, insofar as the view refuted is not the claim that there is no god, is pointless. True, Zacharias scores a lot of emotive points with those who don’t know any better than to recognize an ad hominem attack on a straw man, but readers with their wits about them will just roll their eyes. What Zacharias attacks in Nietzsche’s philosophy is not relevant to whether god exists. To show that atheism is false, show either that god exists or that the arguments against the existence of god fail. Zacharias steadfastly refuses to do either (until the first appendix to his book– more about that later). Instead of attacking atheism, Zacharias merely attacks atheists. He tries to show that some of them were unhappy, gloomy, or responsible for the immoral conduct in others. However, all of this, obviously, is as irrelevant as trying to show that god does not exist by attacking the immoral conduct of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, or the latest priest to be jailed for molesting young boys. Attacking the person or his or her disposition does not attack the philosophical position, as students learn within the first two weeks of a college course in logic.

It is also a mistake on the part of Zacharias to assume that atheists share a worldview. He often talks of the atheist worldview as if there is a particular set of beliefs which all atheists share. This is sheer nonsense. Atheism is defined by its denial of a worldview– the theistic one– not by its adherence to certain beliefs. This is another typical mistake by apologists, and Mr. Zacharias is unable to avoid this all-too-common blunder. As a result, as noted above, he attacks what he perceives to be the views of some atheists, but views which are not logically related to atheism itself. I know many atheists, but I know only one or two who may be fans of Nietzsche. Nietzsche is not the originator of atheism or the spokesperson for it. Much of Zacharias’s criticism of atheists, then, is a waste of time.

Further, it is obvious that Zacharias has not done his homework with regard to Nietzsche, so even the attacks on his influence and character misfire. Zacharias asserts a direct, logical relationship between the views of Nietzsche and the carnage caused by Hitler. He states that Hitler used Nietzsche’s philosophy as a “blueprint” for his war, and that he “took Nietzsche’s logic and drove the atheistic world view to its legitimate conclusion” (59). This assertion is easily disproven. Zacharias is obviously unaware that Nietzsche had contempt for Germans. Nietzsche preferred to consider himself a European. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche accused the Germans of playing a major role in inhibiting the spread of the beneficial effects of the Renaissance. Nietzsche wrote:

They are my enemies, I confess it, these Germans: I despise in them every kind of conceptual and valuational uncleanliness, of cowardice before every honest Yes and No. For almost a thousand years they have messed up and confused everything they touched with their fingers…[2]

Nietzsche was also quite clear about the fact that he detested anti-Semites. In a letter to a friend he stated jokingly that he was “having all anti-Semites shot” [3]. In The Antichrist Nietzsche states that “an anti-Semite certainly is not any more decent because he lies as a matter of principle” [4]. These and many other vitriolic attacks on Germans, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and other concepts central to the Nazi worldview, as well as occasional praise for Jewish culture and courage, show quite clearly that Nietzsche’s true philosophy could not have been responsible for the worldview of Hitler, as Zacharias asserts. These are aspects of Nietzsche’s writing that Zacharias would just as soon not mention, or else he is unaware of them.

Hitler was unaware of them, incidentally, since Nietzsche’s sister, an anti-Semite herself, purged his work of anything which she believed the Nazis might find objectionable before allowing its publication. By that time Nietzsche was gone and unable to protest. Thus, Hitler and the Nazis were completely unaware of Nietzsche’s real views on important matters, and so the supposed link between them, of which Zacharias makes so much, is illusory. Oddly enough, Zacharias also neglects to mention that Hitler was not an atheist! In many of his speeches, Hitler asserted that he was acting in accordance with god’s will. Readers may wish to consult Walter Kaufmann’s popular work Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, especially chapter 10, “The Master Race,” for further details on the misunderstanding regarding the link between Nietzsche and the Nazis [5]. One can hardly blame Nietzsche for Hitler’s views if Nietzsche’s philosophy had to be significantly altered to fit Hitler’s warped frame of mind, so even this avenue of criticism fails due to Zacharias’s shoddy scholarship. Kaufmann’s book, by the way, was published decades ago, and it clearly dispelled the myth that Nietzsche would have approved of the Nazis. Other works, such as Ronald Hayman’s Nietzsche: A Critical Life, do the same [6]. Zacharias has no excuse for not being aware of this. A beginning philosophy student would receive a failing mark for handing in such nonsense in a term paper. Before writing a book which attacks Nietzsche– and which all but accuses him of starting World War II!– Zacharias should have done some competent research.

Similarly, other attacks on philosophers show Zacharias’s ignorance of their views. He attacks Sartre for being the “academic grandfather” of wholesale slaughter in Africa and Cambodia (57-59). Zacharias does not present any argument for the relationship between Sartre and these historical events other than to simply quote someone who mentions that five Cambodian leaders had studied in France in the 1950’s, had joined the Communist Party there, and had allegedly “absorbed Sartre’s doctrines of philosophical activism and necessary violence” (58). These doctrines are not made explicit by Zacharias, nor does he mention that Sartre himself never joined the Communist Party or that Sartre was highly critical of Soviet communism. Zacharias leaves these mere assertions unsupported and undeveloped, in the hope that his readers will attribute Sartre with guilt by this questionable circumstantial evidence. There were thousands of professed communists in France in the 1950’s, but somehow we should just blame Sartre for events which happened abroad decades later? The leaps from atheism to Sartre’s political views to tragic events in distant countries– all this requires support if it is to be credible. Zacharias provides none. And of course it would defeat his purpose for Zacharias to mention other atheists, such as Bertrand Russell, who were highly critical of the communists. Interestingly, Zacharias also forgets to mention that Sartre fought against the Nazis in World War II. Sartre was a POW, and he later became an active member of the French Resistance. After having worked for a couple of chapters to create the illusion that atheists support Nazis, Zacharias would sooner lose a limb than reveal to his readers that atheists opposed them.

Immanuel Kant made his mark in the field of moral theory in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785. Kant developed a powerful moral system which relies upon pure reason and which does not make reference to any gods. In an effort to refute Kant, Zacharias quotes novelist Iris Murdoch’s assertion that the incarnation of Kant’s ideal man is Milton’s Lucifer (139)! On Kant’s moral view, there are some principles of morals which are inviolable. Keeping promises, always telling the truth, helping those in need, not killing others (or oneself), and other such moral precepts are an important part of Kantian ethics. The individual’s own desires or interests take a back seat to the moral law, regardless of any undesirable consequences to oneself. Does that sound like the moral system of Lucifer? If Lucifer, on Milton’s view, does share much in common with Kant’s ideal moral person, Zacharias should explain how this is so. Otherwise, it would appear, falsely, that Kant’s ideal person is an evil demon. Here Zacharias grossly distorts Kant’s view. And, of course, Zacharias does not develop any argument whatsoever to show that Kant’s project, of constructing an ethical system which does not make reference to god, cannot work. Instead, he simply indulges in this name-calling.

Zacharias’s obvious ignorance of the views of atheists displayed in his attacks on them, his unwillingness to develop any coherent argument against atheism, as well as his penchant for making strong claims without bothering to support them, make the portions of his book in which he attacks the views of specific atheists completely ineffective.

b. The Real Missing Link

The second chapter of the book is an attack on the theory of evolution, and Zacharias makes it clear that he is not concerned with showing that atheism is false so much as attempting to show that it cannot cross the hurdles of “logical, existential, and pragmatic viability” (29). Zacharias is terribly vague about the latter two categories, and he makes only a half-hearted, and inadequate, attempt at showing that atheism fails to clear the logical hurdle. Zacharias writes:

Postulating the nonexistence of God, atheism immediately commits the blunder of absolute negation, which is self-contradictory. For, to sustain the belief that there is no God, it has to demonstrate infinite knowledge, which is tantamount to saying, “I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge” (30).

Obviously this argument is flawed, and it is perhaps for this reason that Zacharias himself quickly dismisses it as one of those “pedantic verbal dead ends” and moves on to other issues which he considers more important. What’s wrong with the argument, by the way? The atheist never claims to have infinite knowledge, so Zacharias is attacking a kind of atheist which does not exist, another straw person.

Arguments for god’s nonexistence typically rely on claims about god’s nature made by theists, not by atheists. For example, the argument from evil, the argument that, given the existence of evil (suffering), the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent god is either unlikely or impossible, depending on the version of the argument, is not based on infinite knowledge. It is based on what the theist claims to know about god’s nature and how this conflicts with the known fact of suffering.

Similarly, the argument from nonbelief does not presume omniscience. This is the argument that, if salvation were dependent on holding certain beliefs, such as the belief that god exists, or that Jesus died for your sins, and so on, then a supreme being, who is, among other things, omnibenevolent, would see to it that everyone holds those beliefs. Not everyone holds those beliefs. Thus there is no such being [7].

The argument that the concept of god is incoherent, and thus god cannot exist, is also an effective argument for atheism, yet it does not require that atheists first be omniscient. For example, a sadistic mass murderer knows from experience what it is like to derive pleasure from killing his or her innocent victims. If god knows everything, then god knows from experience what it is like to derive pleasure from killing his innocent victims. But god is supposed to be morally perfect, so god cannot know this. So a human being could know something which an all-knowing being cannot. The concept, then, is incoherent. Similarly, if god does not exist in space and time (if god is transcendent), then god cannot move, since movement requires both space and time. If god cannot move, then god cannot pick up a pencil. But god is supposed to be omnipotent. Thus, the concept is contradictory. This argument points out that some of god’s attributes cannot exist in the same being because they entail contradictions. A being with contradictory attributes cannot exist, so god cannot exist. This argument, too, does not require omniscience on the part of the atheist. It just requires a little knowledge of what the theist claims about god [8].

Readers must excuse me for spending so much time refuting but a few sentences in Zacharias’s book, but this is about as close as Zacharias ever comes to even attempting to show that atheism is false, so this point deserves more attention than some of his whole chapters. In any case, after having dismissed his own argument as a dead end, Zacharias launches into an attack on evolution.

But why? Atheism does not entail the theory of evolution, and evolution does not entail atheism. Many theists are evolutionists. They believe that god has guided evolution. So of what use is an attack on evolution when the target is atheism? Zacharias seems to think that if he can show that belief in evolution is unwarranted that this shows that the “atheistic” worldview is untenable as a whole. Perhaps this is the “existential” hurdle mentioned earlier. But that approach is doomed. Even if the theory of evolution could be shown to be false, this would not affect atheism. True, one who rejects supernatural explanations would want a naturalistic explanation of human origins, but there could be any number of other naturalistic explanations of human origins besides evolution. Since atheists are not committed to the theory of evolution– remember, there were atheists long before Darwin– Zacharias is again missing his target. It seems at times that he’ll discuss any subject in his book as long as its not atheism.

And does Zacharias show that evolution is untenable? Of course not. He trots out the standard, uninformed apologist’s assertion that evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics (40-41). This position has been so thoroughly refuted, and so often, that one begins to wonder about Mr. Zacharias. Can he really be so misinformed about this issue and yet still seem to be so widely read that he can drop at least one name per page in his writing? Surely Zacharias must have read somewhere that the Second Law applies to closed systems, and the Earth, since it receives energy from the sun, is not a closed system. Although life on Earth may evolve and become more complex, the Second Law is not violated because the total energy in the solar system is depleted, since much of the energy of the sun is dissipated into space. You can have order from disorder when you apply energy. After all, a child can take a set of alphabet blocks and arrange them alphabetically. Perhaps Mr. Zacharias has read about such things happening. But on his interpretation of the Second Law, this should be impossible. This should have been a good clue that his interpretation of the Law was incorrect. If you add energy, you can seemingly get order from disorder even though entropy increases in the system as a whole. The sun adds energy to the Earth, so evolution is possible. Zacharias’s approach to refuting evolution fails.

Zacharias’s attack on evolution is misguided. The real missing link, which he does not supply, is why one should think that refuting evolution would refute atheism. Although he claims that there is such a link, support for the claim is conspicuous by its absence. Zacharias displays a clear lack of understanding of the issues involved here. Zacharias even asserts repeatedly that evolutionists claim that life and human existence arose by chance, even though they really claim that it arose out of genetic mutation, natural selection, sexual selection, and according to other natural mechanisms. Zacharias should stop listening to creationists and pay attention to real scientists. His attack on evolution is ineffective.

A real howler can be found on page 122, incidentally, in which Zacharias states:

It is not accidental that it has generally been in the milieu of Christian belief that investigation in science and thought have flourished. A love for God prompts a love for knowing the world that He has created.

Someone buy this guy a history book! The history of science is in large part the history of the struggle to free human thinking from the bondage of religion. Religious authorities opposed the assertion that the Earth was not flat, the view that the Earth moved, that heavenly bodies did not orbit in perfect circles, that illness was not caused by devils, the use of the lightning rod and anaesthesia, and thousands of other intellectual and technological advances in science. Many scientists had their works banned, burned, and in some cases the scientists themselves were killed or punished. Can Zacharias really be so ignorant of this aspect of Western civilization, or is he just lying to promote his cause? You be the judge.

c. The Wishful Thinking Approach, or Hey, It’s Still Better than Trying to Refute Atheism, Isn’t It?

Chapter 4 of Zacharias’s book is about meaning in life. He tries to explain how meaningless life would be if atheism is true. Chapter 5 is about how terrible it would be if death were final. Relationships would end, hope would be abandoned, and there would be no “final justice.” I guess we wouldn’t want a few evildoers to escape eternal torture, would we? These would be sad states of affairs, according to Zacharias. The suggestion, then, is that we should therefore not believe it. If atheism is true, then that would result in undesirable consequences. We don’t want undesirable consequences. Therefore, atheism is false. Of course, Zacharias would be a fool to state his approach in this way, but that is clearly his method. There are two problems with that, however.

First, even if there were undesirable consequences if atheism were true, this would not make atheism false. To think otherwise is to simply engage in wishful thinking. “If death if final, that would be a bad thing. I dont want to believe anything which results in bad things. Therefore, death is not final.” Compare that with the following, which is no doubt on the minds of millions every week: “If this is not the winning lottery ticket, then I will be terribly disappointed. I do not want to believe anything which results in my being terribly disappointed. Therefore, this is the winning lottery ticket.” By similar reasoning, no one’s house would burn down, no one would go bankrupt, no one would be killed in automobile accidents. All that would be required to avert such disasters is to realize that terrible consequences would follow if those things happened and then realize that one does not want to believe it. Then it wouldn’t happen. But clearly that is absurd.

If one wants to show that atheism is false, one needs to attack the view itself. Atheism is either true or not regardless of whether the results are desirable. Crying because there is no god will not make a god exist.

The entire chapter regarding the ill effects if death is final is also the result of a misunderstanding. Atheism does not logically entail that death is final. Belief in souls and immortality can be held in the absence of belief in gods. In Jainism, for example, a branch of Hinduism, there is belief in souls and reincarnation although they are atheists. There is no logical connection which requires that souls, immortality, and gods always come as a package deal. Again Zacharias has attacked something other than atheism, and this attack is ineffective.

Zacharias makes much of the supposed hopelessness of life if there is no god. But would it be hopeless? Why? Zacharias states again and again that it would be, but he gives precious little support for this assertion. He quotes a lot of poetry, and he quotes a lot of people restating his assertion, but where is the evidence that life would be hopeless?

A humanist is an atheist or agnostic who holds a set of related beliefs which form a worldview. Remember, atheism is not a worldview itself. Atheism is defined by the view it does not have– theism. Zacharias ignores the volumes of literature by humanists who celebrate the meaning they have in their lives. In Exuberance: A Philosophy of Happiness, humanist Paul Kurtz states, “Those around me seem to moan and complain, while I usually wake up singing and am joyful throughout the day. Life is so wonderful. I feel literally as if I am bursting at the seams” [9]. Readers may also wish to take a look at Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness [10]. Many atheists are excited about living and enjoy full, rewarding lives. Zacharias does not give an accurate portrayal of the view which he pretends to attack.

But not all xians feel that life is hopeful or enjoyable. Why doesn’t Zacharias quote those who believe in predestination? If you are either already saved or damned, and this is determined even before you are born, and there is nothing you can do to change that, wouldn’t that weigh heavily on one’s attempt to live a meaningful life? Would it not preclude a meaningful life? And what of salvation by grace? If there is a god, and we cannot be saved by anything we do, and, since we would deserve damnation, we could not deserve any worse than we do already, what would be the point of performing any one action as opposed to any other? How do these xians get meaning in their lives? These are well-known theological problems which have never been satisfactorily resolved. None of these issues are addressed by Zacharias.

The humanist view is misrepresented, and problems with the xian view are ignored. Again, Zacharias misses his target.

d. The Bug-eyed Deity.

The chapter “With Larger Eyes Than Ours” purports to be a defense of xianity and an explanation of how it avoids the pitfalls of atheism. However, Zacharias’s version of xianity is extremely vague, and his use of the Bible is often confused and misleading.

What is xianity according to Zacharias? He talks vaguely of god’s love, sin, the good news, and other broad terms, but he does not define any of them with in any meaningful sense. For example, he insists that an understanding of sin is crucial to any moral theory:

Until we understand what the Bible means by sin, our moral definitions will never find solutions (141).

The problem is not the absence of education or culture, it is the presence of sin (142).

…people constantly fail to understand what sin is (142).

Ok, Zacharias. Tell us what sin is. He states:

Those who recognize the nature of sin understand that what renders someone a sinner is not the scale of human wickedness but the very nature and character of God. It is God’s purity that we stand before, not a fluctuating moral code that varies from one society to another. [As from the Old Testament to the New?!– DK] When sin is understood, a moral discussion can begin– for each one of us stands accountable before God. An accountability that high makes the moral law of any land secondary to the moral law of God. Honesty and virtue are embraced because our motivation is to honor God and not merely to appear right before others. (143)

Zacharias seems to be trying to say that sin is the difference between our moral status and that of God. Apparently, our sin lies in the fact that we don’t match the moral purity of God. If that’s Zacharias’s point, his view is in deep trouble.

First, the god of the Bible measures up to the level of a petty and vicious tyrant. The god of the bible punishes babies for the sins of their parents (Exodus 20:5, 34:7; Numbers 14:18; 2 Samuel 12:13-19); punishes people by causing them to become cannibals and eat their children (2 Kings 6:24-33, Lamentations 4:10-11); gives people bad laws, even requiring the sacrifice of their firstborn babies, so that they can be filled with horror and know that god is their lord (Ezekiel 20:25-26); causes people to believe lies so that he can send them to hell (2 Thessalonians 2:11), and many other atrocities, far too many to list here. It would not be hard to measure up to, and exceed, that level of moral purity. Atheists surpass it every day.

Second, according to the Bible story, our level of perfection is not something we should be ashamed of. The Bible states that god made humans in his image, but it is also clear that he did not make them gods. If humans were made inferior to god, why should we be held accountable for that? Why should we feel guilt over something over which, according to the myth, we had no part in at all? Furthermore, the story of the Fall suggests that original sin consists in that human beings became more like god. Both the serpent and god state explicitly that Adam and Eve sinned in that they became more like god by gaining knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:5, 3:22). If sin is the wide gap between us and god, why is narrowing the gap a horrible sin and not a virtue? Aren’t we supposed to aspire to be more like god? And why were Adam and Eve punished, anyway? If they did not, by god’s design, know the difference between good and evil before eating the magic fruit, they could not have known that disobeying god was evil. Isn’t it immoral to punish someone for something he or she could not possibly have known is wrong? Zacharias leaves us in the dark on all these matters. His vagueness with regard to important definitions of theological concepts is no doubt due in part to his desire not to offend some of his intended audience, but his exposition suffers much from the neglect.

Zacharias also misrepresents the Bible in a number of ways. For example, he quotes Robert Jastrow’s assertion that “the details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same” (133). Zacharias does not support the citation with evidence, and the prima facie evidence weighs heavily against this claim. To cite just a couple of instances: the Bible states that the Earth and water were created before light, and that grass and trees were created before the sun and other stars. Scientists know that this is clearly incorrect. The Bible also has contradictory creation accounts. Zacharias does not even attempt to clear up any of these discrepancies.

Zacharias also displays his ignorance of biblical knowledge in claims such as the following:

Paul encountered Him [Jesus] in the logical sequence of His resurrection, death, life, and birth. Through the keyhole of the Resurrection, he argued backwards in time; for through it he saw the authentication of Christ’s message, the explanation of His death, the meaning of His life, and the prophetic fulfillment of His birth.(159)

The prophetic fulfillment of his birth? Paul never mentions the supposed virgin birth of Jesus or any prophesies regarding it. Bible scholars tell us that Paul probably never even heard of the virgin birth story in relation to Jesus. The earliest known xian writings, the letters of Paul and the gospel of Mark, say nothing of it. It is a later development in the Jesus legend as the early xians attempted to convert the Romans and Greeks. Anyone who was anyone in those cultures was born of a virgin. Julius Caesar, Hercules, Plato, and many other notables, both historical and mythical, were said to be born of virgins. It had to happen to Jesus too, eventually, if the xians were to gain converts in the Greco-Roman world.

Zacharias tries to present xianity and the Bible as a coherent, tidy, well-structured package, but they are not. The radically differing denominations of xianity, and the scores of major and minor biblical contradictions, attest to that. Zacharias’s presentation of xianity as a solution to all of the hurdles which atheism supposedly fails to cross, is unsuccessful.

e. The Appendix That Does Not Perform Its Function.

In one of his two Appendices, Zacharias finally presents some bona fide arguments against atheism which he can endorse– sort of. He states that they are just “starting points” for an argument from evil for the existence of god. Here’s one:

1. Yes, there is evil in this world.

2. If there is evil, there must be good (a problem the atheist has to explain).

3. If there is good and evil, there must be a moral law on which to judge between good and evil.

4. If there is a moral law, there must be a moral law giver.

5. For the theist, this points to god.

The argument, unfortunately, has many serious weaknesses. Some of them are the following.

First, premise #2 is false. It is not the case that good must exist where there is evil. Is there good in hell, then? Theists sometimes argue that evil must exist so that we can know what is good, and I suppose Zacharias is just arguing the reverse of this, but the claim is false. All that really follows is that the concept of good or evil is required to exist in order to know its complement. As far as explaining why there is good, the atheist need only point out that there are good people in the world. Many atheists have championed social causes and helped alleviate suffering. Atheists sometimes have well-developed, nontheistic moral systems. The existence of good is easily explained. Zacharias does not make clear what the supposed problem is with regard to the existence of goodness.

Premise #3 is poorly worded. In order to judge good and evil, what is needed, strictly speaking, is a moral system. To call that a “law” is to introduce more than is necessary to explain the distinction between good and evil. Zacharias obviously uses this loaded word in order to set up his next premise. If the more neutral premise “If there is good and evil, then there must be a moral system on which to judge good and evil” were substituted for his own premise #3, his argument would collapse, and Zacharias gives no defense for why his version must be used instead of the other.

Premise #4 fails, and thus so does the argument as a whole, since the notion of a “law” is not required, at least not in the sense in which Zacharias intends, in order to judge good and evil. Thus, no law giver is required either. For example, Immanuel Kant’s moral system functions, Kant states, because it uses pure reason as its foundation. Logic itself shows which moral precepts can be used to guide conduct, and those which are inappropriate are recognized because they are contradictory. No “law giver” is needed, since the rules of logic are necessary; that is, they are always true in every possible set of circumstances, not because they are “given.” Other philosophers have also created moral systems which can judge good and evil without reference to gods. Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, W.D. Ross, and other philosophers. All of these moral theories function quite well in the absence of belief in gods. This is all that is needed to judge good and evil, so Zacharias’s argument does not succeed.

There are other major problems with the argument, and the one on the next page of Zacharias’s book– which asserts (without supporting arguments) that love and goodness are unexplainable unless there is a god– is even more untenable. Zacharias shows his lack of familiarity with the views of many philosophers, and especially with the writings of contemporary humanists, in making such a bold and problematic claim regarding love and goodness. Of course, he does not support the claim at all. His last-minute attempt to throw in some arguments against atheism are in vain. The “starting points” are non-starters.

f. Conclusion.

Ravi Zacharias does not provide any reasons for thinking that atheism is false. His exposition of the views of atheists shows serious misinterpretations, important factual errors and oversights, and unjustified conclusions regarding the consequences of their philosophies. His attack on evolution reveals an astonishing lack of understanding of both the nature and history of science and of the claims of, and evidence for, evolution. His exposition of the ill effects of atheism on the meaning of life and other related issues both avoid the real issue of the truth of atheism and fail to realistically and conscientiously represent the beliefs of humanists. Zacharias’s proposed xian solutions to many of the problems which he tried to develop with regard to atheism suffer from a striking lack of clarity and coherence, and his final attempts to present arguments against atheism are clumsy, ineffective, and obviously not well thought out. Peppered throughout the book are scores of mere assertions, innuendo, wild and unfounded speculation, and assorted non sequiturs.

In brief, with regard to atheism, Mr. Zacharias does not know what he ought to talk about, does not know what he is talking about, does not understand what’s been said about it, does not know who to quote with regard to it, and does not know how to go about saying it.

He quotes Don Marquis on page 170: “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you: but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.” Zacharias just wants to be loved.


[1] Ravi Zacharias, A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), pg. 18. Unless otherwise noted, as in biblical citations, numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in this book. Numbers in brackets are end note numbers.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, Walter A. Kaufmann, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), pg. 654. Called “TPN” hereafter.

[3] TPN, pg. 687.

[4] TPN, pg. 641.

[5] Walter A. Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950).

[6] Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

[7] Theodore Drange, the originator of the argument from nonbelief, has an excellent essay on that argument and the argument from evil at https://infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/aenb.html.

[8] Readers may wish to consult chapter 12 of Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Books, 1990) for a detailed exposition of the argument that god cannot exist because the concept of god is incoherent.

[9] Paul Kurtz, Exuberance: A Philosophy of Happiness (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1977), pg. 9.

[10] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (New York: Liveright Publishing, 1930).

“That Colossal Wreck” is copyright © 1997 by Douglas E. Krueger. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Douglas E. Krueger. All rights reserved.

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