Friday, February 14, 2014

So that was interesting

In preparation for the Ravi Zacharias event at UPenn, I wrote an opinion column laying out some of my concerns about Ravi's style and beliefs. Apparently it struck a nerve.

Here's the full text of my column:
Not ready for Ravi
The Devil’s Advocate | Ravi Zacharias may be an evangelist to the intellectuals, but he's no intellectual evangelist
 
Pastor Aaron Campbell of Philadelphia’s Antioch of Calvary Chapel has been independently planning the upcoming Ravi Zacharias lecture for over two years. According to Campbell, Ravi’s talk will be “one of the most intellectually stimulating lectures you have ever been to.”
I’m sorry, Aaron, but intellectually stimulating is not the same as mentally taxing. 
It concerns me greatly to see so many intelligent Penn students praising Zacharias as an intellectual heavyweight. Ravi is an expert rhetorician and apologist, but his views and arguments hardly deserve the term intellectual. 
Let us start with his reasons for rejecting the theory of evolution:
“The ascending of biological forms into more complex and superior designs also comes into conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics in Physics,” Zacharius wrote in his book, “The Real Face of Atheism.” This is an embarrassing and egregious misunderstanding of science propagated by anti-science organizations like the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis. 
While he has repeatedly made clear that he does not accept evolution for this and other equally ridiculous reasons, accounts vary regarding what he does believe. In private correspondence he is reported to be “firmly committed to a young earth” and to have “always held to the literal six day creation.” His ministry takes no official position (usually a sign it wishes to avoid embarrassment) but apparently considers it an important enough question to put first on its website’s Q&A page. 
Not content to stop at science denialism, Ravi goes on to promote a sinister revisionist history:
“Hitler’s point was that the destruction of the weak is a good thing for the survival of the strong … as is taught by atheistic evolution’s tenet of natural selection. …We have been down the atheist road before, and it ended in a holocaust,” he wrote in “The End of Reason.”
Elsewhere in his book, he puts abortion morally on par with child pornography and claims “atheistic philosophy is having its way with our children” on both counts. The connection seems obvious to him, but escapes me.
When asked about homosexuality, Ravi said, “Sex is a sacred gift of God. I can no longer justify an aberration of it in somebody else’s life than I can justify my own proclivities to go beyond my marital boundaries.”
It pains me to realize many still consider Ravi a great moral teacher. 
However, unless someone specifically brings up these topics in a question, Ravi is unlikely to address them in his talk. He surely knows his positions will not endear himself to the Penn community at large. 
What you can expect at the lecture is Ravi routinely distorting his opponents into vile straw men. 
For example, famous ethicist and animal rights activist Peter Singer put forward an argument against animal testing which includes a thought experiment directly comparing the suffering of intelligent animals and young children of below average intelligence. Ravi twists this nuanced and clever argument into “[Peter Singer believes] that a pig is of more value than a child with a disability.” Not even a Princeton professor like Singer deserves such malicious misrepresentation. 
Ravi has similarly shown his lack of intellectual integrity by distorting the views of thinkers such as Sam Harris, Sartre, Nietzsche, Descartes, Buddha, Gandhi and others. 
As for the Q&A session, one of Ravi’s favorite toys is the red herring. When asked a difficult or uncomfortable question, Ravi will begin telling a seemingly unrelated (and usually apocryphal) anecdote. By the time he reaches the point of the story, if there is one, so much time has elapsed that most have forgotten the original question, allowing Ravi to instead answer the question he would have preferred. 
I am still planning to attend his lecture, but that’s because I have a tendency toward mental masochism. If you choose to attend, keep any questions you ask him short and memorable. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to move beyond Ravi’s rhetoric and search for the substance. 
As of this writing, the column has 272 comments, which is a new record for me and possibly the Daily Pennsylvanian. The vast majority of the comments are a few people defending Ravi's ridiculous claims that atheism caused the holocaust or arguing that homosexuality is in fact immoral.

A few comments broke the mold and instead tried to save my soul.
Find Jesus and you will understand every word Ravi says, Mr Collins Boots. People who do not have Jesus in their hearts can not understand the Word, which will teach, for one, not to judge others who do not share your beliefs. He has SAVED people's souls. Evolution is nowhere near as important as that, if that's where you are going to base your argument against Ravi. As an intellectual, which you claim to be, you should be open to all arguments rather than oppress them. Why do you feel his lectures are such an attack on your own self, enough to print such a critical review. Mediocre as well, might I add. If you feel so strongly towards Ravi's lectures, I suggest you stand up and debate him yourself. Many profound men before you have done so and found themselves wanting.
...
I ache for you then, Mr. Boots and pray you will find your way back home. God be with you.
- Link
I also received a couple direct emails to the same ends:
It is by no surprise that you appose his viewpoints and presence on campus. In fact, the unadulterated Word of God says that the "natural" man cannot understand the things of the "spirit". So, it is really not your fault that you can't see the intelligence and brilliance of the sound doctrine that he speaks. You simply have rejected the Holy Spirit, which is a requirement to fully understand the relevance and power of His Word.
What I truly give you kudos for however is that it is apparent that you proclaim to be the devils advocate and your philosophies as partially articulated in your article, substantiates that you are a servant of the devil. The Word says that He would prefer for people to be either HOT or COLD towards Him, but those that are lukewarm will be spewed out of his mouth. So, you are actually in better grace with the Lord than those that are not quite sure what side of the philosophical spectrum they sit on. ...
If you attend the event from the posture of the curious student, I strongly believe and pray that your heart can be touched by the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Saul, was also a devils advocate and lived of life that persecuted the Church, but when he became Paul his life was turned around and he ended up being responsible for penning 2/3 of the new testament.
God Bless you Collin, and I pray that you enjoy your evening and that the Lord has an opportunity to be invited into your heart.
Thanks, I guess?

Another emailer was much more succinct:
I will listen in and cannot wait to hear the question that you pose.......just to see if you hold sand or like the hourglass! You have had over two years to prepare. It is sad when one can be a critic while quoting from books written by others! I like a good debate.
Actually I only had about a month, but to be fair I never stated that publicly.

My article also garnered many prayers for my soul and for Ravi on facebook:
So apparently not everyone is a fan of Ravi Zacharias... we're in Philly for an open forum at University of Pennsylvania, and Ravi's visit is causing quite a stir on campus!

Check out this column in The Daily Pennsylvanian by Collin Boots of the Penn Secular Society... in which he argues that Ravi is "no intellectual," "promotes a sinister revisionist history," and "routinely distorts his opponents."
"It pains me to realize many still consider Ravi a great moral teacher," he writes. http://bit.ly/LR73YD
This column demonstrates the intense campus environment we're going into... and we'd love your prayers for Tuesday's event as our team seeks to operate with grace and truth. #RaviUPenn" 
-Link 
This post is interesting for several reasons. First, she seems surprised that not everyone is enraptured by Ravi's sermons. I hope I'm not reading that correctly. Second, my one column apparently constitutes an "intense campus environment" and "quite a stir." The persecution complex is strong with this one.

What's more concerning though are the follow up comments.

"These pseudo-intellectuals amaze me. They don't even make sense. How can morality be immoral? I guess when it's not based on their particular view. No absolutes and no boundaries." 
"“The wise men shall be put to shame; they shall be dismayed and taken; behold, they have rejected the word of the LORD, so what wisdom is in them?” Jeremiah8:9 Praying!!!" 
"Wow. Lord have your way in that room tomorrow night! You are mighty to save!"

"It's a shame there's no freedom of speech in America, for some people! Everyone can say anything, but once you say something about Jesus, you have no freedom to speak anymore."
I shouldn't need to explain to my likely audience what is wrong with these comments.

Apparently, Ravi himself read my column and his ministry posted a link to it and the companion letter to the editor on his website.
“I have been made aware of some of the antipathy and anxieties over our presence on campus,” remarked Zacharias. “I earnestly hope that as civil and meaningful discourse prevails, all the fears and concerns will be put to rest. Thank you to the organizers for giving me the privilege of speaking here.”
He even spent the first 5 minutes or so of his talk addressing his "critics" and the "hostile campus," making explicit references to my column 3 or 4 times. He even took the time to straw man my critique and make a glancing ad homenim. He said I decried his style for being anecdotal, and said I would have to throw out most of western culture and history if I didn't like anecdotes. Classic Ravi: fitting a straw man and an appeal to the consequences in the same breath.

What I actually said, as you can read above, is that Ravi frequently uses anecdotes as red herrings to distract from the fact he didn't answer the question. That was clearly in evidence Tuesday night.

As an aside, Ravi's website made this false claim in support of their "hostile campus" argument.
For example, posters advertising the event have been taken down, and there have been numerous articles in the campus newspaper as well as posts on social media reflecting the hostility and confusion on campus when it comes to discussing different worldviews.
What actually happened was the Ready for Ravi team violated the poster rules for several of the college halls and they were taken down for being posted in violation of house policy. That's not a hostile environment, that's not following the rules and crying "help help I'm being repressed" when you get caught.

Several people have suggested to me that my column had a mediating effect on Ravi's rhetoric. I have a knee jerk reaction against my writing being that directly influential and doubts about Ravi being so easily dissuaded or thrown off message by < 700 words. Still, it was clear on Tuesday that he put a lot less emphasis on stating his beliefs and a lot more on obscurantist rhetoric than usual. When he was specifically asked about homosexuality, he spent what felt like 10 minutes explaining why he couldn't answer that question.

I was saddened to see that the questioner seemed to think her question was in fact answered. Ravi did mention that "[homosexuals] will stand before God in judgement one day," but that was easy to miss.

Overall, I'm amazed by the response. I don't think anything I've ever written has been so widely circulated and discussed. It's been a very tiring week, but if I got nothing else out of it I have this screenshot to cherish forever:


I welcome brother Ravi into the fold, along with his 128k+ followers he tweeted my article to.

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