Saturday, March 28, 2009

Book Review: The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias

The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias is a short and powerful critique of the recent books by Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith. This book is both a refutation of Harris and a response to the so-called “new atheists.”

The book is not laid out in chapters, but follows a topical style that addresses various ideas that are presented in The End of Faith. Each category is addressed in turn, with a very readable tone and a style that is easy to read. As one would expect from Zacharias, the points are driven home with profound personal narratives, examples, and simple summary statements. Zacharias is clearly appalled by Harris’s books, and flatly lays out his criticisms, pointing out inconsistencies and poor logic.

In addition to presenting his critique, the author offers his own apologetic for the Christian worldview. He asserts that there are four main worldview questions that must be addressed: questions of origin, meaning, morality, and future destiny. In this order, Zacharias presents the shortcomings of the atheist worldview contrasted with a robust portrait of the Christian worldview. When it comes to the question of origins, he summarizes the atheist conclusion: “The inescapable fact for the atheist is that life is the random product of time plus matter plus chance.”1

One point that Ravi brings up is that one must be careful not to judge a philosophy by its abuse. Harris’s view falls short on this count repeatedly. Zacharias is puzzled by the contradictions and inconsistencies he finds in Harris’s philosophy. For instance, judging God as immoral while having no moral footing to stand on to make such judgments. It seems to Ravi that Harris really isn’t looking for evidence for God: “It appears that no matter what evidence was offered, God could never prove himself to Sam Harris because it’s not proof he is looking for. He is looking for a God that is cast in his own image.”2

The End of Reason concludes with a brief argument for the existence of God based on three basic branches: cosmology, teleology, and Christology. These are borrowed from philosopher Dallas Willard’s arguments for the existence of God and are summarized concisely. However, at this point in the book, Ravi has already presented a strong case for the superiority of the Christian worldview, which, Ravi says, stands the test: “Routinely, three tests for truth are applied: (1) logical consistency, (2) empirical adequacy, and (3) experiential relevance. When submitted to these tests, the Christian message meets the demand for truth.”3

In conclusion, this book is a helpful tool for addressing today’s popular atheism. For those who are not familiar with Ravi Zacharias, The End of Reason is also a fine introduction to one of today’s most persuasive apologists.

1. Ravi Zacharias, The End of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), p. 38.
2. Ibid., p. 88.
3. Ibid., p. 117.


13 Comments

  1. Dante March 28, 2009

    Sorry about the first comment I posted. It was invalid.

    I read The End Of Reason a few months ago. Prior to that, I’m already a bit familiar with Ravi Zacharias because I listened to his podcasts often.

    I really admire the guy for his passion and compassion when defending the Christian faith. Moreover, he is a brilliant philosopher.

  2. Brian March 28, 2009

    Yes, I concur.
    He is definitely a captivating speaker as well.
    For anyone interested in his podcasts, they can click here for the podcasts.

  3. J. K. Jones March 28, 2009

    Thanks for the review.

    That is a very good book.

    Zacharias does a better job of articulating the emotive elements of the argument from morality than anyone else around today.

  4. For Kiwis and Australians, you can buy the book here:

    http://orders.koorong.com/search/details.jhtml?code=9780310290704

    Read the publisher’s review on that page.

  5. Lee March 29, 2009

    “For instance, judging God as immoral while having no moral footing to stand on to make such judgments.”

    Oh dear… not again.

    Dear reader, would you like it if someone hit you in the face? Or stole your TV? Would you think this person moral if they did?

    I think not – so this is a good start and footing for our moral position. It’s personal, cultural, based on upbringing, history and a lot of philosophy.

    It isn’t perfect, it means morals will no doubt change over time (as seen in history) but at least we can try to make things better.

    So then, I don’t need a god for my morals. If someone claim that I do – then I like hear something to back up this claim rather than assertions.

    The Christian claims absolute morals require a God – maybe they do, but since neither God nor absolute morals have been shown – it is rather a circular argument.

    It is like arguing about the colour of the horn of a unicorn – of course they have to be silver – right?

    Also, I still don’t recall anyone answering how anyone can get their morals from an all-good God anyway, since by definition, such a God can do no wrong.

    Murder, rape, killing babies if done by an all-good God will have to be ‘good’ by definition. Yet we as moral human beings would disagree… funny that.

    To me then it is clear, wherever we get our morals – it cannot be from an all-good God.

    Take care

    Lee

  6. Brian March 29, 2009

    Lee,
    I agree that one does not need to believe in God for them to be moral or to know something is moral. What we are talking about here is where morals are ultimately grounded.

    I would not want to use the word absolute morals. I would use the term objective moral standard to be more accurate. Objective here meaning that, for example, if everyone agreed that torturing babies for fun was right, it would still be objectively wrong.

    What I would suggest is that without God as a transcendent moral standard, we are forced into a morality that is ultimately arbitrary. As helpful and good a moral system of any sort can be, if it has no objective standard – it is only subjective and relative.

    If you were to provide me with a very, very good moral system to live by — let’s say it is the best moral system ever invented — it would still not answer the question of why I should be moral in the first place. In the case of Sam Harris, if he wants to judge someone, what makes his judgment right? Why should we agree with him? What makes his moral standard special? When he dies, does his moral standard die with him?

    As for your suggestions of an all-good God not being able to supply morals, I disagree with your reasoning.

    Your first premise says that an all-good God can do no wrong. But then you suggest that God could do those things and thereby make them right.

    That’s like saying, “A triangle, by definition, has 3 sides. But if it had 4 sides, that would make all squares into triangles!”

    It seems to me that if God is good by definition, then He is the transcendent moral standard.

  7. Thomas March 29, 2009

    Hi Lee,
    Your comments seem to be begging the question. You also seem to believe in subjective and relative morals which makes me wonder how you can object to anything. Maybe you can help me understand your position a bit better though.

    Dear reader, would you like it if someone hit you in the face? Or stole your TV? Would you think this person moral if they did?

    As I see it, we need to know why it is wrong to hit someone in the face. To essentially say, “It’s just not nice” or “It doesn’t feel good”, just begs the question. What is “nice”? And what does it mean to feel “good”? Implicit in your answers are more moral words that need defining. This is begging the question or assuming as true the very thing in question.

    I think not – so this is a good start and footing for our moral position. It’s personal, cultural, based on upbringing, history and a lot of philosophy.

    Basing morals on these things will only lead you to subjective morals. In other words, you would have to agree that other peoples and nations could come to completely different conclusions than you regarding morals. You would have to essentially call their morals “good” and “right” even if they promote cannibalism, rape, or genocide.

    It isn’t perfect, it means morals will no doubt change over time (as seen in history) but at least we can try to make things better.

    But what does it mean to “make things better”? Again, I think you are assuming as true the very thing in question. According to your methodology of making morals, to “make things better” could mean a billion different things to a billion different people.

    So then, I don’t need a god for my morals. If someone claim that I do – then I like hear something to back up this claim rather than assertions.

    You don’t need to believe in God to do moral acts, but you do need God to be able to define morals in an objective way. Atheism can only get you relative and subjective morals and I would challenge you to prove otherwise.

    The Christian claims absolute morals require a God – maybe they do, but since neither God nor absolute morals have been shown – it is rather a circular argument.

    I won’t attempt to go into a discussion on the various proofs for God’s existence at this point as it may derail us. But I will say that your initial comments are quite telling in regards to absolute morals. You said, Dear reader, would you like it if someone hit you in the face? Or stole your TV? Would you think this person moral if they did?

    It seems as if you are implying that there are certain things that are always wrong for all times and peoples. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but it seems as if you yourself have demonstrated that absolute morals exist. Now we just need to know why that is or how that is possible.

    Thanks, Lee.

  8. Lee March 30, 2009

    I’m out of time today…

    I did give a reply on another post “Sunday Quote: Ghandi on Atheism” about morals… hope that helps for now

    Lee

  9. Peripatetic322 April 2, 2009

    Hello all,

    Some things to ponder:

    Brian: “What I would suggest is that without God as a transcendent moral standard, we are forced into a morality that is ultimately arbitrary. As helpful and good a moral system of any sort can be, if it has no objective standard – it is only subjective and relative.”

    I agree with you other than the part about needing God to have an objective standard. There are options for that objective standard other than God. One could use rationality (Kant), a teleological view of human nature and psychology (Aristotle), an ideal judge theory combined with basic human psychology (Mill), or one of the others suggested by the history of philosophy. Where I, as a philosopher, would have more trouble with your position above is with the notion of transcendence. I am not sure how to make this work on a metaphysical level — issues surrounding causation would be especially troublesome. So I, like Lee, would need to see more argument about the claimed need for God here (one that would include how God fits into the larger metaphysical picture, not just ethics). I don’t think anyone denies that positing God is one option, because it is, but it need not be seen as the only option.

    Brian: “If you were to provide me with a very, very good moral system to live by — let’s say it is the best moral system ever invented — it would still not answer the question of why I should be moral in the first place.”

    This is a very good point. This is in the realm of moral psychology, and there are numerous debates surrounding the issue of why one should be moral. Many, including myself, ultimately point to a form of egoism (though one that is more sophisticated than a mere psychological egoism). Theories of motivation and acting for reasons are notoriously complex and controversial. One hot topic concerns the idea of having a reason to do something yet feeling no motivation to do it (the internalism vs. externalism debate). There is much to be said here, but your concern is a good one that any moral system must account for if it is to be viable.

    Aaron: “Basing morals on these things [see Lee’s comments] will only lead you to subjective morals. In other words, you would have to agree that other peoples and nations could come to completely different conclusions than you regarding morals. You would have to essentially call their morals “good” and “right” even if they promote cannibalism, rape, or genocide.”

    Some of this is part of my answer to Brian, and there is also some mention of it in the comments on the Gandhi post. To think that the theist has the market cornered on refutations of moral relativism/subjectivism is to ignore/dismiss many other options from philosophy. This worry goes back to Plato (at least) and the answers do as well. Again, without an argument this is an assertion that is met with equal force by other assertions.

    Aaron [responding to Lee]: “But what does it mean to “make things better”? Again, I think you are assuming as true the very thing in question. According to your methodology of making morals, to “make things better” could mean a billion different things to a billion different people.”

    This is a good point. Normative language is loaded in the sense that it implies a standard. One thing that the relativist will have to deal with is this notion of an objective purport in metaethics. In the midst of an argument one could claim that all things are relative in the moral sphere, but reactions to certain things (punting puppies is the example I use in class, but burning cats is another, more famous, example) reveal that we don’t take these attributions (good, bad, etc.) in a relative sense when we use them. There is more to the story here, and the relativist has to account for it. Emotivists will have an answer, as will others, but an answer has to be provided. It could still be possible, given what Lee has said, to hold a relativist position without obvious incoherence (in other words, he is not necessarily begging the question, as Aaron thinks). For instance, he could hold that “making things better” utilizes a meta-level standard that co-varies with or supervenes on the lower level relative moral claims. I don’t know that is what Lee has in mind, but it is perfectly intelligible, if not defensible.

    Aaron: “Atheism can only get you relative and subjective morals and I would challenge you to prove otherwise.”

    There are many in the history of philosophy that could do this for you, if you are interested. I would suggest reading Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” and Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” to start. From there you could move on to more contemporary sources or explore other historical figures.

    I must move on — work calls. I am happy to expand on any of this if the desire is there.

    -One who holds wisdom dear

  10. Lee April 2, 2009

    Hi Peripatetic322,

    Thanks for replying… you are clearly more clued up on the ways of philosophy than I ever will be, it is interesting reading – though I have to admit to getting lost on some points (my ignorance I’m afraid.)

    For instance, he could hold that “making things better” utilizes a meta-level standard that co-varies with or supervenes on the lower level relative moral claims. I don’t know that is what Lee has in mind, but it is perfectly intelligible, if not defensible.

    Yep – lost me sorry 🙁

    I was educated in the sciences, so long words confuse me 🙂

    OK, open to everyone now…

    My use of the ‘make things better’ was meant no more than to try and make the world a happier place.

    Of course, what’s makes me happy isn’t necessarily the same as everyone else, but most humans do have a common theme.

    Now if what makes me happy is ‘punting puppies’ (it isn’t BTW) then the ‘group’/society in which I live in can do something about it. From stop talking to me, or placing me in a mental hospital or something.

    The system isn’t perfect to get to morals, but it has seemed to work rather well for all of civilization.

    No other method to get knowledge of morals has been demonstrated to me.

    The claim from the theist that there are objective morals need to be shown – and not just asserted (or pleaded for as William Lane Craig is fond of doing)

    I still do not understand how I suppose to get my morals from this ‘unknowable God’.

    If God told me something… anything… how would I know it was good or bad? Does it come back to everything that God tells me is good by definition? (I have problems with this as I said before)

    If so, here is a question to any theist who has ‘heard’ the word of God (or however He talks to Christians these days) or believes that God does talk to mankind

    If God told you to kill me, would you do it?

    If the assumption is everything that God says is ‘good’ then the good Christian will promptly kill me – it would be morally good in their eyes.

    Some have said “Well, God would not tell me to do this….”

    How does the Christian know this? I read the bible there are plenty of examples of this type of command happening. (Maybe the bible is wrong?) The fact though would be who is the Christian to claim to know the mind and wishes of God? He does work in mysterious ways I am told 🙂

    So, I am still failing to understand these objective morals.

    Sorry…

    Lee

  11. Brian April 4, 2009

    Peripatetic:

    I agree with you other than the part about needing God to have an objective standard. There are options for that objective standard other than God.

    So how would my choosing of one of the three alternative standards not be arbitrary? Is there some objective standard for choosing standards? This still seems arbitrary to me.

    There is much to be said here, but your concern is a good one that any moral system must account for [why one should be moral] if it is to be viable.

    So do Kant, Aristotle, and Mill describe why I should choose one of their systems over the other? Who sits in judgement over their systems to say whether or not they are correct?

    I think that there is a difference between the psychological motivations and the ontological reality of objective moral values. What ultimately binds me to a moral system seems to be necessarily ontological before it can be psychological.

    Thanks for taking the time to relfect on these things.

  12. Lee April 5, 2009

    So how would my choosing of one of the three alternative standards not be arbitrary?

    Why isn’t chosing the Christian God arbitrary?

    Could God chose to be ‘bad’? Why is God good?

    The funny thing I see is that the theist attacks the atheist/non-believer with certain arguments about morals, but they still have problems themselves.

    The theist just refuses to see them…

    Take care

    Lee

  13. Peripatetic322 April 5, 2009

    Brian: “So how would my choosing of one of the three alternative standards not be arbitrary? Is there some objective standard for choosing standards? This still seems arbitrary to me.”

    I guess this would depend on what you take to be evidence in favor of a position. Many would agree with Lee and claim that choosing to go with God as the standard is arbitrary — it would depend on whether one thinks there is evidence of there being a God. Kant uses a pretty rigorous logical backdrop for his theory, so to defeat it you would have to argue in terms of universality and contradictions of various sorts (or argue against his larger project). Aristotle uses a naturalist approach, combined with a heavy dose of teleology, so that you would have to argue against a much larger system (i.e. against a whole approach to nature and reality — more so really than Kant). The list goes on… In essence, there is a standard for choosing standards though most philosophers would say that isn’t quite the way to see things. You are essentially asking an epistemological question regarding what counts as evidence in favor of belief in a theory and that is a separate issue (one that we could get into, if people would like to).

    Brian: “So do Kant, Aristotle, and Mill describe why I should choose one of their systems over the other? Who sits in judgement over their systems to say whether or not they are correct?”

    Yes, they do argue in favor of their own positions against the views of others. Again, with Kant and Aristotle in particular, their ethics cannot be removed from their larger philosophical projects. So, the arguments in favor of seeing things their way is not always found directly/completely in the ethical treatises. Also, they would say there is no ‘who’ that stands in judgment over the various systems. There isn’t a choosing that takes place, it is rather assenting to the nature of things — the idea being that there isn’t a series of options from which one chooses a system with no option being better than the others but rather a reality being recognized. They are also keen to integrate their ethical systems into their larger projects, so that if their ethical system posits something that their epistemological or ontological system cannot accommodate that is a strike against that ethical system.

    Brian: “I think that there is a difference between the psychological motivations and the ontological reality of objective moral values. What ultimately binds me to a moral system seems to be necessarily ontological before it can be psychological.”

    This depends on what you mean by ‘binds’. The internalism/externalism debate is about this very thing — can their be moral reasons/obligations that don’t motivate? If I recognize that I have a moral reason to do something, am I necessarily motivated to do it? This is a tough question. Even if you could establish the existence of objective moral values the motivational issue would remain. In order to tell a complete ethical story, one has to deal with both the ontological and epistemological/psychological aspects. As it turns out, the ontological claims one makes has a major impact on the sorts of epistemological and psychological resources one can call on to complete the system. In essence, yes there is a difference between the ontological and psychological, as you note, but they are closely related in ethical theories (more so than any other branch of philosophy). Aristotle has a great section on this in Nicomachean Ethics book 1.

    No need for thanks — this is what I do and I love it!

    -A member of the Pondertorium