"A SHATTERED VISAGE; The Real Face of Atheism." by Ravi Zacharias

I don't remember when I wrote this review; it must have been about ten years ago at least.
Michael, a friend of my son, had lent him this book by RZ; I saw it, read it and felt impelled to write this response which was then passed back to the Michael (I also sent a copy to RZ via his publisher). I never heard back from either of them.
We have long lost touch with Michael; he has disappeared into the darkest depths of 100 Huntley Steet (a ghastly little evangelical television program) and was never heard from again (at least not by us).
When I recently came across RZ's home page on the web I dug out a copy of the review and have now published it here.
Maybe this time somebody will read it.:-)

In the interests of clarity, I've introduced coloured texts; black for mine, purple quotes of the Author himself, a heavenly blue for biblical quotes and a sort of sickly olive for those of others.
Also this makes the whole page much purtier!

This is essentially a very long, very boring sermon; the only real interest lies in the Author's errors of fact, and these are legion. He devotes far too much time to imagery, analogy and metaphor; there is little real substance in this book; no meat, nothing very much into which one can get one's teeth. This might be wise on the part of the Author because, on those few occasions that he does get down to brass tacks, he often, as I will try to show, ends up sitting on them. His scientific knowledge, as evidenced in this book, is minimal. His writing style is grandiose and florid; he seems to believe that he is a good writer; but his is really pretty dreadful stuff.

And now for some of those brass tacks.

THE GALILEO INCIDENT: Zacharias and Ptolemy's mistake.

"...... Galileo, was forced by the inquisition to recant his support of the
Copernican theory of the solar system. But many ... do not know that this
censorious autocracy, which the church arrogated to itself, was not based
on any biblical pronouncement, but rather on a fallacious assumption from
the teachings of the second-century Greek astronomer and mathematician, Ptolemy. He postulated that the earth lay at the centre of the universe with
the sun, moon, and other planets revolving around it. The ecclesiastical
hierarchy of the day espoused this Aristotleian-Ptolemaic cosmology, with
its erroneous conclusion, as being the world view of the Bible. The Bible,
in fact, states nothing of the kind."
First off, let's check out some of what the Bible (KJV) says about the sun:

Ecclesiates 1:5
"The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down,
and hasteth to his place where he arose."
(An aside: I find it totally amazing when I point this verse out to fundamentalists; they all say something to the effect that "well, doesn't everybody talk about ths sun rising and setting? Don't you?" not one so far has volunteered any comment on that final phrase!)

Joshua 10:12-13
Here, Joshua orders the sun to stand still "upon Gibeon" and the moon "in the valley of Ajalon." so that "..the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day."
Psalm 104:19 "...the sun knoweth his going down."

And now a little of what the Bible says about the earth:

Psalm 104:5
"Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be moved for ever."
Daniel 4:10-11
"I saw..a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great.
The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven,
and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth."
Isaiah 40:22 "..it is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth..."

Revelations 7:1
"..I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth,
holding the four winds of the earth..."

And these are but a small selection of quotes. They all conspire to depict the earth as an immovable, flat plane (a four-cornered circle, if you insist), with the sun revolving around it. Indeed, some of the early church fathers were explicitly flat-earthers because that was what their scriptures told them. Some rejected the Ptolemaic system as a heresy because it was based on a spherical earth.
According to the New Catholic Encyclopaedia, many of these passages were used by the church as objections to Galileo's ideas. Nor was it the Catholic Church alone who voiced objections to the new astronomy: Calvin asked:

"Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above
that of the Holy Spirit?"
and Martin Luther, talking about Galileo, simply exploded!
"this fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy;
but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to
stand still, and not the earth."

Obviously, the Bible has a lot to say on the subject and it expresses a viewpoint that was primitive, even for its time. It seems to me that the Author doesn't know his bible very well. Anyway, the quote gives you something of the sophomoric flavour of the his writing style.
The Author seems to regard the Galileo incident as a flash-in-the-pan, a one-time accident of religious history, Whereas it was, of course, only the tip of an extremely ugly iceberg. At that time the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were in full tilt; the Thirty Years War was looming; anybody who wasn't for us was against us and therefore a heretic, fit only for burning at the stake.
Copernicus had refused to allow his work to be published before his death simply for fear of the Church. Giordano Bruno had actually been sent to the stake because of his astronomical musings. All Europe was in fear as the Churches tried, ultimately of course in vain, to restrain the powers of reason and new knowledge.

"Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the
aid of spiritual things, but- more frequently than not- struggles
against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates
from God."

Thus spake Martin Luther in 1569; thus echoes Zacharias; still fighting the good fight; still losing it.

On the same page, the Author, smarting from the discovery that religious people have sometimes been wrong, tries to draw a parallel between the Galileo and the Piltdown affairs:

"...supporters of the materialistic, non-theistic world-view have had their share of error-ridden deductions.. Their Galileo blunder was the Piltdown Hoax."

If you think that being taken in by a practical joke, however successful, is comparable to being burnt at the stake, then just hold your finger to the tip of a burning match and imagine feeling like that all over until you die.
Ravi Z still faults Galileo, blaming him for a "loss of confidence in providence" and places him amongst those other devils in human shape, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, whose ideas challenged Christianity.
I have the distinct impression that he wishes that science had never happened; that we should have been content to live in the cosy bliss of ignorance; that the Rennaissance had never been.

WHAT'S THE META WITH PHYSICS? Zacharias and the Second Law.

"The ascending of biological forms into more complex and superior designs also comes into conflict with the Second Law of Thermo- dynamics in Physics ..... basically states that heat cannot be transferred from a colder to a hotter body without net changes occurring in other bodies. In an irreversible process, entropy (ie. heat death) always increases .... From the scientific point of view, the question is, how, in this closed order, do biological systems "swim against the entropic stream?" Or, to put it differently, how do biological systems climb the ladder of intricacy and order, while the natural world descends to entropy and disorder?" (P.40)

This is another one of those brass tacks upon which the Author carefully plunks himself!
Had he not surrendered his powers of thought for a pile of dogma, he might have asked himself how anything can grow. How does an acorn become an oak tree, a caterpillar a butterfly, or a baby an adult? Aren't they all, in his terms, "swimming against the entropic stream" ?
In reality, the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that, in isolated, closed, systems (that exchange absolutely nothing with their surroundings), energy tends spontaneously to become less available; entropy tends to a maximum. When everything within the system reaches the same temperature (whatever that might be), there is no more available energy, entropy is at it's maximum and nothing more can happen.
But note that this applies only to closed systems. In open systems, which can receive energy from external sources, the 2nd.Law simply does not apply.
Note also that all open systems are, ultimately, part of a closed one. The Universe itself is a closed system, and the Universe as a whole is running down.
But, the Author's opinion notwithstanding, the earth is obviously not a closed system; it receives energy from the sun, it radiates energy into space. And, using the energy from the sun, living things can grow, billions of highly ordered snowflakes can form from random accumulations of water vapour molecules, and all sorts of other small, local, spontaneous decreases in entropy (increases in order), can happen and are perfectly legal.
The Author is, again, utterly, ludicrously, abysmally wrong.

"Scientists argue that the law for the whole does not apply to all of its parts. (This sleight of hand is fraught with serious problems for those who wish to live by their laws.)" (P.41)

This silly piece of self-righteous gibberish is, I suppose, an example of the Author's "intellectual integrity", of which Billy Graham, as quoted on the back cover of the book, was so proud. More fool B.G!

SAUCE FOR THE GANDER: Zacharias and the Free Lunch

"A possible explanation of equal intellectual respectability - and to my mind, greater elegance - would be that this one world is the way it is because it is the creation of the will of a Creator who purposes that it should be so."
"There is no free lunch. Somebody has to pay, and only God has the resources to put in what was needed to get what we've got." (P.43-4)
Both attributed to John Polkinghorne, described by the Author as a
"Theoretical Physicist....,a colleague of Stephen Hawking ..... has been at the forefront of high energy physics for thirty years. Physics Bulletin described his latest book, The Quantum World, as one of the best books of the genre."

What RZ, for all his "intellectual integrity" fails to tell us is that Polkinghorne is an Anglican priest (New Scientist, 12 Feb, 1987), and only formerly a theoretical physicist.
The author does hate a level playing field, doesn't he? Everything has to be slanted. His book should carry a warning sign, like the old pinball machines:

"T I L T"

To say that things are the way they are simply because this is what God wanted may be appealing to some, but it is certainly not scientific. There is no way of proving or disproving it; it is unfalsifiable.
Furthermore, I can imagine few viewpoints better designed to discourage questioning, research, even thought itself. (Which may be why it is so popular amongst fundamentalists).
'Stupid' would seem a fair judgement; elegant it most definitely is not.
As for the second quote; if there is no free lunch, then there is no free lunch; not for us; not for God.

Is this what Ravi believes existence is all about? That the laws of science and the universe are merely a facade, behind which there's this old guy with his magic wand who can do anything he likes simply because he wants to? Is that what Ravi really believes? That the universe is run by some Ultimate Wizard of Oz?

I could, like the book, go on and on, but I won't. There are far too many misapprehensions, muddinesses and utter nonsense to go through them all, and life, like my supply of time, is far too short. He writes much about philosophy, coming down especially hard on poor old Nietzsche, but I've limited my comments to his writings on the sciences. However, come to think of it, there is just one more item I would like to address:

"Having killed God, the atheist is left with no reason for being, no morality to espouse, no meaning to life, and no hope beyond the grave." (P.102)

This is unspeakable arrogance; of course we have reasons to live, as does almost everybody. That I am is reason enough for me to continue to be! And my morality is just fine; I just don't need the carrot and stick of heaven and hell to force me to try to live up to it.

A religion should help make sense of what you know; it should be a foundation on which you can build. It should not deny the obvious and it should not limit your expression to the parroting of some(dead)body else's long-fossilized thought.
Science is a noble and glorious enterprise that seeks to understand nature as it is, and how it came to be as it is. It is a living, growing thing, that is being done by people, with all their faults, and, on the whole, it is being done well.
A living religion will try to to incorporate the truths of science; only a dead one would deny them.
Whether or not there is some deity behind it all is solely a question of personal belief, not scientific investigation. Most evolutionists believe in some sort of God.


Last Modified on 25 March 2001