The End of Reason | Notes & Review

Posted on December 25, 2008


I got this for Christmas. Thanks Ian! Here are my notes and reflections.

Ravi Zacharias. The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists. Zondervan, 2008. (143 pages)

end-of-reasonIn line with the many books published recently by the “new atheists,” as they’re called, Zacharias responds to them (in particular to Sam Harris and his book The End of Faith) with a quick and concise fervor contending essentially that “atheism is bankrupt for answers.” (17)

Much of Harris’ arguments are “outdated, overused arguments (of the ‘weak point, shout louder’ type),” (21) and his criticisms are “caustic” (22) using “ignoble and slanderous rhetoric to communicate it,” (23) giving “more heat than light in his arguments, more outrage than sensitivity to truth.” (29) Ultimately, if followed to logical conclusions, atheism leads to a despairing existence.

Albert Camus begins his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” with these words: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” (27)

Very introductory, Zacharias lays out the arguments:

1. Nothing Cannot Produce Something – The atheists approach to the questions of origins is “vacuous” (34) locked into the stranglehold of “material determinism.” (38)
2. Meaning – “If life is random, then the inescapable consequence, first and foremost, is that there can be no ultimate meaning and purpose to existence.” (39)
3. Morality – Atheism’s worldview “leads to the death of moral reasoning.” (46)
4. Hope – Atheism is devoid of reasons for hope.

While I had heard of Pascal’s Wager, I apparently was under a misconception regarding what Pascal was actually suggesting.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal didn’t say he was wagering his belief. He was essentially saying that there are two tests for belief: the empirical test — that which is based on investigation — and the existential test — that which is based on personal experience. (79)

Pascal was declaring that if the existential test for finding meaning in life was the only option left to him, the hungers of his heart had been met in following Jesus and thus he was fulfilled. In a worst-case scenario, where the atheist is right and death is oblivion, Pascal had still met the only test the atheist has for belief and had found his relationship with Jesus to be existentially fulfilling. As a Christian, he met both his own test for truth in the person of Jesus — the empirical test — and the existential test posed by the atheists. It was for that reason he could say he could not be a loser, and the gamble was not a gamble he could lose, no matter which test he used. (80)

Forging into a contrast and comparison of other religions, Zacharias points out, in the segment on Buddhism, that it is “fascinating that an argument that started as the denial of God ends with the denial of self.” (91)

In the segment regarding slavery and racism, Zacharias posits that the atheists’ “attack” is ultimately futile, and the real quest ought to be on the human heart. This quote from George MacDonald is apt and poignant:

To love righteousness is to make it grow, not to avenge it. Throughout his life on earth, Jesus resisted every impulse to work more rapidly for a lower good. (100)

Philip Yancey adds,

Moral force, to be sure, is a risky form of power. Compared to the glaring reality of brute force, it may appear weak and ineffectual. But it has its own way of conquering. (100)

From, the three tests for truth (logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and experiential relevance) applied result in these arguments:

1. No Physical Entity Explains Its Own Existence
2. The Design Shows Intelligence [which is distinctive of “Intelligent Design” in that this argument is not of “aesthetic design but of intelligent specificity.” (118)]

Zacharias pleas “with society to allow the diversity of religious beliefs to be heard in the marketplace of public dialogue,” (123) one of the driving ethics of his argument. Fascinatingly, he continues to suggest that “secularism simply does not have the sustaining or moral power to stop Islam.” (126) “In the end, America’s choice will be between Islam and Jesus Christ. History will prove before long the truth of this contention.” (127)

I had a fairly minor contention with Zacharias’ reasoning on page 64 when arguing that religion produces less riots than atheism. Citing The Last Temptation of Christ and The DaVinci Code as well as the 2007 Discovery Channel program that claimed the bones of Jesus were found in Jerusalem in 1980, Zacharias argues that religion (Christianity in particular) gives us the “Judeo-Christian ethic of tolerance,” (65) distinct from atheism’s “intolerance of religion.” (65) Unfortunately, there are many cases in history in which religion, or at least those who claimed adherence to such religious ideas, were the progenitors of intolerance, and violent oppression. So while Zacharias does make a good point that fundamentally and ideologically tolerance is a virtue in the Judeo-Christian ethic, in existential terms, it’s a challenge to argue with strong convincing rhetoric given the instances in history to the contrary.

In this segment on pain, he mentioned Gabby Gingras who suffers from CIPA–Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis. I saw the documentary A Life Without Pain a while ago, and had come to the same conclusions regarding the necessity of such “negative” experiences such as “pain,” “remorse,” “guilt,” etc. It’s available at Netflix, and I commend it to you as an excellent illustration for this philosophical argument.

On page 69 and following, he tells a fairly global parable of a young man who falls in love with a young woman who in response demands that her suitor bring his mother’s heart to her to prove his love. Going home deeply troubled and completely confused, he follows through. Upon running back to his girlfriend, he trips and falls, fumbling the heart on the ground. Frantically looking for it he hears a voice coming from the heart, saying, “Son, are you hurt? Son, are you hurt?” The lesson? “The love of a mother is so powerful that no betrayal can thwart it.” (71)

Another contention I had is with his use of John 10:10 on page 82 where Zacharias suggests that Jesus’ statement of life to the full wasn’t just “about the way to live.” Rather, “he argued principally for the truth by which to live. The objective informs the subjective.” (82) The problem is that that passage in John 10 is one in which Jesus is expounding upon His identity as the “gate” and “shepherd” in relationship with those who choose to follow Him. The “truth,” if anything, is a relationship with the person of Jesus, which could be argued as a subjective entity. This is similar to Jesus’ statement “the truth will set you free,” just two chapters earlier. People use this statement in philosophical arguments frequently, but an accurate contextual reading will see that right before that, Jesus says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. THEN you will know the truth…” (John 8:31-32, emphasis mine). While this begs a much larger discussion of “what is truth,” that cannot be tackled in Zacharias’ short “letter” of a book (as he calls it), I would have hoped for a more careful usage of the Scriptures and suppositions, which is one of Zacharias’ arguments against Harris,, overall, and especially regarding their evaluation of the Bible.

Overall, an interesting read for those who may need a little fuel to boost their thoughtfulness regarding the very public debates that are happening around these issues, especially for those unfamiliar with the arguments. However, for those who are well versed in the discussion, this “letter” is a bit too quick and simple, and may leave the reader a bit unsatisfied.

Quotes worth quoting:

“Malcolm Muggeridge once said that all news is old things happening to new people.” (39)
“G.K. Chesterton remarked that meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain but from being weary of pleasure.” (39)
“Be careful not to judge a philosophy by its abuse.” (68)

A selection of resources mentioned in the book:

Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.
John Polkiinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology.
Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul. (Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on Faith, “Is Religion Built on ‘Faith?'”)