My Dinner With Ravi: An Atheist meets the “Great Apologist of our Time.”
I had never tasted a Deschutes IPA before, at least not in an Indian restaurant. It came in a long skinny glass and I would have had another, but my dinner partner showed up and greeted me. Despite the fact that, as a result of my lengthy investigations of Ravi Zacharias, I had come to hold the man in very low regard, I knew all along that when we met I would like him. He was instantly charming, warm, engaged, and very well dressed. He also looked just like his recent photos, with the combination of sexual and academic scandals taking their toll in his eyes.
As we walked up the stairs to our table, Ravi asked me about the math book I had been reading at the bar. I launched into my new theory about Cantor’s infinities posing a problem for William Lane Craig’s Molinist defense of Hell. I am glad it was a short staircase because I really did not know what I was talking about.
Over the past two-and-a-half years I have became one of Ravi’s staunchest critics. I have published my findings online and in a series of videos at my Friendly Banjo Atheist channel on YouTube. My investigations have uncovered compelling evidence of nearly four decades of systematic credential fraud by Ravi Zacharias. I also learned that the man has not exactly been Christ-like in the sex department.
Ravi, as far as I can tell, does not grant interviews to non-friendlies. His modus operandi is to take the stage before non-specialist audiences where he is immune from searing cross-examination by real experts. This schtick has made him “the great apologist of our time” (in Chuck Colson’s phrasing) with some 25 books to his credit and over 2,000 outlets playing his radio show every week. I had sent a dozen or so “any time, any place” interview requests to his ministry and was convinced that there was no way his handlers would let me get near him.
I was wrong. Two Sundays ago, November 26, 2017, word came in from his ministry that Ravi would be in the San Francisco Bay Area the next day and would like to meet me for dinner. The terms: I could ask him anything I wanted, but nothing about his recent federal sex scandal lawsuit.
Rasa Indian Restaurant, Burlingame, CA, 6pm.
By the time we reached our table, I had told Ravi everything I knew about infinity. He then introduced me to Abdu Murray. Abdu is the North American Director of one of Ravi’s many self-named operations. I know Abdu as an accomplished, award-winning trial lawyer. Up close, his calming smile made me wonder how he had ever succeeded as a litigator. But he had.
Abdu likes to tell folks who call him “Abdul” to “get the ‘L’ out of there.” That’s the kind of joke that makes the world a better place. It still makes me chuckle. Now every time someone calls me “StePHen” I tell them to “get the ’ph’ out of there.” You can laugh, but it’s pretty funny.
I had it from very good source/s that Ravi recently had an online affair (involving phone sex and nude photos) with a married Canadian woman and had (stupidly!) threatened suicide in writing when the woman told him she had decided to repair her marriage by confessing the affair to her husband. Ravi, putting himself first, apparently had a major “I’m screwed” thing flash before his eyes, and in a panic sent Lori Anne Thompson the now infamous “bid this world goodbye” email. As we took our seats, that email was in my pocket, and not being able to ask him about it was going to be like interviewing Rudolph without commenting on his nose.
Ravi had every reason to believe that his team of Boston and New York lawyers had successfully quarantined the suicide email with that aggressive federal lawsuit against Ms. Thompson and her husband. But he was wrong. The suicide email had been in my possession for some time but I had not received permission from my source to acknowledge its existence. That had just changed, and the plan was for me to share the email with Ravi who, upon seeing that the genie had escaped the legal file, would replace his lawyers with a contrite heart and begin acting in a way that would facilitate healing all around. My source was a respected Christian blogger, an advocate for victims of clergy abuse, who genuinely cares about that sort of thing. So do I. Besides, someone needs to remind the world that famous Christian men of today are as capable of confessing sexual sins as the Al Frankens and Louis C.K.s are. Ravi Zacharias, we hoped, would be up to the task.
But first I wanted him to account for the systematic credential fraud I had painstakingly documented. Sex stuff comes and goes. Ravi’s donors would have a harder time accepting that the recipient of their money has been lying to the world for nearly forty years about who he really is.
Right before he sat down, I noticed Ravi grimace and arch his back slightly. I knew that he has an excruciating disk problem, and it hurt me to see him in such pain. I marveled the rest of our time together at how focused and present he remained during our discussion.
I had a small notebook loaded with questions I would ask Ravi. The bogus “official lecturer at Oxford” claim, the bogus “quantum physics” at Cambridge claim, the bogus “visiting scholar at Cambridge” claim, the bogus “Asian Youth Preacher Award,” the bogus “chair” of a “department” at a seminary that has no departments. After securing responses to these, I would hand him the suicide email and encourage him at last to take the high road.
I was pretty darn sure I had my facts right. Even so, I know that there really aren’t too many things in life we can be sure about. That is why I had been a shitty Christian. The Still Small Voice that said “Dumbass, nobody hears you when you pray!” got to be co-decibular with the One that said “I am with you always, Dumbass!” It is pretty hard to distinguish the voice of God from the voices in our head. Most folks just pick the one that Grandma heard. I take the Truth-finding process too seriously for that, so, yes, despite my confidence, I went into that meeting knowing that Ravi Zacharias could systematically dismantle my 2 1/2 years of “findings” about his deceit.
And he did.
Proving That God Exists
We began with pleasantries; I really don’t hate religion, I admired the missionaries I had grown up with in Southeast Asia; I’m a sometime graduate student with the Dominicans at the Graduate Theological Union, etc. etc. But when Abdu mentioned that they had limited time, I suggested we get down to the uncomfortable business of Ravi’s dishonesty. Ravi showed no signs of awkwardness. He leaned forward like a sacred warrior, grounded and ready for battle, and asked, “Steve, have I hurt you in any way?”
Good move! This is a classic cult-recruitment tactic. I know it well; manipulation masquerading as compassion. It was code for “Steve, there is simply no way your criticisms of me over the past two years can possibly have any substance. There must be some psycho-emotional thing going on with you. Would it help you to talk about it with me?” Kind of like husbands saying to their wives, “Honey, are you on the rag?”
But it worked. We all crave compassion, and even the fake stuff counts. I instantly felt myself softening inside. I had, after all, once admired Ravi Zacharias. As an atheist who hopes not to get things wrong I try to keep up on the best defenders Christianity has to offer. In the summer of 2015 I discovered Ravi and thought he was one of them. Cambridge, Oxford, multiple doctorates, quantum physics, department chair, all that. This guy was the real deal. He had me reconsidering my atheism. But not for long.
I told Ravi that I started doubting him when I checked up on that misleading Daniel argument he made to students at the University of Illinois on a YouTube video I had watched. Ravi had persuasively demonstrated that the Book of Daniel, which he informed us was written in the 6th century B.C.E., predicted Alexander the Great two hundred years later. Powerful stuff! Could I remain an atheist when someone with credentials like Ravi’s presented so clear a case of fulfilled prophecy?
The problem, I soon learned, was that most scholars believe Daniel to be post-Alexander, written in the 2nd century B.C.E. Ravi had skipped that part. I told him that I considered it deceptive of him not to tell his non-specialist audience that the key premise in his argument was hotly disputed by many respected Old Testament scholars.
But Ravi Zacharias is not known as the “great apologist of our time” by being a dummy. He told me that even if Daniel were a 2nd century B.C.E. document, it was still prophetic because it predicted stuff much later than the 2nd century.
Damn! I had never thought of that. It was a “Steve, even if you’re right, you’re wrong” moment. Daniel really does prove that God exists.
Round One went to Ravi and I assured him I would look into the matter further.
About that time the food arrived. Earlier in the day, a couple of caring friends of mine had suggested I bring someone along to dinner in case Ravi tried to kill me. They were sort of serious. I realized I had done an insufficiently nuanced job of describing Ravi to these folks. Whatever Ravi Zacharias may be, he is not a murderous thug. But suddenly I got worried. Ravi and Abdu had ordered tiny dishes. This wasn’t really a dinner for these rather large men. Something else was up. Maybe they were going to kill me after all.
Ravi asked me if it was OK for him to pray before we ate. Fine with me. I welcome moments of ritual, contemplation and gratitude before we receive the nourishment that the God we are thanking denies to so many others. “Dear Lord, we thank thee that thou treatest us not as thou treatest those people.”
I asked Ravi what he would have done if I had said no. Not a heartbeat passed. “I would not have prayed.” It is common in India, he said, to be around people of many faiths and one needs to be flexible about such matters.
We got right back to business, but now with me trying not to talk with my mouth full. I think I failed for the most part. To the extent Ravi and Abdu talked about me afterwards I bet it was about that.
Up next, Cambridge. Ravi has long claimed to have been a “visiting scholar at Cambridge University.” But he never was. He had spent a few months (very few) at a small religious training institute in the town of Cambridge, a place called Ridley Hall. While there he attended courses and lectures at the University. That did not make him a Cambridge “visiting scholar” but he told everybody that it did. Until the summer of 2015, that is, when he got outed by the Cambridge press office response to my inquiry. Then he stopped.
But at dinner he insisted that in 1990 Ridley Hall was a part of the University of Cambridge. That is just plain wrong. He then told me that after he had learned about my criticism, he (or someone in his ministry) contacted Cambridge and asked how he should word his official bio so as to make it fully accurate. Get rid of the exotic but false “Cambridge University” thing and replace it with not-very-exotic “Ridley Hall.” Ravi did that. Good for him. The crown jewel of his academic portfolio (“visiting scholar at Cambridge”) was now gone. (I failed to ask why it took a banjo playing atheist to help him clear up his own C.V.) Onward!
What about Ravi’s published claim that he was the chair of a “department” at a seminary that never had departments? He told me that, well, there had been a “center” at the seminary and he had been its chair. The only time I sensed anger in his eyes was when I reminded him that a center is not a department and that there simply were no “departments” at Alliance Theological Seminary for him to chair. We moved on.
Next came the international preaching contest he won in 1965 that gained him what he calls the “Asian Youth Preacher Award.” I told him that not only does that award exist nowhere except in his own promo materials, but that I had tracked down all three of the judges at the contest and they told me that it was no international competition at all; India only. Ravi shook his head and told me that he had a trophy with the words “Asian Youth Preacher Award” on it but the letters had faded. Really? He asked me if I would like him to get a letter from the contest sponsor confirming the award. Yup. Standing by.
It was exactly 7 o’clock and things were about to get fiery. Ravi’s suicide email was burning a hole in my left breast pocket; it was only a couple of questions away from being served on its author. Suddenly Abdu’s phone did something, and he told me that their Uber driver was waiting out on the street and that they had another dinner to go to.
Ouch! Oxford! Quantum physics! The suicide threat! I would have been happy to make them late for whatever other event they were off to. Who needs two dinners anyway? But my mind went straight to that Uber driver sitting down there trying to score his/her $30 an hour. I know that sounds weird. But that’s what happened.
As they settled the bill (they treated me, thank you both!), Abdu mentioned that they had not really liked the big red “X” I had put thru Ravi’s face on my @RaviScam Twitter account. “Really? That bothered you? I’ll change it.” I felt bad.
But, sheeeesh! Why would they give a hoot about anything I do on Twitter? After a year of tweeting I think I have about 30 followers, a healthy dose of them scantily clad women who seem to really want to meet me, but probably not for free, and definitely not to talk about Ravi. Anyway, I replaced the Big Red X shot with a cute photo of Ravi in a newspaper event announcement from around 1982, one of the early instances of Ravi calling himself a doctor while giving absolutely no hint that he wasn’t. “I’m not a doctor, but I play one in real life.”
Ravi, Abdu and I got up and hugged goodbye, then went downstairs where we shook hands and off they went. The left side of my chest was still burning as I watched them walk off with all the secrets I had hoped to uncover.
Let’s forget for a moment about Ravi being a deceiver, a sexual hypocrite, an intellectual phony and all that. My most valuable takeaway from our meeting is this; Ravi Zacharias shows us how cults flourish. I went into that meeting knowing my facts about the man. I am an attorney of 27 years and a recovering Southern Baptist who understands manipulation and the use of charm to win hearts by disengaging minds. I really can handle myself.
But when I sat there before Ravi Zacharias and he offered me compassion with eyes more caring than those of the Madonna, it was all I could do to resist casting off my intellect, begging forgiveness, and signing up for whatever my new Leader could use me for. The only thing that kept me from falling prey to the love of the guru was that I had done my homework and a good deal of therapy and self-reflection.
Ravi Zacharias’ closest followers know what I am talking about, whether they know it or not.
On December 3, a week after our dinner, Ravi issued a detailed statement in which he denied “inappropriate behavior of any kind” and specifically denied several of the allegations Ms. Thompson had made against him. But, according to Christianity Today, when asked about the suicide emails Ravi invoked a legal confidentiality agreement and refused to answer. Ravi also ignored the list of questions I sent him the day after our meeting, wherein I included a copy of the suicide email.
On that same day, December 3, Ravi’s ministry employed the classic PR move of drawing attention to a trivial transgression while ignoring the big ones. In a “Statement on Ravi Zacharias’ Biography,” which was widely reported in the Christian press, the ministry acknowledged that Ravi’s use of “Dr” was “contentious” and they promised that he would not use the title any more. They also promised to be “more vigilant about editing and fact-checking at every stage.”
But Ravi’s use of “Dr. Zacharias” was never the serious issue; the problem was his inexcusable and systematic refusal to use the word “honorary” when naming his “doctorates,” plus the bogus claims about Oxford, Cambridge and Alliance Theological Seminary. The “Statement on Ravi Zacharias’ Biography” ignored these entirely. And although the Ravi Zacharias scandal has lit up the Christian blogosphere, with a growing number of critical voices being heard, there is no reason to expect the Christian press to demand that Ravi respond to the serious allegations of academic and sexual misconduct. Their coverage has been predictably friendly.
The big question remains: Did the influential evangelist Ravi Zacharias threaten suicide in writing in order to pressure a married woman with whom he was having an online affair to not confess her sins to her husband? It sure looks like it. The emails came to me from a respected source who got them directly from Lori Anne Thompson. Not only is there nothing suspicious about the emails, but Ravi has not denied that they are his. And if they are, then he is lying (big time!) when he says he did nothing inappropriate with Lori Anne Thompson. Ravi’s cover-up may turn out to be far worse than his crime.
Clearly, Ravi Zacharias does not intend to participate much in this Season of Sharing, at least not in the information department. Instead he fires potshots from the safety of his keyboard, and hides behind “confidentiality” when the questioning gets tough. To my mind that makes him a coward, a bully, and probably a very guilty man.