Press Release: Has Evangelist Ravi Zacharias Misrepresented His Academic Credentials?

The following is a guest post by attorney Steve Baughman aka “Friendly Banjo Atheist,” who asked me to post it on his behalf.

On a related note, Internet Infidels, Inc. has published rebuttals or critiques of Zacharias in the past. See “An Emotional Tirade Against Atheism” by Jeffery Jay Lowder and “That Colossal Wreck” by Doug Krueger. A theme of both critiques is that Zacharias consistently tears down straw man versions of atheism in general and atheist morality specifically. It would be ironic, therefore, if the claims in this press release are true. Not only would it be the case that Zacharias misrepresents atheist morality, but also that he engaged in immoral behavior (dishonesty) in order to give the false impression that he has more scholarly authority than he actually has. 

 

PRESS RELEASE: August 24, 2015

“When intellectuals violate morality in any academic discipline, implicitly or explicitly, it leads to lawlessness and the concoction of science fiction.”

Ravi Zacharias in The Real Face of Atheism (p. 58.)

HAS EVANGELIST RAVI ZACHARIAS MISREPRESENTED HIS ACADEMIC CREDENTIALS?

Who We Are

We are two atheists and a Christian who are concerned that a prominent evangelist, Mr. Ravi Zacharias, has engaged in misconduct that undermines academic integrity and misleads the public.   We issue this press release with two primary goals in mind. First, we wish to draw attention to what we believe are the dishonest practices of Ravi Zacharias.  Second, we hope the facts presented here will prompt professional journalists and investigators to continue the work we have started.[1]

(1.)  We believe that the problem of professional evangelical Christians exaggerating their academic credentials deserves much more media attention and public discussion than it currently receives.  There is much grumbling even within Christian circles about the practice of honorary degree recipients using the “Dr.” title. But the issue has not gone mainstream yet. See http://www.apologeticsindex.org/2794-name-it-and-frame-it-phony-doctorates-in-the-church and  http://www.preservedwords.com/doctor.htm

Steve Baughman is an attorney and part time philosophy student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.  He holds a Masters Degree in Asian Studies from University of California at Berkeley. He is the creator of the YouTube channel Friendly Banjo Atheist, which first presented the matter of Mr. Zacharias’ credentials to the public.

Tom Lunol has a B.S. in Mathematics from U.C. Santa Barbara and an M.S. in Computer Science from USC. He worked for Microsoft before moving to a position at New York Life.

Andy Norman teaches philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University.  He writes about fair-minded reasoning and the philosophical foundations of humanism.  He has a PhD from Northwestern University and has published widely on the norms of responsible discourse.

Questions may be addressed to Steve Baughman at steve@lawbw.com

About Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias is a world renowned Christian evangelist who has written over a dozen books. Former White House counsel, Chuck Colson, called him “the great apologist of our time.”  Mr. Zacharias maintains a busy travel schedule lecturing all over the world. He resides in Atlanta, Georgia, where his ministry, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), is headquartered.  RZIM has numerous overseas offices and maintains a staff of over 100 people.  According to Mr. Zacharias’ website, his weekly radio program, “Let My People Think”, airs on over 2,000 outlets worldwide.

Ravi Zacharias frequently preaches about morality and the moral bankruptcy of atheism.

Summary of Concerns

The Cambridge Claim

Ravi Zacharias has claimed for many years that he was a “visiting scholar at Cambridge University.”  He presents this claim prominently in his press bios and in his memoirs.  He makes frequent mention of it in his public appearances.  It is by far the most impressive item in his academic portfolio.

The claim is false.  The University of Cambridge press office has confirmed the same to us.

We recently contacted Mr. Zacharias and informed him of our belief that he has misrepresented having been a “visiting scholar at Cambridge University.” We informed him of our intent to go public with this information and we asked him for a response. None came.

Shortly thereafter Mr. Zacharias deleted the claim from his official website bio.

The “Dr. Zacharias” Claim

Ravi Zacharias refers to himself in his official bio and in the videos released by his ministry as “Dr. Zacharias.” He frequently appears at academic institutions where the title “Dr.” is generally understood as indicating that the subject has completed a doctoral program.

Mr. Zacharias has no doctoral degree.  He has a Masters of Divinity degree and has done no doctoral work.  He has been awarded multiple honorary doctorates by Christian schools.

Prior to receiving a complaint from us, the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, of which Mr. Zacharias is a founding member, claimed at its website that Mr. Zacharias “has been conferred a Doctor of Divinity degree from both Houghton College and Tyndale College and Seminary, Toronto, and a Doctor of Laws degree from Ashbury College, Kentucky.”

After receiving our complaint, the OCCA changed their website to add the term “honorary doctoral degrees” to Mr. Zacharias’ bio.

Curiously, shortly thereafter the OCCA deleted the reference to the degrees as honorary even though there is no question that Mr. Zacharias’ doctoral degrees are all honorary.

After yet another complaint from us several days ago, it appears that the OCCA has yet again inserted the term “honorary doctoral degrees” in Mr. Zacharias’ bio.

(See http://theocca.org/bios/ravi-zacharias)

As of our Press Release date, Mr. Zacharias fails to disclose in his own website that his degrees are honorary.  (See http://rzim.org/about/ravi-zacharias)

The Details of Mr. Zacharias’ Misrepresentations

The Cambridge Claim

In his memoirs Mr. Zacharias states the following:

By 1990, the load of ministry had gotten so heavy that I decided to take a sabbatical for the first time since I had started in the ministry. I spent part of that year at Cambridge University in England with my family, and it was a very special time for us.

I was invited to be a visiting scholar, and I decided to focus my studies on the Romantic writers and moralist philosophers. (Walking from East to West, p. 205, emphasis added)

Until several weeks ago, Mr. Zacharias’ website bio at RZIM.org stated, “Dr. Zacharias has been a visiting scholar at Cambridge University.” Mr. Zacharias is frequently introduced at his university appearances as having been “a visiting scholar at Cambridge University.”  The claim also appears on the jacket of his book, The Real Face of Atheism. 

A Google search of [“Ravi Zacharias” “visiting scholar at Cambridge University”] reveals thousands of pages in which the claim is repeated.

The claim is false, and Mr. Zacharias withdrew it shortly after we asked him for a response to our concern that he had misrepresented his Cambridge visiting scholar status.

How do we know it is false? We contacted the University of Cambridge Office of External Affairs and Communications and asked whether Mr. Ravi Zacharias was ever a visiting scholar at their university.  We were told in writing the following:

“We can confirm that Mr. Zacharias spent a sabbatical at Ridley Hall in Cambridge.”

“Attending lectures and classes at the University of Cambridge whilst on sabbatical at Ridley Hall would not confer University of Cambridge Visiting Scholar status on a student. Ridley Hall is not a constituent part of the University of Cambridge and has different criteria for granting Visiting Scholar status.”

Insofar as it is exclusively the province of the University of Cambridge to decide who constitutes a “visiting scholar” at their institution, we believe it to be established beyond dispute that Mr. Zacharias’ visiting scholar claim is false.

Anticipated Defenses from Ravi Zacharias

1. The close connection between the University of Cambridge and Ridley Hall justifies the claim. 

We are unable to ascertain whether Mr. Zacharias now concedes that the Cambridge claim was false.  We note that his website was recently changed to state that “Dr. Zacharias has been a visiting scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge (then affiliated with Cambridge University, now more recently allied with Cambridge and affiliated with Durham University) where he studied moralist philosophers and literature of the Romantic era.”

We acknowledge the close affiliation between the University of Cambridge and Ridley Hall.  Both are in the town of Cambridge, and both are part of the Cambridge Theological Federation. We are told that cross-registration is permitted. We are eager to know if Mr. Zacharias now claims that it was this close affiliation that justified his “visiting scholar at Cambridge University” claim.

We believe it to be a misleading practice to claim to have been a “visiting scholar” at one institution by virtue of one’s doing a sabbatical at a different “affiliated” institution.  We note that Mr. Zacharias’ supervisor at Ridley, Dr. Jeremy Begbie, who taught at both Ridley and Cambridge University, draws a very clear distinction in his own Curriculum Vitae between Ridley Hall and Cambridge University. (See https://divinity.duke.edu/academics/faculty/jeremy-begbie ).

2. The visiting scholar claim is accurate because Mr. Zacharias attended classes and lectures at Cambridge University while on Sabbatical at Ridley.

The University of Cambridge has told us in writing that “Attending lectures and classes at the University of Cambridge whilst on sabbatical at Ridley Hall would not confer University of Cambridge Visiting Scholar status on a student.”

Apparently unaware that Cambridge University sets its own criteria for visiting scholar status, Mr. Zacharias’ supervisor at Ridley, Dr. Jeremy Begbie, made the following written statement to us in response to our question as to whether it was accurate for Mr. Zacharias to call himself a visiting scholar at Cambridge University.  “Yes, Ridley Hall was (and is) not formally a constituent college of the University.  However, I arranged for Mr. Zacharias to attend lectures and classes at the University. In that sense it is accurate.” (Emphasis original.)

We have two concerns about this statement from Dr. Begbie.

First, we have learned that in response to a recent inquiry from Biola University, a major Christian university, RZIM included a statement from Dr. Jeremy Begbie confirming that “Ravi Zacharias was a visiting scholar at Ridley Hall Cambridge in 1990, under my supervision.”  Does Dr. Begbie retract his prior claim to us, or does he believe that Mr. Zacharias was a visiting scholar at both institutions?

Second, in our prior correspondence with Dr. Begbie, we asked him what title Ridley had given Mr. Zacharias, whether it was “visiting scholar, visiting fellow, visiting student or something else.”  Dr. Begbie responded “I do not recall the title we gave him.”  We are eager to know what facts Dr. Begbie has since accessed that now make him recall that Mr. Zacharias was a “visiting scholar” at Ridley.

3. The vagueness of the term “visiting scholar” justifies Mr. Zacharias’ use of it.

We acknowledge that the term “visiting scholar” is used both formally and informally.  In its formal sense it carries great prestige, especially at respected institutions like Cambridge. In its informal sense, as Dr. Jeremy Begbie’s note to us shows, it can mean nothing more than attending lectures and classes for a short period at some affiliated institution while on sabbatical at another.

The difficulty for Mr. Zacharias is that he clearly intends us to understand his “visiting scholar at Cambridge University” claim in the formal, prestigious sense.  It is, quite simply, the crown jewel of his otherwise very unremarkable academic history.  It is a claim he has trumpeted loudly and widely.

To be sure, Mr. Zacharias may now urge as his defense that he intended the claim to be understood informally (perhaps as nothing more than him attending lectures and classes at Cambridge while he was at Ridley.)  But the more Mr. Zacharias drifts from the formal/prestigious conception of the term “visiting scholar,” the more the public will be justified in feeling deceived. Why make such a big issue of it in the press materials if it was an informal arrangement involving nothing more than “attending lectures and classes”?

We await clarification from Mr. Zacharias and we urge media professionals, as well as concerned clergy and students, to pursue this matter with Mr. Zacharias and his ministry.

Remaining Questions about the Cambridge University Claim

We believe that Mr. Zacharias’ deception is clearly established. Nevertheless, we believe that we might gain greater clarity as to the depth of that deception if several outstanding questions be answered.

Who invited Mr. Zacharias to be a visiting scholar at Cambridge?  Did Mr. Zacharias formally take classes at Cambridge? Or did he merely audit? Were these graduate classes?  (See p. 205-206 of Walking From East to West where Mr. Zacharias claims to have been invited to be a visiting scholar at Cambridge University.)

We hope others will be more successful than we have been in obtaining information from Mr. Zacharias about these significant matters of concern.

The Honorary Doctorate / “Dr. Zacharias” Claim

Ravi Zacharias routinely refers to himself as “Dr. Zacharias.”  The honorific appears in his press materials, in the videos posted by his ministry on YouTube, and in his website bio.  When we called his office and asked to speak to him, his personal secretary answered with “Dr. Zacharias’ office.”

Ravi Zacharias has no academic doctorate, only a Masters of Divinity.  He has multiple honorary doctorates, all from Christian institutions.

After Mr. Zacharias received criticism for this practice in the first Friendly Banjo Atheist video, he removed several of the references to himself as “Dr. Zacharias” and replaced them either with “Mr.” or just “Ravi.” But he continues to use the title in that same website bio, only less frequently.

After we complained to the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, an entity of which Mr. Zacharias is a co-founder, they added the term “honorary doctoral degrees” to Mr. Zacharias’ bio at their website.  Curiously, they removed it several weeks later.  After we complained several days ago about this change the OCCA yet again added the term “honorary doctoral degrees” to Mr. Zacharias’ bio.

Mr. Zacharias does not use the term “honorary doctorate” in his own website bio at RZIM.org.  Instead he states that he “has been honored with the conferring of six doctoral degrees, including a Doctor of Laws and a Doctor of Sacred Theology.”

We note our concern that Mr. Zacharias refuses to put the term “honorary doctorates” in his bio.  Furthermore, we find the language cited in the previous paragraph to be confusing, vague and idiosyncratic.  “Honored with the conferring of” does not tell the reader that his doctorates were merely honorary. We know of no way to account for the choice of this language and the absence of the term “honorary doctorate” in Mr. Zacharias’ bio other than an intent to obfuscate and deceive.

We note also that the use of the honorific “Dr.” by one whose doctorates are only honorary, though widely practiced (Benjamin Franklin and Maya Angelou did it), is also widely condemned by ethicists and protocol experts. It is also indisputably misleading, and all the more so when done in conjunction with regular appearances in academic settings where the honorific “Dr.” is widely understood to indicate that a rigorous course of advanced study and original research was completed.

The Associated Press Stylebook says “Do not use Dr. before the name of an individual whose only doctorate is honorary.”

The author of Academic Ceremonies: a handbook of traditions and protocol told us in writing that “one would never refer to oneself as a doctor by virtue of an honorary degree.”

Even Asbury University, one of the institutions that conferred an honorary doctorate on Mr. Zacharias informed us in writing that “As a general rule, Asbury University – which utilizes Associate Press style as its foundation – does not refer to a recipient of an honorary doctorate issued by the University as “Dr.”

There appears to be no question that the title as used by Mr. Zacharias is misleading. Simply put, when Mr. Zacharias appears at college campuses to speak on matters of ethics, philosophy, culture, history and science and holds himself out as “Dr. Zacharias” it is very likely that most of the audience (on site and online) will believe that he has an academic doctorate.

Not only does Ravi Zacharias take no steps to disabuse them of this notion, he furthers it by repeated use of the honorific as well as by the confusing language in his website bio.

Given that the purpose of the practice can only be self-aggrandizement, we are concerned that Ravi Zacharias has placed his public image ahead of general standards of honesty.  We are also concerned that Mr. Zacharias engages in these practices in academic settings where students are required to uphold certain ethical standards that he himself does not. Indeed, we believe that undergraduates at many institutions of higher learning are held to higher standards of academic integrity than Mr. Zacharias holds himself.

Other Concerns:

1.            Failure to follow basic standards of honesty in public speaking

In Ethics in Public Speaking, James Kudooski states the obvious:  “Ethics in public speaking demand that you are honest and accurate in the information you are presenting to your audience. Do not mislead your audience intentionally. Do not distort the facts to suit your aim. If you are not sure about a piece of information or fact or statistics, don’t use it!”

In one of the first Ravi Zacharias lectures that we viewed, he attempts to prove the inspiration of the Book of Daniel by showing that although it was written in the 6th century B.C.E. it predicted accurately the rise and fall of Alexander the Great two centuries later.  In making the argument Mr. Zacharias twice emphasized the 6th century dating of Daniel.

Upon investigating Mr. Zacharias’ claim we learned that contemporary Old Testament scholarship widely agrees that Daniel was written two centuries after Alexander the Great.

The question is not about the dating of Daniel.  One need not be an expert in the dating of ancient document to see deception by Mr. Zacharias here. He undoubtedly understands that the 6th century date is (at best) hotly contested, yet he gave no indication of that to his unsuspecting audience of college students.

We are concerned that a speaker who does not accept that this violates a speaker’s duty of honesty to the audience does not belong on college campuses in any capacity as a speaker.

See Exposing “Prophecy” and Evangelist Ravi Zacharias  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVHMI4WbGAE

 

2.            Mr. Zacharias’ misleading claim to have “lectured at the world’s most prestigious universities.” 

Mr. Zacharias claims to have “lectured at the world’s most prestigious universities.” See for example the jacket of his book The Real Face of Atheism.  In his autobiography he states,

“I have spoken on almost every major campus – Berkeley, Princeton, Cornell, you name it.  If we haven’t been to a major school it is more often than not because we haven’t had the time to accommodate the request.” Walking from East to West, p. 209.

We are concerned about the extent to which Mr. Zacharias’ claim implies that his appearances at such universities have been pursuant to invitations from the faculty or the institutions.  It is our understanding that Mr. Zacharias’ appearance at prestigious universities has been primarily, if not exclusively, pursuant to invitations from student clubs and Christian evangelical organizations. For instance, many of Mr. Zacharias’ appearances at prestigious universities have been sponsored by the Veritas Forum, a Christian campus ministry that promotes discussion “about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.”  Mr. Zacharias has been closely connected to the organization, appearing in their promo video and writing the preface to the Veritas founder’s book.  http://veritas.org/about/#link1

3.            Is Ravi Zacharias a “scholar”?

It is an open question whether Ravi Zacharias qualifies as any kind of scholar at all.  Not only has he no doctoral degree, to our knowledge he has published nothing in scholarly journals, done no peer-reviewed research, and his academic qualifications are limited to his having a Masters of Divinity and having held the chair of evangelism and contemporary thought at a missionary training school, Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, NY.

 

Notes

[1] We believe that the problem of professional evangelical Christians exaggerating their academic credentials deserves much more media attention and public discussion than it currently receives.  There is much grumbling even within Christian circles about the practice of honorary degree recipients using the “Dr.” title. But the issue has not gone mainstream yet. See http://www.apologeticsindex.org/2794-name-it-and-frame-it-phony-doctorates-in-the-church and  http://www.preservedwords.com/doctor.htm

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