Ravi Zacharias has long been recognized as one of the most respected of Christian apologists. For forty years he has been a fixture in the firmament of the apologetic pantheon, lecturing worldwide and publishing popular books like The End of Reason and Jesus Among Other Gods. He founded RZIM International, a hugely important apologetics organization, and he has hosted radio programs including “Let My People Think” and “Just Thinking” on hundreds of radio stations. Finally, Mr. Zacharias has boasted impressive academic credentials which yield credibility to his many pursuits including an impressive status as a “Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.”
All this means that it is especially troubling that Mr. Zacharias has found himself mired in controversy for the last few years over his apparent tendency to fabulate his academic history and accomplishments. It should not need to be said that if Christian apologists don’t have credibility with their audience, they don’t have anything. In short, it is essential that Christian apologists conduct themselves above reproach, eschewing partisanship and embracing integrity and honesty above all. And that meant that I had to get to the bottom of the Zacharias case, once and for all.
To that end, I have decided to invite Steve Baughman for an interview to share his own research on the matter. And who is Steve Baughman? He is a lawyer based in the San Francisco Bay Area who has carefully documented the case against Mr. Zacharias at his website.
Please note that Steve has provided extensive links throughout the interview to corroborate his various claims.
RR: Steve, thanks for joining me to answer some questions about Mr. Zacharias. I’d like to start off by addressing the question of Mr. Zacharias’s academic credentials. To begin with, could you say something about his relationship with Oxford and Cambridge universities? How has he misrepresented his educational history with these schools?
SB: Thank you for inviting me to share my findings on this important matter. Perhaps I should start by saying that none of the facts I am about to present is controversial. Thanks to Internet archive sites like the Wayback Machine we can see what Mr. Zacharias has claimed about himself over the years even though he has now removed all of it from his online publicity materials. Given his stature, what we find is really disturbing. Fortunately, we also are finally seeing him apologizing (however tepidly) for false claims he has made about his connections to these universities.
RR: So what has he claimed?
SB: Let’s take Oxford. For years Mr. Zacharias claimed to have been a “visiting professor” at Oxford. We can see this, for instance, at his website from 2006 – 2008. A few weeks ago someone noticed a video of a speech Mr. Zacharias made to the C.S. Lewis Institute in Falls Church, VA in 2008 where he says “I am a professor at Oxford now.” These claims were simply false. The University told me in 2016 it has no record of Mr. Zacharias on their payroll and that they do not believe he has ever been an employee of theirs. I immediately told Mr. Zacharias about this. About two years and much public criticism later, in August of 2018, he admitted that he had never been a professor at Oxford.
Mr. Zacharias has made various other Oxford claims that were false or misleading. For instance, he claims in his autobiography to have been “an official lecturer at Oxford.” As we just saw, this is false, per the University. He also widely claimed to have been a “senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University,” but routinely, though not always, failed to disclose that this was merely an honorary position. He even told one Christian interviewer that the senior research fellow position is “a credential with which I work in the academy.” In April of 2018, he updated his C.V. to remove misleading claims and to disclose that his Oxford title was honorary. But it took over a decade for him to do so.
RR: As I understand it, Mr. Zacharias has also made false statements about his relationship with Cambridge. Is that right?
SB: Cambridge is equally disturbing. Mr. Zacharias went to a Church of England training school called Ridley Hall for a brief “guided study” in 1990. Ridley is in the town of Cambridge but not part of the University. His supervisor told me that Mr. Zacharias was there for one term, 2-3 months. During this time he audited classes and lectures at the University of Cambridge. From this brief experience, he made the very bold claim that he is “educated in Cambridge” and that he was “a visiting scholar at Cambridge University.” We can see these claims on the author blurbs on the back cover of several of his books. In his public lectures, he frequently mentions his “studies” at Cambridge. The University of Cambridge confirmed that he was never one of their visiting scholars and Mr. Zacharias quickly removed the claim from his website. That was the proper thing to do, but even here he did it in a troubling way by stating that Ridley Hall had been more closely affiliated with the University in 1990 than it is now. In personal correspondence with me, the University confirmed that this is false. Sadly, we see here that even in correcting himself Mr. Zacharias is willing to mislead.
Mr. Zacharias also widely claimed to have studied quantum physics that semester under the renowned Cambridge physicist, Dr. John Polkinghorne, to whom he refers as “my professor in quantum physics.” The University confirmed, however, that Dr. Polkinghorne had actually not taught physics in 1990. He taught a divinity class on the science/theology dialogue and one on Buddhism. It appears that Mr. Zacharias audited a divinity class and turned it into the claim that he studied quantum physics at Cambridge. He can be seen making that claim over and over again in his YouTube speeches. It is most revealing that in his recent apology he does not list “quantum physics” as one of his areas during his guided study.
A few weeks ago Mr. Zacharias admitted that he had never enrolled at Cambridge.
RR: I can imagine a Ravi supporter replying that while Mr. Zacharias undoubtedly misrepresented particular aspects of his CV, it really isn’t that big a deal. How would you respond to the charge that you’re making too much of this?
SB: A fair question. I am not aware of anyone who actually thinks that claiming to be a “professor at Oxford” when you never were is not a big deal. That is serious stuff. Nor that claiming to be “Cambridge educated” after merely auditing classes there for a semester falls within the realm of acceptable puffing. And it is hard to picture any honest person not being aghast to learn that after decades of claiming to have studied quantum physics “under” a famous scientist at Cambridge he merely audited a divinity class on the science/theology dialogue. It is also important to keep in mind the cumulative nature of the evidence. What we see in Mr. Zacharias’s self-presentation over the past 35 years is a very clear pattern and practice of deception. These may seem like strong words, but there is a preserved written record that confirms that, sadly, this is exactly what happened.
RR: Got it. So what is Mr. Zacharias’ highest earned academic degree?
SB: Mr. Zacharias has a B.A. in theology from what was once called the Ontario Bible College and a Master of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Trinity, incidentally, is highly regarded and has a rigorous M.Div program, and one of my apologist heroes, William Lane Craig, was Mr. Zacharias’s schoolmate there. In fact, they used to meet each other while taking the trash out at night. Still, Trinity informed me that its M.Div is and always has been a non-academic degree. So we see that Mr. Zacharias actually has no academic graduate credentials.
RR: Yes, an M.Div is a professional degree which is intended to train people for Christian ministry, not academic work. Has Mr. Zacharias misrepresented any other credentials or achievements?
SB: Your readers may enjoy doing a quick and revealing research project to see what is troubling more and more people about Ravi Zacharias. He claims that as a new Christian in India he won something called the “Asian Youth Preacher Award.” He describes the contest in his published materials as an international event with “young people gathering from all across India and Asia.” But if folks google the award they will see that it does not exist except in Mr. Zacharias’s own writings and in articles that report his claims. The same goes for the “department of evangelism and contemporary thought” that he supposedly chaired at a place called Alliance Theological Seminary. It seems that Mr. Zacharias just made both these things up back when the Internet was not around.
Incidentally, in his memoirs, he names three judges at the Asian Youth Preacher competition. I contacted all three and they each told me it was not an international competition at all. It was India only. One of them described it as a “little contest” that he happened to be asked to judge because he was passing through. I had dinner with Mr. Zacharias last November and he told me that he would produce a letter from the competition organizer confirming the award. He has not done so. He also told me that he had a trophy from the event but that the words on it had faded.
Then, of course, there is the “Dr. Zacharias” thing.
RR: The ‘Dr. Zacharias thing’? I presume you’re referencing the use of an honorary title in a misleading manner?
SB: Yes. I should say at the outset that I consider this to be Mr. Zacharias’s least serious deception. Lots of people with honorary doctorates call themselves “Dr.” without disclosing that their degree was honorary. It is a misleading but widespread practice. What is more troubling about Ravi Zacharias, however, is that he clearly was out to deceive people into thinking that he had academic doctorates when he did not. It is not just that he routinely failed to use the word “honorary” in, say, his website bio where he listed his doctorates. He actually employed oddly ambiguous language in describing those honorary degrees. He said he was “honored by the conferring of” various doctorates. But that does not let his readers know that the doctorates were honorary. I was honored with the conferring of a Masters Degree and a Doctor of Jurisprudence. You were honored with the conferral of a PhD. But they weren’t honorary. Ohio State University tells its engineering PhD students that they better get their dissertations in on time if they want to be “honored with the conferral of a doctoral degree.” It is hard to think of a non-deceitful reason why Mr. Zacharias used such language when merely putting “hon” in would have removed all ambiguity.
To matters worse, Mr. Zacharias eventually added the word “honorary” to his website bio in late 2016 but then he removed it. The same thing happened with his official bio at the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, the school he founded in Oxford.
I have racked my brain to come up with some non-deceptive reason why he would actually remove the word “honorary” from his bio once it was there. [Note: Zacharias still uses the doctoral designation here.]
To make matters really worse, on December 3, 2017, his ministry issued a press release where they claimed that Mr. Zacharias is uncomfortable with people calling him “Dr.” and that he tells event organizers not to use that title in reference to him. They claimed that “confusion” has arisen due to different “cultural norms.” But this seems plainly false. The Internet record shows us that Mr. Zacharias aggressively marketed himself as a doctor since the early 1980’s. We can see it in his event announcements from those years, which are available at newspaper.com. In 2015 his official bio referred to him as “Dr. Zacharias” eight times! When I called his office around that time his personal secretary answered with “Dr. Zacharias’s office.”
For him and his ministry to now pretend that “Dr. Zacharias” was just something that he reluctantly went along with is very troubling to many of us. It suggests that his motive is not repentance but damage control.
RR: I agree with your assessment. The blurring of the line between academic and honorary degrees can happen on occasion. But it’s an altogether different matter when that blurring appears to be intentional. And I think you’ve provided good evidence of a troubling pattern which fits into Mr. Zacharias’ repeated dishonesty about his credentials.
You’ve clearly done an impressive amount of research on this topic. What has drawn you to spend so much time on this admittedly troubling case of deception?
SB: The dialogue between theists and skeptics is a hugely important one, to my mind anyway. It must be conducted without resort to false pretenses. When Ravi Zacharias comments, as he does, on things like the second law of thermodynamics, the fact that he is a professor at Oxford and studied quantum physics at Cambridge gives his arguments great credence that they would not otherwise have. Same for his arguments about complex philosophical topics like free will, morality, self-reference, and the like. Mr. Zacharias has stood before millions of people and made definitive pronouncements on these matters. His credential deceptions make it hard to tell wheat from chaff. Like trying to find a qualified dentist where people who never went to dental school are holding themselves out as “D.D.”
And, Randall, frankly, the response of the Christian corporate world to Mr. Zacharias’s credential claims has been disappointing. The attitude seems to be business as usual. As long as he brings in the bodies and sells books the publishers and pastors do business with him. Integrity has been sidelined. Take HarperCollins Christian Publishing. Their assistant general counsel assured me that he would look at the large pile of evidence I provided him showing that their own company’s Ravi Zacharias books contained wilfully false claims. A couple weeks later he told me that they had no comment. Then in April of this year, HCC announced a new book deal with Mr. Zacharias. We may now look forward to Jesus Through Eastern Eyes, due to be released in 2020.
RR: I share your dismay at the tribalism that leads Christians to overlook the moral lapses within their community, including the fabulism of an apologist like Mr. Zacharias. It hardly needs to be pointed out that if an atheist like Richard Dawkins were behaving in this manner, Christians would not hesitate to call out his dishonesty. This double standard is indefensible. Needless to say, it also does enormous damage to the credibility of the Christian witness to a skeptical world.
Thanks for taking the time to discuss these important issues with us. If a person wants to learn more about this topic, where can they go?
SB: A great deal is coming out now from Christian bloggers. One may simply google “Ravi Zacharias credentials” for a wealth of information. The Spiritual Sounding Board has done a fine job of assembling the credential deceptions in one place. You and Warren Throckmorton have also done careful work at your blogs on the credential issues. I have a book that is about to go to press and should be out by the end of the year. I hope folks will keep their eyes out for my Coverup at God, Inc.; Sex, Lies and God’s Great Apologist, Ravi Zacharias.