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World News

Meet the 'atheist with an agenda' who helped reveal Ravi Zacharias scandal

by Marcus Jones

For over five years, California based lawyer Steve Baughman has run the website, attempting to expose the lies and wrongdoing of international evangelist Ravi Zacharias.

Going by the persona of 'Friendly Banjo Atheist', it's fair to say his claims weren't always taken as seriously as they perhaps should have been within the Christian community, including this publication.

His website, which he admits he set up as a "temper tantrum", goes into detail about how Zacharias fabricated academic credentials and more recently it has shone a light on the allegations of sexual misconduct.

It was Baughman's website which one of Zacharias' victims stumbled upon after watching the preacher's funeral. Wanting to see if there was any further information out there, she simply searched in Google 'Ravi Zacharias sex scandal'. There she would learn about another victim, Lori Anne Thompson, who had been given a pay-out by Zacharias in return for signing a non-disclosure agreement not to reveal any details about their relationship.

The stories of victims, who've remained anonymous until a report, published last week, revealed the full extent of abuse including reports of rape, sexting and spiritual abuse.

"I shake to think of what would have happened if that woman had not contacted me from the spas in May 2020," Baughman said. "If she had not taken it upon herself to notify me that Ravi Zacharias was in the spa industry, and he was a sexual pervert, we would never know any of this.

"This story came up by the skin of our teeth and that's awful to think of how many other things are lurking under there that we just don't know about."

Baughman has been relentless in bringing the truth out. He's been a thorn in the side of RZIM, the ministry of Ravi Zacharias. He's been labelled an 'atheist with an agenda', a moniker he's happy to own.

"I am an atheist with an agenda, but my agenda with Ravi was to set the record straight. This was a man who was wilfully deceiving people. 

"I thought that was messing up the dialogue which I value between atheists and Christians. Good dialogue is important to a lot of us and when someone's making up fake credentials, it just messes it up. 

"It feels good that people now see that he really did lie and it also feels good to know that the abuse was uncovered. It was horrible, it was extensive, it was ongoing, it was international. Ravi somehow managed to persuade everyone, all the way up to the vice president of the United States, that he was this deeply godly man. I'm very glad that the truth emerged about that."

Baughman believes the abuse could have been stopped before it even began. He says the lies about academic credentials could have been addressed and could have put a stop to deceptive behaviour.

"Think of how different it would have been if Christians had done their duty when Ravi was a young man and he first began lying about his credentials, if his senior Christian colleagues had said, 'Hey, Reverend Zacharias, we don't do that'. 

"How different the world might have turned out, how different his career might have turned out if Christians had done their duty to rein in an overly ambitious, dishonest young pastor. It's scary to think that it didn't happen.

RZIM put out a statement last week repenting of the part it played in not uncovering the abuse. Although in 2020 it said it didn't believe the stories of victims, it now says it does and will support them in whatever way it can.

The UK branch of RZIM, The Zacharias Trust has announced it will split from the main organisation and will change its name.

Baughman is calling for a time of reflection for leaders of the organisation.

"I really hope the Ravi Zacharias story isn't just another 'bad preacher boy exposed' kind of thing," he says. "We need to have some systemic reflection and look at what are the structures that enabled a narcissistic abuser to fool so many people. It was astonishing to me that Ravi misrepresented his credentials for 30 years before anybody spoke out and the first person to speak out happened to be some banjo playing internet atheist - me! 

"I don't want to be critical to your religious community but I'm truly astonished that not a single Christian ever chose to speak out about Ravi's nonsense, about his credential fraud. I hope that Christians in the UK and the US are wondering, 'what does that say about us? Are we too easy on our celebrities?' Unless some systemic reflection happens, some self-reflection by Christians in the evangelical business empire, this is just going to be another entertaining takedown of a corrupt preacher. And that would be really unfortunate. 

"It took an evangelical village to enable him for decades and that's the real lesson here. It's not about Ravi anymore. It's about the system that let him get away with this. And also, frankly, the evangelical system that seems to need its charismatic preachers, its charismatic, narcissist men to keep the pews filled and keep the books selling and keep the money coming in. That's the real issue."

RZIM says it now has two priorities: to help the victims and to stop anything like this happening again. It says it is "committed to change". 

Change is often a challenge, but perhaps a challenge needed to be taken on by many ministries across the world.

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