Problem of Evil Syllabus

Here’s my finalised schedule. I’ll say a bit more about my reasoning at the bottom. The module meets once a week for 2 hours.

Week 1 – Introduction

In class reading, selection from Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Week 2 – Augustine and Plantinga

Augustine, Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope and Love, chapter 4, ‘The Problem of Evil’ 

Augustine, City of God, Book XI, chapters 16-18, 22; Book XII, chapters 2-3

Platinga, The Nature of Necessity, 164-190

Week 3 – Irenaeaus and Hick

John Hick, ‘An Irenaean Theodicy’ in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, 39-69.

Week 4 – Hume and Pike

David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Parts 10-11

Nelson Pike, ‘Hume on Evil’, The Philosophical Review 72:2 (1963): 180-197

Formative Assessment 1 – Summarise one classical response to the problem of evil. Include references to one contemporary version or critique. This may not be a pair that we have discussed in class.

Week 5 – Surin

Theology and the Problem of Evil, Introduction, pp. 1-37

Week 6 – Surin

Theology and the Problem of Evil, Theodicies with a ‘Practical Emphasis’, 112-142

Week 7 – Reading Week

Formative Assessment 2 – Summarise a theodicy with a practical emphasis. This may not be one mentioned in Surin’s book.

Week 8 – Zygmunt Baumann

‘Sociology after the Holocaust’, Modernity and the Holocaust

Week 9 – Gender and the Problem of Evil 

Robin May Schott, ‘Evil, Terrorism and Gender’, Feminist Philosophy and the Problem of Evil

Week 10 – Race and the Problem of Evil

W.E.B. Dubois, ‘A Litany at Atlanta’

James Cone, ‘God in Black Theology’ in A Black Theology of Liberation, 55-82

Week 11– Concluding discussion

Meillassoux, ‘The Spectral Dilemma’

I had hoped to include a straightforwardly post-colonial analysis of the problem of evil, but wasn’t able to find one. Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion includes an essay that discusses this a bit (‘What is the “Subaltern” of Philosophy of Religion?’), but it only amounts to a 1/3 or so of the essay. I was surprised by my inability to find a straightforward essay/chapter to fill this need in the module. It may be that I’m just not looking in the right places. Searching for theodicy or the problem of evil combined with Fanon, Said, Bhabha, postcolonialism and subaltern all produced occasional references, but not sustained critiques.

I think Cone will help students think through related problems. The problem with teaching black theologies of liberation is that they tend to be very culturally specific to the US. I think many of these issues resonate with concerns here in the UK, but it adds an extra layer of excuses (‘we don’t have those problems here’). Even though that’s not the case, it means that you have to spend doing extra work demonstrating that the UK is not a post-racial society. I’m happy to do that work, but post-colonial analyses tend to hit closer to home (at least for white students).

I’m uncertain of the Schott essay. The book hasn’t arrived, so I’m working off of reviews and snippets of her other writings. Someone like Rosemary Radford Ruether would be an alternative (and would challenge students), but I want to avoid the class being focused entirely on the problem of evil as a problem for theology or philosophy of religion (which is really philosophy of theism). I’ll have time to change the reading if I’m unsatisfied after the book has been delivered.

Each of the weeks will include supplemental resources including other academic works, things taken from the news and the occasional film or television reference. For instance, in the last week I’ll ask students to also read Peter Thompson’s two columns in the Guardian on confronting terminal illness as an atheist. Badiou has a chapter in his Ethics that talks about the problem of evil in a way which resonates with Baumann. I was tempted to just assign the Badiou reading, but I think it would be a little much. Students won’t have been introduced to ‘continental’ philosophy yet and I think they would be thrown by all the talk of the state of the situation and sets.

Each week I’ll provide 3-4 questions to guide their reading. Students will be required to come to class with a question to pose to the rest of the group and our session will begin by working through these issues.

There are already things I would like to change for future years, but I’m not sure if the module will continue in this form. For now, I think it strikes a good balance between what they expect (Plantinga and Hick) and pushing them to think about evil in new and interesting ways. Feel free to correct me though – if I’ve left anything out or am otherwise ruining the education of my students let me know in the comments.


  1. At least you admit to the evilness of your syllabus…

    Horrendous puns aside, I have but a few suggestions. My experience when an undergrad was that lecturers seemed to be sadistic enough to enjoy constructing courses wherein modules in the first year tend to be way too under-academic, and subsequent years overcompensated for this.

    Especially when it comes to dealing with heavier Philosophical texts!

    I remember being very disheartened by the fact that if I walked away from a set reading understanding anything, I’d be forced to concede the reality of miracles (or at the very least, to take that as proof of God’s fickle and arbitrary mercy)!

    Nothing’s worse than putting 150% effort in and just about getting through with a decent passing grade because you found out too late that philosophical texts need to be approached in a different way. A lot of students disengage precisely for this reason.

    Yes, university is where you take things into your own hands and are responsible for your own education, but sometimes we don’t realise there’s a problem until crappy grades come along… It would have been nice if my lecturers would have made this point clearer in first year… I would have been more likely to have graduated with a first, for one thing!! But I digress.

    I will recommend the book and video that helped me out- by all means, pass this on to your students (mini-workshops would be nice too!)

    “Doing Philosophy: A practical guide for students” By Clare Saunders, David Mossley, George MacDonald Ross, and Danielle Lamb. (Hopefully) accessible on:

    1. Thanks for that. I think a lot of UK university’s have relied on the same form of assessment (that’s a horrible phrase, but also the most accurate) – a single essay at the end of the term. In our department we’re trying to introduce both more diverse forms of assignments and more assignments per term. This means that students don’t have everything riding on a single assignment (though the end of term essay or other project is still very important). It also allows lecturers to track students’ comprehension and identify problems with the mechanics of research and writing. In this module, for example, having an assignment due after four weeks will help me figure out if anyone in the class needs a bit of extra help.

      Writing comprehensive essays dealing with the key issues of a course is still important, but I think more and more universities are realising that there are multiple ways of helping students grapple with material and demonstrate their knowledge.

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