Susan Neiman

Teaching the problem of evil

I imagine most lecturers have a handful of topics (or modules) that they would really rather not teach. I have two main ones (so far): proofs for the existence of God and the problem of evil. The former because it mostly consists of endlessly rehashing tired arguments. Any developments require greater knowledge of mathematics, formal logic or physics than I or the average undergraduate possess. The trick, of course, is to shift the question from ‘can one prove the existence of God’ to ‘what role do attempts to prove the existence of God play in religious discourse’ or ‘what forms of knowledge are privileged by the attempts to prove the existence of God’. The problem is that these important questions require you spend a bit of time reading through the proofs for the existence of God.

My lack of love for the problem of evil stems from the same kinds of problems. I also don’t enjoy having to spend time talking about the depths of human depravity – I’m not an overly optimistic person to begin with and spending a semester talking about the Holocaust or sexual abuse of children makes me feel even more nihilistic than usual. The problem of evil, though, does drive home the implications of deeply held beliefs about God and the sources of evil.

This year, I’m trying to structure my module on the problem of evil in a way that encourages students to think about how ideas of evil are invoked in discussions of gender, cultural difference, class, race, etc. In short why is it that some groups seem to suffer more than others? And why are certain groups more easily cast as evil?

Since most students will be familiar with the basic contours of the debate, I’m only going to spend the first two weeks on the traditional responses (Augustine and Plantinga, Irenaeaus and Hick). To help make the critical turn, we’re going to look at Kenneth Surin’s Theology and the Problem of Evil. The class will mostly focus on philosophy of religion, but Surin’s book is still one of the best challenges to standard theodicy. The chapter on theodicies with a ‘practical emphasis’ introduces people like Dorothe Söelle, who will be unfamiliar to most students. I’ll follow this with Baumann’s essay on modernity and the Holocaust, which I have found to be very affecting in the past.

I’m still searching for the best texts to help students consider the problem of evil in the wider contexts of gender, race, class, etc. I considered using Nel Noddings’ Women and Evil, but couldn’t fit in into the structure of the module (it would require more than one week and I’m struggling to fit everything in as it is). I have an edited collection of essays on post-colonial philosophy of religion and Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought on the way, which may shake things up a bit. I’d love to have the class read William Jones’ Is God a White Racist? (per Marika Rose’s suggestion), but I think I’d struggle to get a copy in the library before the start of term.

I’ll be finishing the syllabus in the next few days. Once I’ve nailed everything down I’ll post it. In the meanwhile, if anyone has suggestions, please let me know.