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.

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.