$1.7 million grant targets the ‘problem of evil’

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Author: Claire Reising ’11

An infant dies of starvation. An earthquake leaves a million people homeless. A guerrilla fighter murders civilians in front of their children. How could an omnipotent, benevolent God permit such evil and suffering? If He is all-powerful, couldn’t He prevent it? If He is all-loving, wouldn’t He want to prevent it?

The difficulty that evil events present for human reflection upon the existence of God is known as “the problem of evil.” It has generated centuries of debate and led some to reject religious faith altogether. The conversation promises to continue at Notre Dame over the next four years under a $1.7 million grant for a project called “The Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought.” Through a series of conferences, workshops, publishing efforts and fellowships, the Problem of Evil project will renew scholarly efforts to address the timeless issues raised by evil in the light of recent historical developments.

Professors Michael Rea and Samuel Newlands, the director and associate director of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion, received the grant from the Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation, which supports projects that explore “big question” issues such as human nature and free will. Templeton has sponsored other Notre Dame projects, most notably a study of the practice of generosity led by Professor Christian Smith.

Under the new Templeton grant, philosophers of religion working through the Notre Dame center will analyze past approaches to the problem of evil and explore new ways to think about “natural evil” (evil caused by natural forces) and “moral evil” (evil caused by human actions).

“The evil that we find in the world isn’t something to be shunned or ignored,” says Michael Murray ’91Ph.D., Templeton’s vice president of philosophy and theology. “It actually provides us with deep insights into the nature of reality and God.”

The ND project marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of the rationalist philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s Théodicée, a milestone effort to explain God’s toleration of evil. Rea says the subject is especially relevant today because popular atheist authors, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, use the problem to argue against God’s existence.

“His arguments for atheism are really, in a lot of ways, intimately tied up with the problem of evil,” Rea says of Hitchens. “His basic argument in [the 2007 bestseller] God is Not Great is, ‘Look at all the evil that the great religions have perpetrated. It looks like they’re more the problem than the solution.’ Addressing that involves talking a lot about human sin and why a good God might allow evils of this sort to happen.”

Meanwhile, Murray says, theist philosophers have failed to make their work accessible to the public. He calls this failure ironic. “Philosophy shouldn’t have difficulty doing that because many of the questions that philosophers ask are the questions that really everybody asks at some time or another — the kind of thing that lots of people I knew sat around their college dorms talking about late into the night.”

To address this gap in popular appeal, the project will underwrite new and more accessible translations of works by philosophers like Leibniz and award prizes to authors who publish books or new work in popular venues such as _Harper’s- or Christianity Today.

One such book project is already under way. Tim Townsend, the religion reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has begun work on a book about the Nuremberg Trials. Townsend wants to reach a large audience with his profile of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from St. Louis who served as an Army chaplain in World War II and went on to minister to 21 leading Nazis who stood trial for crimes after the war. Before he met the accused, Gerecke visited a newly liberated concentration camp and saw firsthand what the Nazis caused.

“[Gerecke] says he touched the walls and came away with blood on his fingers,” Townsend says. “It’s a monstrous leap to make for somebody to be able to have seen, firsthand, the freshness of the end of the Holocaust and then go minister to the people that caused it.”

Townsend also intends to analyze modern-day responses to evil and suffering, such as Muslim chaplains who serve captured Al Qaeda terrorists.

The academic core of the Problem of Evil project is high-level scholarship that Rea and Newlands hope will move beyond arguments with atheists. This goal fits within a long-standing tradition of philosophical inquiry at Notre Dame.

Alvin Plantinga, the John A. O’Brien professor emeritus of philosophy and former director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion, says most philosophers dismissed religion for much of the 20th century. Notre Dame, he says, is one of a few universities to devote resources to philosophical inquiry into religion.

Now, with the Templeton support, much of the energy and attention at the center will focus on evil. Scholars will analyze major contributions from thinkers such as Leibniz, develop the concept of “skeptical theism” and probe deeper into the nature of pain in the particular case of animal suffering.

The historical development of ideas about evil is important, Murray says, because significant events such as the Holocaust change how we view evil. Much of the historically based research will revisit the work of Leibniz, who wrote that God created “the best of all possible worlds,” Newlands says, even though his era witnessed hardships such as the Thirty Years’ War, a large-scale European conflict that began, in part, over religious tension between Catholics and Protestants. Leibniz suggested that God had to permit some evil, like natural disasters, in order to allow greater goods, such as laws of nature that are necessary for life.

One modern approach to the problem of evil is skeptical theism, which Rea and others have adopted. Rea says that while atheists use evil to deny God’s existence, skeptical theists argue that humans simply cannot know God’s reasons for allowing it.

“Why would I think that I’d be able to fathom the sorts of reasons that an infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing God might have for permitting that kind of thing?” he says.

Skeptical theism, however, has skeptics of its own. Paul Draper, a Purdue philosophy professor and 2010-11 fellow at the ND center, calls skeptical theism a double-edged sword.

“If God’s so mysterious about whether He’d allow evil, we also can’t make predictions about why He’d produce order, free will or consciousness, which are often considered to be evidence for God’s existence,” he says.

The project will extend beyond philosophy’s immediate borders with research on natural evil and animal suffering. Newlands and Rea are calling for research proposals from several fields including theology, biology and cognitive science to explore the moral implications of suffering and its connections with such goods as creativity and freedom.

Murray, who has written a book on animal suffering, says people wonder what we can learn about God when nature itself seems cruel and indifferent. Findings in this area will help scholars understand the extent of suffering in the non-human world and shed light on natural evil.

After four years of discussion, Newlands envisions academic and popular events finding a middle ground where faith is questions but not dismissed.

“That’s what contemporary philosophy of religion and people in the center are trying to represent,” he says. “An intellectually rigorous approach to questions of religious belief and the existence of God.”


Claire Reising, a senior majoring in English and French, was Notre Dame Magazine’s summer 2010 intern.


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