The Problem of Evil

Duke University

Department of Religious Studies

REL 401, ETHICS 402, CulAnth 402.01

The Problem of Evil

Instructor: Professor Mohsen Kadivar

Spring 2022

Tue/Thu 3:30-4:45PM

Course Description

This is an introduction to the problem of evil that examines writings from ancient, medieval, and early modern eras up to our own present moment. ‘The problem of evil’ as the challenge of reconciling the existence of an absolutely perfect being (Omnipotent, Omniscient, and omnibenevolent God) with the existence of evil, suffering and sin has been one of the greatest problems of intellectual. The epistemic question posed by evil is whether the world contains undesirable states of affairs that provide the basis for an argument that makes it unreasonable to believe in the existence of God. The best-known presentation of the problem is attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC) which was popularized by David Hume in 1779.

All three great theistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—face the challenge of addressing this issue. Besides the field of theology, the problem of evil is also important to the field of ethics (in its different branches such as secular ethics, and evolutionary ethics) as well as philosophy of psychology. In contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, the problem of evil has undergone much technical refinement, leading to greater clarity about different formulations of the problem as well as strategies for response.

Besides theology and philosophy, we find the problem of evil invoked by politicians, judges, journalists, and many others to express the view that certain actions, persons, institutions, or ideologies are not just morally problematic but require a spe­cial signifier to mark them out from the ordinary and commonplace. Therefore, the question of what a concept of evil could mean and how it fits into our moral vocabulary remains an important and pressing concern.

The problem of evil affects the ‘meaning of life’ deeply, so it is not exclusive to the monotheists, and involves atheists as well. It has been extended to non-human life forms too, to include animal suffering from natural evils and human cruelty against them. The evil generally is divided into two types, ‘moral evil’ (caused by free human actions such as war, terror and rape) and ‘natural evil’ (caused by natural phenomena such as disease [COVID 19!], earthquakes, and floods).

Responses to the problem of evil have traditionally been discussed under the heading of ‘theodicy’. These responses to the problem have been organized in three forms: refutations, defenses, and theodicies. “Defense” approach aims to show that the existence of at least some evil in the world is logically compatible with God’s goodness, power, and wisdom. Theodicy is an account of why God chooses to permit evil in the world (and why he is morally justified in so choosing); as Leibniz claimed, this is the “best of all possible worlds.”

A wide range of responses have been made against these arguments. The problem of evil is often formulated in two forms, logical and evidential. The logical form of the problem tries to show a logical impossibility in the coexistence of God and evil, while the evidential form of the problem tries to show that given the evil in the world, it is improbable that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God.

The course explores the essentials, key concepts, and major issues of the problem of evil such as: the preliminary distinctions, the distinction between deductive versions of the argument from evil and evidential versions, the distinction between three very different types of responses to the argument from evil: attempted total refutations, defenses, and theodicies (soul-making theodicy, natural law theodicy, process theodicy, and anti-theodicy) more modest variants on defenses and theodicies; the free will defense and reformed epistemology; and the limit of human knowledge and skeptical theism.

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