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Science, Religion, and Evil
My title suggests a topic far too large to consider in one essay. Intellectual giants today and throughout history have wrestled with how science and religion ought to relate. And they have often considered questions of evil.
Those who separate science neatly from religion think addressing evil well requires two entirely different conversations. Those who try to separate science neatly from values will wonder what “evil” has to do with proper science. I want to sketch out briefly why both science and religion — theology in particular — matter overcoming central obstacles in solving the problem of evil.
Often the rubber meets the road when we face personal tragedy. “Why didn’t God stop my cells from becoming cancerous?” someone might ask. Immediately, questions about what we know about God, how cells work, and whether cancer is inherently evil arise.
“Why didn’t God stop that boy from raping me?” a girl asks. I think a helpful answer to this important question draws from religion, science, and philosophy. Neglecting any of the three leads to answers most will find unsatisfying.
I recently published a book in which I boldly claim to have solved the problem of evil. It has a provocative title, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils.
Unlike many of my previous books, I wrote God Can’t using common language. I told true stories and used many illustrations. I offer five claims that together solve the problem of evil.
“Solve” may sound preposterous. Some may even call me arrogant! But I truly believe these five beliefs solve the central questions we ask about evil, God, and the world science attempts to describe.
I’m not the only one who thinks the ideas in God Can’t solve the problem of evil. The responses to my book have been powerfully positive! Survivors of abuse and tragedy are especially grateful for these ideas. They send notes describing horrific tales and then report how helpful it was to read God couldn’t have prevented these horrors singlehandedly.
God Can’t begins with true stories of tragedy, abuse, and other evils. I define evil and argue that genuine evil events occur. I also define love and argue that what God thinks loving is not entirely different from what we think. Without clear definitions, little progress can be made.
The first of the five beliefs says God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. That’s probably the most controversial claim in the book. I explain that although God is almighty and always involved in creation, God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. God’s love is necessarily self-giving and others-empowering. And because God loves everyone and everything, God can’t control anyone or anything. I appeal to common sense, personal experiences, the Bible, and theology to argue this point.
Although God can’t control those who do evil, God does empathize with victims. In chapter two, I reject the view that God is unmoved, unaffected, or impassible. I reject the idea that God is “impassible,” to use the classic language. I say God is a fellow sufferer who understands. Survivors of evil tell me how helpful it is to believe God feels their pain.
I tackle healing in God Can’t. After looking at healing advocates and deniers, I draw from the science of medicine and explore claims about divine healing. I argue that God always works to heal to the utmost possible, but God can’t heal singlehandedly. Inopportune conditions in creation or noncooperating creatures prevent God from healing fully.
Many people say God causes or allows suffering as part of a mysterious master plan. I reject that view. God works with creation to squeeze good from the bad God didn’t want in the first place. I also reject the idea that God punishes. There are natural negative consequences when creatures don’t cooperate with God’s love. But God doesn’t beat up disobedient creatures or ask others to beat them.
Some people dismiss any attempt to solve the problem of evil. “We don’t need theories,” they say, “We need to be activists who work to overcome evil.” I disagree. I’m in favor of activism to instigate positive change. But without good theories about God, few will be motivated to stop the evil they think God causes or allows. God needs creaturely cooperation for love to win in the world and the afterlife.
The responses I’m getting to readers of God Can’t indicate that few people understand the philosophy of science. The average person assumes a mechanistic view of existence, although most also think humans have free will. I agree about the free will.
Many readers are surprised when they encounter my view that other creatures and entities have agency, self-organization, or spontaneity. Most quickly find the view appealing, however. Few have also considered the implication of the widespread idea among physicists that indeterminacy occurs at various levels of existence.
My book is written for the average reader. No graduate school education is necessary. I point those who want more sophisticated accounts of science, divine action, or evil to books my fellow scholars of science and religion have written. And I suggest they read my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence.
God Can’t has taught me that everyday people hunger for answers that make sense. And few people think any single domain – science, religion, or philosophy – can alone answer life’s biggest questions.