Is the “problem of evil” universal?

Reading a book recommended by my brother, Gregory Boyd's God at war (1997), I have recently been thinking about the problem of evil. Boyd suggests that the problem of evil arises because Christians believe that God is both good and in direct control of all things. People in many other societies, Boyd suggests, assume that the spiritual realm is the site of active conflict between different spiritual powers, and so see human suffering as an expected consequence of this warfare: war always involves suffering.

This account runs counter to Pascal Boyer's (2001) account of witchcraft, in which the outputs of several inference systems triggered by misfortune combine to make the notion of a witch conceptually salient in such contexts. According to Boyer's theory, our inference systems have us looking for moral agents with special powers. If the misfortune is economic in nature, we look for economic agents. In many cases, witch concepts fit the bill, thus accounting for widespread witchcraft discourse.

Conflicting accounts help in thinking through the issues, and here are a few thoughts I have had.
 

1. As adaptive creatures, it makes sense that we would pay particular attention to things that do not go as expected, especially if those things negatively impact us. I would therefore be surprised if misfortune, anywhere and at any time, did not occasion particular notice.
2. It also makes sense that people would look for explanations of misfortune. When misfortunes are caused by physical processes, then presumably we apply causal models in those domains. When misfortune is caused by other people, then we apply psychological and social causal models. An outline of this diagnostic process is given by attribution theory. Scapegoating is probably the most widely studied kind of attribution.
3. What exactly requires explanation seems to be culturally variable. In Western intellectual discourse, many facets of misfortune are attributed to "chance," as if chance were a causal factor. As Evans-Pritchard (1937) discussed, these facets require explanation in Zande society. But the Azande do not require an account of the mechanism of misfortune-something that is required in Western intellectual discourse.
4. Misfortune may cause other intellectual problems, depending on one's other assumptions. For instance, if God is assumed to be both good and in control, then misfortune causes cognitive dissonance. If people are assumed to be inherently good, then the fact that some people are destructive causes cognitive dissonance. Both of these kinds of cognitive dissonance seem very widespread in the Western intellectual tradition.

These seem to be some of the psychological processes underlying the "problem of evil," with some observations about what varies. Are there elements I have overlooked?

1 Comment

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 21 March 2010 (18:36)

    Brian asks “is ‘the problem of evil’ universal?” but he himself gives reasons not just to doubt that it is but also to consider it a very parochial problem. As he writes, “[i][b]If[/b][/i] God is assumed to be both good and in control, then misfortune causes cognitive dissonance. [i][b]If[/b][/i] people are assumed to be inherently good, then the fact that some people are destructive causes cognitive dissonance.” Big ‘ifs’. He notes that such ideas are widespread in the Western intellectual tradition. Indeed, and it is just as obvious that they are quite rare elsewhere. Most systems of beliefs make no assumption of essential and pure goodness of some omnipotnent power, or of human beings, so the issue does not even arise. Justly, in the bulk of his post, Brian discusses misfortune — which indeed all societies have to cope with — rather than ‘evil’, which is an abstraction not even envisaged in most societies. The “problem of evil” is a Western theological problem, not an anthropological one.