Win Corduan, On "Evil in Non-Christian Religions"

As announced earlier I’m planning on reviewing every chapter in the new anthology on the problem of suffering titled, God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain,edited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew. [To read other entries in this series just click on the "God and Evil" tag below this post].

This time up is Win (or Winfried) Corduan's chapter, "Evil in Non-Christian Religions" (pp. 175-196). I have a bit of a connection with Win in that we both graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS). He graduated years before me when Norman Geisler was the Chair of the Philosophy of Religion department, about the same time William Lane Craig studied there. Wikipedia lists some notable alumni of TEDS and neither Win nor I made the grade. Maybe someday. ;-)

Apart from the debate in the Appendix this is the longest chapter in the book, and for good reason. Corduan surveys and critiques the major alternative religious answers to suffering in the world.

This chapter is important because, as Corduan writes: "the problem of a challenge to almost everyone's worldview in some way. Whether such evil stands in contrast to a person's understanding of certain deities or not, it certainly opposes the way human beings wish the world would be." People want to know "1) why they are beset by evil, and 2) how they can eliminate it" (pp. 176-77). If we substitute the word "suffering" for "evil" then I already know why suffering exists. It's because that's how the natural processes of the world work. With regard to living things it's called the survival of the fittest, and we are all inextricably bound up with this whole evolutionary process. Someone described human beings as "civilized animals." I like that description. We are brutes who have been, and are becoming more and more civilized. So how can we "eliminate" or better yet, reduce suffering? We can do it through science, technology, and the adoption of democratic liberty for all.

Corduan crams a lot of information in this chapter. So it would be hard for me to duplicate what he says in any detail. Very briefly then, here goes.

In Islam suffering is Allah's test to see if believers can submit to him regardless of what happens, and there is nothing that happens in the universe that Allah doesn't control. Moreover, in Islam there is no original sin and no redemption from sin, so Corduan writes, "The Islamic view does not accord sin the same seriousness as a biblical view does" (p. 178), and with it "the holiness of God" (p. 195).

In animistic religions "evil is not a vertical issue between God and human beings but a horizontal matter between beings and other entities on the same plane (i.e., ancestors, nature spirits or other people who are ill-disposed toward a person or community)" (p. 178-79). This is a world where witches, sorcerers, and workers of evil magic can adversely affect the world of nature and human affairs. People are at the mercy of others though incantations, voodoo dolls, mystical powers, the evil eye, and other such magical powers. The solution is to find the evildoers and stop them. But it's difficult to know who's causing the suffering and leads to injustice as innocent people are sometimes burned and killed on flimsy evidence. This is evil on a horizontal plane. It is never-ending with no hopeful solution available.

Zoroastrianism dualism is the view that there are two morally opposite supernatural beings who are fighting each other over the world of human affairs. However "the dualism is more apparent than real" since there is no explanation for how evil originated, nor is there any idea who will win this cosmic battle. Hence, "it also weakens the belief in the reliability of God" (p. 184).

South Asian or Indic religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism have one common feature he says: "evil is integral to human existence." For Hinduism, evil is an illusion. For Buddhism, evil is the result of clinging to the impermanent. For Jainism, evil is an eternal affliction. According to Corduan, none of them offers a good explanation for the origination of evil, and as such, are all metaphysically unsatisfying.

In Chinese traditions evil is the disharmonious imbalance of two opposite fundamental elements, the yin and the yang. When everything has the proper balance the Dao will emerge, which is the way the world should work. This will happen "as human beings take their hands off trying to straighten things out" (p. 192). Corduan argues this does not do justice to evil, since "it should be within our power to return the balance. But we cannot...because evil has a reality of it's own, as a corruption, not just as an imbalance" (p. 194).

Corduan says much more in his chapter of course. The heart of his critique of these other religious answers to suffering is found in his conclusion. In the first place: "The human impulse is to blame evil spirits, evil principles, evil as an inevitable aspect of the world, evil as a mistake in perception, evil as ignorance or evil as imbalance, and by thus limiting its nature we can go further and prescribe measures of dealing with such supposed causes of evil." But "human attempts to eliminate [evil] on their own will not work," he says (p. 195). Secondly he offers "the biblical view of evil" and its solution to be found in the gospel and the consummation of the ages. Unlike other religions "it offers a final redemption from all evil and its consequences" in the "God incarnate" person of Jesus Christ.

What can be said about his criticisms? Plenty. My problem is knowing what to include since I want to say so much. Islam, for instance, doesn't have as many problems as Christianity does because Muslims reject the Trinity, Incarnation, and the atonement, doctrines which are not rationally coherent at all, as Dr. Jerald Dirks explains. I find animistic religions to be correct in that there is only a horizontal plane of suffering though. Then too, Zorastrianism influenced Christian views of Satan, as can be see in the excellent book, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots.I also find the South Asian or Indic religions to be correct that suffering is integral to human existence. And Buddhism's answer is at least partially correct, for if we want to reduce our suffering we need to curb our desires. By lowering our expectations we will suffer less. The Chinese traditions are quite foreign to me though. Of course, I reject all of these "solutions" to the degree they admit of invisible magical supernatural beings and/or forces. The evidence for them is insufficient.

One glaring problem for Corduan is that he's looking for a solution to suffering, one that will eventually "eliminate it" because he's a Christian who believes suffering will one day be eliminated in heaven. Left unaddressed are the insoluble problems of free will and suffering in heaven. I don't think suffering can be eliminated. Just like chronic pain we can only manage it, reduce it, minimize it, to the best of our ability. No one likes involuntary severe horrendous pain. We all want to be happy. So we should find ways to be as happy as we can, holistically happy. Corduan's problem then is that he's seeking to criticize other religious answers to suffering from his Christian perspective. He's judging them from an outsider's perspective since he's not an insider to them. Why won't he do the same to his own particular Christian solution? As I argue in my book, The Outsider Test for Faith, he should. Otherwise he's using a double standard, one for the other religions he rejects and a different one for his own. The only consistent and intellectually defensible outsider perspective is agnosticism, which I describe as the default position

When it comes to his Christian solution to the problem of suffering, in this book review I'm showing that it's utterly improbable, close to, but not quite, a logical impossibility. None of these other religious answers to suffering seems as bad to me at all, although a few of them are fairly close. Nonetheless, there are many things Corduan says by way of criticism that I can accept. When religionists legitimately criticize each other I think they are all correct. All I have to do it watch them do it and report the results, leaving no reason to believe in any of them. We are all nonbelievers in other religions. I am a nonbeliever in them all.

The other glaring problem for Corduan is that he presumes to speak for Christianity as a whole, offering what he calls "the biblical view" of suffering and it's solution. But when it came to the other religious answers he acknowledged some diversity within them. Of the Chinese tradition he said, "Various schools differ with regard to the attainment of Dao" (p. 192). He admits this diversity within each of the religions he deals with except his own evangelical faith. I guess other Christian solutions like the Irenaean theodicy of John Hick, Calvinism, and Process Theology aren't true Christian solutions, and as such, don't even deserve to be mentioned, right? Calvinism with an absolutely sovereign God is a lot like Allah in Islam. The Irenaean theodicy of John Hick shares the belief in a progressive sanctification through successive reincarnated lives, just like the South Asian and Indic traditions do. Process theologians don't believe in an omnipotent God, so human beings must struggle against suffering and injustice along with God if we hope to overcome it, kind of like the animistic religions since the vertical plane of suffering is severely minimized.

The bottom line is that other Christianities and religions debunk themselves as I've argued here. All we need to do is ask that one of them steps up to the plate with a consistent set of doctrines that has sufficient evidence for them, one that can shoulder its own burden of proof. Until then I'll keep my feet firmly planted on solid ground.