COVID-19, the Problem of Evil, and the Role of Psychology
The coronavirus outbreak is challenging the way we understand the world. So far, the focus of the scientific community has largely been on the biological and pharmaceutical science that goes into understanding this particular virus, the illnesses it causes, and how best to treat them. And rightly so! But there’s an additional area of scientific research that’s needed both now and for the next pandemic: the psychology of our perceptions of and responses to evil, fear, and suffering.
Theistic belief in God offers a fascinating test-case for why we need psychology to help us understand pandemics. Within the contemporary philosophical literature, the central hurdle to belief in God is the problem of evil. If God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, then we shouldn’t expect to find evil in the world – certainly not the amount and varieties of evil that we find. After all, if God is all-good, then he should want to prevent any evil he could. And if God is all-powerful, then nothing can stop him from preventing whatever evil he knows about. And if God is all-knowing, then there can’t be any evil he doesn’t know about.
The existence of evil thus offers de facto evidence against God’s existence. And if the world were to endure a significant uptick in suffering and evil – as in, for example, a global pandemic that kills thousands of people and threatens the livelihood of millions – then we might expect confidence in theism to decline; more evil, after all, should translate into more evidence against the existence of God.
But that doesn’t seem to be what’s actually happening.
While it’s too early to tell what effect COVID-19 is having on religious belief, some indicators suggest that more people are now expressing interest in learning about God. And, instead of abandoning their convictions, religious groups around the world are mobilizing, looking for a way to minister to the needs of frightened and suffering people (even if only online).
Given the problem of evil, this is a surprising result. So what’s going on here?
Part of the answer is that people respond to fear and suffering in different, and largely subjective, ways. In particular, scary situations often serve as mirrors through which we reflect our own experiences, anxieties, and beliefs. This is easy to see for anyone on social media watching the constant stream of pundits reflecting on the cause or meaning of the virus. Are you deeply religious? Then you might view the pandemic as God’s punishment for sin. Are you more theologically liberal? Then you might experience the pandemic as an opportunity (perhaps afforded by God) to usher in a more egalitarian, environmentally friendly, and equitable society. Many of us can and do use the pandemic to confirm our pre-existing beliefs; few, if any, see the global pandemic as challenging our prior commitments.
Given that different people perceive evil and suffering in different ways, this suggests that there isn’t a singular problem of evil but problems of evil – problems that are sensitive to the context and experiences of individuals. Just because one person’s observations regarding the distribution and type of evil found in the world seem to count as damning evidence against traditional brands of theism, that doesn’t mean that other people’s observations are going to be the same.
Likewise, this means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of evil; every response will always reflect the context and experiences of individuals. As such, we shouldn’t expect a universal solution to the problem of evil. Instead, there will be a variety of responses, some more psychological, more therapeutic, or more pastoral than others.
So instead of thinking that the evil caused by a global crisis like this pandemic will or must impact all people in the same way, we need a more nuanced approach that is capable of predicting how different individuals and groups will react to fear, evil, and suffering based on their pre-existing psychology. We need to understand that while responses to great hardship will vary greatly across groups and individuals, psychology could help predict who will react in what way and why.
Faced with a global pandemic, will some people hoard toilet paper? Yes, and we need to understand why and if there are ways to mitigate such a response. Will some dismiss it as a hoax? Will some run to crowded churches out of fear, or to pray, or because they think God will protect them from the virus? Yes, and we need to understand why and if there are ways to mitigate such responses. Will some people be overwhelmed with anxiety about their health, the health of their loved ones, their jobs (or lack thereof), or the loss of their liberties? Yes, and we need to respond in such a way that appropriately moderates these anxieties.
These are all things we need to know when facing threats like this global pandemic. How people respond to suffering, fear, and danger affects what policies will actually work in response. Good, nuanced psychology will help us understand what policies will trigger counter-productive behavior – like hoarding, partisan bickering, non-compliance to advice from experts, etc. – and what policies will actually help us control the spread of the virus. The science of psychology is crucial in understanding and politically responding to pandemics.
Dr. Ian Church is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale College and the principal investigator of the “Problem of Evil and Experimental Philosophy of Religion” project (generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation).