Big thinkers to study…evil

If you read this blog, you know that I have been somewhat obsessed with digging up religious explanations for natural disasters — big shots of natural evil that devastate the innocent.

I even wrote a book about it.

In recent weeks, I’ve been sorting through religious perspectives on the earthquake in Haiti and now the quake in Chile.

So I was surprised to get a release today from the Templeton Foundation announcing a new, three-year study into the (listen for Orsen Wells’ voice here)…”problem of evil in modern and contemporary thought.”

headerTempleton (providing a $1.7 million grant) is teaming with the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame to bring scholars together to hash out some very old, very difficult questions.

We’re talking fellowships, conferences, seminars, publications, public events — the best academia has to offer!

As the project’s website puts it:


The widespread and devastating effects of evils are often all too clear. The questions of how and why such evils exist in a world that, according to many, is created and sustained by a loving and powerful God have been collected under the name “the problem of evil.” In its most general form, the problem of evil concerns the relation between God and the broken world around us. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, whence evil?


A project overview notes that critics of religion often cite “natural evil” like the Haitian quake as proof that “the world is, after all, blind, pitiless, and indifferent.”

Things will start cooking this fall with a conference at Notre Dame (not likely to pull too many fans away from football) on Leibniz’s classic work, Theodicy. It will shape up like this:


Leibniz’s Theodicy: Context and Content, held on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the publication of Leibniz’s Theodicy aims to explore this seminal work, the only book length treatise published by Leibniz in his lifetime. The conference will explore its contents, its fit within the Leibnizian corpus, its broader historical context, and its subsequent reception and impact. However, unlike typical conferences focused on a publication anniversary, this conference will also explore how the views expressed fit into the larger intellectual landscape of the period, standing as it does at crucial crossroads: the waning of the post-Reformation, the maturing of the Scientific Revolution, the dawning of the Enlightenment, and the maturing (or some might say implosion) of the rationalist philosophical framework introduced in the early seventeenth century. As a result, papers will focus both on Leibniz and the text of the Theodicy as well their relation to these broader themes.

‘What happened to Kavanagh?’

For years, I have been constantly asked about “Charlie’s case” or about “What happened to Kavanagh?”

Monsignor Charles Kavanagh was the highest profile New York priest to be removed from ministry because of an allegation of sexual abuse against a minor. He was vicar of development for the Archdiocese of New York, pastor of a large Bronx parish and generally one of the best-known priests in New York.

That’s him with a couple of New York senators at Cardinal Egan’s installation in 2000 (Hillary would be elected a few months later).

His case is complicated, so I won’t rehash it here. But you can catch up with this article I did in today’s Journal News/LoHud about movement in his case.

Kavanagh was removed from ministry by Cardinal Egan in 2002 and his case more or less stalled until the Vatican ordered a church trial, which will held two years ago.

These things do not move quickly.

Today’s article has also provoked several people to call and email me about what has happened to Father Patrick Dunne, the former pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in White Plains who was charged with stealing more than $300,000 from the church.

As my colleague Rebecca Baker reports (several posts down on her blog), Dunne yesterday rejected a plea deal and is due back in White Plains City Court on Dec. 12.

Oh, that Hitchens

I can’t help thinking that too much has been made of the so-called “new atheist” movement.

Sure, four or five authors have written best-selling books explaining their non-believing ways. But dozens of religious books (that get far less attention because there’s no novelty) are published every week.

Yes, polls show that 15% of Americans don’t identity with any religious movement. But few of them say they are atheist or even agnostic. They simply don’t like organized religion or they don’t think about it.

hitchens1.jpgStill, I couldn’t resist the opportunity yesterday to hear Christopher Hitchens debate the existence of God with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a very smart and funny Catholic theologian. I’ve read many of Hitchens’ words of the years, but had never seen him up close.

I happened to be standing near the entrance to the main room at the ritzy Pierre Hotel when Hitchens returned from the bathroom and got his face powdered by an assistant. He was ready to perform and perform he did.

He spoke fast and left little doubt that he despises religion, especially Christianity (only mentioning Islam, which he also detests, briefly). He mocked the idea that Christ offers salvation to everyone, those who deserve and those who don’t.

Albacete provided a unique foil. Rather than return fire at Hitchens, he said that he wrestles with his faith every day. He gave a nuanced and demanding reading on how complicated real faith is, baffling Hitchens at time. Hitchens wanted to take aim at particular Christian beliefs, while Albacete only talked about grappling with the impulse that is faith.

The whole thing, put on by the Templeton Foundation, nearly got derailed before it started. Host Sally Quinn of the Washington Post said during the introductions that both speakers had revealed that they would rather talk about sex than religion…

Believers vs. non-believers (a double-header)

The Templeton Foundation will twice next month bring together Catholic believers and non-believers to do rhetorical battle in NYC.

images4.jpegOn Sept. 17, a Templeton Book Forum will sponsor a “conversation” between neo-conservative Catholic scholar Michael Novak (that’s him) and non-believing scholar Heather Mac Donald at the Harvard Club. Novak’s new book, No One Sees God, is said to be a “reasoned response to today’s brigade of new atheists.”

On Sept. 22, at The Pierre on E. 61st, atheist pope Christopher Hitchens images5.jpegwill converse with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete (right), a sharp and funny Catholic thinker who formerly taught at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. Hitchens and Albacete should make for a lively hour. Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, who oversee the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, will moderate.

I learned about both events by email. I don’t see any mention of them on the Templeton website, but they should pop up soon on the “upcoming events” page.

‘Does science make belief in God obsolete?’

The folks at the Templeton Foundation have released their latest Q&A with scientists and other scholars about the “big questions.”

The new one, which ran as a two-page ad in the NYT’s Week in Review, centers around this meaty question: “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”

The 13 answers cover the gamut and are worth reading. Among them…

William D. Phillips, a Nobel Laureate in physics, says “absolute not:”

I am a physicist. I do mainstream research; I publish in peer-reviewed journals; I present my research at professional meetings; I train students and postdoctoral researchers; I try to learn from nature how nature works. In other words, I am an ordinary scientist. I am also a person of religious faith. I attend church; I sing in the gospel choir; I go to Sunday school; I pray regularly; I try to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.” In other words, I am an ordinary person of faith.

Stuart Kauffman, the director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary, says “No, but only if…”

we continue to develop new notions of God, such as a fully natural God that is the creativity in the cosmos.

Humans have been worshipping gods for thousands of years. Our sense of God in the Western world has evolved from Abraham’s jealous God Yahweh to the God of love of the New Testament. Science and faith have split modern societies just as some form of global civilization is emerging. One result is a retreat into religious fundamentalisms, often bitterly hostile. The schism between science and religion can be healed, but it will require a slow evolution from a supernatural, theistic God to a new sense of a fully natural God as our chosen symbol for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe. This healing may also require a transformation of science to a new scientific worldview with a place for the ceaseless creativity in the universe that we can call God.

You can also read Christopher Hitchens’ answer. Guess what it is?