Vis­iting Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy Ian Church is receiving a nearly quarter-of-a-million-dollar grant for research. Ian Church | Courtesy

Vis­iting Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy Ian Church is receiving a nearly quarter-of-a-million-dollar grant for research that could topple the strongest argument against a belief in God.

Church learned early this month that John Tem­pleton Foun­dation selected his project from 2,000 pro­posals across dis­ci­plines and 150 in phi­losophy and the­ology. It is pro­viding $220,421 to Church’s project, which seeks to apply a new and con­tro­versial type of phi­losophy to an area that researchers have not done so before. The research will explore the cul­tural dif­fer­ences of how people under­stand the nature of evil.

“This project is trying to bring these trends together,” Church said. “The problem of evil seemed like a good place to start, because people take that as the strongest argument against theism in the con­tem­porary literature.”

The project, which spans the summer of 2018 and 2019 and will have Church travel to the Uni­versity of St Andrews in Scotland to do research, looks to apply exper­i­mental phi­losophy to ana­lytic the­ology. This new exper­i­mental phi­losophy uses empirical psy­chology to test if people have certain intu­itions on sub­jects such as free will or the nature of knowledge. Doing so then could explain how people evaluate philo­sophical assump­tions internationally.

“Some of these key intu­itions are not shared widely,” Church said. “When that happens, that could poten­tially undermine the import of those intu­itions — maybe they’re not as theory-guiding as we might have thought.”

The project is looking at key intu­itions con­cerning the prob­a­bilistic problem of evil — the chal­lenge to rec­oncile the exis­tence of evil with an all-pow­erful, all-knowing, and perfect God — to determine if these intu­itions are similar across the world and within the Western world. 

Justin Barrett, one of Church’s research partners and a pro­fessor of psy­chology at Fuller The­o­logical Sem­inary in Cal­i­fornia, noted that aca­demic lit­er­ature has described the problem of evil as an obstacle for the affluent, though many people in impov­er­ished coun­tries expe­rience spir­itual revival in the face of war, famine, and other hardship.

“Maybe it’s time to do some research and move past what seems, because we don’t know,” he said. “Humility demands us to examine the evidence.”

Church said he hopes the part­nership with Tem­pleton also will benefit Hillsdale College. Church will hire a Hillsdale student as an assistant researcher for his project. He added that Templeton’s mission is similar to that of Hillsdale.
Church is working with Barrett and Oliver Crisp, pro­fessor of sys­tematic the­ology at Fuller. Barrett is Church’s former adviser at Fuller’s psy­chology graduate school on the science of intel­lectual humility and is a prominent sci­entist of religion in the world. At Fuller, Church also worked with Crisp, a leading evan­gelical sys­tematic theologian.

“It’s been an incredibly fruitful rela­tion­ships,” Church said. “We can all have our spe­cial­iza­tions and bring our con­ver­sa­tions together to have a much better insight into how these dis­ci­pline fit together.”

The John Tem­pleton Foun­dation selected Church’s project because it fit within the foundation’s donor intent. Alex Arnold, Templeton’s program officer for phi­losophy and the­ology, said the orga­ni­zation looks to fund projects that advance the under­standing of fun­da­mental spir­itual realities.

“Dr. Church’s project involves taking a novel, inter­esting, con­tro­versial method­ology that had some success in other areas of philo­sophical inquiry and applying it where it had never been applied before,” Arnold told The Col­legian. “It’s an oppor­tunity to get insight and progress on the problem of evil.”

Arnold added that the part­nership between the estab­lished schol­arship of Barrett and Crisp and the emerging schol­arship of Church was attractive.

“Ian Church is a very hard working, very cre­ative philosopher, who is very capable and has a pretty strong pub­li­cation record in phi­losophy,” Arnold said. “We were con­fident they would do good work.”

The research will take place in three phases. Church first will work with Crisp, reading through lit­er­ature on exper­i­mental phi­losophy and the problem of evil to determine the best approach for aca­demic eval­u­ation. Then, researchers around the world will collect data, and the pro­fessors will then evaluate that information.

Church said he hopes the grant will lead to more funding in the future from Templeton.

“If we are able to make the case that the intu­itions that are driving the prob­a­bilistic problem of evil for a lot of anti-theists are not shared very broadly at all, then that might sig­nif­i­cantly undermine the import of these intu­itions,” Church said, “which might ulti­mately mean we have the mate­rials for sig­nif­i­cantly under­mining the strongest argument against theism.”