The Problem of Spiritual Consolation

The Washington Post has been running a series of essays by religious authorities in response to the recent earthquake in Haiti.  The idea of the series is to examine how people of different faiths explain the age old question of why bad things happen to good people.  I would like to say something about this tragedy as well, but I approach the issue from almost exactly the opposite perspective.   I do not believe that there is any good answer to the question of why terrible things happen, but I do believe that it is insensitive to explain away such calamities with fables or myths.  Moreover, I think that "spiritual consolation" becomes offensive when it implies that suffering could have been prevented through alternative thinking, praying, or other "spiritual" practices.

If you believe that God has a Plan or that there is a "cosmic order" to the universe then you necessarily believe that awful things happen for a reason.  This applies not only to natural disasters but also to diseases, acts of malice, and personal tragedies.  Of course, you may believe that particular events are exacerbated by evil human intent (or corruption) and that those who knowingly do wrong things ought to be punished, but this does not get you out of the deeper metaphysical problem of evil.

Let us start with the idea of God’s Plan.  If it is the case that God is omniscient, then God Knows that some priests are going to rape some alter boys.  It is an unpleasant but entirely necessary part of the gift of free will that God allows such acts to occur, just as it is a part of God’s Plan that every day thousands of people will die in accidents, epidemics, and massacres.  From a philosophical perspective, I do not find this position to be particularly problematic because I can accept that God could be omniscient and omnipotent but that His omnibenevolence is so far from what we imagine (usually some kind of cosmic Santa Claus) that it can contain atrocities and still be, ultimately, Good.   What puzzles me is why anyone would take comfort in believing in a god like that.  Moreover, the idea that praying to a god who already has a set plan will make any difference in the course of future events is both absurd and borderline offensive.  After all, if I accept that the same God that allows earthquakes and child rape occasionally answers prayers, then it looks as though I must accept that people who suffer devastation may, in fact, be responsible for their own suffering.  If prayer works, and some people still suffer and die from things God could have prevented, then they must not have prayed or prayed the right way.

So, to recap, the two religious alternatives appear to be that 1) Your suffering is a part of God’s Plan, and can’t be helped or 2) Your suffering is a part of God’s Plan but can be helped by prayer, so if you continue to suffer even after prayer, then it is your own fault.  In light of this, I can see why the not-religious might seek out some alternative form of consolation.  I expect that the appeal of New-Age self-help programs like "Heal Your Life" and "The Secret" has a lot to do with this.  The idea behind New Age thought seems to be that we can explain away our old suffering in terms of a cosmic order (usually something like Karma, but it varies) that we didn’t understand before, and that we can prevent new suffering by understanding this cosmic order and harnessing  "positive thinking" or "positive energy" in our lives.  On the surface, New Age thought seems appealing because it offers up all the reassurances of religion (ultimate meaning, a purpose-driven life, etc.) without a nasty god who may hold you accountable for all of the bad things you did in your miserable life.  Unfortunately, the "cosmic order" view doesn’t offer any insightful explanation for why bad things happen, and it is even more conducive to a blame-the-victim conclusion than the "God’s Plan" view.

What virtually every New Age system holds in common is the belief that "non-physical" aspects of people such as "positive" or "negative" beliefs, "auras", or "spiritual energy" have an effect upon the physical world such that they determine the health of the body as well as events in a person’s life.  For example, the New Age self-help guru Louise Hay claims that she cured her cancer without drugs or surgery through "an intensive program of affirmations, visualization, nutritional cleansing, and psychotherapy."  In other words, Louise Hay claims that she cured cancer by thinking differently.  Leaving aside the obvious empirical problems with this claim (and the serious philosophical problems, and the fact that she is lying), what is troubling about Louise Hay is that her program implies that those who suffer and die of illnesses such as cancer could have chosen to do otherwise (by thinking differently!)  and that, for this reason, they are ultimately responsible for their fate.   The same implication follows from the principle of the self-help documentary "The Secret" which suggests that economic success is not the result of mere fortune and labor but is instead the result of a mysterious "Law of Attraction" whereby individuals attract fortunate events and interactions through positive thinking.  Thus, people who live in poverty could have done otherwise and those who remain in poverty have failed to take available measures to improve their luck.

I understand that most people who offer up their prayers, thoughts, meditations, and/or "positive energy" to those who suffer do so with honest intentions and good will, but this is no excuse for promoting a position that blames the victim.  The people of Haiti did not make a deal with the Devil nor tip the Karmic scales so as to necessitate an earthquake, and no amount of prayer or positive thought could have changed their circumstances.  Consolations based upon spiritual conjecture are an insult to their injury.

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5 Responses to “The Problem of Spiritual Consolation”

  1. James Gray Says:

    I have listened to some of the debates on youtube about the existence of God. One with Peter Singer was interesting. Singer brought up the argument from evil and the response he was given was that suffering in this world is less real and less important than what is to come next. Perhaps people will feel consolation if they think of our current life as a kind of dream that we can wake up from.

    Kant’s argument for God is similar and for him “God” means little more than the view that “things will work out rationally in the long run.” The religious conception can indeed be used to try to make sense out of that view.

    New Age stuff isn’t 100% wrong because so many problems are caused by stress and (not surprisingly) the placebo effect is actually effective to some extent. When all else fails, a placebo can be a rational alternative. It might be an exaggeration to say that positive thinking could cure all our problems, but there is something positive about positive thinking. The real problem is that manipulative charlatans are using loads of people to make a profit and encouraging irrational behavior through fallacious babble.

  2. Maryann Munroe Says:

    This woman has made some interesting remarks about Haiti and the help we are offering.

    • Jim Says:

      Like what, Daniel? Is it that the people of Haiti were victims because they weren’t “creators”? Please, point me to the stuff concerning Haiti, and I’ll address Ms. Maryann Munroe’s arguments.

  3. Sadee Whip Says:

    I agree with the conclusion of your post but not the way you got to the conclusion. I think you over-simplify what appears to you as irrational. What I mean is that you make assumptions about what people believe in order to make your conclusion. It is not necessary to believe in an intercessory God or cosmic order to experience healing like Louise Hay claims to have experienced. There are many motives behind human behavior that aren’t all based on being irrational or lying.
    I think you are on the right path by identifying a huge problem. And I completely agree with the very thing you appear to have the biggest issue with – the implication inherent in the “mind over matter” (We might say prayer is such a thing – it’s just more our mind influencing God’s mind so God can do something to matter) is that it places blame on the person suffering if they continue to suffer or die. Which is infuriating.

    Having said that I think it is important that the conversation about these things rise above the tar pit of pre-existing frameworks and move into a more contextual, and relevant, space. If we can allow for the truth that human behavior is not as simplistic as your opening arguments suggest then we can move into an understanding or at least a more realistic dialogue about what is really going on – I think there is a layer under the layer you address. I have found that when you find the core layer under the other layers there is a greater possibility of shifting the perceived wrong – in this case the current approach to “mind over matter”. (I wont even watch The Secret as I find the whole thing too enraging precisely because it perpetuates EXACTLY what you rant about)
    I think, and this is clearly just my opinion, that everything you point to and reference can all be traced to a deeper human turmoil – and that is that most of us lack the ability to handle life as it actually is. So we create systems that explain things in a way that bring comfort – even nihilism can be such a thing. And because there is a general lack of consciousness around the fact that we are all basically freaking out that we aren’t in control of the universe we see really crazy or, at least, really irrational belief systems arise.
    I think Buddha had it right – Life is suffering. And kicking against this, no matter how hard or irrationally, doesn’t change it one bit. The positivists will want to add a “…but” to Buddhas statement and those who run more negative will use it as validation for their unreality as well. But it simply is. People die in the ocean, people live because of the ocean – the ocean is neither good or bad, it just is. I think truly perceiving reality reveals how “free” we actually are – free to make choices about everything in our lives, including what life means, and it seems like few people can handle that degree of freedom precisely because within that freedom is the relinquishing of the control of everything in the known universe and we suddenly become what we are: very tiny parts of a whole. Not good, not bad, just tiny.
    Thanks for your post. Loved it.

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