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.