I’ve been thinking about reincarnation, a subject that usually does not interest me. I don’t pay much attention to the various ideas about life after death, but the idea of reincarnation particularly irks me. When I say reincarnation, I am thinking of the genericized idea borrowed by New Age Americans from Oriental religions: the idea that we are all progressing through a series of human lives toward an ultimate perfection. I don’t include other systems in which the idea of rebirth has a different significance.
I used to dismiss reincarnation on the grounds that there haven’t been enough people who ever lived for each of us now living to have had a series of past lives. I haven’t been able to track down the origin of this bit of folklore. Sometime in the 70s, someone, perhaps Annie Dillard, wrote that half the people who were ever born are alive today. If true, that would mean we can’t all have had many past lives. However, population estimates for the number of people ever born seem to range from 50 billion to 120 billion, with 6 billion of those currently living. It seems then that reincarnation is possible. Everyone now living can have had somewhere between 9 and 20 past lives. Not quite the endless cycle of rebirth envisioned by Hindus and Buddhists, but a comfortable range for psychics doing past life readings for middle class Americans.
What interests me more than reincarnation is the question of why people believe in reincarnation. I have a theory.
Simply stated, I think it has a lot to do with wanting a tidy universe. Some people really do not tolerate ambiguity well. For them, there must be a final result. Union with God. Perfection. Perfect Peace. Whatever. I recently had a heated exchange with a friend who started from the premise that all souls achieve union with God. He then dismissed all contrary beliefs as mere cultural “particulars,” and deemed his analytic style to be a “search for universals.”
I’m fascinated by this type of thinking. I think it holds a clue about why people believe in reincarnation. If you that believe the Universe is moving toward perfection, it will include the perfection of all souls, no matter how long it takes. A very comforting idea. It is the Myth of Eternal Progress transplanted from historiography to metaphysics. Christians still look for the Second Coming of Christ and Marxists still look for the Workers Revolution, either of which will end History-with-a-capital-H, but historians no longer write about Manifest Destiny or the March of Science. God is dead, Marx is dead, History (in that sense) has ended. I am as suspicious of teleology in religion as I am in history. It seems to me that it takes away the element of personal responsibility. If the end is predetermined, if we’ll all get there in the end, it’s okay to coast a bit right now.
I think a second reason that people believe in reincarnation is the need to believe that life will balance out in the end. “The meek really will inherit the earth.” “My enemies will burn forever in Hell.” “I might be poor and miserable in this life, but just wait. Someday, I’ll have it all, even if it won’t be until I’m dead.” My pet theory is that this hope for retribution is the real reason Christianity triumphed in the Late Roman Empire. Christianity appealed to slaves and to the downtrodden. I think it was because it offered the chance that everyone who was ever mean to you would go to Hell while you would get eternal glory. What a marketing strategy! Look humble, be obedient, and you’ll crush your enemies and revel in their eternal torment. Now, in the western world, we’re a bit too sophisticated to go for a simple Heaven and Hell, but reincarnation still offers the hope that injustice will be avenged. If you get fired and you can’t get revenge, you can at least console yourself with the thought that the bastard will get his someday. If someone breaks your heart with impugnity, you can tell yourself that he’ll get his, if not in this life then in the next.
A third reason people believe in reincarnation, it seems to me, is the idea that they can someday pay for their sins, but not yet, not in this life where payment would be too real, would hurt too much. Instead, it’s easy to hope that you’ll pay your karmic debts in some other life. Sure, you’ll be miserable when it happens, but better then than now. One of the nifty things about shifting the karmic debt to the future is that you can feel virtuous because you really will pay, unlike those silly Christians who think that God will simply forgive them over and over again if they just ask. But, in either system, you have a convenient way to shrug off the guilt you might or should be feeling.
Finally, a fourth reason people believe in reincarnation is that it gives meaning to life, without being particularly threatening. You can believe you have lessons to learn, lessons apparently best learned in an upper middle class setting. You don’t know what those lessons might be, but they must be important, and really the only way to learn them is to live a generically good life. It seems to me that this is not a particularly arduous task, so believers have simultaneously given themselves a meaningful life and an pretty easy time of it.
Not only is belief in reincarnation a crutch, it sets up some pointless and even dangerous games. First, we are soul-beings trapped in an impure world from which we seek to escape. I object to this on the simple ground that it creates a dysfunctional relationship between ourselves and the world.
Second, it sets a very high standard for us, one that cannot be mastered in a single life. On the surface, reincarnation seems to offer hope that humans are perfectable. But, instead of living this life then moving on to the next in search of further wisdom, reincarnation would drag us back here because of our failure and ignorance. We’re so weak and stupid that we don’t deserve to move on, and the goal is so impossibly high that we must become something other than human.
Third, some people are more advanced than others. This strikes me as a much more invidious belief than the idea that some people are more honest, or less greedy than others. Reincarnation sets up a conveniently subjective hierarchy that can be used to justify other hierachical games, such as the Indian caste system. It can also form the basis of games between individuals, as when certain “more enlightened” inviduals become “teachers” for others.
I don’t buy any of it. Reincarnation is the cheap and easy way out. Here you are in life, as unfair and absurd as it can be at times. You have a choice. Do you lick your wounds and tell yourself you’ll get even somehow (or, because that’s not very nice, God/Universe will get even for you)? C’mon, that sounds like something your mother might have told you when you were 5 to help you cope when you didn’t get invited to a party. Or, do you look for a way to live with the anger or the hurt (or the guilt or the shame) without the crutch of believing in perfect justice, perfect forgiveness, or ultimate perfection and union with God.
I confess that I don’t dwell much on life after death, although I acknowledge the possibility. But, what I truly dislike are systems that give people an “out” for taking responsibility in this life. I don’t like the idea of Heaven and Hell, because belief then becomes too self-serving. (I truly despise Pascal’s Wager.) I don’t like the idea that everything will work out in the end, whether the result is defined as union with God, ultimate perfection of all living beings, or anything else, because that removes any real need to fix things now. And, I don’t like systems that give folks a crutch for escaping feelings like guilt, anger and shame.
On the other hand, I don’t see anything wrong with postulating life beyond death (as long as you don’t put your center in that future). I believe that there are going to be choices, and I’m willing to accept that one of those choices might be rebirth. So, the question is — how do you live without relying on God or Universe to solve it all for you? That, I suspect, is a lifelong search for an answer.