Reincarnation – What is it?
Most simply, reincarnation means “the return to life after death.” Many religions teach the idea, but the details differ. The issues come down to where, in what form, and how many times a person will return. Will we live again as the same person in a permanent place (e.g., in heaven or hell)? Or will we return many times as different beings to this or a similar world? Buddhism and Hinduism promote the second idea.
What about nature? Aren’t the seasons a prime example of reincarnation, lavishly displayed year after year? What a grand metaphor of human life, this passage from spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter, and winter back again to spring!
In fact, nature teaches nothing of the sort. As the seasons turn, many plants die. From top to root they rot. Only their seeds come to life, nourished in soil produced by their forebears’ death. In cold climates perennial plants like trees or tulips hibernate, waking when warmth returns. Sooner or later they too meet their end, returning not to another life but to the earth. Nature proves only that one life gives birth to another, each bound for death and decay. At best, the seasons might be compared to the human biorhythm: waking, activity, tiring, and sleep. Nowhere does nature support the concept of reincarnation.
Reincarnation – The Evidence
The main so-called evidence for reincarnation is psychological -- doubtful subjectivity like channeling, hypnosis, memories, and déjà vu. It all amounts to mere thoughts and mental states explainable by other means, whether the subconscious, psychosis, or the demonic.
Of course, none of the above proves multiple reincarnations are false. Maybe they must be taken on faith. If so, wouldn’t that result in a toss-up as to which view is right, the Christian-Islamic, for example, or the Hindu-Buddhist? Not at all.
If the Hindu-Buddhist belief is true then any person who lives a morally exemplary life can be assured of a better place in the next one (which still requires some kind of Hindu-Buddhist judge, whom we’ll meet below).
Reincarnation – The Odds
All religions teach a basic set of morals, e.g., don’t steal, don’t commit murder, treat others fairly. So even if Buddhism is right about reincarnation, a devout Christian will be about as well off in the next life as if they had been a practicing Buddhist.
On the other hand, Christianity teaches that all people meet their maker at the end of the one time they have on the planet. If Hinduism and Buddhism are wrong about reincarnation then a nasty surprise awaits those who count on multiple lives.
Put another way, if we are destined for a Buddhist-like reincarnation, the next life will be better for a sincerely wrong but good Christian. However, if we go around only once, a devout Buddhist or Hindu has plenty to think about.
Conclusion? In this regard, being a good Christian carries no risk, but trusting in reincarnation plays fast and loose with your soul. Any half-sober gambler would know where to place his bets.
Religions require sincere faith, not just betting on the odds. Even so, reflecting on probabilities can help as we ponder life and truth. For example, the odds are incredibly small -- many would say unbelievably small -- that the universe, our cradle-like planet, and the mysteries of life all occurred entirely by chance. For that reason, unbiased minds often move away from mere chance and toward belief in supra-cosmic intelligence.
Despite the risks, many people stake their claim on reincarnation. Some because they have heard little or nothing else. They deserve the chance to hear rival views. Others -- increasingly even in the West -- want it to be true. Their faith has more to do with preference than with facts.
To understand some of those facts, we must learn about karma and how it influences reincarnation.
Compliments of Scott Munger, Ph.D., who is studying comparative religion in South Asia. He is the author of Rethinking God: Undoing the Damage (AMG/Living Ink, 2007).
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