I’d like to be the first to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Unfortunately I slept in this morning, so I’m probably about the gazillion and twelfth. Happy New Year anyway. In the spirit of season, I’ve changed the color scheme around here, and I’ve also decided to take on a slightly different topic, just for a change of pace. Let’s take a short break from focusing on Christian apologetics, and look at some of the fringe beliefs. Reincarnation, for example.
Reincarnation has at least two of the same problems as Christianity: backwards thinking and lack of consistency. According to reincarnation, each person, or soul, goes through several lifetimes, passing from death back into life by being born again (and again, and again…). The goal of this process is supposed to be that the soul learns a number of essential life lessons, like virtue, hard work, and humility. Supposedly, it accomplishes this goal by causing the person to experience in this life the consequences of his or her behavior in their previous life, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior, as well as presenting people with the challenges they failed to meet in their past life so that they can have a chance to do better this time.
It’s easy to see why this philosophy/religion would become popular. Bad things happen in life. People who don’t deserve to suffer end up suffering anyway. And conversely, people who don’t seem to deserve any extraordinary blessing sometimes end up with more than their share of the good things life has to offer. It offends people’s sense of fairness. Why should some people enjoy benefits they didn’t earn, while others suffer horrible trials that they did nothing to merit? It seems so unjust, but if you just assume that the actual causes stem from some (unseen) past life, then you can convince yourself that it all does make sense, and that life is basically fair.
Obviously, this is backwards thinking (not to mention wishful thinking!). We start with the effect (life is unfair) and infer the existence of an unseen cause (past lives). We start with the final result, and imagine something that might be responsible, and say that this “explains” life’s apparent injustices. But what happens if we try forwards thinking instead of backwards thinking? Does reincarnation still make sense?
Reincarnation is supposed to have a goal, a purpose. That means that it’s not just some undirected force of nature (or “supernature,” as in the supernatural). Some person must have intentionally set things up so that people would learn from their experiences. The only question is, if there were some supernatural person who wanted us to learn from our mistakes, is reincarnation the way he/she/they/it would go about it?
Let’s think about it. You are an immortal soul, and I am a divine being. You are not perfect, but I think I can make you perfect by putting you through a “school” of life experiences. It’s going to take hundreds of years, maybe thousands, maybe even millions. And oh, by the way, every so many years, I’m going to cause you to experience an interruption in your training that will cause you to forget everything that has happened to you up to that point.
Does that kind of lesson plan make sense, from the forwards-thinking teacher’s point of view? Why would you make mortality part of your lesson plan? What good does it do to force you to start from scratch every so often? What kind of lessons are you supposed to learn as a result of being punished for sins you no longer have any clue you even committed, or rewarded for good works you have no idea you ever did?
Reincarnation has other problems too, like where did souls come from in the first place (since each new life is supposed to have drawn its soul from a previous incarnation)? And why would you need extensive experience in a material existence in order to prepare you for an immaterial afterlife (especially in those brands of reincarnation where the ultimate goal is to be absorbed into a larger existence where you no longer possess any individuality, independent will, or self-awareness)?
But the main point I want to make about reincarnation is that it is backwards-thinking superstition. As an excuse for why life seems unjust, it has some appeal, but as a forwards-looking explanation of how a wise deity would go about accomplishing our perfection, it has some serious inconsistencies.