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Reincarnation is the belief that when one dies, one's body decomposes but something of oneself is reborn in another body. It is the belief that one has lived before and will live again in another body after death. The bodies one passes in and out of need not be human. One may have been a Doberman in a past life, and one may be a mite or a carrot in a future life. Some tribes avoid eating certain animals because they believe that the souls of their ancestors dwell in those animals. A man could even become his own daughter by dying before she is born and then entering her body at birth.
The belief in past lives used to be mainly a belief found in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but now is a central tenet of much woo-woo like dianetics and channeling. In those ancient Eastern religions, reincarnation was not considered a good thing, but a bad thing. To achieve the state of ultimate bliss (nirvana) is to escape from the wheel of rebirth. In most, if not all, ancient religions with a belief in reincarnation, the soul entering a body is seen as a metaphysical demotion, a sullying and impure rite of passage. In New Age religions, however, being born again seems to be a kind of perverse goal. Prepare yourself in this life for who or what you want to come back as in the next life. Belief in past lives also opens the door for New Age therapies such as past life regression therapy, which seeks the causes of today's psychological problems in the experiences of previous lives.
L. Ron Hubbard, author of Dianetics and the founder of Scientology, introduced his own version of reincarnation into his new religion. According to Hubbard, past lives need auditing to get at the root of one's "troubles." He also claims that "Dianetics gave impetus to Bridey Murphy" and that some scientologists have been dogs and other animals in previous lives ("A Note on Past Lives" in The Rediscovery of the Human Soul). According to Hubbard, "It has only been in Scientology that the mechanics of death have been thoroughly understood." What happens in death is this: the Thetan (spirit) finds itself without a body (which has died) and then it goes looking for a new body. Thetans "will hang around people. They will see a woman who is pregnant and follow her down the street." Then, the Thetan will slip into the newborn "usually...two or three minutes after the delivery of a child from the mother. A Thetan usually picks it up about the time the baby takes its first gasp." How Hubbard knows this is never revealed.
Channeling, like past life regression, is distinct from reincarnation, even though it is based on the same essential concept: death does not put an end to the entirety of one's being. In classical reincarnation, something of the consciousness of the deceased somehow enters a new body but as that body grows only one unified consciousness persists through time. Channeling might be called temporary intermittent past life invasion because there is a coming and going of the past life entity, which always remains distinct from the present self-conscious being. For example, JZ Knight claims that in 1977 the spirit of a Cro-Magnon warrior who once lived in Atlantis took over her body in order to pass on bits of wisdom he'd picked up over the centuries. Knight seems to be carrying on the work of Jane Roberts and Robert Butts, who in 1972 hit the market with Seth Speaks. Knight, Roberts, and Butts are indebted to Edgar Cayce, who claimed to be in touch with many of his past lives. One would think that channeling might muck things up a bit. After all, if various spirits from the past can enter any body at any time without destroying the present person, it is possible that when one remembers a past life it is actually someone else's life one is remembering.
From a philosophical point of view, reincarnation poses some interesting problems. What is it that is reincarnated? Presumably, it is the soul that is reincarnated, but what is the soul? A disembodied consciousness?
Reincarnation does seem to offer an explanation for some strange phenomena such as the ability of some people to regress to a past life under hypnosis. Also, we might explain child prodigies by claiming that unlike most cases of reincarnation where the soul has to more or less start from scratch, the child prodigy somehow gets a soul with great carryover from a previous life, giving it a decided advantage over the rest of us. Reincarnation could explain why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people: they are being rewarded or punished for actions in past lives (karma). One could explain déjà vu experiences by claiming that they are memories of past lives. Dreams could be interpreted as a kind of soul travel and soul memory. However, past life regression and déjà vu experiences are best explained as the recalling of events from this life, not some past life. Dreams and child prodigies are best explained in terms of brain structures and genetically inheritable traits and processes. And since bad things also happen to bad people and good things also happen to good people, the most reasonable belief is that there is no design to the distribution of good and bad happening to people.
Stories, especially stories from children, that claim knowledge of a past life, abound. One collector of such stories was the psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who made a weak case that the stories offered scientific evidence for reincarnation.
Finally, since there is no way to tell the difference between a baby with a soul that will go to heaven or hell, a baby with a soul that has been around before in other bodies, and a baby with no soul at all, it follows that the idea of a soul adds nothing to our concept of a human being. Applying Occam's razor, both the idea of reincarnation and the idea of an immortal soul that will go to heaven or hell are equally unnecessary.
See also Bloxham tapes, Bridey Murphy, Edgar Cayce, channeling, dream, dualism, karma, mind, memory, Occam's razor, past life regression, Ian Stevenson, soul, and my review of The Rediscovery of the Human Soul by L. Ron Hubbard, (1996).
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books and articles
Harris, Melvin. Investigating the Unexplained (Prometheus Books 2003). Chapters 16-18 concern reincarnation.
Spanos, Nicholas P. "Past-Life Hypnotic Regression: A Critical View," The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1987-1988.
A Cogent Consideration of the Case for Karma (and Reincarnation) by Barry Beyerstein
A Case of Reincarnation -- Reexamined by Joe Nickell
I've 500 proven cases of reincarnation: Dr K S Rawat (Apart from memories of a different life, some of Dr Rawat’s subjects also had birthmarks that they could trace to a previous life. A girl called Laxmi born with a birthmark on her head remembers dying by being hit in the head by a stone. One of Dr Rawat’s cases included a Hindu boy born with a circumcised penis. “Not only did they boy know exactly how to perform the Muslim ritual of Nawaz, but also remembers the exact process of circumcision,” shared Dr Rawat.)