A few months ago, I met a woman and struck up a friendly conversation with her. I had been telling her about my disability, and, to my surprise, she began talking about how my disability would end once I was born into another life.
Although reincarnation has been presented to me as a conceivable idea multiple times, I have never found it particularly believable. Maybe the reason for it is, as a lifelong Catholic, I was always told reincarnation was untrue, so my disbelief was a simple extension of my faith. However, the more I stopped to consider it, the less reincarnation made sense, even outside of a Catholic context.
Reincarnation Changes the Value of Life
First of all, if any living creature could be reincarnated as anything else, that comes with certain implications. Does it mean I shouldn’t swat the mosquito on my arm because it might be my grandmother reincarnated? Practitioners of Jainism, a religion that teaches reincarnation, do not allow for the killing of anything. Or, if one took the converse argument and said that reincarnation meant killing was okay, since the person or dog or blue whale killed would just be reincarnated again, that leads to a lessening of human life and human dignity.
If one were to then argue that human life is not greater than other life because of reincarnation, that does at least make logical sense, though I do not agree with it. Either way, the final implication is that all life is so sacred it must not be touched, or all life is worth next to nothing.
All Suffering is Reduced to Karma
Another problematic point of reincarnation is that, according to the religions I have researched, the quality of the next life is considered dependent on behavior in this life. Fair enough; by itself, this point bears some resemblance to the Christian precepts I myself believe. The problem with this is that it attributes all substantial suffering to bad actions in previous lives and minor suffering to bad actions in this life. If suffering is nothing more than punishment for past actions, there can be no redemptive value to it. But even apart from Christianity, we can recognize that suffering is sometimes beneficial. From my own experience, I would say being disabled helped form me as a person, and not in an altogether negative way.
What if Humans Became Bugs?
Then, too, there is the question of when a human is reincarnated as a lower life form, like a fly or a crab. One of the Upanishads, important texts to Hinduism, asserts that “birth in different forms of existence as a worm, insect, fish, bird, lion, boar, snake, or a human, is determined by a person’s deeds and knowledge.” That seems to make sense; if you live a good life, you come back as a human, and if a bad one, then you become so much less.
However, I do not understand how a human being becoming reincarnated as a fly would be the best way to help the human work off bad deeds from a past life, because such a life is ephemeral. Certainly, a life as a fly seems very unpleasant, particularly if the fly ends up smashed, but I do not yet know of humans who remember past lives as bugs.
That being said, since all the unpleasant experiences and memories of the fly life would be over as soon as the fly was reincarnated into a human, what would it matter in the following life? Additionally, since flies and crabs and snakes have no rationality, there is no way for them to live a “bad” fly, snake, or crab life, so all irrational beings should automatically be reincarnated as something greater. Simple logic makes this essentially impossible, because of how very many lower lifeforms they are, especially considering the microscopic ones like amoebae.
If this were true, there could be a peak of small lifeforms like bugs at one point in history, but then, as the bugs died out, there would be a peak of higher lifeforms as they were reincarnated. Even if they became dogs or monkeys instead of humans, two such peaks have not been known in history as yet, and there will always be a surplus of lower lifeforms to higher.
Is Reincarnation Necessary…
Now, most of these problems are resolved if we make the assumption that creatures are only reincarnated as the same species that they are in their first life, meaning humans are only reincarnated as humans. But, if one believes in a god or supreme creator, what could be his reasons for making his creations live multiple lives? There’s the argument that with multiple lives we have more chances, but it seems to my admittedly Catholic mind that we have no real need for than one chance. If we did not want to choose God or supreme goodness the first time, how high would be the chance that we would choose the goodness the second time anyway? Either we would live well the first time, or, living badly, we would have no justification for a second chance.
…or a Crutch Against Fear?
However, there are counter arguments to this. For example, some eastern religious texts assert that it would be unfair for people, with varying degrees of evil or good in their hearts, to end up in heaven or hell as a straight ‘either or’ rule irrespective of the magnitude of their virtue or vice. This seems like it makes sense at face value. Even so, this use of reincarnation to explain away the problem of varying degrees of holiness seems like a simple human explanation, and more than that, an easy way to excuse evil-doing.
Furthermore, I do not know about all religions, but Hinduism for one does not teach that Hell can be permanent, and instead that even those sent to Hell are reincarnated and given another chance. Again, I have a lifelong Catholic’s mind, but this seems like an easy way to avoid having anything more to fear than a living out a short bug’s life.
I’ve Been Reincarnated? Then Who am I?
Finally, those logical reasons notwithstanding, I have one more reason, a personal one, for my own dislike of the reincarnation idea. If I was reincarnated previously and will be so again, then who am I? Am I a twenty-something Catholic woman with two brothers? Perhaps I’m really the queen of a great kingdom. Or maybe I’m a degraded slave or a merciless dictator—or even a man.
But no matter how great or small my previous or future status, can I truly be the twenty-something Catholic I think I am if the other identities are also me? I’m sure some would answer a resounding yes, or, differently, say that I’m actually a reality much greater than my body, and things like femininity are mere fleshly accidentals. Consequently, I dislike a concept that challenges my sense of permanence in identity.
For now, Catholic or not, I believe that I have only one life and, more importantly, that I know who I am. How about you?