Reincarnation

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

[I’m doing a long series of posts on atheism and Wicca.  I am not a Wiccan - I'm an outsider.   There are many good reasons why atheists should be interested in Wicca or neo-paganism more generally.  When I discuss some topic in Wicca, I do it in three stages:  First, I try to give an accurate presentation of the Wiccan position.  Giving an accurate presentation of their position does not imply that I endorse it.  Second, I evaluate what the Wiccans say, trying to separate the rational from the irrational.  It is never my purpose to be vicious or arrogant, so when I criticize, I don’t mock or sneer.  Third, I try to indicate the content that is consistent with atheism, and what atheists might profitably learn and use for their own purposes.  My next few posts will be on the Wiccan doctrine of reincarnation.  Here I'm merely presenting their ideas, without any judgment.]

Although reincarnation is often thought of as an Eastern doctrine, it has a surprisingly large following in the West.  The Pythagoreans affirmed reincarnation.  Plato affirms it in his Myth of Er (The Republic, 614b-621d) and Plotinus affirms it in the The Enneads (III.2-4, III.6.6, VI.7.6).  Versions of reincarnation seem to be endorsed by classical American thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau.  As for modern America, reincarnation beliefs appear to be surprisingly common (see the Pew 2009 Religion and Public Life Survey).

Reincarnation is a common doctrine among Wiccans.  The Farrars say that “Almost all witches [Wicccans] believe in reincarnation” (1981: 113).  Buckland talks about it (1986: 25-28).  Sabin reports that “most Wiccans will tell you that they believe in reincarnation” (2011: 31).  And Cunningham says that “reincarnation is one of Wicca’s most valuable lessons” (2004: 73).  Silver Elder discusses it (2011: 56-57).  She writes that “It is the Soul or, the Spirit body that transcends the earthly physical realm to be re-manifest within the cycle of birth, life, death, and re-birth” (2011: 38).

According to Cunningham, reincarnation is not revealed by any super-natural agency, but is inferred from the observation of natural fertility cycles.  Thus reincarnation is manifest in the lawful patterns of nature: “reincarnation is as real as a plant that buds, flowers, drops its seed, withers, and creates a new plant in its image” (2004: 77).  Of course, this botanical fertility cycle corresponds to the solar cycle.  So Cunningham writes that “our very lives are symbolically linked with the endless cycles of the seasons that shape our planet” (2004: 76).  Silver Elder says that reincarnation is manifest by the solar cycle, that is, by the Wheel of the Year: “the Wheel of the Year forms the story of birth, life, death and rebirth, the Cycle of Infinity and Reincarnation with the seasonal cycle acting as the metaphor for the regeneration of life” (2011: 23). Silver Elder also says that the daily sleep-wake cycle is a metaphor for reincarnation (2011: 43).

The Farrars say “The theory of reincarnation holds, briefly, that each individual human soul or essence is reborn again and again, in a series of bodily incarnations on this earth” (1981: 116).  Cunningham writes that “when the physical body dies we do not cease to exist, but are reborn in another body” (2004: 73).  Sabin says that reincarnation is “the soul returning again to earth in a new body or form after death” (2011: 31).  But reincarnation is not limited to being reborn on earth.  Buckland suggests that you might be reincarnated on some other planets or worlds: it is possible that “we not only experience lives here on Earth, but also on other planets . . . Perhaps we go through the cycle here having already been through it a dozen times or more on other worlds” (Buckland, 1986: 26).

The basic Wiccan reincarnation doctrine seems to be this: A human person is composed of a soul and body (this is soul-body dualism).  The soul is some kind of divine spark from the ultimate deity (or god and goddess).  Thus Cunningham writes “The soul is ageless, sexless, nonphysical, possessed of the divine spark of the Goddess and God” (2004: 73).  Although the body dies, the soul cannot be destroyed. After the body dies, the soul travels to some spiritual place where it prepares for its next incarnation (Cunningham, 2004: 75; Silver Elder, 2011: 56-57).  After this preparation, the soul enters a new human body.  The Farrars say that it enters the fetus at conception (1981: 121).

The cycle of reincarnation aims at self-perfection and is repeated over and over again until the soul becomes perfected.  Cunningham says “Wicca teaches that reincarnation is the instrument through which our souls are perfected.  One lifetime isn’t sufficient to attain this goal; hence, the consciousness (soul) is reborn many times, each life encompassing a different set of lessons, until perfection is achieved” (2004: 73).  Cuhulain says that the purpose of reincarnation is “to continue the process of perfecting ourselves” (2011: 17).  Buckland discusses the purpose of reincarnation like this: “your job is to progress; to strive your hardest towards perfection” (1986: 27).  Buckland uses an educational analogy to illustrate the process of self-perfection through multiple lives:

A very good simile for [reincarnation] is the grades of a school.  You enter school in a low grade and learn the basics.  When you have mastered these you graduate, take a short vacation, then come back into a higher grade to learn and experience more things.  So it is in life.  In each life you have a certain amount to learn and to experience.  When you have done that, you graduate (e.g., you die).  To come back into a higher grade, you are reborn in a new body. (1986: 26)

Once the soul is perfected, the Farrars say that it advances to some higher level of spiritual reality that is beyond our detailed comprehension (1981: 116).  Cunningham is more explicit: “after rising upon the spiral of life and death and rebirth, those souls who have attained perfection break away from the cycle forever and dwell with the Goddess and God.  Nothing is ever lost.  The energies resident in our souls return to the divine source from which they originally emanated” (2004: 76).  Cunningham’s version of Wicca is highly Neoplatonic.  For Cunningham, reincarnation climbs great chain of being.  This is Neoplatonic: after the soul is emanated by the One, the soul returns to the One.

Athough Cunningham tries to interpret Wicca using old Neoplatonic ideas, his Neoplatonic notion that the purpose of reincarnation is to reunite the soul with the One does not seem consistent with other Wiccan doctrines.  It is not consistent with the Wiccan conception of nature as a perpetual cycle (which Silver Elder refers to as the “Cycle of Infinity” (2011: 23)).  And Sabin writes that “Wiccans aren’t trying to get off the wheel” (2011: 12).  She says that Wiccans are not trying to escape from the cycles of nature: “Wiccans believe that they actively participate in turning the wheel – in nature, essentially – while practicioners of some other religions try to transcend it” (2011: 12).  This opposes Cunningham’s view of reincarnation as Neoplatonic return.  And Cunningham contradicts himself: after all, he said our lives are linked with the “endless cycles” of the earthly seasons.  Neoplatonic return can’t be right.  It is certainly possible for self-perfection to continue forever, through infinitely many reincarnations, always rising to higher and higher levels of perfection.  You could have as many reincarnations as there are numbers.

For Wiccans, reincarnation is associated with compensatory justice: you are rewarded or punished in your next lives for what you did in your past lives.  This is commonly known as karma although in Greek-Roman thought it was known simply as justice (and Plotinus uses the Greek term adrasteia to refer to it (Enneads, III.2.13)).  There is little need to go into the details of the Wiccan theory of karma here (e.g. the Threefold Law).

Although the details of the Wiccan ethics of reincarnation are of little philosophical interest,  there is an important ethical point that must be said: any reincarnation theory, when coupled with the doctrines of self-perfection and justice across lives, is surely morally superior to the Christian notion of the afterlife as spent either in eternal heaven or eternal hell.  For an earthly life to be punished forever in hell is infinite injustice.  No finite human being deserves infinite pain.  And this is true for heaven as well: to be rewarded forever in heaven is also infinite injustice.  No finite human being deserves infinite pleasure.  The Christian theory of the afterlife entails infinite injustice.  Reincarnation is morally superior.  And here it is worth noting that the Christian philosopher John Hick rejects the Christian doctrines of heaven and hell in favor of a reincarnation-resurrection theory that is surprisingly similar to the Wiccan theory of reincarnation (Hick, 1976: chs. 15, 20, 22).

Wiccans attempt to construct evidence-based arguments to justify reincarnation.  They attempt to empirically justify reincarnation (e.g. deja-vu, alleged memories of past lives, explanations of the injustices of this life, etc.).  Here it must be noted that Christians do not make any efforts to empirically justify the theory of the general resurrection of the body; it is simply asserted as a matter of faith based on the Bible.  Unfortunately for the Wiccans, their theory of reincarnation is not consistent with natural science.  And it is foolish to try to mount some defense based on some alleged gaps in our present scientific knowledge.  All the science that is needed to refute reincarnation has been available for a long time.  And purely logical arguments against reincarnation have been well-known for a long time (see Tertullian, 1997).   And philosophical arguments against soul-body dualism also refute Wiccan reincarnation.  There is no reincarnation.

Nevertheless, reincarnation is not the only theory that says we have multiple lives.  The Buddhist theory of rebirth also says that we all have many lives.  It does not involve any soul that travels from body to body.  It need not even involve having future lives here on earth; your future lives may exist in other universes.  The Buddhist theory of rebirth suggests a way to have multiple lives that is consistent with scientific naturalism.  But before talking about rebirth, it will be necessary to talk about the soul.

Other posts in this series:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

More on Religious Diversity among Atheists

Revelation versus Manifestation

Creation Stories

The Logic of Creation

Evolution by Rational Selection

Two Arguments for Evolution by Rational Selection

The Wheel of the Year

Criticizing Wicca: The Wheel of the Year

The Atheist Wheel of the Year

References

Buckland, R. (1986) Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft.  Second Edition Revised and Expanded.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Cuhulain, K. (2011) Pagan Religions: A Handbook for Diversity Training (Shamanism Paganism Druidry).  Portland, OR: Acorn Guild Press.

Cunningham, S. (2004) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches’ Bible.  Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Hick, J. (1976) Death and Eternal Life.  New York: Harper & Row.

Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations.  Winchester, UK: Moon Books.

Tertullian (1997) The refutation of the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration.  In P. Edwards (Ed.) (1997) Immortality. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 88-90.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Amavra

    Hello again. I have been trying to read up all the posts, I didn’t realize there were so many but I have enjoyed them.

    Many (or most) Neo-pagans do believe in re-incarnation, but I don’t think it is something that is a strong motivator or something that is emphasized very strongly, especially compared to those who believe in Heaven and Hell.

    We have talked a tiny bit about ideas on the afterlife in my group, and it is something most people here don’t have tightly held beliefs about. It usually goes “I think re-incarnation is the most likely form of an afterlife, if there is one”.

    The loss of our conscious self is still difficult for me, but even in the case of spiritual re-incarnation the self is lost for all intents and purposes. Being reborn as someone else means “I” am still dead and gone forever. Really, even in the case of Heaven and Hell the self is lost because who we are is so tied to our bodies and our lives on earth. In other bodies and in other places, what is left of the self?

    My favorite movie is The Fountain, and I really love the ideas about life and and death and rebirth that it shows. The movie never mentions god or any concept of god at all. It shows the act of death being a form of physical creation, as the death of things and people is what allows Life to continue.

    Like Laurence Krauss said, “Forget Jesus, do you know how many stars died so you could be here today?” That is the kind of re-incarnation I can get behind :).

  • Bahrfeldt

    Wishful thinking, desperate delusions. Heaven and Hell, life forever in paradise, reincarnation with or with remembering past lives. We are afraid to die, I am afraid to die. Comforting lies about eternal life are thus dumped on us by the power hungry and flock fleecers. Same as it ever was.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001398066953 cosmospacemonkey

    “deja-vu, alleged memories of past lives, explanations of the injustices of this life” – I don’t buy the premise that these are “evidence-based”. That is a logical fallacy if I ever saw one. This are no less magical or mystical than a christians attempt to justify their religious beliefs. They are taking unexplained phenomena and attaching their own unscientific theories and preconceived notions to create a reality they want to see and believe. Wicca, Christianity, neo-paganism, Islam…it’s all the same. It’s a way of thinking about the unknown and how we deal with it. That’s what this is all about. How do we process our absurd and strange reality. Do we except it for what it is and explore new ideas or do we look for what we want to see. That is the real difference between atheists and theists.

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