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).
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:
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.