Reincarnation Undressed

Martin Gardner

Reincarnation: A Critical Examination by Paul Edwards (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) 313 pp. $28.95.

Religious insanity is very common in the United States.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, as quoted by Paul Edwards

Because reincarnation is a fundamental doctrine of Hindu religions and most forms of Buddhism, there are probably more people around the world who believe it than those who prefer the Judaic-Christian-Muslim view that our lives begin at birth and will continue after death in heaven or hell. In recent decades New Age infatuations with Eastern faiths have impelled vast numbers of Americans to see in rein-carnation the satisfaction of their hunger for immortality. A 1991 Gallup poll found that 1 in 5 Americans are reincarnationists. More surprising, 14% of Catholics and 19% of Protestants expressed belief in reincarnation. This is truly astonishing because nowhere does the Bible defend the doctrine. Indeed, reincarnation sharply contradicts Christian teachings.

A raft of books defending reincarnation has been written by Americans and published by firms whose owners and editors have not the slightest interest in the doctrine beyond its power to inflate profits. Now, for the first time in history, in any language, a distinguished philosopher—in addition to his books and papers, Paul Edwards edited the eight-volume Encyclopedia of Phi-losophy—has written a comprehensive, powerful attack on reincarnation.

But Reincarnation: A Critical Examination is much more than an attack. Its prose is vigorous and entertaining, its arguments cogent, its sweep awesome, and its documentation impeccable. Edwards seems to have read everything on the topic, to have considered every argument pro and con.

True believers in reincarnation probably will not read this book, and among those who do, not many are likely to alter their opinions. It is a rare event when believers of any stripe change their minds about anything. On the other hand, perhaps a few with brains still open to reason will find Edwards’s rhetoric persuasive. For anyone, his book will be a delight to read and a basic reference to own about one of the strangest religious phenomena to befuddle America since Christian Science.


Many pages are devoted to the claim that reincarnation provides, as Edwards himself believes, a better solution to the terrible problem of irrational evil than the traditional Christian one. Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists still believe that all of us are sinners as a result of Adam and Eve disobeying a command of Jehovah. They also must believe that God was so disappointed with his own creation that he drowned all men, women, babies, dogs, and cats except for Noah and his unremarkable family. They must agree with St. Paul that the only way to escape eternal damnation is to

believe that Jesus came to Earth to release humanity from God’s awful curse. Moreover, Paul added, to be born again and saved from hell one must also believe God raised Jesus from the dead. Can you imagine a deity more distant from the loving God taught by the historical Jesus?

Reincarnation does away with such a cruel creator. The horrors of hell are replaced by karma, a law as much a part of nature as the laws of gravity. Indeed, many reincarnationists were and are atheists, such as the British philosopher John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, who see no need for a god to uphold karma. We existed before in different bodies. We will continue after death in other bodies. Every evil deed will be punished. Every good deed will be rewarded. Irrational suffering no longer demands justification by reasons we cannot now comprehend. Karma ensures that justice will always prevail, if not in this life, in lives to come.

Who has not longed to participate in future events on Earth, to take part in building a better world, to see with human eyes what happens to one’s descendants, to observe the changes science and technology will bring? Christians, Jews, and Muslims are unable to participate in Earth’s future history. The best they can do is observe it from a distant heaven. Reincarnationists have the hope of actively participating in the planet’s future.


Foremost of all objections to reincarnation is the difficulty of conceiving how we can be the same person who lived before if we have no memory of an earlier life. Edwards quotes Leibniz: “What good would it do you, sir, to become King of China on condition of forgetting what you have been? Would it not be the same thing as if God at the same time he destroyed you created the king of China?” How can we profit from past experiences if we can’t remember them?

Here and there, especially in India, a few rare individuals claim to recall portions of a past life, such as the famous case of the American Bridey Murphy. Edwards thoroughly demolishes these flimsy claims. They are usually based on hypnotic sessions during which a hypnotist consciously or unconsciously guides the sleeping patient with leading questions. Not only is hypnotism used today to “regress” patients to former lives, but some reincarnation therapists, notably the former Baltimore dentist Dr. Bruce Goldberg, “progress” patients to observing events in their future incarnations. Most reincarnation therapists treat patients for causes in past lives. Dr. Goldberg treats patients for causes they will experience in future lives!

Many reincarnationists claim that everyone will remember previous lives during a period between incarnations that Edwards calls the “interregnum,” a time when our soul or “astral body” exists in a physically bodiless state. Believers differ on how long interregnums can be. They may be as short as a few days or as long as hundreds of years. Perhaps after many incarnations, or at the end of them, if there is one, our brains will recall everything.

One of the strongest objections to reincarnation is that, in India, where almost everyone believes in karma, efforts to alleviate suffering are dampened by the belief that the Untouchables are being punished for past sins. As Edwards makes clear, if you truly think that, say, a child dying of cancer is suffering from sins in a former life, why should you try to thwart karma by easing the child’s pain? Edwards quotes Christmas Humphreys, an attorney who founded the British Buddhist Society: “He who suffers from his deliberate use of his own free will.” We should not show sympathy for “cripples, dwarfs, and those born deaf and blind,” Humphreys adds, because their afflictions “are the products of their own past actions.”

Reincarnationists are troubled by this reasoning. Some insist that you should do your best to relieve pain because if you succeed it proves a person’s punishment is not as severe as it seemed! But this goes against the notion that karma is an inexorable law that cannot be altered. If we can change it at will it turns karma into what Edwards calls a “vacuous” law. In any case, the doctrine of karma continues to be a major obstacle to efforts by India’s government to make the miserable less miserable.

Another objection to reincarnation explored by Edwards is what is known as the “population problem.” If everyone alive today once inhabited a previous human body, how can the world’s population explosion be explained? There simply are not enough former earthlings to account for today’s population, and each year the problem gets worse. Edwards considers what he calls several “noxious ad hoc assumptions” put forth to explain this. One is that we had past lives as animals, as expressed in Langdon Smith’s popular ballad “Evolution” which begins: “When you were a tadpole and I was a fish, in the Paleozoic time.” Another is that we lived before on other planets, or in a densely populated “astral world” on some higher plane of reality. The most bizarre conjecture comes from Dr. Goldberg. He solves the population problem by assuming that a soul can occupy two or more bodies at the same time!

Still another powerful argument against reincarnation rests on the sudden deaths of tens of thousands of persons in an earthquake. A reincarnation-ist must believe that all the victims were simultaneously punished for past sins. “How did this non-intelligent principle [karma] set up the geological forces so as to achieve the desired result with complete precision?” Edwards asks.

If the law of karma is infallible, Edwards wants to know, how can a reincarnationist bring himself to believe that the 6 million Jews exterminated by the Nazis all deserved their fate? The same goes for Inquisition victims and those of Stalin. “Since the Jews deserved extinction,” writes Edwards, “the Nazis were not really criminals… I assume that Eichmann deserved to be hanged, since he was hanged, but the many Nazis who escaped deserved to escape.” The most powerful objection to the death penalty becomes meaningless because, if karma holds, no innocent man can be executed. “People may indeed be innocent of the crime with which they are charged, but if they are executed this is what they deserved. It makes one dizzy.”

Suppose a child is run over by a car and killed. What should a reincarnationist pastor say to console the mother? Edwards imagines him saying: “It all makes sense—your child deserved her fate; she sinned in a previous life, and in view of the severity of her suffering we may assume that her sins were enormous. What is more, you yourself are acutely suffering and there is no doubt that you are being punished for some serious transgression either in this or an earlier life or both.”

“If I were the mother,” Edwards continues, “and a baseball bat were handy, I would hit the karmic pastor over the head and, as he screams with pain, I would say: ‘You deserve your pain not because of a sin in your previous life but because you are a monster right now.”‘


One reason Edwards’s book is such a pleasant read is that he has a sense of humor and sarcasm worthy of Voltaire or H. L. Mencken. I have cited some instances. Here is one more. Edwards is considering the view of many reincarnationists that evil individuals can incarnate not only as animals, but also as insects, plants, or even rocks and jars. Tongue in cheek, Edwards speculates on the possible former animal lives of some prominent persons:

It is widely believed that the poet Edith Sitwell was a flamingo in an earlier life and there cannot be a seri-ous doubt that Winston Churchill had once been a bulldog. Bull terriers, the lovable little dogs whose noses look as though they had been bashed in, were probably prize fighters in a pre-vious life. As for Marlene Dietrich, the general consensus now is that she once was an emu. There seems to be no other way of explaining her treat-ment of her daughter, Maria Riva. J. Edgar Hoover was almost certainly a praying mantis and the same is prob-ably true of Richard Nixon and his criminal associates who brought us Watergate.

The book’s funniest chapter is about astral bodies in which Edwards covers in hilarious detail two famous cases of “astral projection.” A century ago S. R. Wilmot, on a stormy crossing of the North Atlantic, had a vivid dream that his wife’s astral body had visited his stateroom. Mrs. Wilmot, then at home in the United States, appeared by her husband’s bunk, wearing a nightgown. As he told it, “she stooped down and kissed me, and after gently caressing me, quietly withdrew.” When he returned home, his wife staggered him by telling about her out-of-body trip. She even recalled unusual features of the stateroom and the presence of a passenger in the upper berth.

The other case involves Dr. George Ritchie, a Virginia psychiatrist. In 1943, when he was pronounced dead in an Army hospital, his astral body floated into heaven where he encountered Jesus. The Lord then took him on a tour of both hell and heaven. Ritchie describes the tour in dazzling detail in his 1988 book Return from Tomorrow. Edwards notes that the closer one gets to the original documents of such notable cases, the greater become the discrepancies. This “hiatus between the original claim and the actual evidence,” Edwards calls the “Ritchie-Wilmot syndrome.”

Astral body defenders all agree that each of us has within us an exact replica of our physical body, a double who occasionally roams about at will. Curiously, when astral bodies are seen, they are invariably clothed. Many astral experts, Annie Besant for example, contend that every physical object has its counterpart in the astral world. This requires, writes Edwards,

that every time somebody produces something, he also produces an astral copy of that thing. A carpenter who builds a set of bookshelves is really building two sets, the regular one he sells to his customer and an astral copy he sells to nobody. And the same of course applies to every-thing. A dentist, for example, who fills a tooth is really filling the tooth he thinks he is filling as well as its astral duplicate, and when I am writ-ing these lines I am really writing them twice at the same time. This is too much. I would rather believe that all astral bodies are always naked and that we are deluding ourselves when we observe them clothed. If it were not needed for reincarnation one might almost be tempted to give up the astral body.


It would require too much space to discuss Edwards’s astute comments on the views of the two most noted philosophers who defended reincarna-tion—McTaggart mentioned earlier, and the French-born American Curt John Ducasse. Among lesser believers trounced in the book are Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (“the most credulous person who ever lived”), Stanislaw Grof (the second-most credulous), Annie Besant, Edgar Cayce, Henry Ford, General George Patton, Princess Diana, and such entertainers as Shirley MacLaine, Loretta Lynn, and Sylvester Stallone.* “Stallone thinks he may have been a monkey in Guatemala,” Edwards reports, “something I find entirely credible.”

Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist and parapsychologist at the University of Virginia, is far and away the most famous living reincarnationist and the person most tireless in seeking empirical support for the doctrine. Stevenson believes almost everything on the psi scene. He thinks Chicagoan Ted Serios could project his thoughts onto Polaroid film. He believes that Pavel Stepanek, a resident of Prague, was a great clairvoyant until he lost his powers. He has written serious papers about how the dreams of dozens of people foretold the sinking of the Titanic.

Edwards’s attacks on Stevenson, whom he believes to be “sincere but deluded,” are impersonal but harsh and unrelenting. It would be fascinating to read Stevenson’s review of Edwards’s book, assuming he has the courage and chutzpah to review it.


*And Norman Mailer. According to Time (September 30, 1991, page 69), he told an interviewer: “I happen to believe in it [reincarnation]. … It just seems to me that if we lead our lives with all that goes wrong with them, and then we die and that’s the end of us, that doesn’t make much sense.” …

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner's Notes of a Fringe Watcher: A Skeptic Looks at New Age Trends will be published by Prometheus Books this Spring.

Reincarnation: A Critical Examination by Paul Edwards (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) 313 pp. $28.95. Religious insanity is very common in the United States. —Alexis de Tocqueville, as quoted by Paul Edwards Because reincarnation is a fundamental doctrine of Hindu religions and most forms of Buddhism, there are probably more people around the world who …

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