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In "Remembrances of Lives Past," an article that appeared in the New York Times this weekend, Newsweek's religion editor Lisa Miller takes a look at our nation's growing belief in reincarnation. According to data released by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation (interestingly, according to the Times piece, women are more likely to believe in reincarnation than men, and democrats are more likely to believe than republicans). This emerging belief in reincarnation is a steep departure from the traditional Judaeo-Christian narrative that most Americans are familiar with:
In religious terms, the human narrative — birth, life, death and rebirth — has for millennia been relatively straightforward in the West. You were born. You lived. You died. After a judgment you went to heaven (or hell) forever and ever. Eternity was the end: no appeals allowed.
But nearly a billion Hindus and a half-billion Buddhists — not to mention the ancient Greeks, certain Jews and a few Christians — have for thousands of years believed something entirely different. Theirs is, as the theologians say, a cyclical view. You are born. You live. You die. And because nobody’s perfect, your soul is born again — not in another location or sphere, and not in any metaphorical sense, but right here on earth.
According to the article, a growing number of Americans are turning to Eastern religious beliefs out of dissatisfaction with Western religions and because of our country's relative prosperity:
Western religion is failing to satisfy growing numbers of people — especially young adults. College students Mr. Dasa encounters, most of them raised as Christians or Jews, “haven’t given up on the idea of spirituality or religion,” he said. “They’re tired of the dogma they grew up with.” According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of Americans express no affiliation with any religious tradition, nearly double the number in 1990.
Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University and author of “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World,” has made a study of Western interest in Eastern religious practice and suggests that our fascination with reincarnation is related to Americans’ relative prosperity. Modern Americans, in their optimism and material success, see reincarnation as a chance to postpone eternity for another day, he explained by e-mail. “Reincarnation means never having to say you’re dead,” he wrote.
Interestingly, the article makes the claim that it is therapists---who Miller identifies as "intermediaries between science and religion who authenticate irrational belief"---that are popularizing the idea of reincarnation in the West. Though many scientists still question the practice of hypnosis and past-lives therapy, the treatments have led some patients to experience parts of what they believe to be their past lives.
For more on reincarnation, read "Reincarnation: A Debate," a lively conversation between Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor.