March 30, 2023

Reincarnation? No Thanks!

I agree that the idea of reincarnation is repulsive. If I have a choice, as I believe we do, I will choose not to reincarnate.

When my favorite philosopher, Woody Allen, was asked how he felt about death, he replied tartly: “I’m against it.” That’s exactly how I feel about reincarnation. I’m completely opposed to it, and, given a choice, I would definitely opt out. I would rather stay dead than come back to life, especially if I could no longer be myself of whom I am, despite everything, inordinately fond. And then I have this still niggling fear that because when I was a kid and would amuse myself by sticking pins into a grasshopper, it might be my karmic fate to return as one. Sure, I know that’s very unlikely, but then where transmigration of souls is concerned, there’s no guarantee that just because I am a human in this life I would necessarily return as one.

Of course, the trouble is, if you look into the research on reincarnation and the many books on the subject, what you will find is overwhelming evidence that reincarnation does indeed occur. And not just in countries in Asia where belief in reincarnation is widespread, but in the West as well. Furthermore, it’s not just that people can “flash on” purported past lives as, for example, in the many anecdotal cases of déjà vu when an individual travels to a city he has never before visited, and yet “recognizes it,” and knows exactly what he will see when he crosses a bridge and climbs a hill at the top of which he is a certain he will see a cathedral – and does. He will also have an uncanny knowledge of other landmarks as well. Such experiences are surprisingly common, but they hardly constitute compelling evidence for reincarnation. Alternative explanations are obvious.

But what about cases like this?

A contemporary French journalist has a vision of a man, a Nazi soldier. He sees him clearly, sees him killed, sees what appear to be other people in the soldier’s life, another man, a little girl. And he somehow knows the soldier’s name, Alexander Hermann.

The author, Stéphane Allix, realizes from the start that he is this man. He knows words in German, a language he doesn’t speak.

He wonders what this could mean. Did such a man actually exist and, if so, why did he manifest to Stéphane in this startling but undeniable way?

In a book Stéphane wrote entitled When I Was Someone Else, what follows is the story of Stéphane’s obsession to divine the meaning of his vision. The book is a riveting detective story, a thriller, a harrowing journey back into the darkest days of WW II, and, most of all, the author’s relentless quest for self-discovery and to fathom the nature of his identity. 

In the end, one reads how Stéphane was led – one would almost have to say “guided” – to ultimately find that everything he had seen in his vision was true, and why it had been given to him. It seems clear that he had lived and died before when he was this Nazi soldier.

Stéphane Allix is a dear friend of mine. I’ve known him for many years, and have visited him in Paris and he has also visited me in my home. I have no doubt that what he reports in his book really happened to him.

And of course, he is hardly unique in recounting his memories of a past life as someone else. There are many such accounts in the literature on reincarnation. You can find quite a few in books like Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery by Joseph Head and Sylvia Cranston. One famous case of this type is Edward Ryall’s Born Twice: Total Recall of a Seventeen-Century Life, which is extensively described in this book. It was also exhaustively investigated and authenticated by the world’s foremost student of reincarnation, the late Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist, whose career was mostly spent at the University of Virginia. I will be discussing Stevenson’s own work based on about 3000 cases of apparent reincarnation next. But the book by Head and Cranston is a veritable treasury of evidence and testimony that make a compelling case for the reality of reincarnation. 

Ian Stevenson, who died in 2007 at the age of 88, was a legend in his own lifetime, even before his death. The reason for his fame and the esteem he received from many of his professional colleagues is that no one with such a distinguished professional pedigree had researched more cases suggestive of reincarnation more sedulously than Stevenson. His research is noted for being extremely meticulous, thorough and critically evaluated. He is by far the most highly regarded and quoted of reincarnation researchers as a result of the many books he published on the subject.

I was privileged to meet Stevenson twice at the University of Virginia about forty years ago. I found him reserved and dignified, but courtly. I remember he warned me against starting a journal devoted to NDEs; he thought it would be mistake. But here Stevenson was wrong; The Journal of Near-Death Studies has continued to be published quarterly for over forty years now.

Turning, however briefly, to Stevenson’s work on reincarnation, which took him all over the world, particularly to Asia and the Middle East, he typically studied children who claimed to recall past lives. In most instances, they would spontaneously talk of their prior life sometime between the ages of two and four, though these memories would generally begin to fade by the time they were between five and eight years old. But if “the devil is in the details,” so is the truth to be found there.

It was common for these very young children to know intimate and obscure details about the person they claimed to have been, and Stevenson was able to verify the great majority of them, about 90%, to have been correct. When taken for the first time to the neighborhood where they claimed to have lived before, they would recognize it immediately, and when introduced to the family among whom they had, in a prior life, grown up, they might say to a woman, “Oh, you were my wife then.” Reading about these cases, as I have, you can’t help but be stunned by the accuracy of a child’s memory of his former life and impressed by the strong emotions expressed on being reunited with his prior family.

One particularly intriguing type of case has to do with birthmarks. Stevenson had over 200 cases of children whose birthmarks corresponded exactly to the location of a fatal would suffered by the previous personality. It might be known, for example, that this individual died as a young man from a stabbing in the neck. And on the neck of the child in this life, there would be an inexplicable scar of unknown origin in just that area. That Stevenson could find so many instances where biology and reincarnation seem to intersect sends the mind reeling – at least, they did mine.

Okay, we could spend page after page talking about the evidence for reincarnation, but let me now turn to why I am so viscerally opposed to it.

To begin with, consider me. I am now very old, not in the best of health, and in my opinion, I am not likely to survive the year. So suppose I die later this year. And say, after spending the next fifty years or so somewhere off-planet, I have to reincarnate in the year 2075.

By then, if current projections for climate change are correct, our earth is likely to be an unlivable inferno, with torrid unbearable heat, crippling droughts, violent storms, glaciers that have disappeared, and human and animal life in the greatest possible peril.  

Would I want to come back to earth then? Hell, no! Would you? Count me out!

But I have another objection as well. Let me give you a hypothetical, if admittedly simplistic, version of how reincarnation might be supposed to work. This is, I submit, is a fairly common understanding of the process.

Say you are man, a farmer, who has spent his life on his farm in Nebraska. You have lived your life, have married, sired four children, lost your left hand in farming accident, developed cancer and died at the age of 81.  

At your death, you are first greeted by guides who take you into the realm of the afterlife where you are then met by what John Audette calls “the welcoming committee” – your deceased loved ones. You are overjoyed to see them again.  

You spend your time (although there is no time there; there’s not even a “there” there, but never mind) in eternity, but eventually your guides make it clear that you are going to have to leave this heavenly realm and reincarnate.

You are naturally reluctant to leave, but apparently you must. You still have lessons learn, you see, and you can only learn them in an embodied state. So you are asked to select your parents in your next life whose circumstances will afford you the opportunity to learn the lessons that will further your spiritual growth.

So down the chute you go, heading toward your new mother’s womb; you drink the waters of Lethe, so that you completely forget who you were, and wake up, a bawling Black babe in Alabama.

Then, you live out that life, only to die again, and go through a similar process of death and rebirth – over and over and over again – until eventually after what?  -- hundreds of incarnations, perhaps? – you have learned all your lessons and can finally “get off the wheel of death and rebirth.”

Well, bloody hell! Do we have to suffer living life after life after life on this doomed planet of ours, or perhaps elsewhere, until we can ultimately be discharged from this kind of seemingly endless torment of life in a body? What kind of monster set up this horror show? It’s enough to turn you into a gnostic who believes in a malevolent god, a demiurge who is running this ghastly recycling affair.  

No thanks, this is not for me, and I think I know a way to escape this trap of doom.   

When a person has an NDE, although he is sometimes told “it is not your time – you have to go back,” other people appear to be given a choice: either to remain in the heavenly realm or go back to their earth body. Of course, in my research I can only talk to those who chose to return. Those who elect to stay are difficult to interview.

Well, then, even if reincarnation does occur, perhaps not everyone has to reincarnate. Perhaps it’s a choice, and if that choice is given to me, then, by jingo, my answer would surely be: “Reincarnation? No Thanks!”


  1. Another great article, Ken. As you know, the eastern religions affirm that reincarnation is something to be avoided and that enlightenment is the key to escaping this cycle of birth, death and rebirth. I would like to point out the fact that you, Ken, are indeed an enlightened soul and probably have overcome this cycle. Therefore, you probably have qualified as a "graduate" of this Earth-School of "Hard Knocks". I take comfort in the idea that reincarnation is not an endless cycle and that the goal is enlightenment and liberation from this Earth-School.

  2. There are at least four cultures that have clear beliefs about reincarnation, even though most people are only aware of the general Indian one. Most suggest that we have options on reincarnating, and sometimes we do it not for ourselves but to help someone else. And since time does not really exist in the spirit realm like it does in the physical, it is theoretically possible to reincarnate in an earlier period. And even if we reincarnate in the future, I see ample reaon to suspect that the earth will be habitable for quite some time.

  3. susanschoenbeck11@gmail.comMarch 31, 2023 at 9:15 AM

    Do we think we need a body to live on?

    Thich Nhat Hanh said there is no reincarnation in Buddhism. “But when you see me in my speech and my actions, you see that they continue me.”

    My father and mother instructed my brother and I to always shovel the snow from the walkways of the elderly couple who lived next door. My children do the same for people who need help. This is Karma.

  4. “Reincarnation? No Thanks!” flavored with your Woody Allen wit made me smile and reminded me of Mark Twain’s comment, “If I cannot smoke in heaven then I shall not go.”

    Ken, you may say ‘no’ to reincarnation next time, but you must have said ‘yes’ last time, and the world’s a better place because you did, enriched by your enormous contributions.

  5. I would imagine that souls can't simply reincarnate into any body, including non-human bodies (also, in the case of non-human bodies, there's no good evidence for this so far as I'm aware). For a soul to become associated with a particular body, it might be imagined there needs to be a certain affinity, a certain resonance, making that body suitable.

    And perhaps our psychological dispositions gravitate us towards particular bodies or whether we are even born at all. Perhaps an aversion to reincarnation would therefore prohibit the reincarnational process. Anyway, I certainly don't think it need be some external agent that demands one is reborn (although I'm not sure what the evidence suggests on this).

    Also, we need to bear in mind that there are some 8 billion people currently alive on earth, and it's been estimated that around 100 billion people who have ever lived. So we can't all have had 100's of lives. It might vary hugely. Maybe some people have numerous lives, others perhaps haven't had any lives at all on earth (which you agree with). Indeed, perhaps not even have heard of Earth?