Reincarnation refers to the doctrine or belief that a person may be reborn after death, either as a new person or in another form, such as that of an animal. It is a common belief of both ancient and modern religions and philosophies, including Spiritism, Theosophy, and Eckancar, as well as the more established religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, African Vodun, and others. While reincarnation is a tenet of several religions, the sites listed in this category focus on reincarnation itself, while reincarnation as a part of a specific faith will be discussed in sites listed within the categories for these faiths. Some sites may appropriately be listed in both categories.
Reincarnation in the Western World
In the Western world, at least in the United
States and, I suppose, Canada,
reincarnation is thought of as the superstitious belief of Hindus
or of ancient traditions of some Native American tribes. According to a
2009 poll by the Pew Research Center, roughly twenty-four percent of
adults in the United States believed in reincarnation, which is nearly one
out of every four people. Since Hindus comprise only less than one-half of
one percent of the population, and Native Americans make up less than one
percent of the population, this suggests that most of those who believe in
reincarnation have a basis for their beliefs elsewhere, especially since
it is unlikely that a large percentage of Native Americans held a belief
in reincarnation in 2009. A report published by James T. Richardson in
2004 numbered the total membership in Native American religions at about
nine thousand people.
However, oral traditions and written records throughout the world are clear that reincarnation has played a significant role in the human worldview since the early days of civilization; everywhere, that is, except in the Western World.
The traditional Yoruba people of West Africa believed that a child born to a family that had recently experienced the death of a grandparent was that grandparent being reborn into the family. The Mbuti people of Central Africa believed that every human being existed in a non-physical state prior to conception. The Cherokee people of North America believed that the soul chose a family where it believed it might be appreciated, and where it might be able to complete a cycle of learning. The Sioux, the Inuit, and the ancient Incas also held a belief in reincarnation, but the belief was not all inclusive among the indigenous people of North America.
The Teutons, Celts, and Gauls were believers, as were the indigenous people of Hawaii, the South Sea, and Australia. Reincarnation was a part of the traditional belief system of people in the Orient, including Eastern Russia and Japan.
While beliefs in reincarnation fluctuated over the years, except for some of the indigenous people of North America, the belief was not common in the Western worldview.
While reincarnation can be found in Judaism, in the Kabbalah, it has never been an essential tenet of traditional Judaism. In Christianity, where it came up, traditionally, such as in the case of the Gnostics, it was deemed heretical, and drastic measures were taken to stamp it out.
Depending on the poll, from seventy-three to eighty percent of adults in the United States identify themselves as Christians. Since twenty-four percent of the adult population believes in reincarnation, does this imply that everyone else is Hindu? No, because, according to the same polls, fifteen to twenty percent of adults claimed no religious affiliation.
Interestingly, eleven percent of adults who identified themselves as evangelical Christians also claimed a belief in reincarnation, although only about five percent of those claimed regular church attendance. Although there is nothing in traditional Catholicism to suggest reincarnation, a full twenty-five percent of U.S. Catholics believe in reincarnation. Also included among believers in reincarnation who identify themselves as Christian are adherents to various New Age sects that have become prominent in the United States since the 1960s and 1970s.
In fact, in the United States, and in Europe as well, some level of belief in reincarnation seems to be independent of the age of the person, or of the type of religion they belonged to, the majority of them being Christians.
However, a 1999 study by Walter and Waterhouse found that most of those who responded to its study held their belief in reincarnation lightly, and were unclear on the details of their ideas, and only a few reported direct experience of the phenomena. Most of those in that survey had heard other people's accounts of past lives and found them to be fascinating.
It appears then, that while a belief in reincarnation has flowed from the Eastern into the Western world, the ebb and flow is not held by strong beliefs. The percentage of Christians in the United States who reported a belief in reincarnation is fewer than those who claimed a belief in astrology.
They probably won't be damned for heresy, at least not if their beliefs count, because only fifty-nine percent of Americans believe in hell.