Is Karma Real? part 1
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Is Karma Real? part 1

I think there is good evidence for a kind of karma, but what I have in mind is somewhat different from classic formulations. While it is unclear whether the Buddha was referring to literal, life-to-life reincarnation or moment-to-moment “rebirth,” many Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and they hold karmic principles guarantee that happiness or misery of a future life will be determined by behavior in this human life. Further, fortunate or unfortunate circumstances in this life are related to activities in previous lives. I don’t believe this, for two main reasons. First, I know of no compelling evidence that it is true, and I am disinclined to believe theories for which evidence is lacking. Second, I think this theory lends itself to abuse. Those with power and wealth can smugly claim that they deserve their privilege, and it encourages those who are downtrodden to accept their positions as just punishments for transgressions in previous lives. Therefore, this theory readily lends itself to racism, sexism, classism, speciesism, and other forms of injustice.
Many, but by no means all, Christians have a similar theory of karma. This theory holds that those who act according to God’s will are rewarded with everlasting happiness in heaven, and those who do not are condemned to everlasting suffering in hell. As is true of the above Buddhist formulation of karma, an appeal of this theory is that it comforts people with the conviction that their faith in the face of suffering will be rewarded and those who deserve punishment will eventually get their comeuppance. I am also very skeptical of this theory, in large part because I don’t find the evidence compelling.
I offer a modified notion of karma. I think that, to the degree that people do harmful, destructive things, they alienate themselves from the world. There is a part of us that recognizes that we come from the earth, and we will return to the earth. We cannot find inner peace and well-being until we are at peace with the ground of our being, the source of our sustenance, and ultimately the destination of our bodies. We would like to believe that God has particular care and concern for us humans, over and above much of the rest of creation. While most nonhuman beings live, struggle, often suffer, and die without obvious meaning to their lives, we want to believe that our existence has an important purpose in God’s plans. However, I think there is, nearly universally, a persistent inner voice that raises doubts. This voice says, “You are weak and vulnerable, and you will eventually die.” As self-conscious creatures, the notion of non-existence can be terrifying. Is belief in an afterlife simply a human psychological response to this terror, or will we actually experience everlasting life? I suspect that, for many people, doubts about our destiny disquiet their souls.

Some people respond to uncertainties about our ultimate destinies by trying to have absolute certainty about things that they find comforting but about which there is little empirical evidence. There are at least two risks. First, if we assume a position of certainty, our convictions will be immune to contradictory evidence. Such convictions can easily lead to belief in absurdities and become blind to injustice. In my view, one such absurdity is that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. Who in their right mind would choose a lifestyle that often includes social ostracism, rejection from family, inability to have children, and social and workplace discrimination? Yet, it appears that people hold such a view, evidently in order to justify condemning homosexuality because, according to their reading of the Bible, homosexuality is a sin. A second risk is that, to the degree that we separate ourselves from the rest of Creation, we can feel alone and terrified in a vast, mysterious universe. I will discuss the second problem, and a solution to this problem, next week.

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