The belief in reincarnation is held mostly by Hindus and Buddhists. There are, however, a few others (relatively speaking) who also believe, but they are scattered amongst the rest of us, including someone I know personally. The number of believers is not small and our approach to them always needs to be respectful.
Some of us who don’t believe in reincarnation lay verbal, disrespectful traps for those who do believe, as though it’s just a harmless belief and they want to have some fun giving believers a hard time. It’s with both fun and contempt that they try to get believers to admit to various trivial contradictions. However, this is the wrong approach because it hardens the resolve of the believer and it treats reincarnation as though it’s just a benign belief. It is not. A better approach is one that focuses on, and highlights, a contradiction at the heart of their fundamental beliefs.
At the heart of reincarnation seems to be an implied promise that all of creation is important and, while nature is flawed, all of us will eventually reach some sort of eternal happiness. While its premise sounds good (and comforting), its conclusion (that all will reach eternal happiness) is wrong. This is where we need to focus our attention.
The most important problem with reincarnation lays in its seductive nature. Reincarnation teaches us that no matter what we do wrong, there won’t be any eternal consequence for it because we will always be given a second (or third, or fourth, or …) chance to do it right. This is a serious problem because it undermines responsibility for our actions and teaches that, ultimately, we’ll never be held accountable for what we do wrong.
In effect, reincarnation gives us permission to do what we want, in the here and now, without having to worry about any eternal consequences. Obviously, they understand that there may be some temporal consequences, just nothing eternal. If so, where is the incentive to do good and avoid evil? Why not simply indulge in personal pleasure? Is it only the temporal consequence that holds them back?
Imagine the case where a believer in reincarnation is tempted to commit adultery. While Judaism and Christianity see this as a serious spiritual error and a serious human error (affecting the social fabric), a believer in reincarnation might see this as only a bump in a very long road to eternal happiness.
Obviously, most of those who believe in reincarnation are not narcissistic and don’t give in to every temptation. However, when they are tempted with such an evil, they need to work harder than the rest of us to avoid it, because they don’t see any serious eternal consequences. They may see the temporal consequence of damaging the social fabric, but that is only a fleeting problem.
Regardless of the temptation, believers in reincarnation have to choose between giving up some immediate personal pleasure, with little or no reward, in return for the possibility of reaching eternal happiness a little sooner.
The belief that we will all eventually reach eternal happiness comes from another belief that, as we move from one life to the next, we learn from our mistakes, make better decisions in the next life, and therefore, become perfected on our way to eternal happiness. This is where we can best confront the belief in reincarnation.
Hidden in amongst their beliefs is also the belief that we don’t remember anything from our past lives. Now that’s a serious problem for believers. Yes, we humans can learn from our mistakes, but we need to know what our mistakes are before we can learn from them. If no one ever makes us aware of a mistake, what would cause us to change our ways? If we don’t know that something is wrong, we can’t learn from our mistakes, and we can’t attain perfection.
On a spiritual level, if a “force” is causing us to be on the receiving end of some evil because we did that evil in a past life and we need to learn from it, then in order for us to learn from it, that “force” needs to make us aware of what we have learned. Again, because they believe that we don’t remember our past lives, that “force” is not passing on what we have learned. And again, how can we progress toward perfection if we can’t remember anything that we’ve learned once we start a new life?
Reincarnation needs to be confronted at this point: How can we progress toward eternal happiness when we’re not even aware of what we’ve done wrong, or what we’ve learned, in our past lives?
Reincarnation is not a benign belief. It undermines our individual moral foundation and the moral foundation of society. While reincarnation doesn’t actually say “no” to someone who wants to be virtuous, it doesn’t encourage it. That, in itself, undermines society because no one is encouraged to grow in virtue. The best a society can do with that belief is to slowly deteriorate (morally) over time.