"It's like deja vu, all over again" - Yogi Berra.
The planned speaker for November's Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub event had pulled out at fairly short notice and with no time to book an adequate replacement the affable, articulate, and entertaining host Professor Chris French stepped into the breach with a really rather fantastic talk about the time he spent, nearly two decades back, investigating claims of reincarnation amongst the Druze people of Lebanon.
Either French has a phenomenal memory (and if he has then as founder of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths he may want to investigate himself) or he'd crammed one hell of a lot of research into a very short time because 'Many happy returns? Investigating reincarnation claims in Lebanon' was thorough, even handed, and had been formed into a coherent, and enjoyable, narrative. He'd even put a couple of jokes in. The talk was an absolute delight from start to finish.
He started with a little bit of history regarding theories of, and belief in, reincarnation over the years. In a recent survey over 25% of UK citizens claimed they believe in reincarnation in one form or another and that figure rises quite markedly elsewhere in the world. Even the hugely revered cosmologist and science communicator Carl Sagan, in his late work The Demon-Haunted World, said that there were a couple of cases of reincarnation that he, as a skeptic and a critical thinker, couldn't (yet) explain. He didn't go so far as to say he believed in reincarnation but he did suggest that he was open to further investigation and that we should follow evidence rather than our own confirmation biases.
There's lots of reason why people may choose to believe in reincarnation. We live in a hugely unjust world where some live in great wealth and others in abject poverty with little chance of improving their lot, few opportunities, and a very strong chance of an early death. It's hardly surprising, given those circumstances, that many would choose to believe this is merely one of many lives they'll experience.
Ideas of what reincarnation is, and how it works, differ from society to society. Some believe in karma (a fairly ugly concept that allows us to believe people living in reduced circumstances or suffering somehow deserve it), some believe you regenerate at the exact moment of death (you know, like Dr Who), some believe you always come back as someone of the same sex, some believe it's possible to come back as someone of a different sex (Dr Who again), and some believe you can come back as an animal. Some even believe you can come back as an inanimate object. Prince Charles was probably joking when, during a particularly cringeworthy bout of phone sex with Camilla Parker Bowles, he suggested he'd like to come back as her tampon. I'd always thought he was a stuck up cunt.
People have suggested the experience of deja vu proves reincarnation is real and it's also been used to explain how child prodigies like Mozart are able to be so talented at such a young age. The suggestion being that they're utilising knowledge and experience picked up during previous existences. Professor French's interest in this subject had become so intense he'd even become a member of the Reincarnation Society so he could study cases with more depth. At £500 per annum membership's not cheap but, hey, you only live once.*
Some people claim spontaneous past life memories but many are brought about using hypnotic regression. Impressive though these accounts appear on the surface some basic digging around usually disproves them fairly easily. For a start there's an unusually large amount of people who claim to have been Henry VIII or Cleopatra in previous lives and considerably less who've been irrelevant peasants who lived and died without making so much as a stain on the page of history.
Supposed historical regressions often prove to be far more ahistorical, Hollywood, versions of events too. People, under regression, have claimed it's the year 50BC which of course is not what that year would've been called at the time, C not having been born yet.
In 1952 the Colorado businessman and amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein caused something of a sensation when he put housewife Virginia Tighe in a trance that caused her to 'remember' a past life as a 19c Irish washerwoman called Bridey Murphy. She described her childhood in Cork, her move to Belfast after marrying Sean McCarthy, detailed (and accurate) descriptions of the Antrim coastline, and even her own funeral which she'd watched impassively before being reborn in the American Midwest in 1923.
A book, a film, two popular songs, and even a cocktail were launched during the Bridey Murphy craze. People even held 'come as you were' parties. But despite the fact that Tighe had no trace of an Irish accent unless she was under hypnotic regression some doubted both her and Bernstein's claims. Those who examined the case found that Tighe had been brought up by half-Irish parents until the age of three, that an Irish immigrant named Bridie Murphy Corkell lived across the street from Tighe's childhood home in Chicago, and surmised that Tighe was merely dredging up long forgotten childhood memories and not ones from a previous life. It's called cryptomnesia and it's a real thing.
The Bloxham tapes are a set of more than four hundred recordings of past-life hypnotic regression sessions made by the hypnotherapist Arnall Bloxham. During the 1970s they were published episodically in The Sunday Times and perhaps the most noteworthy case was that of one Janet Evans. Evans was a thirty year old Welsh lady who, under hypnotic regression, produced 'evidence' of six previous lives. She'd been Livonia, daughter-in-law of the governor Constantius in Eboracum (York) during the 3rd century. She'd been, in the 12th century (and still in York), Rebecca, wife of a Jewish moneylender. In 1450 she'd been Alison, an Egyptian servant in the French household of Jacques Coeur, a wealthy merchant and financier in Bourges. She'd been one of Catherine of Aragon's ladies in waiting, she'd been a sewing girl named Ann Tasker in 18c London, and she'd been Sister Grace, a Catholic nun living in Des Moines, Iowa, in the early 20th century.
When British skeptic Melvin Harris investigated the case he found that Livonia was based on Louis de Wohl's 1947 novel The Living Wood, that Alison's story has been told in Thomas Costain's 1948 book about the life of Jacques Coeur, The Moneyman, and that Rebecca's story seemed to have been based on a radio play about an anti-Semitic massacre that took place in York in 1190. Not only had Jane Evans remember with astonishing detail all the accurate facts from these books and plays she'd also 'remembered' all the bits the authors had made up and none of the bits the authors had left out. Cryptomnesia again.
Using the DRM (Deese–Roediger–McDermott) technique, French demonstrated how easily a memory could be suggested to a person. You show someone a list of words (for example:snore, bed, tired, pillow, pyjamas, dream) and later on ask them what words were on the list. Most will remember that snore, pillow, and dream appeared and most will know that words like beach, car, and rollercoaster did not appear but if you slip in a word like sleep many will think they saw it on the earlier list. It'd been suggested, implied - but it'd not been there. Unfortunately in a room full of people who regularly attend Skeptical events this demonstration fell a bit flat as most people had seen it before. It was, however, the only thing that did fall flat all night.
In 1998 French, along with a film crew and some less skeptical believers, spent three weeks in Lebanon investigating claims of reincarnation amongst that country's Druze population. The Druze are an esoteric ethnoreligious group that live mainly in the Levant, their largest numbers are in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, but there is also a significant diaspora in countries like Colombia, the US, and Canada. The most famous Druze are probably Walid Jumblatt (leader of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party), Amal Alamuddin (now Clooney, the human rights lawyer and wife of George), and the Detroit born Kemal 'Casey' Kasem, the voice of Shaggy in Scooby Doo no less. Zoiks!
In 1042 the Druze parted company with the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam and from that point on it was decreed that the total number of Druze in the world would remain constant. You couldn't convert, you couldn't leave, and you couldn't, in theory, die. At the moment of death each Druze would be reincarnated immediately. Druze these days, like many who grew up with their beliefs rather than converted to them, are very matter of fact about this. They call it Taqamus, the changing of one's shirt, so relaxed are they about it.
Professor French had looked to interview those who'd turned their back on these beliefs but he'd been unable to find anyone so instead he interviewed those who did believe which, of course, in this community was everyone. The Druze believe that everybody is reincarnated. Druze reincarnate as Druze, Christians as Christians, Muslims as Muslims, and, presumably Skeptics as Skeptics. But how does this square with the utterly empirical fact that the last century has seen a huge, exponential, population growth across the planet?
The honest answer is that it simply doesn't. But, like all religions, facts don't stop people believing in it. That's the very nature of faith, it's what the word means, belief in something without any, or even in the face of overwhelmingly contrary, evidence. Druze don't believe in karma but they do believe that reincarnation is instant, that the exact moment you die you are born anew, but that you can only remember your previous life if you have died a violent, or possibly untimely, death. As a Civil War had raged through Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 claiming 120,000 lives there were plenty of people who'd died both violent and untimely deaths and, thus, plenty of people who claimed to remember their previous life.
The claims of absolute immediacy of reincarnation could be easily tested, you'd think, by a simple check of registers of births and deaths and, as you'd expect, they don't even come close to tallying up but the Druze offer two explanations as to why this is. The first is that many experience an 'unmemorable intermediate life', they may die as a soldier, be born as a sickly baby, die very soon, and then be reborn again. It's a handy workaround but it doesn't really stack up. If this was true Beirut would have an infant mortality rate of about 50%. Thankfully that's more than fifty times higher than the actual rate.
Another theory holds (a bit) more water. Some suggest that the reason the births and deaths don't tally up is that there are Druze being born in countries that refuse to recognise reincarnation (China has a big issue with this due to Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, you have to apply for a certificate to prove you've been reincarnated there) or that there are people born Druze that simply don't know they're Druze. These 'ignorant' members are referred to as juhhal. Some even expouse the belief that there are Druze being born, dying, and being born again ad infinitum all over the universe and therefore it's impossible to keep track of everyone!
Investigations did show that Druze kids could be particularly precocious (taking rifles and engines apart with the skill of much older people) and would often want to meet their 'past life families'. These families would sometimes test, or even try to trick, the kids by showing them false photographs of people that aren't really in the family and false bedrooms where the person they'd once been didn't really sleep.
They didn't tend to trick the kids but neither did the kids seem to recognise real photographs or real bedrooms either. At least not until it'd been heavily suggested to them that these were the actual places. Even then the kids seemed to register a vague recognition rather than anything particularly meaningful. In some cases past life families would disagree with visiting 'reincarnations' because they'd already met someone who'd they believed was, and accepted as, the next incarnation of their departed loved one.
A young child living in terrible poverty, Rabih Abu Dyab, became a compelling test case. Partly because he was utterly adorable but also because of his seemingly wild claims to be the reincarnation of Saad Halawi, an international footballer and successful pop star who'd been killed in the Civil War. Halawi had been known as the Lebanese Kevin Keegan (he even had the bubble perm, although with an 8-0 defeat to Qatar, the Cedars were even less world beaters than the Keegan era England team) and Rabih's mum, somewhat suspiciously in the circumstances, had been a huge fan of his before young Rabih had even been born.
Because it's beneficial to be the reincarnation of a rich, famous, or successful person the likes of Halawi and his family proved to be very popular choices as past life families for those less fortunate. It's not that the wealthier past life family furnished money or lodgings upon their new selves but they would, in a fairly ill defined way, look out for them.
But, other than this vague social support offered by past life families, why would people, with all the evidence stacked against them, go on believing such obvious untruths? Many reasons. It helps to cope with loss and during periods of bereavement people, understandably, employ many different coping mechanisms. Also, the Druze have been a persecuted group during much of their history, even now they're regularly targeted by ISIS, and have often been forced to fight to defend themselves. It's quite handy to believe in reincarnation if you're just about to go in to a battle in which there's a very strong chance you may die. In fact so entwined is the battle against persecution and the belief in reincarnation in the Druze that their war cry is "Tonight, in my mother's womb"!
So it's easy to see why people believe it even if we may sneer at it. But is there any harm in someone choosing to believe it? As long as they're not going round killing other people for not believing it or forcing people to believe it against their will then probably very little. It seems like a load of old cobblers to me but I've been wrong before - and I'm sure I will again. Let's wait and see. Or, more likely, wait and not see. Thanks to Greenwich Skeptics and Chris French for another brilliant evening.
*That's one of Chris's jokes (and a good one too).