The Rank Absurdity of the 'Law of Karma'


On this sixth anniversary of the Islamic atrocity in New York City, I dedicate this article to the victims, for whom both religious morality and the law of karma failed so spectacularly, and to their families and friends who were so cruelly robbed of their loved ones.

One of the most vapid and contemptible of the new-age nostrums is the statement: “There is no injustice in the universe.” I heard it bandied about freely in the late ’60s as I was growing up at the Summit Lighthouse. Forty years later, you don’t have to look far to find this feel-good pablum masquerading as unquestioned existential truth. It’s a big part of that empty gravy-train (works every time) called The Secret. Or found on copycat sites like The Law of Attraction.

Traditional theologians would recognize this aphorism as a feeble attempt to wipe away the Problem of Evil. It’s all part of “God’s plan,” you see. And for new-agers, it’s a philosophical squeegee that operates effectively even while eliminating the need to believe in a personal god. It’s just so. The universe is ‘self-balancing’ and ‘self-correcting.’ This allows wealthy or fortunate spiritual dilettantes to excuse any of their personal failings while taking credit for all their successes. “It’s just my good (or bad) karma,” they say. At the same time, people with birth defects or born into poverty must have done something wrong in a past life to deserve their fate–which blunts their compassion for them.

I never understood how this supposedly enlightened doctrine was much different from fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism. It seemed to me equally judgmental as the preacher’s threats of hell and damnation, and equally incompatible with any kind of liberal humanistic world view. It rests, at its core, upon spooky-action-at-a-distance, the assumption that somehow our actions are recorded by the substrate of the universe and sent back to us automatically. It’s a quantum energy thing, I suppose. This is how it is expressed in Jainism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, an impersonal and irrevocable principle of cause-and-effect.

In the more elaborate new-age cosmologies in “masters” organizations, there is a cosmic record-keeping agency headed up by the “Lords of Karma.” This “Karmic Board” employs legions of “listening angels,” or “angels of record” who keep elaborate ledgers to see that nothing is forgotten, and every “jot and tittle” of god’s law is fulfilled (a reference also to KJV Matt 5:18).

From Wikipedia:

The idea of karma was popularized in the Western world through the work of the Theosophical Society. Kardecist and Western New Age reinterpretations of karma frequently cast it as a sort of luck associated with virtue: if one does good or spiritually valuable acts, one deserves and can expect good luck; conversely, if one does harmful things, one can expect bad luck or unfortunate happenings. In this conception, karma is affiliated with the Neopagan law of return or Threefold Law, the idea that the beneficial or harmful effects one has on the world will return to oneself. Colloquially this may be summed up as ‘what goes around comes around.’

There is also the metaphysical idea that, because karma is a force of nature and not a sentient creature capable of making value judgments, karma isn’t about good and evil deeds, because applying those labels would be judgmental, but that it is about positive and negative energy, where negative energy can include things not seen as “being bad” like sadness and fear, and positive energy can be caused by being creative and solving problems as well as by exuding love and doing virtuous acts.[citation needed]It is referred to as “omniverse karma” or “omni-karma”[citation needed] because it requires the existence of an omniverse, that space that contains all possible universes. The omniverse idea includes concepts such as souls, psychic energy, synchronicity (a concept originally from psychoanalyst Carl Jung, which says that things that happen at the same time are related), and ideas from quantum or theoretical physics.

It’s not surprising that both ancient and modern traditions have tried to establish a sense of cosmic justice. One of the human universals is the concept of (and beliefs about) fortune and misfortune–loosely the idea that bad luck comes to somebody who commits misdeeds and vice versa.

On the surface, the idea of karma seems to make sense. According to the rules of evolutionary psychology, reputation counts. Those who treat others with kindness and respect are generally treated better in return by their community. But this rule only works for those who have agreed to abide by the social contract–who have a stake in the system. Our concepts of justice, then, rely on us having a conscience based on long-term self-interest. We can accurately say that those with a conscience who treat others well are happier. Happier people do better in life. So we do in fact have a limited correlation between good deeds and good fortune. But sociopaths, on the other hand, routinely get away with murder.

Consider this: If the law of karma were to remain accurate in the universe, how would someone like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao pay for their atrocities? According to the law of karma, it would be through the Hinduist ‘wheel of rebirth.’ They must reincarnate and give life to all those from whom they took life. Let’s play devils advocate here, and assume this to be true. We don’t have to do much math to see the problem. Assuming that the interval between embodiments is 100 years. That would be 70 for a normal lifespan, plus 30 to “work things out and get back on earth.” (Humor me, humor me.)

Assume that our reincarnated Mao-Zedong was prolific and had 10 children each life. He is reputed to have presided over the deaths of 40,000,000 to 60,000,000 people. Let’s take 50,000,000 as a good round number. So our repentant Mao would need 5 million lifetimes to replenish those he killed. At 100 years each, this would take a grand total of 500 million years, or around one eighth of the time since the earth was formed! This is patently absurd. We can be pretty certain that life on earth will not continue uninterrupted for the next half-billion years. There’ve been 5 great “extinction level” events in the last 550 million years. So it’s clear that the law of karma is hopelessly doomed for the case of Mao. His victims will never be avenged. So we’ve got to ask ourselves: If karma doesn’t hold true at this level, how about for lesser killers?

Considering Hitler: At the same rate, it would take him over 200,000,000 years to pay for his crimes through the wheel of rebirth. It’s not likely to happen. So then we have to ask: what about for a killer of a single individual? Is it fair that under the law of karma and rebirth, he or she should have to spend their “next life” giving back the life they stole? Of course, you might say. But why should a petty killer be held to account for his crime, while sociopaths like Hitler and Mao get off virtually scot free? We can easily see that in a ‘just’ universe, they shouldn’t.

We could stretch the fantasy further, and imagine that the 19 hijackers plus Osama each reincarnated and married 72 virgin wives. They could conceivably give birth to 3,000 people in one lifetime. But would that mean the people killed in the towers would then be forced to grow up in repressive and fanatical Islamic families?? How is that fair? And why would such murderers get away with only the fun part of siring the children, while their 72 wives actually raised the kids and did the hard work? Even if the hijackers came back as women and bore the children, this is an insane tall tale that exceeds even the Rapture in its ridiculousness. But that’s what it would take for us to accept this silly canard that is the “Law of Karma.”

New-agers and fundies alike will mumble and grumble that “God’s will” is not for us to understand, and that we have to just “trust Him” to take care of people like Mao, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, or the Hillside Strangler. Some have recognized the impossibility of precise karmic repayment, and have tried to rescue the whole mess by inventing the stopgap concepts of “hell” and the second death. These are totally abstract and unverifiable, and certainly don’t work to intimidate either the righteous fanatic or the truly depraved. I don’t see how this cosmic-revenge-fantasy justice is different from a complete absence of justice. It fails the same way every other rationalization of blind faith fails: it provides zero comfort to anyone but the hopelessly credulous (who have long ago given up on evidence anyway). Why do they even bother with a rationale? Kill ’em all and let god sort ’em out!

Under the most basic critical analysis, we have to admit that no one actually pays for murder, unless they receive physical punishment or reprisals. And up to half of all murders are never solved, depending on which statistics you believe:

From HBO’s Dr. Baden

Is there such a thing as a perfect murder?

Yes. But there are two categories of perfect murders. Technically, any unsolved murder is a perfect murder. In the 1960s, eighty-five per cent of murders were solved in New York and close to it around the country. That means at that time, there were ten or fifteen per cent of perfect murders where people committed murder and didn’t get caught. Counter intuitively in the late 1980’s, when DNA evidence comes into the picture, we find that less than fifty per cent of murders in New York City are now solved, and less than sixty per cent nationwide.

So clearly both human forms of justice and any imagined form of divine justice are woefully ineffective.

Religious notions of morality such as karma or hell only work for those who are already unlikely to commit such crimes. Humanistic morality is equally weak to the killer–relying on the ancestral fear of tribal reprisals or loss of reputation. In spite of the theologians and new-age hucksters, anyone with a decent criminal mind has already worked out the odds and realized exactly what I’ve written here. Individuals focus on avoiding human detection, since they know it’s all they have to worry about. Mass sociopathic killers have always insulated themselves behind governments, internment camps, and weapons of mass destruction. That they eventually die (often by execution or their own hand) is no consolation.

So to sum up, we can take that old feel-good new-age chestnut I mentioned earlier and reverse it: There is actually “no justice in the universe.” Like our parents should have told us, truth is not a bedtime story. We cannot escape competition with powerful and dangerous people in the world, and life is definitely not fair.

Why do the rich have bodyguards? They understand this equation. If we want to change it for the rest of us, we will have to submit to greater surveillance, and hire more police and detectives. We will have to continue to fight wars to subdue the genocidal maniacs. Because those physical measures are all that stand between us and our killers. The “law of karma” and other concepts of divine justice are nothing but vain tomfoolery and remain wholly impotent for our protection.

Comments (14 comments)

Aaron Kinney / September 11th, 2007, 3:39 pm / #1

Excellent analysis, Sean!

Another analysis that struck me as odd, is that Karma would be like two wrongs making a right. Person A hurts person B, so the law of karma revisists pain onto person A.

But what if KaArma was about balance rather than revisiting wrongs? What if Karma was really about balancing good and bad, so that if you do a good act, then Karma has to balance it out with a bad act?

Hmmm. Either way, Karma gets the lose.

BlackSun / September 11th, 2007, 3:56 pm / #2

Aaron, good point. I think people want everything clean and neat with all the loose ends tied up. If they imagine that the universe just automatically takes care of bad people, then it places less of a burden on humanity to deal with brutality and messiness.

Also, do-gooders want to imagine there’s some reward for their sacrifice (beyond what they already collect by bragging to the world about how selfless and caring they are). So they can look at those who are more successful (and more self-interested) and wag their fingers: “tsk-tsk, they will eventually get their karma.”

alfred / September 11th, 2007, 6:35 pm / #3

An excellent summation and critique of New Age delusion — as if nature had moral grounds. New Ageism’s a pernicious dogmatic mental disease that infects through popularity of mere literature (which should be classed as fiction).

It would be interesting to examine other common New Age beliefs, such as:

The peculiar notion of “mirroring”, which seems to emerge from “projection” in psychotherapy. Projection might be a valid interpretation of a certain psychological stance, in that a person can, in a psychotherapeutic setting, project ideas about themselves when they are unconsciously talking about somebody or something else. Yet, in New Ageism, this is taken much further, to the extent where anything anyone says is taken as a reflection of themselves. So, any opinion or statement effectively becomes a metaphorical construct to do with the psycho-spiritual evolutionary development of the person making the opinion.

This ties in with the notion of “creating your own reality” and the idea that whatever anyone believes is “true” is true for them. While the concept of Karma may be fairly easy to understand, as in: it is a sort of eye for an eye tooth for a tooth thing expanded on to a cosmic level — how anyone “creates their own reality” has always seemed to me — totally incomprehensible.

Surely, reality comprises the circumstances we find ourselves in. But New Agers would have people believe that “reality” is in the mind of the beholder and is changed by thought. I can change my thought or actions in one way or another, but not everyone else’s or the material factors that impinge upon my experience of reality at the same time. Such things cannot possibly be within my control. Yet, it is control and power that are offered as the personal experience of the New Age belief system. They are its selling point. A human individual is God incarnate and therefore can “create reality”. It’s nonsense. Reality just is what it is. You can influence it and participate, but so what? Whether or not it is “created” in the first place is meaningless.

John B. / September 12th, 2007, 12:21 am / #4

Sean; well so far no one has reprimanded you on your explanation of the mechanics of karma, so hopefully I was wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time!

Alfred, I had some friends who had been in group therapy. They used to sit around accusing each other of “projecting” every time one would make any sort of observation. It was quite funny – and enlightening.

De-evolved Gandalf / September 12th, 2007, 11:47 pm / #5

I’ve come a cross a 2004 article in the Skeptical Inquirer by a former leading New Age writer and advocate named Karla McLaren.

In it she chronicles her painful transition from full-on mystic to critical thinker and skeptic. She makes a very astute observation about those in the New Age culture that, while they criticize us science-based folks for not being able to tolerate mystery, it’s really them that have to have an explanation for everything by way of the stars, God, angels, karma, etc.

She also makes a very valid point about how we skeptics might tone down the rhetoric as it’s only hurting our cause. As someone in the (seemingly hopeless) process of trying to demonstrate to a close friend the errors of her “magical thinking” I’ll be taking that bit of advice to heart. Anyway…her article is a highly worthwhile read for anyone who’s interested in advancing the cause of skepticism for reasons other than simply being right and rubbing someone’s face in it.

BlackSun / September 13th, 2007, 12:43 am / #6

De-evolved Gandalf

Thank you for a great link. I wasn’t aware of Karla McLaren before.

I really appreciate her perspective (from 2004), and I’d really like to hear what she has to say now. Hope she finishes that degree soon.

I can’t say that I totally agree with her assessment of skeptical methods. Hitting people over the head with information they don’t want is admittedly not the way to win hearts and minds.

But there is still this little moral problem with what people in the new age are doing. After all, you know the old saying, when you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. Part of the problem with new agers is that they often are sincere. This makes them even better salesmen for their false and misleading beliefs. And I have to say on the opposite end of the spectrum, James Randi did in fact eventually get through to McLaren.

What is surprising is that McLaren knowingly and willingly killed her own career. That took an incredible amount of integrity.

What I see in the average new-ager is a desperate flight from their own shadow, conscious or not. And when people are unaware of their shadow, it can run rampant and become a danger to themselves and others.

We have also seen how such shadowy wishful thinking can become an industry overnight by telling other wishful people exactly what they want to hear.

My parents work falls in this category, as does The Secret, The Power of Now, Deepak Chopra’s nonsense, and many others. There are thousands of false new-age gurus, and another one pops up practically every day.

In going through some of this material as I have begun recently, I’ve begun to see and document all manner of so-called “principles” that I can establish to be directly harmful to human knowledge and development. People are being fooled into giving up years of their lives–sometimes their entire lives.

The false teachings of new agers contravene what science and evolutionary psychology is discovering about human nature. Every day the discrepancy gets worse as the physical correlates of consciousness become ever more precise, and we learn more about the biological basis of many motivations the new-agers criticize.

New age teachings also fly directly in the face of age-old wisdom about human strategy and relations expressed in such classics as The Art of War, The Prince, and modern day interpretations of these such as The 48 Laws of Power.

New agers place themselves at a disadvantage in terms of the strategies they could be employing in their lives. Then they make a virtue out of their non-awareness. “I wouldn’t want to play those unconscious and unenlightened power games,” they say, as others–even in their own circles–all-too-willingly play the games on them. They also pay the biggest penalty of all, the isolation from their most important resource: self-knowledge.

So I can’t quite sign onto McLaren’s program. I have to tell it like it is, and hope that at least some former new age addicts will value their self-knowledge and true spiritual (awareness) growth above their paltry comforts of self-delusion.

This is the way it has to be. Truth never was and never will be the favored domain of politicians. And therefore I couldn’t possibly ever be a politician.

Aaron / September 13th, 2007, 2:57 pm / #7

Everyone is familiar with the chain letter comparison to religion- pass this letter on and you will have good luck for 7 days or delete it and receive bad luck all year. This is how religion and spirituality work. Heaven and hell are Christianity’s karmic doctrines. You would think that any reasonable modern person would find the doctrine absurd and see directly how it is playing on their inborn fears and superstitions.

But those chain mails still flood inboxes after all these years.

Slut / September 13th, 2007, 3:47 pm / #8

Blacksun, good essay. I’ve been meaning to write about this myself for some time, as I was taught to believe in reincarnation (and thus karma).

The one thing that you suggested doesn’t make sense is the idea that mass murderers would directly repay their karmic debt by repopulating the earth. Karma, according to believers, doesn’t work that directly. Moreover, that scenario wouldn’t take into account the notion that some of those murdered by Hitler and Mao deserved their deaths. I know this sounds horrible, and it is, but it gets back to the desire for justice and meaning. The idea of reincarnation and karma allows people to impute some kind of sense to what are actually random violent events.

Also my own experience is that most Americans who believe in reincarnation and karma also generally are motivated to do good for others, out of the belief that doing good gets them extra Universal Brownie Points.

Jeff / September 13th, 2007, 6:51 pm / #9

Sean, I have my own version of Karma. If i were to open a door for a crippled woman in a wheel chair, I receive good Karma. But my Karma is conscience. It is in the unconscious mind. I know I did a good deed and I feel better for doing so. Now, if I were to steal money from my parents, that would be bad Karma. My unconscious mind would retain guilt.

That being said, I have but one universal secular, practical law: Any crime must meet a test: if everyone were to be prosecuted for a particular crime…would that be good for society or bad? If every marijuana smoker were arrested tomorrow, our economy would grind to a halt. Conversely, if every murderer were suddenly captured, that would benefit society tremendously. It’s very simple and logical.

Jeff / September 13th, 2007, 6:55 pm / #10

Clarification: my version of karma has nothing to do with an afterlife. It’s about the destructive power of guilt on the unconscious mind. And the positive effects on the unconscious mind from simply doing good deeds.

HP / September 15th, 2007, 6:00 am / #11

The law of karma simply is the law of cause and effect. It’s a neutral law that says that if you do or say something it will not stay without consequences. So it’s a matter of action and reaction.
We are the sum of our experiences from the past. Each of our experiences had some influence on us. This determines how we will react.
Something happens to you. You react with an action, a word or a thought. This action causes an impression in your conscious or subconscious mind. If you get used to reacting in a certain way you become conditioned to such a way of reacting.
When you act from a positive motivation, you activate the positive potential in yourself. When your action is motivated in a negative way, you activate your negative potential. So we are no slaves or victims, but we are our own masters. We determine what our future looks like. We are the architects of our own destiny. So we will reap what we sow.
So the law of karma describes very precisely that everything we do, say, feel or think has a consequence. In fact this is a very liberating message, because it says that at any moment we have a chance to change our future. If we change, our future changes. This is the law of karma. Responsibility for our destiny is in our own hands.
Therefore Buddhists say: if you want to know your past, look at your present conditions; if you want to know your future, look at your actions in this moment.
The law of karma also works when you don’t believe in reincarnation or when you don’t believe at all!

Matthew Crown / November 1st, 2007, 3:16 am / #12

What if Mao invented a vaccine and saved 300,000,000 people?

What if Mao is a karmic right off, a failure of evolution and was thrown into cosmic garbage heap, nerr to incarnate to do evil again?

What if he returned so that people were give the opportunity to stand, face and conquer his evil, so that they could conquer their own karmic propensity to fail to recognize malice and fight it?

What if what if scientist types have only the beginning of a clue as to how karmic law actually works?

What if New Agers have only a slight clue as to the details of how karma works?

What if only Matthew Crown knows?

What if I am wrong and there is no such thing as karma?


Ulla Bulla / November 9th, 2007, 4:08 am / #13

“It’s about the destructive power of guilt on the unconscious mind. And the positive effects on the unconscious mind from simply doing good deeds.”
Posted by Jeff

Do sociopaths or psychopaths feel guilt?

Black Sun Journal » The Karma Accountant / December 24th, 2007, 1:03 pm / #14

[…] This story by J. Orlin Grabbe is too funny not to post. I wish I’d written it. I don’t understand what motivates some people to cling to the fantasy of perfect karmic justice, (previous article) but millions around the world still do. This story speaks brilliantly and satirically to the conundrums posed by this concept. […]

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