novastock0015A lot of the time, metaphysical beliefs that people have appear harmless. What’s wrong, for example, with believing in angels? That wouldn’t seem a detrimental belief — unless one believes in angels so fiercely that one thinks one can leap from a rooftop and be caught by angels before hitting the ground (not that I think people are doing that).

Among some other metaphysical beliefs that also appear to be harmless, is reincarnation. When combined with the notion of karma, however, a lot of potentially-harmful complications can result from it. This story, reported by the Associated Press via ABC News, provides a sterling example of how this is possible (WebCite cached article):

A psychic accused of bamboozling clients out of tens of thousands of dollars was convicted on Friday after a trial that peered into the legalities of a business built on mysticism and uncertainty.

Sylvia Mitchell’s case drew back a bead-edged curtain on a Greenwich Village parlor where customers were warned about “negative energy” and their problems were traced to past lives. Prosecutors argued that Mitchell was a fortune-telling fraudster who preyed on vulnerable people.

The AP offers two examples of how Mitchell used the combination of reincarnation and karma to swindle people:

Lee Choong wandered in while working 80 to 100 hours a week at a New York investment bank, missing her family at home in Singapore and struggling with a one-sided workplace crush in 2007, Choong testified.

A skeptical but scared Choong gradually paid more than $120,000 as Mitchell told Choong she had “negative energy” and said Choong’s family had harmed the object of her affection in a past existence but concluded the two had a future together, according to testimony and prosecutors.…

Debra Saalfield, a ballroom dancing instructor from Naples, Fla., went to Mitchell after losing a job and a boyfriend within a day in July 2008. Mitchell told Saalfield she’d been too attached to riches in a previous life as a princess in ancient Egypt so she needed to prove she could part with money by giving Mitchell $27,000 to hold, Saalfield testified.

This is why reincarnation coupled with karma is the ideal platform for a perfect scam. According to the reasoning behind these ideas, you can explain anything for anyone at any time by appealing to “something happened in a past life” … and get away with it, because of course no one can remember anything from a past life and verify whether or not it’s so.

Which leads me to wonder about the logic of reincarnation and karma. If — as I’ve been told by “New Agers” who believe in this sort of thing — we each live multiple lives in order to learn cosmic lessons, it makes no sense for us to have no directly-accessible memory of all those past lives. What cosmic lessons can we possibly be “learning” if we can’t recall any of those past lives?

Maybe this is the kind of question that only occurs to viciously-cynical godless agnostic heathens like myself. Maybe I’m the only person in the entire cosmos who doesn’t inherently understand it. Oh well.

Photo credit: Gerard Fritz, via Flickr.

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