Karma

Question from Emily:
I was wondering what an atheist stance on karma would be. I’m not a big believer in faith or the supernatural. However, I am becoming a Buddhist and I just wanted some educated thoughts on the subject matter. I couldn’t really find my answer on the web. One thing I have noticed over the past few years is that things like karma tend to happen. For example, someone drove me out of a dorm because she didn’t like my tolerant view of homosexuality (Christian College). This year, she was driven out of the school because of financial problems. I keep noticing that situations where one “gets what they deserve” just tend to happen. The way they harmed others is the way that they were harmed in return. My question is, could karma be real? Is it possible that it is a factual law of the universe? I’m not inquiring if there is a god in the sky zapping bad people, I’m just wondering if there could be an unseen cause and effect to our actions/ energy. Thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
Like the gods people believe in, karma certainly could be real, and some things can be interpreted as results of its influence. It’s just difficult or impossible to establish beyond doubt that it’s really true.

The “as you sow, so shall you reap” kind of karma in particular is easy to perceive in the world around us whether or not the universe is actually “keeping score”. We have an innate sense of fairness from our long history as a social animal, so we acutely sense when someone has done enough good or bad deeds to be due some repayment and we remember well if it happens. If it doesn’t, we just hope or assume it will come in the future. That’s confirmation bias for you.

What really muddies the waters in the case of karma is that our behaviour has many kinds of worldly effects which can cause the same kind of future events that karma would. Someone who tends towards violence is more likely to be injured, killed or arrested as a result of a conflict they either started or chose not to avoid. People who are conspicuously generous will inspire generosity in others, towards themselves in particular (the end of It’s a Wonderful Life being a fictional but believable example). A supernatural balancing force is not necessary for people to frequently receive the same treatment they give out.

The existence of karma can be detrimental to assume in some situations. If someone is suffering, then to assume that the suffering is the result of karma is to blame the victim to some extent. If everyone gets what they deserve, there must be some reason they deserve to suffer. Coupled with the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, it can create a very cold and unjustified attitude towards people born physically or mentally disabled in Buddhist countries. The attitude is, “That person must have done something awful in a past life to be brought back like this.” Buddhist scripture does not direct its followers thus to my knowledge, but it’s an unfortunately common interpretation.

One thought on “Karma”

  1. Karma theory (initially from Vedic literature) has a strong hold on the mindsets of Hindus and Buddhists. But as SmartLX’s explained it very succinctly, there are various other psychological & social mechanisms that actually operate in the world that give results similar to “Karmic”.

    The main dangers of believing in “Karma” is that a) One may start thinking that striving to achieve something is meaningless, since one’s bad Karmas won’t currently allow it b) One may not help others out in order to let them “live out their Karma”.

    Its a decent(ish) theory as far as religious theories go but its not true. Its appeal lies in our desire to believe that ultimately, everything evens out and things are fair. And it also gives us some amount of relief in situations where we do not have the power to help someone (“sigh, it’s his/ her Karma”).

    Its a bit self-serving.

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