Shirlee Explains Karma

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Ginny was first to arrive. “Are we going to hear more about Jacob and his thieving wife this week?”

“No, Ginny,” said Shirlee. “Like God, I keep my promises. Last week, I told John we’d discuss karma. If there’s time after, then we can talk about Jacob some more.”

The other kids filed in. The adults-only portion of church service was now underway. If only Pastor Gardner would tell the adults about karma, too! But he’d said he didn’t want to distract them from his series of sermons on “faith, hope, and charity”. As usual, the fate of these children and their families fell on Shirlee.

“As promised, John, we’re going to talk about karma today. A lot of Christians believe in karma, and so do many people who say they don’t believe in God at all. Let’s start with them.

“Karma requires an intelligence to record your deeds and respond with reward or punishment. Basically, they believe in a cosmic Santa Claus, who is keeping a list and checking it twice. More likely twice per second for each human, animal, bacterium, and plant. Pretty silly, right?

“Now, in the case of supposed ‘atheists’ who believe in karma, well, this proves they aren’t atheists after all. They have “faith” in a supernatural agency, and a very complex one that can track everything that everyone does, ever! Also, their fear of or hope for karma demonstrates that these so-called ‘atheists’ only pretend to have morals; they are acting in search of reward or in avoidance of punishment. Oddly, this is the very same charge so-called atheists level at Christians.”

“That’s all well and good, Shirlee, but we are Christians here,” said John. “Right?” He glanced around the room.

Ginny nodded vigorously. Tom grunted. Mark looked bored and stared out the window. Emily stared intently at an odd-colored spot on her desk, trying to figure out how the brown wood could have a blue patch.

“So, Shirlee, we don’t need to hear about why atheists can’t believe in karma. But you said karma is hateful; how about you tell us what it is and why it’s hateful?”

“Of course, John! I’ll use a resource even Mark there can respect as ‘unbiased’.” Shirlee handed out a sheet to the class:


Karma is a law in Hinduism which maintains that every act done, no matter how insignificant, will eventually return to the doer with equal impact. Good will be returned with good; evil with evil. Since Hindus believe in reincarnation, karma knows no simple birth/death boundaries. If good or evil befall you, it is because of something you did in this or a previous lifetime.

Karma is sometimes referred to as a “moral law of cause and effect.” Karma is both an encouragement to do good and to avoid evil, as well as an explanation for whatever good or evil befalls a person.

On one level, karma serves to explain why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. The injustices of the world, the seeming random distribution of good and evil, are only apparent. In reality, everybody is getting what he or she deserves. Even the child brutalized by drugged adults deserves the horror. The mentally ill, the retarded, and the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis deserved it for evil they must have done in the past. The slave beaten to within a breath of death deserved it, if not for what he did today, then for what he did in some previous lifetime. Likewise for the rape victim. She is just getting what she deserves. All suffering is deserved, according to the law of karma.

The class sat silent, dumbfounded.

“Do you realize what that means, John? According to your belief in Karma, you should never help the mentally ill, or Jews, or the sick, or the poor. As the Skeptic’s Dictionary plainly states, the mentally ill are mentally ill because they did bad things in a prior life and are getting what they deserve. Toddlers dying of dysentery-induced diarrhea (basically, pooping themselves to death) because they lack clean water, or born addicted to crack or with AIDS or blinded by Mommy’s gonorrhea infection deserve it, because of bad karma. They did something bad in a ‘prior life’.

“That’s what you believe in, John. Does it sound hateful yet?”

“Well, it’s . . . I can see how . . . um . . .”

Shirlee wasn’t finished. “Did you know that karma is also the foundation of the Hindu caste system?”

“What’s a ‘cast system’?” asked Ginny.

A diagram of the Hindu caste system.  Image: Natalie Peart

A diagram of the Hindu caste system. Image: Natalie Peart

“A caste is a particular level of society. The Hindu system has five levels, as you can see on the back of your paper.” Shirlee paused during the shuffling as the class turned their papers over to see the diagram on the reverse.

“Emily, dear, don’t eat that. It’s for reading. Now, you see how on the bottom are the ‘Untouchables’? They are the people who have to do all the dirty jobs nobody wants, like cleaning toilets. (They call them ‘Dalits’ now, but it means the same thing.) And at the top are the ‘Brahmin’, who are priests and intellectuals. There are a lot more Untouchables than Brahmins, see? That’s why it’s a pyramid.”

“OK, I get that. It makes sense, too. There need to be more laborers than intellectuals,” said John.

“Do there, John? Even today, with modern machinery? And what about all people being equal?” Shirlee paused. “Well, that’s beside the point. You are born to a caste, as the result of your ‘past lives’. Let’s suppose your parents are Untouchables. That means you will be an Untouchable.

“You can only rise to a higher caste by accepting ‘your place in life’ and being a very good Untouchable, the lowest form of human, relegated to scrubbing toilets and hauling garbage no matter how intelligent or talented you might be. And you don’t get to that higher caste until you die and are born into it. How does that sound, John?”

“Not great. I wouldn’t want to be an Untouchable. So you’re saying I couldn’t go to a school and learn something and move up?”

“No, John. You are what you’re born, until you die. And hey, are you an uppity Untouchable, one who wants to be a lawyer maybe? You may be reborn as a dog! Are you an ill-tempered dog? Next time you may be a cockroach!

“I hope you will be a very good cockroach, because the next step down may be dung beetle!”

Mark was ready with some social commentary. “Karma sounds like it’s just about social control; keeping the rich and powerful on top, and making sure only their children can benefit!”

“Very good, Mark. Do you think it a coincidence that the Brahmins, the top of the caste pyramid, are the wealthiest and control the priesthood? And that karma is a key part of the religion the priests operate?”

John was dumbfounded. “I never thought of it that way. Wow. Karma is hateful. It means we shouldn’t ever give money to charity, because we’re defeating the punishments given to the poor, or people with cancer, or multiple sclerosis, or AIDS, or whatever.”

“Exactly, John. Karma is a hateful concept. As you know, and I can tell from the look on your face, it’s a good thing to help others in their time of need.”

Mark raised his hand. “But Shirlee, isn’t God all-knowing and all-powerful?”

“Of course.”

“So if someone is poor, or sick, or disabled, He knows it, and He could fix or prevent it, right?”

“That’s true!”

John saw where Mark was going and jumped in. “So that means that anyone who is sick, it’s because God has allowed him to be sick. So if we help, aren’t we going against God’s Will? And isn’t that just like karma, only without reincarnation?”

Shirlee paused. She hadn’t really thought about it that way. “Well, John . . . no, it’s completely different. Because God tells us in the Bible to help others. See, He allows them to be sick or disabled or poor, to give Christians a chance to practice charity and help the less fortunate!”

“What?” cried Ginny. “That’s horrible! He lets babies be born with terrible diseases to teach somebody else a lesson?” She couldn’t believe her ears.

“Yes. Can you think of a better reason for Him to allow such suffering in the world, other than to teach the rest of us a lesson?”

This starving child in Somalia shows how much God loves you.  That's why He gives you the opportunity to be charitable.  Image: Farah Abdi Warsameh/Associated Press, 2011

This starving child in Somalia shows how much God loves you. He gives you the opportunity to be charitable! Image: Farah Abdi Warsameh/Associated Press, 2011

Ginny was nearly speechless . . . but not quite. “So the suffering of people who have never heard of Jesus, people in Africa starving to death, is to teach well-fed people in America to be better Christians? Shirlee, that can’t be right!”

“Do you have a better explanation, dear?” Shirlee, ever patient, folded her arms and waited.

“Um . . .”

“I thought so. And it’s nearly eleven, so we won’t have time to talk about Jacob this week. We’ll get to him next time.

“And I hope not to hear more of this ‘karma’ nonsense in the future, John.”

“No, you were right on this one, Shirlee.”

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