The Evolution of Spirituality: New Age Religions and Modern Belief Systems

New Age spirituality represents a diverse and eclectic mix of beliefs and practices that have significantly influenced Western culture since the 1970s, engaging a substantial portion of the population in various aspects of its doctrine. As a movement, it emphasizes personal growth and achieving one’s full potential by integrating elements from different sources, including ancient and contemporary teachings, without the anchorage to a singular founding figure or an organized structure. This approach incorporates a wide range of concepts such as enlightenment, reincarnation, and the holistic intertwining of the physical and spiritual realms, positioning it as a prominent contemporary spiritual path that defies traditional religious frameworks by being both monistic and pantheistic.

new age and modern religions

In addressing the evolution and impact of this movement, the article will explore the historical development and core characteristics of New Age religions, alongside their major beliefs and the role of technology and media in their propagation. Further discussion will delve into the challenges these modern belief systems face, their societal and cultural ramifications, and illustrative case studies that highlight their transformation and growth. Through this analysis, the reader will gain insight into how New Age spirituality, with its rich tapestry woven from threads like theosophy, gnosticism, and a myriad of alternative religious practices, continues to shape and resonate within contemporary spiritual discourse.

The Definition of Modern Religions

Modern religions, often referred to as new religious movements, have emerged predominantly over the past few centuries. These movements are distinct in that they diverge significantly from traditional religious frameworks, adapting instead to the evolving societal and cultural landscapes. Here, we delve into the defining characteristics and foundational elements of these modern religions.

Break from Tradition and Contemporary Adaptation

  1. Innovative Structures: Unlike traditional religions that often have rigid doctrines and hierarchical structures, modern religions offer more fluid and adaptable frameworks. This flexibility allows them to evolve with societal changes and cater to contemporary spiritual needs.
  2. Contextual Relevance: These religions are deeply embedded in the current socio-cultural context, reflecting and addressing modern existential questions and challenges. This relevance makes them particularly appealing to a globalized and culturally diverse population.

Roots in Ancient Traditions with Modern Interpretations

  1. Ancient Foundations: Many modern religions draw from ancient wisdom and traditions. However, they reinterpret these traditions to provide alternative perspectives that challenge mainstream religious interpretations, particularly those of dominant religions like Christianity.
  2. Countercultural Elements: By offering new interpretations of old beliefs, these religions often position themselves as countercultural, appealing to individuals seeking spiritual paths outside of mainstream options.

Eclecticism and Syncretism

  1. Integration of Diverse Beliefs: Modern religions are characterized by their eclectic nature, often incorporating elements from various religious and cultural backgrounds. This syncretism not only enriches their practices but also promotes a pluralistic approach to spirituality.
  2. Holistic Spiritual Practices: The integration of diverse beliefs leads to the development of holistic spiritual practices that aim to harmonize the body, mind, and spirit, addressing the needs of the entire human experience.

Charismatic Leadership and Community Structure

  1. Charismatic Figures: Often, these religions are propelled by charismatic leaders who are believed to possess exceptional insights or spiritual powers. These leaders play a crucial role in attracting and maintaining followers.
  2. Community and Commitment: Despite their flexible doctrines, modern religions often require high levels of commitment and loyalty from their members. This is typically facilitated through tightly knit community structures that offer a sense of belonging and identity.

By understanding these key aspects, one can appreciate the complex and multifaceted nature of modern religions. These movements not only reflect the spiritual but also the societal shifts of our times, offering new pathways for personal and collective spiritual exploration.

Historical Context and Emergence

The origins and evolution of modern religious movements are deeply intertwined with broader historical, technological, and cultural shifts. This section explores the emergence and historical context of New Age religions and other modern belief systems, tracing their development through various epochs and influences.

Evolutionary Origins of Religion

The study of religion’s evolutionary origins often intersects with evolutionary psychology, language development, and mythology. Key prerequisites for the emergence of human religious behavior include enhanced cognitive capabilities, such as increased brain size, advanced tool use, and language development. These traits facilitated complex social behaviors and rituals, some of which can be observed in our closest living relatives, such as elephants that exhibit mourning rituals.

Technological Advancements and Religious Spread

The advent of the printing press in the 15th century marked a significant technological leap that profoundly influenced religion. It democratized access to religious texts, allowing individuals to explore faith independently or in small groups, which led to diverse interpretations and a broader dissemination of religious ideas.

The New Age Movement: A Modern Synthesis

The New Age movement, which gained momentum in the late 20th century, exemplifies a significant modern religious development. Originating in the late 1960s alongside the countercultural movements, it proposed a new era of spiritual consciousness. Influenced heavily by esoteric traditions such as Theosophy and drawing from both Eastern and Western spiritual concepts, the movement emphasizes personal transformation and holistic spirituality.

Influences and Antecedents

Historically, the New Age movement has roots stretching back to Late Antiquity in southern Europe. Its more direct lineage can be traced to the Theosophical Society, co-founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late 19th century, who played a pivotal role in shaping its doctrines. The movement also integrates elements from various esoteric thinkers and spiritual traditions, creating a diverse tapestry of beliefs focused on enlightenment and self-realization.

petrovna blavatsky and theosophy

New Religious Movements and Societal Shifts

New Religious Movements (NRMs) often arise in response to societal needs that traditional religions may no longer address adequately. These movements can be seen as both products of and responses to modernity, characterized by features such as individualism, secularization, and the rationalization of worldviews. NRMs have frequently faced opposition from established religious and secular institutions, yet they continue to adapt and proliferate, offering alternative spiritual perspectives.

Modernity and Its Impact

The concept of modernity itself, with its emphasis on science, rationalism, and progress, has influenced religious thought profoundly. It has fostered environments where new religious movements can merge diverse doctrines and appeal to global audiences, emphasizing personal spiritual experience over dogmatic adherence to tradition.

By examining these various elements, we gain a deeper understanding of how historical, cultural, and technological factors have collectively shaped the landscape of modern religious movements, setting the stage for the continued evolution of spirituality in contemporary society.

Key Characteristics of Modern Religions

Monotheistic and Polytheistic Structures

  1. Efficiency of Monotheism: Monotheism, characterized by the worship of a single deity, is often seen as more efficient compared to polytheism. This reflects broader societal changes and the evolving nature of spirituality, where streamlined forms of worship are preferred for their simplicity and directness.
  2. Polytheistic Influence: Despite the dominance of monotheistic structures in many modern religions, elements of polytheism persist. These often manifest in the reverence of multiple spiritual entities or principles, demonstrating the syncretic nature of these belief systems.

Adaptation and Innovation

  1. Response to Modernity: Modern religions frequently emerge as innovative responses to contemporary life conditions. They adapt to and reflect the modern world, addressing new existential questions and societal challenges.
  2. Alternative to Mainstream: These religions often position themselves as alternatives to established mainstream religions, particularly Christianity, providing new spiritual pathways for those seeking different answers.

Eclecticism and Syncretism

  1. Diverse Belief Integration: Modern religions are marked by their eclectic and syncretic approaches, integrating diverse elements from various religious and cultural backgrounds. This not only enriches their practices but also promotes a pluralistic approach to spirituality.
  2. Holistic Practices: The incorporation of varied beliefs fosters the development of holistic spiritual practices aimed at harmonizing body, mind, and spirit.

Leadership and Community

  1. Role of Charismatic Leaders: Often founded by charismatic individuals possessing extraordinary insights or abilities, modern religions rely significantly on the magnetic appeal of their leaders to attract and retain followers.
  2. Community Engagement: Despite their often flexible doctrines, these religions typically demand high levels of commitment and foster strong community ties among members, enhancing both cohesion and identity within the group.

Belief Systems and Worldviews

  1. Independent Existence: Belief systems are seen as having an existence independent of their adherents, who may only be familiar with a fraction of the entire system, relying heavily on faith for the unseen parts.
  2. Conflict and Symbols: Conflicts, including wars, can often be interpreted as clashes between different belief systems, where symbols gain significant importance.
  3. Universal Themes: Common themes across various belief systems include the value of human life and love, with the Golden Rule emphasizing fairness and reciprocity as a universal principle.

Influence of Modernity and Technology

  1. Impact of Secularization: There has been a notable trend towards secularization, with an increasing number of individuals identifying as non-religious or “spiritual but not religious.” However, this is not a universal trend, as some areas are experiencing a resurgence of religious fundamentalism.
  2. Digital Era: The rise of digital technology has significantly influenced modern belief systems, offering broader access to information and facilitating the exchange of diverse perspectives and ideas.

Environmental and Social Concerns

  1. Eco-Spirituality: Some modern belief systems, like eco-spirituality, center around environmental and social issues, reflecting the growing global concern for sustainability and ethical living.
  2. Mindfulness and Well-being: There is also an increasing focus on practices like mindfulness and meditation, often regarded as secular methods to enhance well-being and cope with modern life stresses.

By examining these characteristics, it becomes evident that modern religions are complex and multifaceted, reflecting the dynamic interplay between tradition and modernity in contemporary spiritual landscapes.

Major Modern Religions and Their Beliefs

New Religious Movements in Korea

  1. Diverse Groupings: Korea hosts four major categories of new religious movements:
    • Christian New Religions: These groups blend Christian doctrines with unique Korean spiritual practices.
    • Traditionalist Groups: Advocating for a revival of Korea’s ancient spiritual practices.
    • Won Buddhism: A modern interpretation of traditional Buddhist teachings.
    • Jeungsanism: A unique religious movement with roots in Korean shamanism.
  2. Common Features: Despite their diversity, these groups often share several features:
    • Messiah-centric Beliefs: Many have a central messianic figure who is seen as a deliverer.
    • Millenarian Views: A common belief in a forthcoming major transformation of society.
    • Social Reform: Proposals for significant changes to improve societal structures are frequently central.

Influence of Prominent Figures in New Age Movements

  • Shirley MacLaine: Promoted the concepts of reincarnation and past life experiences, bringing these ideas into the mainstream with her book Out on a Limb.
  • Deepak Chopra: Merged modern scientific ideas with Eastern mysticism in his influential work, Quantum Healing.
  • Eckhart Tolle: Known for his books The Power of Now and A New Earth, Tolle is a leading voice in contemporary spirituality, focusing on mindfulness and personal transformation.
  • Oprah Winfrey: Continues to be a significant proponent of New Age ideologies, using her platform to discuss and promote these beliefs.
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Core Beliefs and Practices

  • Cosmological Determination: Many modern religions adopt astrological ages to explain historical and future developments.
  • Monistic Views: The belief in the oneness of God and the universe is a common theme, emphasizing a universal connection.
  • Self-Deification: The idea that individuals contain within themselves all that is necessary to achieve fulfillment and enlightenment.

Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements

  • Western Influence: Movements like the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reflect the strong apocalyptic traditions within Western religious thought.
  • New Age Movement: Encompasses a belief in an impending major shift in human consciousness and societal structures.
  • Historical Impact: Tragically, some groups have had dire outcomes, such as the Jonestown Massacre and the Branch Davidian siege, underscoring the potential dangers of extreme apocalyptic beliefs.

Integration of Eastern Philosophies

  • Theosophical Society: Founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, this group synthesized Eastern religious concepts with Western mysticism, significantly influencing Western esoteric traditions.
  • Indian Philosophical Influence: Organizations like the Vedanta Society and the Self-Realization Fellowship have introduced and popularized Indian philosophies and practices such as Yoga in the West.

Modern Religious Characteristics

  • Adaptability and Inclusivity: Modern religions are noted for their flexibility and openness to integrating diverse religious and philosophical traditions.
  • Emphasis on Personal Experience: These religions often prioritize individual spiritual experiences over dogmatic adherence to institutionalized doctrines.
  • Social and Environmental Concerns: Many modern religions are actively engaged in issues of social justice and environmental sustainability, reflecting broader global concerns.

envinronmental cults

Global and Cultural Diversity

  • Secular/Nonreligious Groups: Approximately 1.2 billion people identify with secular or nonreligious perspectives, reflecting a significant shift towards secularization in some regions.
  • Ethnic and Ancient Religions: These include various indigenous beliefs and practices, often closely tied to specific ethnic groups and ancient traditions.
  • African Traditional Religions: With a history that spans thousands of years, these religions continue to influence spiritual practices globally.

This exploration of major modern religions and their beliefs highlights the dynamic and evolving nature of contemporary spiritual landscapes, characterized by a blend of ancient wisdom and modern insights.

The Role of Technology and Media

Evolution and Integration of Technology in Modern Religions

Economic Shifts and Technological Advancements

The transformation of spiritual practices over time has been significantly influenced by economic and technological shifts. Historically, religious activities like animal sacrifices have transitioned to monetary donations, reflecting broader economic changes. Additionally, the reliance on modern medicine and technology for addressing health concerns has altered traditional religious healing practices.

Radio: The Early Broadcaster of Religious Content

The rapid growth of radio stations in the 1920s revolutionized the way religious content was disseminated. This medium enabled the establishment of megachurches and allowed individuals to feel connected to a congregation without the constraints of physical proximity. The accessibility of radio broadcasts helped spread various religious teachings to a broader audience.

Television and Its Impact on Evangelical Movements

Post-World War II, television emerged as a dominant force in evangelical Christianity. It provided religious leaders with an unprecedented platform to reach a vast audience, making religious experiences more immersive and accessible. This period marked a significant evolution in how religious teachings were communicated to the public.

Digital Transformation in Religious Practices

The Internet’s Dual Role

While the Internet has been accused of contributing to a decline in religious affiliation, it simultaneously offers a plethora of resources for both practitioners and leaders. This digital platform allows for the personalization of religious experiences, catering to the diverse needs of the global religious community.

Social Media as a Tool for Religious Engagement

Social media platforms have become integral for religious organizations looking to engage with congregants. These platforms serve as spaces for followers to share insights, explore doctrinal questions, and extend their religious lives beyond the physical walls of worship places.

Mobile Technology: Accessibility and Distractions

Smartphones, while sometimes viewed as distractions during worship, also provide valuable resources for religious followers. Popular religious apps offer on-the-go access to sacred texts, sermons, and prayer times, supporting followers in maintaining their spiritual routines amidst busy schedules.

Unified Communications in Religious Organizations

Cloud phone systems represent a significant technological advancement for religious organizations, offering unified communication services across various facilities. This technology enhances the efficiency of operations within religious communities, including churches, schools, and associated administrative offices.

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Challenges and Considerations in the Digital Age

Navigating Digital Distractions

The digital age, characterized by constant connectivity, poses challenges in maintaining spiritual connections. Religious institutions are urged to reprioritize fostering a tangible presence of spirituality amidst these distractions.

Physicality vs. Digital Disembodiment

The increasing shift towards digital experiences can diminish the physical aspects of religious practices. It is crucial for religious communities to encourage physical gatherings and engage in practices that involve bodily participation to maintain a balanced spiritual experience.

Integration of Faith in Digital Life

The compartmentalization seen in digital life can lead to fragmented spiritual experiences. Churches and religious organizations play a vital role in helping individuals integrate their faith into all aspects of life, ensuring a holistic approach to spirituality.

Addressing Modern Challenges

Modern technologies and economic pressures present unique challenges to maintaining traditional religious practices. Religious leaders and organizations must adapt and innovate to stay relevant in the face of these evolving dynamics.

This section highlights the profound impact that technology and media have had on modern religions, shaping how they adapt, communicate, and engage with their followers. The ongoing digital transformation continues to offer both challenges and opportunities for religious practices globally.

Challenges Faced by Modern Religions

Secularization and Declining Participation

  1. Increasing Secularization: A notable trend in many societies is the growing secularization, characterized by a decline in religious affiliation, especially among younger demographics. This shift reflects broader societal changes towards more secular values and away from traditional religious practices.
  2. Decline in Active Participation: The decrease in active participation in religious activities poses a significant challenge. This trend is particularly concerning as it affects the vitality and sustainability of religious communities.

Intolerance and Discrimination

  1. Religious Intolerance: Differences in religious beliefs and practices can escalate into intolerance, leading to discrimination and, in extreme cases, violence. Such conflicts not only undermine societal harmony but also challenge the core teachings of many religions which advocate for peace and understanding.
  2. Globalization and Economic Factors: As globalization increases, individuals often find themselves interacting with people of diverse religious backgrounds. While this has the potential to promote tolerance, it also poses economic challenges, making it less economically viable to uphold rigid religious separations in multicultural work environments.

Challenges in Doctrine and Practice

  1. Biblical and Doctrinal Illiteracy: A significant challenge within many religious communities is the lack of deep knowledge of their own scriptures. This ignorance can lead to misunderstandings and the misapplication of religious teachings.
  2. Adapting to Modernity: The rapid advancements in science and technology offer explanations and theories about the world that can diminish the perceived need for religious explanations, thus challenging the traditional views of divine intervention and sovereignty.

Impact of Social Media and Technology

  1. Role of Social Media: The widespread use of social media has been a double-edged sword for modern religions. While it has helped in spreading religious messages, it has also highlighted and sometimes exaggerated the negatives, such as misconduct within religious institutions, leading to widespread disillusionment.
  2. Digital Distractions: The digital era has introduced a range of distractions that compete with religious activities for attention, contributing to shorter attention spans and a decline in attendance at religious services.

faith and social media

Materialism and Individualism

  1. Rise of Materialism and Individualism: Contemporary societal values often emphasize material success and individualism, which can be at odds with the communal and spiritual aspects of religious life. These values challenge the traditional religious calls for community and selflessness.
  2. Pleasure-Seeking Attitudes: Modern cultures that prioritize pleasure and self-gratification present challenges for religions that advocate for moderation and self-control. This cultural shift can lead to a decrease in religious adherence, especially among populations that are increasingly seeking instant gratification.

Assimilation and Cultural Shifts

  1. Assimilation into Affluent Societies: For many religious communities, particularly those within affluent societies, there is a trend towards cultural assimilation that can dilute religious traditions and practices. This often leads to a generational gap in religious observance and values.
  2. Indifferentism: Described as a ‘cancer’ affecting modern religions, indifferentism is the lack of interest or concern about religious matters, which has become increasingly prevalent. This apathy towards religion is a significant barrier to engagement and participation.

By addressing these challenges, religious communities can strategize on effective ways to maintain relevance and foster engagement in an ever-evolving world.

Impact on Society and Culture

Societal and Cultural Transformations Driven by Modern Religions

1. Social Norms and Values

Modern religions significantly influence societal attitudes towards critical issues like gender roles, sexuality, and morality. For instance, as religious demographics shift, there is often a corresponding change in societal norms which can either challenge traditional views or reinforce new ones.

2. Cultural Diversity and Contributions

Religions enrich cultural diversity, impacting various cultural expressions such as art, music, literature, and language. This diversity not only enhances societal richness but also fosters a broader understanding and appreciation of different cultural backgrounds.

3. Community and Mental Well-being

Religious communities provide crucial social support networks that enhance mental health and well-being. This support can manifest in increased resilience against mental health issues like depression and anxiety, contributing to overall societal health.

4. Conflicts and Social Harmony

While religions can be a source of conflict, they also have the potential to promote peace and reconciliation between diverse groups. However, the challenge remains in mitigating conflicts that arise due to religious differences, which requires ongoing dialogue and understanding.

5. Accommodation of Religious Diversity

Modern societies are increasingly recognizing and protecting religious rights and freedoms, which is evident in the implementation of policies that promote religious tolerance and coexistence.

6. Political Influence and Civic Engagement

Religious beliefs continue to influence political landscapes by shaping policy decisions and voter mobilization. This engagement highlights the role of religion in public and political life, reflecting its significance beyond personal spirituality.

7. Enhancement of Life Quality

Religious practices, including meditation and community involvement, are linked to better life satisfaction and emotional well-being. These practices not only benefit individuals but also contribute to societal health by promoting values such as volunteerism and philanthropy.

Religious Demographics and Trends

Region Major Religious Affiliations Trends and Changes
Europe Christianity, Islam Rise in secularism, increasing Muslim population
United States Christianity Decline in Christian affiliation, rise in nonreligious identities
Sub-Saharan Africa Christianity Significant Christian population growth
India Hinduism, Islam Hindu majority, significant Muslim population growth
Global Christianity, Islam, Secular, Hinduism, Buddhism, Folk religions Growth in nonreligious populations, decline in traditional religious adherence

Mental Health and Religious Practices

Religious involvement is often associated with better mental health outcomes. Practices like meditation are more prevalent among those who are highly religious, which helps in coping with stress and contributes to overall well-being.

Political and Social Engagement

Highly religious individuals are more likely to engage in community service and express higher levels of satisfaction with their lives. They also tend to participate more actively in political processes, often aligning with specific political parties based on religious values.

By examining these impacts, it becomes evident that modern religions play a complex role in shaping not only personal identities but also broader societal and cultural landscapes. This influence is multifaceted, affecting everything from individual life choices to global political and social structures.

Case Studies of Transformation and Growth

Harvard Divinity School’s Program for the Evolution of Spirituality

The Program for the Evolution of Spirituality (PES) at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) is a pioneering initiative that focuses on the study of emerging spiritual movements and the innovative edges of established religious traditions. This program not only prepares students for ministry within these dynamic contexts but also enhances the school’s expertise in areas such as millennial spirituality and ecological spirituality. A significant aspect of PES is its emphasis on understanding the ethics of power within spiritual communities, which is crucial for fostering healthy and sustainable spiritual environments.

Quantitative Research in New Age Spirituality

Quantitative studies play a crucial role in understanding the scope and characteristics of New Age spirituality. These studies typically employ survey methods to gather data from individuals who identify with New Age practices. For instance, Stuart Rose’s 1994-95 survey of UK New Age magazine subscribers provided insights into the beliefs, practices, and demographics of participants, revealing a predominance of female participants and a strong belief in the dawn of a new age. Similarly, a 1995 survey in Sweden examined five distinct New Age groups, focusing on their beliefs, practices, and political views, among other factors.

Comparative Analysis and Funding Support

Comparative analysis of New Age studies highlights both commonalities and differences among followers. For example, while there is a general trend of female predominance and a shared belief in a new age, variations exist in the frequency of participation in New Age events and the use of substances. Additionally, the growth and study of New Age religions have been supported by institutions like the Foundation for Research in the Field of Philosophy and Theology in the Netherlands, which benefits from subsidies provided by The Netherlands Organization for the Advancement of Research (NWO).

Focus on Core Spiritual Concepts

New Age movements often emphasize several core spiritual concepts that resonate deeply with their followers:

  • Being of God: These movements frequently focus on the concept of a self-existent and self-sustaining source of all life, which aligns with their monistic views.
  • Creator-creature distinction: They explore the unique creation of humanity in the divine image, offering a distinct perspective from traditional religious teachings.
  • Need for redemption: New Age beliefs also delve into the fall of humanity and the consequential need for spiritual redemption, integrating these with broader spiritual and cosmic narratives.
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By examining these case studies and thematic focuses, one can observe the transformative growth and impact of modern spiritual movements. These movements not only adapt to but also influence the evolving spiritual landscape, reflecting the complex interplay between tradition and innovation in contemporary spirituality.

Conclusion

This investigation reveals that New Age spirituality and modern religious movements are becoming increasingly influential in shaping the spiritual landscape. They offer a multitude of diverse and inclusive paths that resonate with contemporary societal values, embracing technologies and media to extend their reach. These movements reflect a dynamic interplay between ancient wisdom and modern insights, advocating for personal growth, environmental consciousness, and the integration of spirituality into daily life. Their ability to adapt and evolve highlights a robust engagement with both the challenges and opportunities of our times.

The impact of these spiritual pathways extends far beyond individual beliefs, influencing cultural, societal, and even global narratives. By fostering communities focused on mental well-being, social justice, and ecological sustainability, they contribute to a richer, more diverse spiritual discourse. Such contributions are essential as we navigate an increasingly complex world, underscoring the importance of continuing exploration and dialogue within this field. As society progresses, the evolution of spirituality remains a pivotal area for further research and action, promising avenues for deeper understanding and transformative growth.

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MINI SELF-EVALUATION TEST: ARE YOU A SPIRITUAL PERSON?

Read the sentences below and select the ones you agree with and that you think make the most sense.






Count the number of boxes checked and read the corresponding profile.
0: You are not spiritual at all
1-2: You are hardly spiritual
3-4: You are quite spiritual
5-6: You are very spiritual

 

MINI SELF-EVALUATION TEST: HOW STRONG IS YOUR KARMA?

Read the sentences below and select the ones you agree with and that you think make the most sense.






Count the number of boxes checked and read the corresponding profile.
0: You have no karma and will probably not reincarnate anymore
1-2: You have some karma
3-4: You have a high karma
5-6: You have a very strong karma