When people make such obviously wrong arguments, it’s usually not enough to just point out that it is wrong. Anyone familiar with the suttas would immediately know how silly that is. Yet to them it means something.
Underlying this is a clash of views. Typically it happens when people believe two things:
- In a purely materialistic interpretation of modern science.
- That the Buddha was enlightened.
If the Buddha taught rebirth, then in their eyes, this conflicts with the evidence of modern science, and forces the unpalatable inference that the Buddha was not enlightened. Reluctant to accept that, they then make various arguments against the idea the Buddha taught rebirth, all of which founder on the obvious fact that rebirth is literally everywhere in the early texts.
This is why it’s usually impossible to convince people who have made up their mind. Now, if someone is still exploring that’s different. But if they’re committed to the view, they’ll just shift their ground or cite some authority or whatever. This is no longer a rational and civil discussion that can have a useful outcome. The more they are challenged, the more defensive they’ll get and the less amenable to reason.
And driving all this is a fundamental craving: the fear of death. We all cope with this in our own ways, by reassuring ourselves that we understand and know what will happen. People sometimes argue that religions offer an idea of another world to stave off fear of death, as if believing in nothing was brave and real. But this misunderstands the psychology. Most religions, and certainly Buddhism, don’t present rebirth as an unalloyed comfort. On the contrary, the Buddha went to great lengths to make it appear as scary as hell. Literally!
The comfort comes from a sense of knowing. Knowing what comes next, or what does not come next. Having the idea that you are not facing an abyss of uncertainty. And so “knowing” there is no rebirth is just as much, or as little, of a comfort as “knowing” there is rebirth.
The crucial thing, I think, is to recognize that such views distort science just as much as they distort religion. Science cannot say whether there is rebirth or not, or whether everything can be reduced to matter. That is an inference, an interpretation, and it belongs to the philosophy of science rather than to science itself. There are plenty of scientists who believe in rebirth (or some other non-scientific views) and it is usually the non-scientists who insist on materialism. Scientists are well aware of the limits of their methods.
So how to proceed? Well, start by recognizing that when people insist on views that are contrary to the facts, it is not because they are stupid (I mean, they might be!), but because they have some sort of emotional or spiritual need, some lack. So begin with empathy. Listen to them. Acknowledge their views. Find a connection. Give them the space to relax and feel unthreatened. When they finish the conversation, no matter what they say they believe, what they will remember is the feeling they had. And if the feeling is one of compassion and understanding, their walls will start to melt.
Once I was part of a panel of religious leaders from several faiths; we did a Q&A at a school. One kid asked, “what happens after we die?” The priest said, “I don’t really know, but this is what my church teaches”. And the rabbi said the same, and the imam said the same, and the pastor said the same, and I said the same. When you have confidence in your heart, you don’t have to be defensive. And so the kids went away from that meeting knowing that a deep religious faith does not require you to be dogmatic about your beliefs.