In 2006, the European Values Study released the data that had been gathered during 1999-2000 (link). This was the “third wave” of an ongoing project begun in the late 70s “aimed at exploring the moral and social values underlying European social and political institutions and governing conduct.” (link)
In his analysis of the EVS 2000 data, Erlendur Haraldsson, professor of social sciences at the University of Iceland, posited three different, complementary, explanations for the persistent and pervasive belief in reincarnation in Europe: (1) the survival of pre-Christian beliefs, (2) the importation of non-Christian beliefs (from outside of Europe), and (3) individuals arriving at the idea of reincarnation independently:
It is easy to point to three factors that may have had an impact on how relatively widespread the belief in reincarnation is.
First are pre-Christian beliefs in Scandinavia as well as other parts of Europe. The ancient Nordic poems in the Poetic Edda were first recorded in writing in Iceland in the 13th century but stem from the pre-Christian era (Sigurðsson 1999). From their contents we can assume that the Scandinavians believed in reincar- nation. E. g., in the poem Helgakvida Hundingsbana it is stated that the female hero Sigrun was Svava reborn. In a commentary in the Poetic Edda we read: it was the belief in olden times that men were born again, but that is now called old women’s superstition (Hollander, 1928, p. 237).
There are even cases where arguments were made as to why a certain person was believed to be another person reborn. Some of them resemble rare cases of children who claim to remember a former life (Stevenson, 2003; Haraldsson, 2001, 2003).
Pre-christian literary sources from other parts of Europe tell a similar story. Plato discusses “metempsychosis” in several of his works (Phaedo 81c-82b, Phaedrus 248c-249b, the Republic 617d-620e, and Timaeus 41-42, 90c-92c.). Caesar writes in his book on the Gallic Wars (which took place in present-day France) “The cardinal doctrine which they [the schools of the Druids] seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one body to another” (Caesar, Book VI, 14). Roman historians refer to a similar belief among the Germans (for example Appian of Alexandria: 1987-89). Celtic poems from pre-Christian Ireland contain stories of rebirth (Chadwick, 1955-56; Meyer & Nutt, 1897) similar to those in the Poetic Edda. These sources give us reasons to assume that belief in rebirth was common in Europe before Christianization.
Secondly, from the 18th century onwards Western and Asian scholars and religious leaders introduced Hindu and Buddhist religious scriptures and philosophies to Europeans and they received considerable attention (Zander, 1999). This was particularly the case in the 19th and 20th century when societies and movements were established in Europe that made the doctrine of reincarnation an integral part of their teaching.
Thirdly and lastly, some people may, when brooding on the question of whether some part of their nature survives death, intuitively have found reincarnation a plausible concept or possibility.
The full title of Haraldsson’s paper is quite a mouthful: Popular psychology, belief in life after death and reincarnation in the Nordic countries, Western and Eastern Europe (Nordic Psychology, 58, 171-180). The pdf for this article is available for download at Erlendur Haraldsson’s website, which is very much worth a visit!
One of the things that Haraldsson draws attention to is the fact that the prevalence of belief in reincarnation is even more striking if it is considered specifically as a subset of beliefs about life after death. In many cases, close to half (or in some cases, even more) of those who profess belief in an afterlife believe in reincarnation. In the fifteen Eastern European nations surveyed, those who believe in reincarnation consistently made up more than half of all those who believe in life after death with only four exceptions: Croatia, Romania, Poland and Slovakia.
My own (very tentative) conclusion looking at both the third and fourth waves of the EVS is that the two most striking results are those for Iceland and the Baltic states, which were the last two great bastions of European Pagandom. Iceland, in particular, follows a completely different pattern of belief with respect to reincarnation compared to other Nordic countries, which tend toward the middle (in the cases of Sweden and Finland) or the lower end (Denmark and Norway) of the spectrum, while the Baltic states fit the pattern of Eastern Europe, only more so. No generalizing based on “Nordic” countries, or “Germanic” countries seems to be applicable here. If we also add in Great Britain and Russia then we find that these “Northern European” nations (Iceland, Great Britain, Russia and the Baltic states) contrast sharply with the countries of (continental) Scandinavia, as well as with Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Here are the data:
1/3 or more believe in reincarnation
*Switzerland 36% (using data from 1990)
between 1/4 and 1/3
Russian Federation 31.7%
*Britain 29% (using data from 1990)
betweem 1/5 and 1/4
between 1/6 and 1/5
Slovak Republic 19.6%
Czech Republic 21.8%
less than 1/6
Northern Ireland 15.6%
* Norway 15% (using data from 1990 EVS)
Malta 12.0% [not indicated on map]