One Religious Assumption That Affects Everything Else

Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Thoughts | 10 comments

Before I get started here I’d just like to point out that I’m mostly talking about “The Big Two” religions here, and this applies to lesser or greater degrees to all other religions. I know this topic deserves more space than I will devote to it here, in fact people have filled books with these ideas. Bear in mind though that this is a blog, and I try to keep my posts under 1600 words just for the ease of reading of my audience.

There is a base question, underlying all other question around the topic of whether a god exists or not, and it’s one I think not enough people devote enough time to. This question is, “Do humans have a soul?” I have tackled this topic before, but I think it deserves further attention as so many people seem to make the assumption that humans DO have a soul, then build their assumptions about god and the afterlife around this one point.

Firstly then, what is a soul? What are its attributes? Is it measurable? A person’s definition of a soul can vary as much as their definitions of god, each person throwing their favourite spin in it such as “I like to believe that the soul is eternal,” or ” The soul is what makes you special and human.” But what are we really talking about here, because there is no consensus about what actually constitutes a soul it is difficult to address? The attributes of a souls might vary from being eternal to transient, and from visible to invisible, depending upon who you talk to. Whatever its attributes, the assumption here is that the soul exists and is in every one of us, but ask someone to describe a soul, and you’ll run into trouble. As to measuring it? Well, if it WERE measurable, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

Secondly, why do we think that a soul exists? I would guess it has a lot to do with our fear of mortality. “Ourselves” is all we have ever known, and for that to simply fizzle out to nothing is a scary concept indeed. Compounding this fear of our inevitable demise is the lives of those around us, those who we love and cherish; we would hate for them to be gone from our lives forever if they were to die before us. The emptiness in our lives is much easier to cope with if we take the fanciful view that they continue to exist somewhere else, on another plane or in heaven. It softens the blow of death, and it makes us feel good, allows us to live on with a sense of purpose, and it eases the burden of continuing on alone. It’s pretty compelling stuff, the idea that this is NOT it, and that our lives continue on somewhere else.

So, Assumption Number One: The soul exists.

From this assumed position one can extrapolate to further questions. Where does the soul go when we die?

Personally, if there were a soul, I’d say it fizzles out with us as our brains stop functioning, but for most this answer is not enough. Many plead the case that the soul is eternal, based on their inability to imagine their lives ending at their last breath. It’s a view that I don’t share, but an important view for theists, as the next few steps of assumptions hinge upon this point.

Assumption Number Two: The soul is eternal.

Assuming that the soul is eternal, it must go somewhere after the body decays. Some would say that the spirits of dead humans float about us like wisps of invisible cloud, others may believe that the soul goes into old trees, or into the skies to become a star. But he majority of people make the case that the soul requires a home, somewhere it can pass away its eternal existence, so the idea is that we go to either heaven or hell depending upon how we have decided to live our lives here on earth.

Assumption Number Three: The soul needs a home.

Of course heaven is preferable to the eternal tortures of hell, but if this is the case, then there must be a decision maker who takes tally of our lives, and places us according to our virtue into box A, for good people, or box B, for the bad. There are other versions of where the soul goes after death, such as it reappears in the body of another animal, for example where the wicked are given he bodies of slugs, and the good are given another human host, but the idea is the same.

Assumption Number Four: There is an arbitrator.

If there is an arbitrator of our daily affairs, one that watches over us and keeps tally of our good and bad deeds, then this arbitrator must be a “mind” in order to make these decisions. If it is a mind, then it must be a “being”. If it is a being, then it must live somewhere we can’t see it (because we can’t see it, can we?) The arbitrator, knowing everything we do, watches over us, and keeps a record, then using this record to decide what to do with us when we do shuffle beyond this mortal coil.

Assumption Number Five: The arbitrator is a being.

In order for this being to exist, it must be immortal and all-powerful. After all, it knows everything about us, and it has control over our souls when we die, and it has always done so as long as people have existed, so it must have been there when the very first person was made/born/sculpted from clay (you choose your creation myth, as there are a lot to pick from).

Assumption Number Six: The arbitrator is eternal too.

But why would this arbitrator care about the goings on of humans? There must be a reason that this arbitrator puts so much effort into this pursuit. Why would he care? Well, the only reason someone or something would care so much about humans and their souls is if he had some sort of vested interest in us. Perhaps it is because he made us? If we are his creations, he would care what happens to us. After all, if you build a garden, you tend the plants in it right?

Assumption Number Seven: The arbitrator made us.

That explains it all, and also explains why he painstakingly keeps tally over our doings. If he has a vested interest in his creations, then he probably cares enough to try and keep us safe, so that he can tally us at the end of our lives. I mean, he wouldn’t just invent us to watch us toil about on earth, living very difficult lives, suffering long and painful deaths if he didn’t have a reason would he?

Assumptions Numbers Eight and Nine: God cares for us, and god has a plan.

These are just nine overly simplified assumptions that all stem from one place; humanity’s fear of death. Death is final, in everybody’s language, but if you follow this set of assumptions, the sugar-coat the ideas with examples of people being raised from the dead, poison the stories with tales of sin and evil, tell stories about what happens when people stray from being good to each-other, and then make it mandatory to worship the god that is created from this list of assumptions, then religion becomes a very complex thing.

The problem is that soul is unprovable. It is also unknowable. Could what we call soul simply be software running on the hardware of our brains? Sure it could. Could the soul be the culmination of all we have learned and done? Less likely, but I suppose so. But since it seems that our personalities are based upon our self-awareness, coupled with the experiences of a lifetime, and the apparent ability to make our own decisions and change the outcomes of situations, then if there were a soul, I’d say that would be it right there. The culmination of a lifetime of self awareness and experience, running on software in the brain. That is all explainable, or able to be proposed within what we understand of the brain. (I am aware this is a form of “assumption” also, but it is something we are making strides in scientifically.)

I think the base assumption of “soul” is responsible for all the rest of the ideas that religion has built over time. It places an immense amount of importance upon the human species (after all we have souls and animals don’t), and puts a lot of special importance in the individual. It makes humans the centre of the universe, and puts us in the privileged position of being the special children of the god of the universe.

So I propose this; there’s no need for a soul to explain our individuality, and if we can come to terms with just dissipating when we die, then we can dispose of the god myth altogether. If we can safely say that there is no everlasting soul, then all of the premises of religion are dismissible, for what would be the reason for god? The stories of heaven and hell are nothing but stories, and our lives end at the last pulse of electrical energy in our brains. All else, the non-god related commandments, empathy, altruism and other socially useful human traits are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of social and biological evolution.

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  1. Another good post Martin. Life itself is worth living and enjoying to the fullest. Worrying over arbitrary things when one is dead and gone is pointless and silly. What will happen after I die? The same thing that happened before I was born. I was not alive or aware and made no impact on those in my life and those around me.

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  2. Very thought provoking. I wonder, if the soul is simply software; when will Soul 2.0 be coming out? Will I need a hardware upgrade first? Once science understands the brain properly, the options maybe endless. Or not.


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  3. Michael Shermer in the “Believing Brain” does a nice job explaining how every kid is naturally a dualist (my language, not his) in the sense that one has a body as well as a soul.

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  4. As expected, an even handed and rational breakdown.
    I completely agree that the whole god/afterlife notion hinges on the soul concept; discard soul and all other magic concepts crumble. It’s a drum I’ve been banging a few years myself and like you I’ve had a few cracks at it.
    I think there’s a plausible source of the origin of the concept in “Soul Trapped Spirit”. “The true shape of your soul”, has a look at what might be the ‘attributes’ of a soul to which you eluded in paragraph 3. And, “New Improved Soul Free Humanity” looks at why we don’t teach that there’s a complete absence of evidence.
    Hope you don’t feel over-plugged, they’re all pertinent.
    Top job again, Martin.


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  5. Where is the soul of someone with advanced Alzheimer’s?

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  6. Great post. I’ve been thinking along those lines too.

    There’s something intuitive and compelling about explanations that involve a disembodied mind; be it a soul, (holy) ghost, god, or some form of body-mind dualism. Skeptics are wary of having faith in such instincts and rhetoric.

    We notice that the self-aware mind commonly believes and feels and consciously thinks of itself as a ghost in a meat suit/b>. Yet academia is telling us that those stories are looking more and more like fiction. And the sciences only encounter a human-like mind when it’s an aspect of a living human-like brain.

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  7. If anyone hasn read i highly recommend it. It talks about brain ‘malfunctions’ etc. and how that basically makes the existence of a soul impossible.

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  8. I agree with this article. There is no proof whatsoever of a soul. Therefore, all that has ever been said about it has been completely made up by humans.
    No proof whatsoever, no evidence whatsoever= FICTION.

    Consciousness (or what people think is a “soul”) is a function of the brain. That’s what all the available evidence points to.

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  9. Thought provoking, Martin. I’ll piggyback on the comment questioning the whereabouts of the soul of someone with advanced Alzheimer’s… Is the soul whole and complete but unable to express itself?
    Also, what if I was happily married, totally in love, but she meets an untimely death. Amazingly, I have the good fortune of meeting another soul-mate (sorry!)… And we happily die in our sleep at 95. What happens next, is my soul allowed a bigamist concession given the circumstances?
    I’ve asked theists this and it’s great to watch them attempt to grapple with the question then make up some vague, semi-profound sounding, cloaked in mystery answer.

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  10. Since I believe in the natural world, which I’m a part of I see no need for a soul. When I die my life ends and only my memory lives on trough others. Can’t understand the need for a never ending life, we should treasure and enjoy the time we have on earth.

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