Few ideas are as unsupported, ridiculous and even downright harmful as that of the ‘human soul’. And yet, few ideas are as widespread and as deeply held. What gives? Why has such a bad idea had such a tenacious hold on so many people? Although there is a large literature on the costs and benefits – psychological and economic – of traditional religion, there is a dearth of comparable research on religion’s near-universal handmaiden, the soul. As with Justice Potter Stewart’s non-definition of pornography – ‘I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it’ – the soul is slippery and, even though it cannot be seen (or smelled, touched, heard or tasted), soul-certain people seem to agree that they know it when they imagine it. And they imagine it in everyone.
Viewed historically and cross-culturally, there is immense variation regarding the soul, although some patterns can be discerned and are nearly universal. Souls are said to reside inside their associated bodies and are pretty much defined as immaterial, thereby contrasted with their fleshy habitations. Immortality is another close, but not quite universal, characteristic. Also widespread, but not invariant, is the soul’s ability to travel independent of its body, sometimes after death but often during sleep. Dreams are widely seen as demonstrating not only that the soul is ‘real’, but that it occupies its own unique plane of reality.
Jewish doctrine says almost nothing about the soul. ‘[T]here is no way on earth,’ wrote the influential Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, ‘that we can comprehend or know it.’ This agnostic attitude is consistent with Judaism’s lack of specificity regarding the afterlife generally and of heaven and hell in particular. By contrast, Christianity and Islam are clear when it comes to the soul, conceiving it as immaterial as well as immortal, the two perspectives being, as it were, soulmates. Although Islam has a variety of views when it comes to the soul, there is greater diversity within Christianity – between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox conceptions – and also within Protestantism, ranging from evangelical fundamentalism to the more relaxed and philosophical approaches of modern-day Quakers and Unitarians. [Continue reading…]