Contra the Moral Utility of Belief in a Soul

By | April 17, 2013

Juan Bernal

A few weeks ago while discussing people’s belief in an immortal soul I declared that there wasn’t any evidence or good rational ground for affirming that belief.  An email correspondent  — who had previously asserted that there was good evidence for soul’s survival of the body’s death –- asked me, “Why did so many people, in the past and present, believed in soul?”  He also stated that nobody had any good grounds for thinking that people in the past, who believed in the reality of immortal souls, did not have any rational grounds for such belief.  He declared that, after all, we weren’t there when ancient cultures and peoples of past centuries adopted belief in souls; so we really could not say anything about the reasons, evidence underlying such belief.

By happenstance this very issue came up in another setting.  A book discussion group,  of which I’m a member,  has been looking at Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature – Why violence has declined.   In chapter four (pp. 129-188), Pinker takes up what he calls the humanizing process in Western Europe and in the USA which mainly ended the routine brutality and killing of human beings that marked ancient and medieval periods.

In leading up to his account of the humanizing process that occurred in much of Western Europe starting the late 18th century, Pinker takes time to describe the incredible violence and bloodletting that often was based on irrational superstitious thinking and on religious doctrine.  These early sections of the chapter are titled “Superstitious Killing: Human Sacrifice, Witchcraft, and Blood Libel,” and   “Superstitious Killing: Violence against blasphemers, heretics, and apostates.”   Here Pinker recounts the genocides that resulted from the Catholic Crusades, and the great number of deaths that resulted from various long, bloody religious wars between European states and principalities; the high number of deaths brought about by the persecutions, tortures, and executions of non-believers by religious authorities —- all adding up to millions of people slaughtered, tortured, and executed, by the various “Reformations” (Catholic and Protestant); by the Inquisitions in Spain, Italy, and the New World.

Considering that all of this took place at a time when belief in an immortal soul was nearly universal, we surely are struck by a paradox.  Given all that brutality and bloodletting were  perpetuated by believers in an immortal soul, the question arises:  “Why do people think that belief is a good thing?  What ethical or moral value can such belief possibly have if cultures and ages in which that belief prevails are so bloody and violent, and dangerous to life and limb?

Pinker has some interesting things to say relevant to those questions. In his attempt to understand why people finally began to break the cycles of violence and death in the 17th century, and finally began to tolerated those who preferred to dissent from the prevailing religious doctrines, such as that concerning the value of an eternal soul.  He writes:

“What made Europeans finally decide that it was all right to let their dissenting compatriots risk eternal damnation and, by their bad example, lure others to that fate? Perhaps they were exhausted by the Wars of Religion, but it’s not clear why it took thirty years to exhaust hem rather than ten or twenty. One gets the sense that people started to place a higher value on human life. Part of the newfound appreciation was an emotional change, a habit of identifying with the pains and pleasures of others. And another part was an intellectual and moral change: a shift from valuing souls to valuing lives. The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Death becomes a mere rite of passage, like puberty or a midlife crisis.

The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason. No one can deny the difference between life and death or the existence of suffering, but it takes indoctrination to hold beliefs about what becomes of an immortal soul after it has parted company from the body. The 17th century is called the Age of Reason, an age when writers began to insist that beliefs be justified by experience and logic. That undermines dogmas about souls and salvation, and it undermines the policy of forcing people to believe unbelievable things at the point of sword (or a Juda’s Cradle).”  [Page 143]


Of course, Pinker is not the first to so describe the nature of religious doctrine concerning the immortal soul.  Decades ago (1950s), the American philosopher, Walter Kaufmann, remarked  in various books  that the other-worldly nature of Christian doctrine de-valued human life on this earth, or turned attention away from the brutality, suffering, death, and gross injustice that characterized most lives when the grand other-worldly religion dominated, with its dogma of the immortal soul.


So my reply to my email colleague’s question  –  Why do I think ancient people adopted the belief in an immortal soul?  —  is that the ancients and medieval people were generally  indoctrinated to believe the dogma of an immortal soul, along with other dogma about the fate of the soul after death.  In the Christian period, when they were not so indoctrinated or resisted the indoctrination, they were terrorized into believing (or at least outward assent to the belief).

Thus, I reaffirm my conviction that belief in an immortal soul is just the product of particular religious cultures and ages, and has never been grounded on rational evidence.

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