Ensoulment: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

One of the many things that worries me about present-day atheism is, perversely, one of its successes—the sense of accomplishment individual atheists can come to feel. Those of us who free ourselves from our home religions—admittedly, a task so difficult it should come with a medal—often tend to think we’re done, we’re there, that gaining our own little bit of enlightenment is the whole job. Hey, we’re free! Victory!

But that isn’t even half the job. You don’t just escape from quicksand and walk away from all the other people still being sucked under. If you do that, and nothing but that, you become what I call an “I’ve Got Mine” atheist.

As far as that goes, you don’t just rescue as many as possible from the quicksand. No, the real job is to get rid of the quicksand so those yet to pass this way don’t fall into it.

The quicksand in our case is not just churches, not just religion. It carries forward with mysticism and superstition, with languages that grew out of millennia of religious thinking, and with countless beliefs so natural, so much a part of our everyday thinking and doing, that we completely fail to notice them. Remnants of religion and superstition can be out in plain sight yet still invisible to us. Rather than seeming faith-related, they’re just plain … The Way Things Are.

Unfortunately, being familiar and being harmless aren’t the same thing. If you have something buried down in the bedrock of your civilization—something that looks acceptable but is in fact harmful—you’re stuck with whatever bad effect it produces. If you never recognize the damage, never grapple with the thing as the source of that damage, it continues to do what it does without resistance or impediment.

Even if you see a problem arising out of it, you may mistakenly think the source of that problem is something else. This means whatever solution you apply pretty much has to fail. Working from a wrong model of the problem, you get right answers only by accident. If you continue to try to fix things with solutions aimed at some other imagined cause, you’ll fail every time … possibly thinking you just need to try harder.

We not only accept these hidden beliefs; we question the need to question them. Because we live—sometimes happily, often comfortably—in the civilization that grew out of such beliefs, we can’t see any noteworthy effect. We have no way to measure possible impacts.

But because they’re tied to actions, beliefs have consequences. If you sleep in on Monday, believing it is Sunday, you didn’t just believe something; you did something with that belief. You acted as if it were Sunday, and a real-world result—being reprimanded, possibly even fired—grew out of that action.

As I said before, sooner or later, every belief has some sort of real-world consequence. Whether we can see it or not in any moment of scrutiny—in the life of any individual or the well-being of an entire civilization—something real eventually takes place because of unsubstantiated beliefs.

Here’s one such belief most of us seldom really think about: ensoulment. The idea of souls.

The Idea

This is ensoulment: Your meat-and-bone body is a mere vehicle. There’s a “real” you—a separate, ethereal spirit—that rides in your meat body for as long as you’re alive. Immortal and indestructible, it enters your body when you’re conceived, departs when you die, and then easily continues to exist apart from your body, preserving your essential memories and selfness.

This spirit survives not only death but even catastrophic physical injuries. The individual might suffer severe brain injury and yet rebound to full-spirited selfness after death, probably with perfect skills of language, thought, and awareness.

Ensoulment is one of humanity’s most cherished ideas. It permeates every society and culture. We’ve probably had it longer than we’ve had civilization, and it has infused every moment of human history. It appears in literature, art, entertainment, everyday conversation, and even holidays. It’s embedded in our language, such that its truer alternative is difficult to describe or think about.

Too bad it’s about 180 degrees wrong.

The problem with every religious idea is that it’s simple, whereas the real world is complex. Ensoulment is so simple kids can understand it—“Grampaw’s watching over you from Heaven, honeybunch.”

The alternative is this complicated, multilevel mess we’re still trying to figure out. But it’s something like:

A Homo sapiens is born, a blank slate of experiences but with a certain number of innate tendencies—just like every other animal. It comes with or develops what other people recognize as a distinct personality, continuing to learn and grow and be shaped by life events, milestones, and traumas, eventually coming to think of itself as “me,” becoming its own—your own—conscious adult self. You progress through life, initially healthy and young, until you reach various physical and mental peaks. You enter an extended middle period of continuing health and fitness, then eventually begin to age and grow less fit in another extended period of gradual decline. At some point, one or more critical systems of “your body” fails and you cease to exist.

Though those around you may carry vivid memories of you or see the visible reminders of your achievements, nothing of you—no awareness or conscious intent—survives the event of your death. Your self, which is wholly a product of biochemical and neurological processes, permanently ceases when those processes lose coordination or stop.

The complexity of consciousness, the functioning of those processes that produce it, cannot be imprinted onto an invisible, undetectable “soul”—any more than it can be imprinted onto a pile of leaves or a section of concrete wall—first because there is no such thing, and second because there is no conceivable way to reproduce the exact ongoing processes of conscious self without the same biochemical/neurological matrix that produced them originally.

When those biochemical/neurological processes cease, the individual simply ends.

To add to the complexity, “self” for an unensouled being isn’t just one thing. Beyond certain persistent traits of personality, the “you” that you and others imagine you are changes from year to year, as you gather experience and knowledge, reacting to others and the changing situations of life.

“You” can be different even moment to moment, depending on health, diet, stress, physical injury, emotional trauma, periodic hormonal variations, the effects of drugs, or the simple difference of consciousness or sleep. Serious injuries, especially brain injury, can result in a permanently diminished or dramatically different “you,” with the original “you” unrecoverable or nonreproducible.

Death is the ultimate brain injury, with nothing of “you” remaining. “Dead” is not some alternate state of existence; it is absolute nonexistence, a permanent end, akin to the fate of data on a computer hard drive melted for scrap.

The ‘Why’

One of the reasons we accept ensoulment over its alternative is that this latter view—which just took me seven paragraphs to describe, probably badly—is surprisingly difficult to think about. Ensoulment, by contrast, is easy to visualize and understand. You simply trade the image of your loved one standing there colorfully alive and solid with that same loved one standing there looking … well, translucent.

Of course there’s more to it than that. We choose this unlikely belief in souls over an understanding of real death because soul-belief simply hurts less. Who wants to accept that their loved ones have died and passed forever out of reach?

More than eight years after my Cowboy Dad’s death, even I still have moments of unreality, instants where I think “Wait, what? No way! The Old Man can’t be gone. He’s out there in California right now, just waiting for me to call and say howdy.”

Because I sat with him in the hospital for four days while he was dying, I know that’s not true. But join this sense of unrealness with the idea that there’s an immortal essence to us, and it’s not hard to see why a belief in life after death is so persistent.

We also choose it because most others around us believe it. Several of my older friends and relatives still have no idea I reject the thought of being reunited with my dad in some happy afterlife, and somewhat like the classic Grandmother Quandary—“Would you tell your grandmother on her deathbed … ?”—I’m not about to explain it to them. Not just because I don’t want to get into that involved, intense discussion, but because I don’t want to disillusion and hurt them at this late stage of their lives.

Given that it’s the norm, with weighty momentum reinforced in sociocultural rituals and practices, language and the thought it shapes, and large social mechanisms such as churches and holidays, all of which is reinforced at every death, it takes significant effort to resist.

Consequences

I suspect ensoulment is at the bottom of a great deal of what we consider acceptable to think and do. It affects our view of war, population, the death penalty, drug use, extreme sports and other risky behaviors, and even medical research.

War and the death penalty are easier to contemplate in a social matrix of soul-belief. Sure, you’re killing people’s bodies, but you’re not affecting their real selves. And if it’s you who might get killed in war—hey, Heaven, right? Plus, there’s all that weepy adulation from friends and family, which you will no doubt witness from the other side.

Extreme sports: If you believed the real “you” would be safe and whole no matter what physical injury you sustained, you might feel more comfortable taking the chance of wrecking that body you happen to own. Hey, it’s not you getting smashed to flinders; it’s just your body.

Fitness: Likewise, believing your body is a mere temporary shell, you’d likely take a much more cavalier approach to eating and exercise than if you understood that this body is you, that you only get the one, and that everything you hope to accomplish depends on its health.

Drug use: If you thought the real you was this untouchable, unalterable ghost-thingie, you might feel a great deal more casual about tossing chemicals of unknown origin and concentration into your mere brain.

Medical research: If you were a congressman and chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, but also a believer in automatic eternal life, just how important would it be to you to fund life-extension research at U.S. universities? Believing it is a frivolous waste of time and money, you’d never let it come to a vote, would you?

But here’s one instance where we know ensoulment has real-world effects: abortion. And not just abortion, but almost everything to do with reproduction.

From the point of view of anyone who believes in souls, opposition to abortion makes perfect sense. If the soul—the “self” part of you—enters the baby-to-be at the moment of conception, that organism becomes a person at that instant. Terminating an embryo at any stage after ensoulment would be killing a person.

Further, assuming the implantation of these ghostly inner selves is overseen by God, ending a pregnancy is just about the worst of sins—thwarting God’s holy will. The condition of the mother—her age or health, desperation, or poverty—wouldn’t even come into it. She’s already chosen her fate by getting pregnant.

Not only will soul-believers refuse abortion for themselves, but they don’t want others doing it. You don’t have to have an abortion to be guilty. If all you do is stand by and let it happen, you’re every bit as hell-bound. If you know about it, you have to intervene. Voting against it would be a slam-dunk requirement, but there’s no doubt God would smile on any additional activism such as standing outside Planned Parenthood and screaming at hapless women coming in for reproductive care.

I once got into a discussion with an otherwise intelligent woman who furiously rejected even the idea of contraception. To her, it was the same as killing children. I tried saying, “Imagine a couple who decided not to have kids, and they use contraceptives to—”

She interrupted with, “I just don’t know how anyone could be okay with killing innocent babies.”

“But look, right now there aren’t any babies. They don’t exist. The man and woman decide in advance not to create them.”

“I don’t care what you say. I’ll never be okay with murdering babies.”

Gah. Crazy. But if you believe in a blanket fate regulated by an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise god, and if you clearly envision those cuddly, cooing, happy, living babies out there in some timeless future moment, interfering with fertilization is the same sort of sin as abortion. Preventing the arrival of souls preordained to land on earth … well, you might as well be beating them to death with an axe handle.

People who believed in the full fantastic reach of ensoulment would oppose not only abortion—even in the case of a mother who’d die without it—but would also adamantly oppose contraception and probably even sex education. As they do.

Worse for the wider world, they oppose every least suggestion of population control. You want to limit human population? You genocidal monster!

And the thing is, it’s not just deeply religious people who oppose abortion. Plenty of the rest of us, out here in wider society, also squirm at the idea. Because without even thinking about it, we buy into the picture of an embryo containing a self—a soul. Rather than being a clump of still-differentiating animal cells, an embryo at any stage is a person who deserves his or her chance to be born and toddle around on earth, even an earth with 7.75 billion of us already eating it down to bedrock.

A ‘Real’ Future

From the standpoint of individual intellectual freedom, there’s a very important bit here: The idea of souls, of life beyond death, is one of religion’s most subtle falsehoods. Even if you reject the main lie—that a god or gods exists—you might still unknowingly swallow this one, allowing certain others to slide in with it.

Once you’re on that path, the death of every loved one becomes something of a hostage situation. If you attempt to cease believing in your dad’s immortal soul, for instance, it will be like he died all over again.

But if you go with this fanciful social paradigm—because it’s hopeful and lessens the immediate pain—you inevitably undermine trust in your own mind. By accepting what others tell you, by not allowing yourself to know what you know, you undercut your individuality, your freedom, your very self.

As for the rest of the world, I’d like to say it doesn’t matter what any one individual believes, but some part of me views that with the same regard I give the idea that it doesn’t matter what private individuals think about spousal abuse or dog fighting. An indulgent or encouraging view of such ideas opens the door to large-scale real-world effects.

The idea of souls is a sociocultural poison hugely more consequential than the individual conclusions of a world minority of atheists. We have breathed it in as a species—incorporating it into our thought, our language, our customs, our daily lives, the very structure of our societies—so that we have little or no idea how to live without it. Belief in ensoulment is more pervasive, more deeply affecting to us—from the individual level to the level of our entire civilization—than we’re able to realize.

So the real job of atheists is this vastly more complex task: remaking civilization itself. Reimagining and reforming a world full of lifeways that grew from the tainted soil of millennia-old religious thought.

Individual atheism is only the first tiny step. A generations-long journey stretches out before us.

Reprinted by permission from Hank Fox, Red Neck, Blue Collar Atheist(Hank Fox Books, 2019).

One of the many things that worries me about present-day atheism is, perversely, one of its successes—the sense of accomplishment individual atheists can come to feel. Those of us who free ourselves from our home religions—admittedly, a task so difficult it should come with a medal—often tend to think we’re done, we’re there, that gaining …

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