What Do Religions Say About Souls?

The idea of souls, a mystical and spiritual life-force that animates biological matter, has been almost ubiquitous in human cultures since prehistorical times, and talk of souls became part of popular belief in nearly all world religions. Despite this, actual souls are not found in the scriptures of Judaism nor in formal Buddhist doctrine (anatta specifically means "no souls")1,2 - there are, at best, only indirect references to what we now call souls. Some argue that it wasn't until the Greek pagan idea of soul came to influence Christianity that world religion really embraced the topic3. Catholic doctrine still teaches only of a physical resurrection of the body, come judgement day4. Biblical versus supporting this include John 5:28-29, John 6:40, Romans 2:5-7, Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 15:51-55 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Some strange points in history have indicated all kinds of conflicts as to what is meant by "soul" in popular conception - a 6th Century church council meeting met to vote on whether or not women had souls at all. It was agreed by a margin of just one vote that they do5. After all the philosophical-religious debates, it has turned out that the idea of souls merely embodied a lack of knowledge of neurology and cognitive psychology6. Since the 19th century the tide turned, and science has trumped religion on the matter of souls7,8,9. Lengthy and detailed neurological and biochemical investigations have shown comprehensively that the soul, the self, our emotions and consciousness, are all biological and Earthly in nature10,11, and just as manipulatable (and damageable) as any other physical system.


1. A Life Force: The Creation of a Pre-Scientific Age

The whole idea of a mystical and spiritual life-force embodied a lack of knowledge of neurology and cognitive psychology6; the neurology of the self was simply beyond any possible investigation. Many ancient languages and cultures conflated the act of breathing with life:

Book CoverThe association of spirit with air is embedded in a number of ancient languages: the Hebrew ruah ("wind" or "breath") and nefesh, also associated with breathing; the Greek psychein ("to breathe"), which is related to the word psyche for "soul"; and the Latin words anima ("air," "breath," or "life") and spiritus, which also refers to breathing. The soul was seen as departing the body in the dying last breath. [...] In the Old Testament, the soul is life itself, breathing into the body by God.

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)12

Many religionists such as Jews, Christians and Muslims have gone to great lengths to argue that Human Beings have souls (and most, historically, arguing that non-Human animals and plants do not). In the Christian world, this is based on the Hebrew account of creation where God 'breathes life' into Adam and Eve but not into the various animals.

This is despite the fact that the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not endorse the idea of souls. Confused? The leaders of the main faiths have taken up some pretty contradictory positions on the existence of the soul: it has been endorsed, denied, preached for, preached against, declared heretical and declared essential.

In his classic work The Illusion of Immortality, philosopher Corliss Lamont surveyed all the aspects of the subject of immortality, from theological and philosophical to scientific and social. He points out that the exact nature of the immortality that is preached in Christianity, as well as in other religions, is not at all clear, with many different doctrines being presented over the ages.

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)13

2. World Religions

2.1. Judaism and the Old Testament

Christianity and Islam both got their original framework of ideas from Judaism. The language of the Old Testament is purely earthly when it comes to discussions of what we now call the soul. In Genesis 2:7 it says God created man 'from dust' and then breathed into it. God didn't add a soul, it says next, that the dust itself became a living being (nephesh). Genesis 1:24 sees the same term applied to animals.

The Hebrew word translated "soul" in the Old Testament is nephesh, which simply means "a breathing creature." Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines nephesh as "the essence of life, the act of breathing, taking breath ... The problem with the English term 'soul' is that no actual equivalent of the term or the idea behind it is represented in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew system of thought does not include the combination or opposition of the 'body' and 'soul' which are really Greek and Latin in origin" (1985, p. 237-238, emphasis added).

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible [comments that] "In the OT it never means the immortal soul, but it is essentially the life principle, or the living being, or the self as the subject of appetite, and emotion, occasionally of volition" (Vol. 4, 1962, "Soul," emphasis added). [...]

The Hebrew Scriptures state plainly that, rather than possess immortality, the soul can and does die. "The soul [nephesh] who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4,20).

[...] Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 describes sheol as a place of unconsciousness: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished ..."

Gary Petty in The Good News (n.d., accessed 2011 Nov 26)

2.2. Buddhism14

Anatta is the word given in Buddhist doctrine to mean "no soul" or "soullessness". Official Buddhist scriptures are voluminous, complicated, and to study all comments on the soul and other spiritual issues takes a lifetime. Many have conducted such researches, and I do not know of one single devotee who thinks that they have got to the bottom of what, exactly, Buddhism teaches about the soul. But of those who do make proclamations, it is generally in the negative: Buddhism does not teach that there is an eternal soul that survives from life to life. Yes, something passes on, but, it is not what Westerners call "the soul".

Kaiten Nukariya in "Zen - The Religion of the Samurai" cites Abhidharmamahavibhasa-castra, volume 114 as referring to "the fundamental doctrine of non-soul"1. Christmas Humphreys was President of the Buddhist Society, London, from its foundation in 1924 until its Silver Jubilee in 1954. On page 79 of his book Buddhism in a section entitled "No God, No Soul" agrees with other scholars who have noted Buddhism's "no-soul" doctrine.

2.3. Christianity: No Souls, Only Physical Resurrection

We have already seen that the Old Testament does not endorse any idea of an eternal soul that is separate from the body. Both die into unconsciousness in the grave, or both rise again in resurrection. Christianity's official approach has not often differed:

Historically, the Catholic Church has taught that the full body is resurrected. The Apostle's Creed, adopted in the second century and still recited, states that there will be a resurrection of the flesh. The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century asserted that the "identical body" will be restored "without deformities." St Augustine declared that "the substance of our bodies, however disintegrated, shall be entirely reunited."

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)4

But because doctrine in Christianity is based on a collection of different writings by different people, and its organisations are all-too-human, the concept of a soul has often been commonly accepted by Christians. Although their idea of it isn't what we would always expect - they do not always infer that souls exist because we are conscious, moral beings. "At the Council of Maçon in the 6th century the bishops had to vote to decide whether women had souls. The motion was carried by one vote"5 - there have clearly been a lot of Christians who have believed (as do scientists) that all the faculties of sentience can be mimicked purely by the body - hence how they could believe that perhaps only men had souls and women didn't, despite the complete similarity in emotional and moral coherence. Do all people have souls? Should Christians believe in souls? Let's return to the Bible and see.

When it comes to quoting verse and chapter, some snippets are unclear. Examine John 11:23-24 and Matthew 10:28. But there are many statements in the Bible that do clearly teach that there is no eternal soul, and that people do not possess any immortal component, and that such immortality, if it is given by God at all, comes after the physical body is resurrected and is granted to the physical body:

The dead remain dead, in their graves, until the day of judgement. Then, those believers whom are chosen are given eternal life, and thusly their bodies, and brains, continue to live forever. In this scheme, there are no eternal souls. Just bodies, dead or alive. In other words, the New Testament teaches the same thing as the Old Testament in this respect and the Greek concept of an immortal soul was not accepted or employed even though such ideas became increasingly common amongst Pagans and common people.

Gary Petty:

In the New Testament the Greek word translated "soul" is psuche, which is also translated "life." In Psalm 16:10 David uses nephesh ("soul") to claim that the "Holy One," or Messiah, wouldn't be left in sheol, the grave. Peter quotes this verse in Acts 2:27, using the Greek psuche for the Hebrew nephesh (notice verses 25-31).

Like nephesh, psuche refers to human "souls" (Acts 2:41) and for animals (it is translated "life" in the King James Version of Revelation 8:9 and 16:3). Jesus declared that God can destroy man's psuche, or "soul" (Matthew 10:28). [...]

Many people are surprised to find that the term immortal soul appears nowhere in the Bible.

Physical resurrection causes as many problems as it solves. It is no longer a problem that the physical brain is the true us, being tied completely with our personality without any influence of soul. But it becomes a problem that our memories are also completely physical. Do those who suffer Alzheimer's disease find themselves resurrected with gaping holes in their memories and cognitive functions? If you restore someone's memories, you change their character and life experience. So at what point in a person's life do you declare that this is the "definitive" version to which they will return when they come back to consciousness? Or is heaven full of the senile? It simply can't be the whole story that in heaven, a place of perfection, people simply find themselves resurrected with their imperfect physical bodies and brains. These complexities and problems cause so many problems for Christianity's idea of physical resurrection that it seems simply to make little sense.

2.4. Islam

We well know the approach whose most familiar expression is the opposition between the soul and the body. But a careful reading of the scriptural sources reveals that there is nothing in the Islamic tradition that can serve as a basis for the dualistic approach that opposes two constituent elements of humankind, each characterized by a positive and negative ethical quality: the soul would be the expression (explicitly or implicitly) of good, the body the expression (explicitly or implicitly) of evil. Never does the Qur'anic Revelation or the Prophetic tradition suggest anything of the sort.

"Western Muslims and the Future of Islam" by Tariq Ramadan (2004)15

3. God Does Not Need Souls

Souls are unnecessary10. Consciousness can come from flesh. God's memory is infinitely perfect and it knows our personality and memories better than we do. God can simply revive and restore our consciousness without the need for souls. To claim God needs souls is to deny God's omnipotency. The biological and chemical make-up of our brains and consciousness is known perfectly to God, its own memory is sufficient, God simply contains all of us. It can recreate us, including our personality and memories, as they were at any point in our life, all without the need for wobbly souls. The belief in an all-powerful God is logically incompatible with the belief in necessary souls.

"God Does Not Need Prayer, Prophets, Souls, Evangelists Nor Religion: 6. Souls"
Vexen Crabtree
(2004)

4. Souls are a Pagan Concept

The concept of a soul exists in various pagan religions well before they existed in the monotheistic, traditional "world religions". Mainstream religions inherited local pagan concepts of souls from the local, uneducated masses. For example, early Christianity inherited the beliefs of the Roman, pagan masses on 'souls'. Bertrand Russell (1935) outlines briefly the source of the Christian idea of the soul:

The "soul," as it first appeared in Greek thought, had a religious though not a Christian origin. It seems, so far as Greece was concerned, to have originated in the teachings of the Pythagoreans, who believed in transmigration. [... They] influenced Plato, and Plato influenced the Father of the Church; in this way the doctrine of the soul as something distinct from the body became part of Christian doctrine. [...] It appears from Plato that doctrines very similar to those subsequently taught by Christianity were widely held in his day by the general public rather than by philosophers.

"Religion and Science" by Bertrand Russell (1935)3

In all ancient religions, the soul was the surviving aspect of the self that afforded reincarnation (or "transmigration"); in Hinduism and Buddhism it was the source of life that passed on from one body to be reborn in another, in the samsaric cycle of life; with further incarnations being higher up or lower down in the scale according to a measure of the good (or fruitful) and bad (or deluded) actions performed during life. This concept easily translates into the Christian concept of 'sin' and the idea of the soul thus passed from the pagan-influenced advanced Jews of the first century, and the Roman pagans themselves, into Christianity.

5. Other Religions

5.1. Bahai and Freemasonry

The Bahá'í Faith: Although Bahá'í is a modern religion, created in the 19th century, it still confidently espoused a doctrine on the existence of the soul, starting with its founder himself (Bahá´u´lláh), although his utterances on the topic are a little less than evidential: "The soul of man is the sun by which his body is illumined, and from which it draweth its sustenance, and should be so regarded"16. And from Bahá'í literature:

Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.

GWB:LXXXII in "The Bahá'í Faith" by Joseph Sheppherd (1992)17

We will see in the last chapter on this page that we have indeed unravelled the soul.

Freemasonry: Albert G. Mackey, who wrote about Freemasonry in 1869, says that teaching the reality of the soul is the entire point of all Freemasonry. Some of the symbols used in Freemasonry "represent the IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL -- that important doctrine which it is the great design of the institution to teach [and which] is one of the two religious dogmas which have always been taught in Speculative Masonry. It was also taught in all the Rites and Mysteries of antiquity"18 (the enthusiastic use of all-caps text is copied from the original).

5.2. The Religion of Spiritualism19

5.2.1. Institutionalized Spiritual Populism

Despite all the logical and physical problems with supposing that spirits can interact with the world, as examined above, Spiritualism, a modern religion that is based on such interaction, arose in the 19th century. It involves 'mediums' receiving messages from the dead, during psychodramas called séances.

Book CoverSpiritualism includes a variety of differing networks and groups, some of which hold some specifically Christian beliefs and others of which are almost totally devoid of any religious dogma at all. They all, however, share on central concept - communication with the spirit realm through gifted or psychic individuals. Spiritualists always speak of the 'departed' rather than the 'dead'.

"Encyclopedia of New Religions" by Christopher Partridge (2004)20

The modern movement began in Hydesville, New York, USA, in 1848, where the Fox family lived21, 22. John Fox's two daughters, Maggie and Katherine, along with a few early converts and colleagues who accompanied them on tours around the country, all proceeded to demonstrate that they communicate with the dead. It presumed a general Christian outlook on life and retained a Christian morality. It has become more than a sect of Christianity, and should be considered a religion in its own right due to the development of its authoritative written works that are no longer Christian. It remains a very loose and secular spread of practitioners, but nonetheless Spiritualist Churches hold services several times a week, some of them including Christian Holy Communion.

It has become the public face of the New Age: 'channellers' and 'mediums' have appeared on a long string of television dramas and in books, so much so, that portions of the population think that there must be underlying truth (if not evidence) to it.

5.2.2. Issues and Problems: Its Original Proponents Admit Making It Up

The religion has been mired in problems. Not only the apparent fact that souls, spirits and ghosts don't exist, but that mediums' communications are fraudulent. The information gleaned from the dead is the same tone and quality as that obtained through cold-reading, which is the method used by psychics such as tarot-card readers. It is a mixture between obscurantism, astute observations and a Machiavellian understanding of what types of things people want to hear and will believe. There have been several court cases resulting in criminal convictions for fraud against Spiritualists, which is probably the reason that some of their websites state that they are "for entertainment purposes only"23. Not only are there problems with the soul-based theories of the religion and the general substance of séances, but the two Fox daughters who founded the movement admitted later during their lifetimes that it had been a hoax:

Four decades after spiritualism began, sisters Margaret Fox Kane and Katherine Fox Jencken confessed it had all been a trick. On Sunday, October 21, 1888, the sisters appeared at the Academy of Music in New York City. [...] She explained how she had produced the rapping noises [... and] demonstrated the effect for the audience. [...] Margaret then went on to state:

"I think that it is about time that the truth of this miserable subject "Spiritualism" should be brought out. It is now widespread all over the world, [...] I was the first in the field and I have the right to expose it. [...] Mother [...] could not understand it and did not suspect us of being capable of a trick because we were so young."

[...] Margaret also stated that Leah knew the spirit rappings were fake, and that when she traveled with the girls (on their first nationwide tour) it was she who signalled the answers to various questions. (She probably chatted with sitters before the séance to obtain information; when that did not produce the requisite facts, the "spirits" no doubt spoke in vague generalizations that are the mainstay of spiritualistic charlatans). Margaret repeated her exposé in other cities close to New York.

Today, spiritualists characterize Margaret's exposé as bogus, attributing it to her need for money or the desire for revenge against her rivals or both. However, not only were her admissions fully corroborated by her sister, but she demonstrated to the audience that she could produce the mysterious raps just as she said.

Joe Nickell in Skeptical Inquirer (2008)21

Extensive investigations at the original site in Hydesville where the Fox daughters invented the first Spiritualist communications, have also shown every aspect of the story to be invented falsehoods; with details about bodies, persons and fake walls all to be incorrect and with evidence of attempted trickery.

The religion's take on spirits and the spirit world remain a mixture of pop culture assertions and assumptions, with very little rationality or coherency. There seems to be no reason why, if spirits can communicate by banging things, moving tables, talking through people's mouths, that they can't instead simply write clear letters with pens on paper. Also, the abysmal failure rate of psychic 'help' in real police cases, the cold-reading associations, the fraud cases and the negative results of scientific investigations into Spiritualist claims all point to fundamental flaws in the religion/movement.

6. The Scientific Truth About Souls

Many early scientists came to realize quite early that religious talk of souls could actually be based on misunderstandings (at best) of human experience, or even be based simply on wishful thinking.

The relationship between religion and the sciences of the mind has been tense at least since the middle of the nineteenth century [...] as doctors documented how injury or illness could rob a patient of his mental or moral faculties, they struggled to assure the clergy that (somehow) their discoveries did not contradict the religious notions of the immortal soul (Ray 1863; 1871).

"Science and Religion" by William Sims Bainbridge (2011)7

The "old Church" commanded, quite simply, that souls were off-limit to science. Gerald Heard in 1937 explains, in a slightly convoluted manner, what relationship existed between religion and science:

The soul could never be studied. All the rest, the entire material universe, including all animals and the human body, could be studied and was mechanic. This was the division made between the old Church and the young Science. Secretly the young Science feared the Church and hated it. The wish therefore prompted the thought that perhaps after all there was nothing to study but bodies, and that souls were merely convenient figments invented by Churches and Religions the better to dupe and control mankind. [...] A conclusion which theologians did not fear when they were strong but bitterly to rue when their days of weakeness came upon them.

"The Third Morality" by Gerald Heard (1937)9

No, in those "days of weakness" for religion, science has thoroughly examined and studied all things to do with the soul, and the evidence is clear that everything about us, from our feelings and memories, to our behaviour and morality, is biological in nature. Now we know that us Humans evolved, along with all other animals, developing a complex nervous system and brain along the way. This led slowly, over time, to conscious life and emotional awareness. There was no point in the evolution of our minds that an independent soul became a necessary addition.

I have one page talking about souls in general and their biological nature:

And another page about how our emotions are truly and purely biological in nature:

By Vexen Crabtree 2016 May 0424
Originally published 1998 Nov 1625
http://www.humanreligions.info/souls.html
Parent page: Soul Theory and Skepticism: Science Versus Spirituality

References: (What's this?)

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The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]

Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.

Armstrong, Karen
(1986) The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West. Subtitled "Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West". Hardback. Published by Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd, London, UK.

Bainbridge, William Sims
(2011) Science and Religion. This essay is chapter 16 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages p303-318).

Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.

Crabtree, Vexen
(2007) "Souls do not Exist: Evidence from Science & Philosophy Against Mind-Body Dualism" (2007). Accessed 2016 May 04.

Heard, Gerald. (1889-1971)
(1937) The Third Morality. Hardback. Published by Cassell and Company Ltd, London, UK.

Humphreys, Christmas
(1954) Buddhism. Christmas was President of the Buddhist Society, London, from its foundation in 1924 until its Silver Jubilee.

Mackey, Albert G.
(1869) The Symbolism of Freemasonry. Digital edition accessed via Amazon.co.uk.

Nukariya, Kaiten. Professor of Kei-O-Gi-Jiku University and of So-To-Shu Buddhist College, Tokyo.
(1913) Zen - The Religion of the Samurai. Subtitled "A study of Zen philosophy and discipline in China and Japan". Amazon digital edition. Produced by John B. Hare and proofread by Carrie R. Lorenz.

Partridge, Christopher
(2004, Ed.) Encyclopedia of New Religions. Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.

Ramadan, Tariq. A Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University.
(2004) Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Published by the Oxford University Press.

Ray, Isaac
(1863) Mental Hygiene. Published by Ticknor & Fields, Boston, USA. In Clarke (2011) p311-312.
(1871) A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity. Published by Little Brown, Boston, USA. In Clarke (2011) p311-312.

Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1935) Religion and Science. 1997 edition with introduction by Michael Ruse. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Sheppherd, Joseph
(1992) The Bahá'í Faith. 1993 reprint. Published by Element Books Ltd, Shaftesbury, Dorset.

Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.

Footnotes

  1. Nukariya (1913) p130 footnote 220, citing the massive compilation of Buddhist texts, the Abhidharmamahavibhasa-castra, volume 114.^^
  2. Humphreys (1954) section No God, No Soul.^
  3. Russell (1935) p111-112.^^
  4. Stenger (2007) p102-103. Added to this page on 2011 Nov 26.^^
  5. Armstrong (1986) p64. Added to this page on 2014 Nov 11.^^
  6. Added to this page on 2014 Nov 09. Bloom, Paul (2004).^^
  7. Bainbridge (2011) p311-312. Added to this page on 2014 Nov 09.^^
  8. Ray (1863), Ray (1871).^
  9. Heard (1937) p27-30.^^
  10. "Souls do not Exist: Evidence from Science & Philosophy Against Mind-Body Dualism" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)^^
  11. "Emotions Without Souls: How Biochemistry and Neurology Account for Feelings" by Vexen Crabtree (1999)^
  12. Stenger (2007) p78-79.^
  13. Stenger (2007) p102.^
  14. Added to this page on 2014 Nov 13.^
  15. Ramadan (2004) p14.^
  16. What Bahá´ís Believe: The Life of the Spirit on www.bahai.org. Accessed 2016 May 03.^
  17. Sheppherd (1992) p58.^
  18. Mackey (1869) digital location 2202-3, 2712-15, 3229-30.^
  19. Added to this page on 2008 Sep 25.^
  20. Partridge (2004) p319-320.^
  21. Joe Nickell article "A Skeleton's Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism" in Skeptical Inquirer (2008 Jul/Aug) p17-20. Joe Nickell is the CSI's Senior Research Fellow.^^
  22. Wikipedia: Spiritualism. Accessed 2008 Sep 25.^
  23. www.spiritualism.org.uk front page accessed 2008 Sep 25. The last words on the page read "this website and its psychic reading services are for entertainment purposes only".^
  24. 2016 May 04: Text extracted from its original page to this new page specifically on religious aspects of soul-belief.^
  25. 1998 Nov 16: Text written from this date as part of a different page.^

© 2016 Vexen Crabtree. All rights reserved.