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.
For Christians, Genesis 2:7 tells a clear story that a soul is given to a person when they draw their first breath. Roman Catholics and Conservatives have instead concluded that a soul is given at the moment a male sperm fertilizes an egg5. Knowledgeable and dedicated Christians have variously declared every major stage in the development of a foetus as the point at which a soul is created: "when the zygote first divides; when cell differentiation begins; when the embryo contains blood; when the heart first beats; when a brain stem develops; or when the fetus would be viable outside the womb. Biblical passages cited in support of each of these beginnings are clear only to the believers"5.
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 met to vote on whether or not women had souls at all. It was agreed by a margin of just one vote that they do6. 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 psychology7. Since the 19th century the tide turned, and science has trumped religion on the matter of souls8,9,10. 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 nature11,12, and just as manipulatable (and damageable) as any other physical system.
The whole idea of a mystical and spiritual life-force embodied a lack of knowledge of neurology and cognitive psychology7; the neurology of the self was simply beyond any possible investigation. Many ancient languages and cultures conflated the act of breathing with life:
“The 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)13
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)14
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)
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"16 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 Buddhism17 in a section entitled "No God, No Soul" agrees with other scholars who have noted Buddhism's "no-soul" doctrine.
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"6 - 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:
John 5:28-29: "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out - those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned." (NIV)
John 6:40 quotes Jesus saying that on the day of judgement, only believers will be resurrected: "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day".
1 John 3:15: "You know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him".
1 Timothy 6:12-16: Only Jesus possesses immortality.
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.
“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.
There isn't direct commentary in the Bible about souls. The clearest indirect story is Genesis 2:7, where God breaths life through breath. Therefore, some argue, that a soul enters a newborn infant when it also draws its first breath. Life doesn't mean soul, and features of the Hebrew language means we'll never really be able to say that this verse is about souls; it seems very unlikely that if souls were biblical, then, this indirect phrase would be the only time they are mentioned.
For those who do search for souls, which nowadays is most religious folk because the belief in souls is almost universal in religion, one question is when does a soul come to start inhabiting a body?
“Conservative Christians usually agree with Roman Catholics that a soul is given to the fertilized egg at conception, while most liberal Christians agree with Jews that the soul appears with the first breath. [...] Between conception and birth, every stage of fetal development has been identified with the granting of a soul by some group: when the zygote first divides; when cell differentiation begins; when the embryo contains blood; when the heart first beats; when a brain stem develops; or when the fetus would be viable outside the womb. Biblical passages cited in support of each of these beginnings are clear only to the believers.”
It is difficult to exaggerate how important it is to JW doctrine that there are no souls. They describe this single issue to be the ground on which Satan itself has had its greatest success, convincing almost all religions of the world that there is an immortal soul ('spiritism'), when actually there isn't20. An infamous but obscure monster of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon, is said by JWs to, above all, represent the belief in an immortal soul20.
“Of those symbolic pictures that John has in vision [in the Book of Revelations], one is of a gaudy, brash harlot, called "Babylon the Great, the mother of the harlots and of the disgusting things of the earth. [...] "I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the holy ones and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus." - Revelation 17:5-6. [...] All forms of spiritism are religious and demon-inspired. Biblical evidence shows that she [Babylon the Great] is Satan's entire world empire of false religion, promoted by him in the minds of men in order to divert attention from the true God, Jehovah.”
"Mankind's Search for God" by The Jehovah's Witnesses (1990)20
The say it is impossible to worship God correctly if you have a belief in a soul, and the only thing you can possibly do to avoid sharing in the Whore of Babylon's sin, is to leave other religions and "join in Jehovah's true worship"20, which means of course, joining the Jehovah's Witnesses.
“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.”
Souls are unnecessary11. 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.
For more, see:
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.”
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.
Shamanism embodies the concept of animism - the belief that spirits are everywhere, indwelling not only all animals, but objects too22. Shamans are tribal spiritual leaders who are believed to be skilled in harnessing animal spirits as allies in order to look after the local community23,24 and to be able to act as "mediator between the human world and the world of the spirits"25. Of particular importance are animal spirits, and ancestor spirits. All spirits inhabit a world where they can freely talk to each other in the same language the local shaman also happens to speak.
A feature of Native American shamanism is the concept of people losing their souls as a result of an antagonistic sorcerer or as a result of illness, "meaning that the psyche, or an element of it, is no longer integrated with the entire being, and the shaman must search for it in the psychic realms and bring it back"26. Many today detect in this the signs of myth-making done in order to explain away the strange effects on the personality that some illnesses and neurological problems can cause. In a pre-scientific world of animistic belief, spiritual warfare was a combination of psychodrama conducted by the shaman simply because it was what was expected of him, and of good old fashion titillating story telling, but, stories which may well have been genuinely believed in by many.
Spiritualists, psychics and mediums today all report a completely different spiritual world - one awash almost exclusively with the spirits of fellow humans. Shamans were thoroughly convincing and entire culture's embraced their outlook, saw the evidence of the work, and understood the truths of their proclamations about the spirits, their description of their many animal guardian angels and so on. So why is there such a difference between how enthusiasts see the spirit world today? This is a difficult question to answer without coming to the conclusion that several entire cultures must have it completely wrong.
For more, see:
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"27. 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)28
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"29 (the enthusiastic use of all-caps text is copied from the original).
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.
Spiritualism is the belief that the souls of the dead communicate with the living through Humans with special powers, called "mediums". In the Americas, it is mostly a sect of Christianity, but in the rest of the modern world it is often more an offshoot of the New Age. Psychodramas called séances are utilized as a combination of a Spiritualist meeting and a ritual form of communion with the "departed". Spiritualism suffered serious credibility problems with the original founders admitted to fraudulently inventing the 'rappings' that formed the communications.
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)8
The "old Church" commanded, quite simply, that souls were off-limits 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.”
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: