Redefining the Word ‘Soul’ for Atheists

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 15, 2015

The concept of the soul is quite ancient, preceding monotheism, polytheism, pantheism and goes back to animistic times. I don’t know why ancient people thought animals, plants and even inanimate objects had souls, but I guess they believed everything had a part to play in reality. Modern religious believers see the soul as the immortal aspect of their being. Early Christians thought their bodies would be resurrected, and would become immortal too, but I think most modern believers think the soul is the immortal kernel of who they are, and the body belongs to this physical world.



Atheists generally do not believe in souls. They believe when we die, everything disappears, including our consciousness. However, I like the word soul, and want to keep using it. Religion has a long history of repurposing words, so why shouldn’t atheists do the same thing? The concept of the soul is very useful when we think of it as the center of our being. We can lose our senses or parts of our body, and still exist. Sometimes our souls can disappear but our bodies keep living.

Of course, atheists believe self-awareness is directly tied to the physical body and feel religious terms are tainted. I accept the soul is mortal, and even corruptible by the physical world. Our souls can be changed by lack of air, disease or brain damage. But it’s still nice to have a single word to use for our essential essence.

Why do we need the word soul when we have the words mind and brain? The brain is the physical seat of the mind and soul, so how do those two concepts differ? I like to think of the soul as the inner most core of the mind. The mind is bigger and more complex, with conscious and unconscious systems. I think of the soul as that nexus where we view reality through the filter of our mind. When we become unconscious, either through sleep, inattention, drugs, disease or trauma, the soul shuts off.

I think of the soul flashing into being when everything is just right with our physical body and mind, like a fusion power plant when atoms begin to fuse. If the particle beams are shut off, the fusion stops, and so does the soul, when our mind and body stops working.

From self-observation, I feel I view reality from a unique perspective that I want to call my soul. You know how old people will say they feel no different than when they were nineteen? I think that’s the soul. I’m not sure if the soul is merely an observing conscious self-awareness, or if it has other attributes. Does prejudice lie in the mind or the soul? Just like disease and drugs can influence the body, I think ideas can influence the mind. For example, is racism part of the soul? What do racists do if there’s a heaven and no bodies? Or is racism a defect of the soul? So a racist soul sees everything, no matter what the data the mind presents, with prejudice consciousness?

I’d like to believe our souls are purely observers, and what we see is tinted by the mind. The mind, body and soul are actually one system, each influencing the other. I think the mind and body can exist without a soul, but a soul can’t exist without a mind and body. That’s why I’m an atheist. Theists believe souls are descended from a higher being. Evolutionists belief everything ascends from nothing.

Do souls learn? Do they evolve? Do they grow? Or do they only observe? Do dogs and cats have souls? By my atheistic definition, yes. They just don’t have language of mind like we do to communicate what they observe. Are dogs and cats self-aware? I don’t know. That’s why I believe souls evolve. A tree has a soul without self-awareness. That’s why I also believe some people have more evolved souls than other people because they see beyond hate. War and violence comes from our animal natures. This suggests that some souls can escape the bioprogramming of the body.

I want atheists to hijack the word soul and embrace it for our own, because even without God I want us to have spiritual growth.


10 thoughts on “Redefining the Word ‘Soul’ for Atheists”

  1. Great post James, and great exhortation to the atheists. You talk of souls evolving, but what are they evolving towards if there is nothing greater than itself? Do you view a soul in an individualistic sense (like a mind) or surely when we use the word, we are talking of “universal soul/mind” or God to put it another way, which is nothing else but Oneness? Would love to see this expounded further!

    1. I think of souls as individuals, and we’re evolving towards greater complexity and awareness. If you look at the development of liberal philosophy over the last few centuries, we hopefully are developing more empathy towards other humans and our fellow creatures. We look back at the people in the 19th century and ask how they could have been slave holders or pursued genocide of the Native Americans. Next century, people will look back on us and ask how we could have done all the terrible things we’re doing now.

  2. Souls or human consciousness is quite simply put are genetics adapting to its inviroment by learning trade languages right from wrong…etc humans are around 56% genetic 44% environment. Souls are a little more where humans want to be with there love ones again so they are not just consciousness but also immortality. But sadly they’re is no evidence that are conciousness is saved because what we are are out bodies and our brain when those things die/stop working and there’s no energy edited from it to see any transfer of information it’s sad to ou know only exist on what mark you left on the world. As Steven Hawkins put it heaven is a place of ferritails where nowone wants to wake up.

    1. Is that 56-44 ratio your guess, or have you read some studies that came up with those numbers? By my theory, genetics would play a great part in shaping the soul, and environment would be more important to the knowledge our mind gains from the world.

  3. Do you not think that All this positive evolution runs counter to entropy – heading towards lesser differentiation? If so what is this force that trumps entropy if there is nothing greater than, and connecting, individual soul?

  4. Jim, most words have multiple meanings, and “soul” is no different. I use the word, myself. That doesn’t mean I believe in magic (unlike you, apparently).

    Obviously, “soul” is also a religious concept. Sure, primitive people, who understood very little about their world, imagined “souls” in everything. So what?

    Remember, the biggest, most profound, most puzzling theological question throughout most of our history was “Where does the Sun go at night?” Obviously, the Sun had to be a god driving a golden chariot – or whatever other supernatural explanation local cultures invented – because otherwise, how would it get back at night to start a new day so reliably?

    As Bill O’Reilly noted: “The tides come in, the tides go out. You can’t explain that.” And what you can’t explain – or if you simply don’t like the real explanation – you find a fictional explanation you do like. That’s Fantasy 101.

    Do we need the word, “soul”? It’s useful shorthand on occasion, I’ll admit that. But note the trap that you, yourself, fall into: “spiritual growth,” with “souls” evolving. What does that even mean?

    What is a “spirit,” Jim? Do spirits exist? Can you demonstrate one? How do you identify a spirit? How do you separate it from delusion and wishful-thinking? And what does “spiritual” mean if spirits are just imaginary?

    “Spiritual” is even fuzzier language than “soul,” and even more popular with the fantasy prone. I use “soul” on occasion, but never “spiritual.” What does “spiritual” even mean, if you don’t believe in magic?

    Furthermore, now you claim that souls “evolve.” Really? What is the mechanism of that? How do you identify a soul in the first place, and then tell me the mechanism by which a soul “evolves” (and the mechanism by which you were able to determine that).

    Now you’re taking a scientific word that’s a popular buzz-word among pseudoscientists who don’t know the first thing about evolution and connecting it to “spirit,” which is a very fuzzy concept intrinsically connected to magical-thinking, itself.

    And you’re an atheist! I don’t know, Jim. Sometimes, you seem to be just one chakra away from joining the Scientologists, the Moonies, or the Raëlians. 🙂

    1. Oh no, my atheistic credentials are challenged! Ha-ha Bill, that’s hilarious. But you know as well as I do, that the Christians recycled many pagan concepts, so I figure us unbelievers can coop Christian terms. Both soul and spiritual are good words that I don’t want to go to waste. We could rely on less religious words, and say we seek mental development, but it doesn’t have the same ring as spiritual development. I think of spiritual development as the evolution of liberal ideas in a person. And I think of my spirit as my self-aware consciousness that is ignited by the physical body, and dies with it. I don’t believe in anything metaphysical.

      I think our soul is not something that can be touched or examined with a microscope, but it’s totally depended on the brain and body. It’s like a movie projector and image projected on a screen, except our consciousness isn’t even light particles. I can’t imagine consciousness as being physical or metaphysical. Can you Bill? It’s a quality that has no physical attributes, yet it’s generated in a physical medium.

      Also, we need a bridge between believers and nonbelievers. Many people in this country now say they are spiritual, but not religious. They don’t believe in dogma or ancient fantasies, but they still understand we can’t explain everything about our existence. I think there is room for atheists to explore this kind of spiritual development.

      1. Jim, you say that Christians adopted “many pagan concepts.” True. Then you suggest that atheists similarly co-opt Christian terms. Those are two very different things.

        You’re not suggesting we adopt Christian concepts (and why would we, if they’re not valuable concepts?). Instead, you’re suggesting we take words that already have an understood meaning and try to change that meaning.

        Why? At the very least, that will lead to confusion. And it’s not as though we’re particularly limited when it comes to words. Heck, we even invent new ones. All the time. Using religious language will lead to fuzzy-thinking, since you have no way to stop religious people from continuing to use those words in their own way, too.

        If, eventually, the meanings change on their own, fine. Living languages are always changing. And, certainly, there are already multiple meanings of “soul.” But using it in any way except very, very casually is an invitation to confusion at the least and fuzzy-minded thinking at the worst.

        However, it’s your last paragraph here that I’m struggling to understand. Regarding people who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious,” you seem to be implying that that’s a good thing. Please tell me I just misunderstood you!

        “Spiritual, but not religious” people have abandoned everything that’s good about religion – social activity, organizing to make the world a better place, even their concern for the truth (though they go about it in completely the wrong way) – while keeping what’s bad about it (the fantasy, the faith-based thinking, the eagerness to believe whatever the hell they want to believe).

        “Spiritual, but not religious” people are so fantasy-prone, so unconcerned for the reality of their beliefs, that they don’t even try to convince each other. They’re so undisciplined, they don’t even bother to study their faith. Indeed, they don’t have anything to study.

        The religious are wrong, but not that wrong. Plenty of atheists – Matt Dillahunty, Bart Ehrman, Dan Barker, to name just three of many – used to be devoutly religious. They studied their own religion because they cared so much about the truth.

        They certainly never expected to become atheists, because they expected reality to match up with what they’d been taught their whole life. It didn’t. (And it still doesn’t.) These were people who cared more about the truth of their beliefs than whether or not they wanted to believe them.

        No one who’s “spiritual, but not religious” is likely to make the same journey. For one thing, they don’t care about the truth of their beliefs. For another, their beliefs are so vague and so fuzzy-minded that there’s nothing to study, nothing to disprove.

        “Spiritual, but not religious” is where you go when you’ve completely surrendered to fantasy. It is not an improvement! Now, sure, you’re trying to change the definition of “spiritual.” But do you think that confusion over the meaning of a word will make them less fuzzy-minded? Just the reverse, don’t you think?

        Jim, you and I are both atheists. We both have liberal political beliefs. We’re both science fiction fans. But in some ways, we seem to be complete opposites. It’s really funny, isn’t it?

        1. It’s not funny, just natural that we’r different. It bothers me that most people think atheists are all alike, where we’re as diverse as all the religious creeds in our thinking. I wasn’t judging the “spiritual, but not religious” people, I was saying we need to communicate with them. What’s happening, is belief in religion is falling apart, so many formerly religious people have rejected religion and dogma, but have maintain vague fantasies about how reality works. What they need is a “come to, science” experience in their life. I’m saying we need to explore those vague concepts and connect them to reality. I’m saying we need to continuing using the word “soul” or “spiritual” and redefine those words so they work with a scientific view of reality, so we can communicate with those people.

          One way you and I are different is you have no sympathy for religious people. I try to hard to understand them, and want to use a language that can bridge our differences. You think everyone should start thinking rationally, always expect evidence, and to understand science. That’s not going to happen for a long time. To get to an atheist point of view, most religious people I think will have to go through a “spiritual, but not religious” phase, then an agnostic phase, and finally become atheist.

          Most of the people I hang out regularly have given up religion. They see that it’s irrational, but they haven’t taken the time to learn science and study evidence based thinking. Talking to them requires an intermediate language. Thus the need to still use words like soul, God and spiritual. Many of my friends say they don’t believe in God, but still talk about God. You have to use multiplex thinking to communicate with them.

          The difference between you and me Bill, is you’re black and white in your free thinking, working hard to exclude anything that taints of religion, irrational thinking, anti-science, or imprecise use of language. I’m a lot more loosey-goosey with words. I think that annoys you about me. But I get the feeling I spend a lot more time with people than you do. I hang out with all kinds of people, including with Fox News thinking folk, and tell them up front I’m an atheist, and argue all my liberal beliefs with them – and they still like me. I can speak their language, understand their religion, and sympathize with their fears. I make them comfortable about atheists, or at least show them that not all atheists are like the extreme ones they see on Fox News.

      2. You think I just hang out with atheists here? In Nebraska? Heh, heh. I’ve rarely even met anyone who’s not a Christian, Jim. But I don’t talk religion with them, because they’re not interested.

        I don’t talk about religion with people who don’t want to talk about it, and I never initiate the conversation. I don’t go door to door as an atheist missionary. Usually, the Christian missionaries who do go door to door can’t run away fast enough when I tell them I’m an atheist.

        Even they don’t want to talk about their religion, most of the time. Apparently, they’re looking for lonely Christians – people who already believe in their god – who might be persuaded to change sects with a little attention. (I used to just tell them I wasn’t interested. For the last dozen years or so – persuaded by the Bush Administration – I’ve been more open with my atheism. They leave much faster now. It’s really funny.)

        You may hang out with people who’ve given up religion, Jim, but I don’t. Or only online, at least. But my religious debates all tend to be online with atheists like you, people who don’t think too differently from me – not because I’m not interested in what the religious have to say, but because they seem to be terrified of even thinking about their own beliefs too much.

        Or they’re just not interested. Yeah, it’s the most important thing in the world, and God is going to reward them with everlasting bliss (or punish them with everlasting torture if they don’t do exactly what he wants), but… who can be bothered, right? They can’t even be bothered to read their own Bible. As a kid, I always wondered if those people really believed what they claimed they believe. I still wonder.

        Anyway, maybe you’re deconverting theists right and left, Jim. If so, I’m impressed. But that’s not my intent. It’s also not my intent to make theists comfortable (or atheists, either, for that matter). For the most part, it doesn’t even come up. I get along with theists fine, since we don’t talk about things like this unless they want to (which they don’t).

        But when I do talk about things like this, my intent is to tell the truth as I see it. My intent is to listen to the other person, expecting him to tell me what he thinks – without worrying about my comfort) – and then respond with what I think.

        Frankly, it would be insulting if someone else worried about me being ‘comfortable’ with what he had to say, rather than just telling me what he thinks. I want to hear what other people think, even if they disagree with me – heck, especially if they disagree with me. It would be patronizing in the extreme if they didn’t tell me, plainly and clearly, what they think because they thought I couldn’t handle it.

        So I try not to patronize other people in that way, myself.

        I don’t care if theists are comfortable about atheists. Frankly, I don’t think theists will ever be comfortable about atheists, because we threaten their beliefs with our very existence. (We threaten them in a way that believers in competing religions don’t.) And if they think me ‘extreme,’ I don’t care about that, either. If they don’t want to talk about religion, we won’t talk about religion.

        So I get along fine with theists.

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