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.