course they are. I’m not going to beat around the bush: atheists have no souls.
I don’t see this as a problem, though, since nobody else does either.
that’s too strong a statement. It would be more true to say that I, and many
other atheists, do not believe that
there is such a thing as a soul. We can’t say conclusively that there isn’t; it’s just that we haven’t seen
convincing evidence for it yet, so we don’t believe it.
there are atheists who do believe in
souls. The concept, after all, is not inextricably tied to belief in or worship
of a god. It’s just that I’m not one of those atheists, so please don't think that I'm speaking for them in this post.
when I say a soul, I’m talking about a magical, immaterial and potentially
immortal component of consciousness/personality that can survive independently
of a living brain and body. That’s the thing that I don’t believe exists.
problem is that the word “soul” has acquired a lot of cultural baggage, and a
lot of other definitions. Many, for example, regard the soul as being the seat
of all positive emotions (such as love, nobility, wonder, etc.), with the
physical body driving only negative emotions. Or others regard the soul as
being the seat of emotion altogether, with the physical being incapable of such
things. To people with this kind of dualistic outlook, to not have a soul is to
be capable only of evil and selfishness in the first case, or merely an
automaton – a thing rather than a person – in the second.
an atheist says something like “I don’t believe in souls,” many people don’t
hear “I don’t believe in an immaterial component of consciousness that survives
outside a living body.” They hear “I don’t believe in positive emotions, only
selfishness and evil.” Or they hear “I don’t believe in behaving like I or
anyone else is a person.” A lot of these people, though, would probably say
that atheists have souls, but are
just mistaken about it.
even go a step further than that. Either out of desire to demonize atheists, or
simply an inability to comprehend that it’s possible for people not to believe
in souls, they will twist the simple statement “I don’t believe in souls,” into
something like “I want to destroy the soul so that everyone can be purely
selfish and/or automatons.” These people are a lot more likely to say atheists
have no souls (or that the “atheist ideal” is a “human form without soul,” as I
recently read in an incredibly ignorant article about how us atheists would all
love to be vampires), because what they mean by that is that atheists are bad
people. This is especially true for those looking to demonize us, since to them
and their target constituencies, the accusation of soullessness brings to mind
images of dead-eyed, leering monsters in human form setting out to debauch
themselves and harm everyone else in the process.
an atheist like me says that he doesn’t believe in the existence of a soul, he’s
not saying that he doesn’t believe in the impulses to love, or empathize, or
create, or wonder, or any of the other positive emotions and impulses commonly
ascribed to souls. There is, after all, nothing that logically requires those
impulses to be bound to an immaterial immortal consciousness. Our lived
experience is still a human experience just like everyone else’s and doesn’t
become qualitatively different just because we don’t credit that experience to
the same source.
happen to think that all of those impulses – the good and the bad (and
justifying the use of “good” and “bad” is probably a whole series of posts on
its own) – are all rooted in our material bodies. It’s all inseparably human.
be nice to think that we have a “true” self that is upright and good and will
someday be free to live forever without being dragged down by all the bad parts
of ourselves when we leave our bodies behind. But the reason I don’t believe in
souls is not because I think it would be great cease existing, or because I
really want to cling to the bad in me. It is, quite simply,
because I’m not convinced that that souls exist.
is me, all of me, here in this world
being soulless and human just like anybody else.
listening to a program the other day on which atheist hosts were fielding
questions from callers. One such caller was quite insistent that if you believe
in evolution, then you must be a racist because you believe white people are
more evolved than black people.
I wish I
could say that this was the only time I had ever heard that statement, but it’s
really only the most recent. And it betrays so much ignorance on so many levels
that it’s hard to decide where to start.
first I’ll start by saying, because I don’t think this can be repeated enough, that
evolution is not a system of morals. It is a framework for explaining observed
facts about how living things change over successive generations. That is all.
It doesn’t tell you anything about what you should
believe or how you should behave, it
merely explains why organisms are the
way they are.
means, by the way, that accepting evolution is not a moral stance. It is an evaluation of evidence about how things are. In that sense, it’s no
different than accepting gravitational theory of attraction, or the atomic
theory of matter, or the germ theory of disease. So even if evolution somehow showed
that one race was demonstrably inferior in every way to another, that would
have absolutely nothing to do with whether it is true or not.
evolution says no such thing.
the thing to realize is that there is no such thing as “more evolved.” In this
sense, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we make jokes about people needing
to evolve more, because it kind of gives the impression that that’s a real
reality is that evolution is not a scale. There is no perfect end goal that
evolution is striving for, and therefore no one organism can be said to be
further along toward that goal than any other. There is only degree of
successful adaptation to the environment – and since environments can change,
what constitutes a successful adaptation is in constant flux. The whole idea of
“more evolved” is actually kind of nonsense in that respect.
In our “is
evolution racist?’ milieu, the translation of that is that “whiteness” is nothing
more than an adaptation to a climate with less sun exposure than the relatively
sun-drenched African environment where humanity originated. In no sense can it
be considered “more evolved,” it’s just adapted to a different set of
organisms and populations are constantly evolving. In fact, literally
everything that has ever lived was part of a transitional species. Just as the
various hominid species were transitions between the great apes and us, we are
transitions between the hominids and whatever our descendants will become in the
future. Humanity is not an end product, it is merely another step. We are evolving right now.
does this mean in terms of the racism question? It means that black people didn’t
stop evolving just because the descendants of a subset of the human species
became white people (or Asian people, or Native American people, or whatever
distinction you want to throw on the pile). Plenty of studies show that there
is tremendous genetic variation in African populations, which suggests that the
evolutionary mechanism of genetic variance is quite alive and well among them.
It’s just that the forms it has taken have largely been in areas other than the
highly visible (yet essentially trivial) realm of skin pigmentation. Evolution is
still ongoing among black people, just like it is among white people, Asian
people, or whatever other people you care to name.
these differences only really start to become significant when one part of the
population is evolving in isolation from the others. African and Caucasian
populations acquired differences in genetic variation because they were living
in relative isolation from each other. But it was such a short timeframe (in
evolutionary terms) that neither group became fundamentally different from the
other (or any of the other racial types). Which means that in an era of
increasing global crossover between populations, those variations become
potentially part of everyone’s shared genetic legacy. And that is arguably a
very good thing, because it means our descendants will have a greater wealth of
genetic information to draw on to fuel adaptation to changing conditions.
some people used ideas about evolution to fuel racist dogma? Yes, absolutely. But
in almost all cases those ideas have been based on very flawed understandings
of what evolution actually says. And all
such cases have been the result of tacking some other ideology onto the
findings of evolutionary science. Evolution itself is not ideological. It
provides facts and explanations. It tells you something about how the world
operates; it does not tell you what
to do about it.
So I hope that my layman’s explanation has helped to show that in no sense can any race be considered to be “more evolved” than any other. In fact, to say so is to be pretty much speaking nonsense in terms of the actual theory of evolution.
being a smartass here. This is one of the most common questions we atheists get
asked when discussing our lack of belief in gods, and it’s always asked as if
it’s just assumed that there’s one answer and we’re supposed to know it. But
even among Christians, there are many different conceptions about what the
consequences of nonbelief are. Some seem to believe that as long as we’re good
people we go to heaven when we die whether we’re Christian or not. On the other
hand, we have those who believe we’re going to hell (although there are many
different conceptions of what hell is) where we’ll suffer unimaginable torment
for all eternity simply because we don’t believe.
start looking outside Christianity, and you see many other conceptions of
afterlives, and the consequences for those who do or don’t believe, or those
who do or don’t act in certain ways with regards to the various pantheons.
all seriousness, I don’t know. Tell me what you believe will happen to me, and
we can go from there.
say, though, that most of the time (at least in America) this question comes
from Christians who believe that we’re risking the eternal torment version of
hell for the crime of not believing their god exists. The more aggressive ones
phrase the question in terms of “What will you say to God when you die and have
to face His judgment?” As if it were possible to threaten us into believing that
for which we haven’t seen good evidence.
course, the first and easiest answer is that I have no more concern for that
scenario than I imagine any Christian has for what they will say to Allah, or Thoth,
or Hades, or the Valkyries (who, for the record, I also don’t believe exist). It’s
hard to get worked up when a being you don’t believe exists threatens to send
you to a place you don’t believe exists because
you don’t believe it.
then, I’ve been an atheist for a long time. I’m comfortable with it.
thing that gets me about the question, though, is that it’s a dishonest tactic.
It’s not about finding the truth; it’s intended to make you scared, so that the
questioner can use that as leverage to open you up to the idea that they have
the answers that will alleviate your fear. It’s creating a symptom so that you
can claim to have the cure.
have to believe that an all-powerful being would have more effective means than
threats to get me to believe in it, and any being I’d respect enough to worship
would be above making them.
if I’m wrong? I don’t really know. Nobody actually
does, and it’s not a question that can really be speculated on until someone
can demonstrate that an actual consequence exists.
Well, that was a quick and easy
post. See you next time!
Huh? Oh, you were hoping for
something a little more in-depth? Alright, I suppose I can get a little deeper
into it if you really want me to. But glib as it may sound, that first response
really is kind of the crux of the matter.
So let me explain a little more
about my religious background. I was raised in a military, Southern Baptist
family. As an army brat, I moved every couple years (more or less) throughout
my childhood, but one thing fairly constant is that at pretty much every
station we attended church regularly. Early on, I would attend Sunday school or
do children’s choir (though I’m a terrible singer) while my parents were at the
grownup service, but as I got older I’d spend more and more time in the regular
service. Sunday school was pleasant enough, since it was mostly like light
schoolwork (which I was good at), listening to and reading fantasy stories
(always been a sci fi and fantasy fan), and singing songs (I may not have been
a good singer, but I love music). Though I hated getting dragged out of bed on
Sunday mornings. Regular services were some of the most tedious hours of my
later childhood, and I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable with how much my
mind would wander since there was supposed to be this God guy that could read
I’d go through phases where I would
kneel by my bed and say prayers before going to sleep. Around the age of
thirteen, I walked down the aisle at the call to service, and was subsequently
baptized. The pastor’s wife at that church was my piano teacher.
But the thing is… I never really believed it.
There was no big deconversion
moment, because I never really had a belief to deconvert from. There was no
traumatic experience with the church – the worst they ever inflicted on me was
some mind-numbing tedium for an hour out of my week, and most of the people I
met were plenty nice enough. There was no traumatic life event that made me
angry with God – the biggest upset of my young life was the death of my
maternal grandmother when I was twelve, and even that happened while we were
stationed in Germany so I was kind of shielded from the immediacy of that grief.
I just… didn’t believe in it. I
prayed, but I never felt like anyone listened or answered. I went to church,
but I never felt anything like what people describe as the “presence of God.”
I’ve never had any kind of miraculous experience, or witnessed anything
seemingly supernatural. All of that stuff was just ritual, stuff I did because
it pleased my parents (I was also a little goody-two-shoes, and pleasing my
parents was kind of a big deal to me), and it pleased the nice people they took
me to spend time with.
But over time, since I didn’t have
any belief in what the rituals were supposed to connect to, the rituals
themselves started to seem kind of silly. It was just playing pretend, and I
got tired of that sort of pretending.
By the time I was sixteen, I really
didn’t care anymore. I went to church when my parents made me, I spoke
respectfully because that’s just the way I am, but it was just an inconvenience.
I didn’t pray anymore, or even bother pretending that I did. I didn’t think of
religion in terms of being atheist or not – most of the time I didn’t think
about it at all.
Then I got to college. I moved out
of my parents’ house, and my time was mine to do with as I pleased. And since
then, other than the occasional holiday service when I visit my parents,
wedding attendance, or meeting hall rental, I haven’t been back to any church.
My Freshman year was the first time I met anyone who openly professed to being
an atheist. And from the first exposure to the term, my reaction was “Oh, yeah,
that’s what I am too.” But by then, it wasn’t even much of a revelation. I
hadn’t believed before, and now I just had a word to call myself.
I’m thirty-nine now. I’ve been married
for sixteen years, and I’m the father of three beautiful children whom I love
so much it almost hurts at times. I’m not rich, but I’m not poor. I’ve lost
some friends, lost some family, and gained some new of both. There is plenty in
my life to be grateful for, but no sense
that there’s an invisible all-powerful being to be grateful to. In all this
time, I’ve been exposed to many arguments for the existence of many different
gods, and found none of them convincing. Most aren’t even very interesting.
It’s been twenty-one years since I
started calling myself an atheist. But in a sense, I’ve always been one.
should I do such a thing? Aside from the fact that I’m an atheist. I mean,
really, I’m a lot of other things as well. I’m a man, a father, an engineer, an
American, a gaming enthusiast, a science fiction and fantasy fan… why not blog
about those things? Why choose atheism as my theme?
I think, because I haven’t ever been accused of being a blight on society based
on any of those other things (or when I have, the accusation has usually been
rooted in religion anyway). I don’t see Facebook posts from purported friends
claiming that fathers are responsible for all that’s wrong with our country, or
that gaming enthusiasts are merely looking for an excuse to behave immorally.
Nobody has ever attempted to write laws that require science fiction fans must
pronounce daily affirmations that mystery novels are the true literary form of
America, or to prevent engineers from running for office or testifying in
part, I want a space where I can talk about these things without necessarily
having to throw them in people’s faces. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances
that don’t necessarily share my views on religion. And I don’t want to start
arguments with them, or force them to have to see my latest rant whenever
they’re scrolling down their FB news feed. Nor do I want to respond to their
religious posts directly, since I just don’t see a way that a direct response
to many of them could not come off as an attack.
And lastly, I just feel like a lot of people don't understand where a lot of atheists are coming from. I can't claim to speak for all of us - one of the funny things about atheists is they tend not to agree on much. But I can speak for myself, and maybe a few others will feel like I do, and perhaps that can help others to understand a little about an atheist mindset.
it’s kind of a companion to my Bible reading blog http://reallyawakeguy.blogspot.com/ , though I expect this one to
be a little more irregular. Btw... don't read that one if you're easily offended.
will be my own little space where I talk about what’s on my mind as relates to
atheist issues. Mostly it will be a way for me to get things off my chest and
work things out through writing about them. I’ll let my friends know when I’ve
posted something new, but obviously it will be up to them whether they choose
to check it out. Anyone who stumbles across this is welcome to read and comment
present, I have no real intention to moderate comments. Obviously, by putting
this into the public sphere I expect to receive some criticism. I’d ask that
people refrain from personal attacks against either myself or any other
commenters, and hopefully I won't have to rethink that policy later on.
If you're here... thanks for reading, and hope you stick around! maybe we can all learn something together.