A Secular-Humanist Definition of "the Soul"

“I always wondered how much my soul was worth.  So when Cinemax asked me if I’d go on camera to interview soft-core porn stars on the set of its new series, ‘Sin City Diaries,’ in return for $2,000 and a free night in Las Vegas, I discovered that my soul was worth some amount less than $2,000 and a free night in Las Vegas.”

Joel Stein

In other writings I have defined two of the most vague yet most powerful religious buzzwords – “God” and “spirituality” – in ways that secular humanists can live with.  There’s one more that’s just as vague and powerful: “the soul.”

God defined

To recap: when secular humanists look at the way people behave towards God, they see what may be defined as a “shared consensual subjectivity.” 

“Shared” because all believers believe in him (and/or profess to); “consensual” because they agree (notwithstanding hypocrites and closet skeptics) to accept this particular belief along with the fantastic, delusional mythology that accompanies it; and “subjectivity” because God exists only in the minds of those who believe in him.

If you ask a religious believer where God is, he/she will probably respond with words that don’t refer to anything in the real, knowable, physical world, e.g., “God is in heaven”…or “God is beyond space and time.” 

Believers have to do this because God is not in the physical/-electromagnetic/cosmological world (or the quasi-theoretical world of quantum physics, string theory, and other strange accountings of reality). 

If asked what they mean by expressions like “beyond space and time,” they will probably not be able to explain (because they’re most likely reciting what they have been taught by their religious instructors) and will resort to subjectivity, e.g., “God is a feeling in my heart.”

At this point, you’ve made your point.  Once the believer confines God to his/her own body-mind, you have a formulation that both of you can agree with.  And the believer has practically admitted that God is only subjective and imaginary. 

Spirituality defined

Spirituality, for a secular humanist, does not consist of praying to or ostentatiously talking about God, Jesus, Mohammed, or Allah.  It is not the New Age spirituality of crystal healing, aura reading, chakras, or feng shui.  It is not concerned with the divine (again, the imaginary), as opposed to the material, as it is for some people. 

The closest thing to a secular spirituality, if there is such a thing, would be the transcendent experience of meditation or artistic/athletic performance.  The mathematician whose mind is churning in the search of a new theorem could also be said to be having a spiritual experience.

Another humanistic definition of spirituality equates it with the humanistic virtues of compassion, integrity, forgiveness, courage, and so forth.  Or it could be the attitude that motivates these activities. 

A recent Quran translator defines herself as a fatat, a “spiritual advocate” who cultivates the aforementioned virtues.  By that definition, I too am a fatat.

The soul

We come now to the third major religious buzzword: “the soul.”

The shortest answer to the question of “What is the soul?” is: there isn’t any.  It would be so nice if some new kind of sophisticated imaging technology were to reveal a tiny center of light or energy deep in the brain, and we could say, “There it is!”  But there is no such manifestation.

Like the other two, this is a word that can be used to mean many things, and a speaker can leave unsaid exactly what he/she is talking about, yet seem to bond with immense numbers of other people who also believe in the same concept, whatever it means to them.

Here I am excluding (i) the definition of “soul” as “essence”; (ii) the metaphoric sense (“the soul of a new machine”); and (iii) “soul” in the sense of “passion, especially artistic.” 

The third one might be a secular definition of “soul,” but it is confined to particular contexts.  It is usually applied to music of African-American origin (jazz, blues, gospel), though there’s no reason why Burmese or Peruvian folk musicians couldn’t have soul as well.

The only definition I’m concerned with here is the religious definition of “soul” — as an entity separate from the body yet somehow located within it. 

All in our heads

The doctrine of biological naturalism (see John Searle and others) is completely consistent with secular humanism, though it’s very hard for religious believers to accept.  Briefly, it’s all in your head. 

This is not to explain away the deeply miraculous phenomenon of the brain, which somehow creates consciousness, subjectivity, and all that they give rise to – language, art, literature, technology, morality, emotion, and, of course, religious belief.   We’re just saying we know where consciousness is to be found and how it is to be explained.

We all wanna have a soul!

Everybody wants to believe that there is something about them that lives apart from the their neurology and neurochemistry.  If we look dispassionately at the way the word “soul” is used, we see that overwhelmingly often, it refers to this apart-from-the-brain entity, which – very importantly — survives death.

But the soul is unknowable the same way that God is: it’s not to be found in the knowable, physical/electromagnetic, cosmological world.  It is a subjective concept with the same perceived reality as God.  If one decides that the soul is real, then it is — for that person, at least.

But just as we need God to give us a reason for morality and an explanation for the way the universe is the way it is, we need the concept of the soul.  First and foremost, it’s a way of running from mortality. 

The promise of immortality – and the price

The key attribute of the soul is that it survives death.  Once again, religion answers a real need with an unhealthy response.  Once the soul is an entity, it can be objectified.  It can be bought, sold, saved, all at a price.  Just follow what the priest/rabbi/shaman/imam says, and you will avoid damnation, and your immortality will be guaranteed, right down to the number of virgins (I personally would prefer experienced women). 

So we’ve cheated death, but at the price of our dignity and liberty.  We’ve sold our soul to save our soul! 

But there’s no soul!  In any objective, experiential, replicable, intersubjectively verifiable sense…there is no soul!  In a memorable  Simpsons episode, Bart actually puts this idea to the test by selling his soul for hard cash.  

As with God, the predisposition to believe, plus outside pressure and relentless programming, plus the suppression of all questioning and doubt…all help people believe that they have souls.  And as with God, the mind creates – or allows someone else to create — a subjective entity that can be experienced as real. 

“Soul”: humanist definition

“Soul” is indeed a name for something.  It is a label for something we already have a name for.  It is a simple label for something that is too complex for most people to bother with. 

“The soul” is what people call their subjectivity, the feeling that there is indeed a self, a personality and character (plus knowledge and memories) that is maintained over time and is itself aware that it is a separate entity with a body and a mind, as well as a sense of personal ethics, a conscience, as in the Joel Stein anecdote.

Why don’t they just call it “my self” or “my subjectivity”?  (Philosophers and psychologists do talk about “the self,” but laypeople — hardly ever.)  Again, as with God, who supposedly made us in his image, I think we’re trying to make ourselves more than we are; certainly proclaiming oneself immortal with no evidence could be considered a bit arrogant.

Real miracles

But just as with God, the scientific reality is impressive enough on its own: all of those brain cells do indeed over time maintain a sense of constancy, even when the cells themselves are replaced; this is truly miraculous.  It is as miraculous as the creation of a sense of self — of consciousness and conscience — from neurons and neurochemistry.  How this happens continues to elude scientists and probably will for a long time.

Nobody there – but us

Yes, there is a consistent individual that goes through each day, making and executing choices in a fairly consistent way.  That’s what it means to have a personality or character.  Amazing as it is, our brains automatically boot up each morning with all our memories and personality data from the night before.

But if one peers deeply enough, one will see that there really is nothing there.  And that is a frightening thought. 

So people drape themselves in roles, titles, jobs, uniforms, status symbols, belief systems, and competitive or compulsive activity.  They hang glide, eat competitively, or eat kosher (or schlep to China to make sure Chinese food factories are kosher, as some rabbis now do).  They are easy prey for politicians, marketers, and, of course, clerics who rush to fill that sense of emptiness.

How much easier it is to run away to fantasies in which we are other than our bodies and continue to survive our bodies!  I would love to believe in these fantasies, but my dignity will not allow it.

A secular humanist finds it bracing, refreshing, and ennobling to confront reality.  I’ve already referred to the miraculous reality of the brain, and the way it creates consciousness, conscience, and a sense of self.

I, I, I

Reality gets even more subtle, as we see very readily from the way we use the pronoun “I.”  As a linguist, I’m fascinated by this intersection of semantics and personality.  Consider the sentence “I don’t know if I can control myself” (actually uttered in my presence).

How many “I”’s are at work here?  At least three. 

There is one that’s doing the wondering; another in charge of moment-to-moment behavior (the one doing the controlling); and a third — the one that actually executes behavior (”myself”). 

You can see this phenomenon for yourself.  Just listen to the way people use that first-person pronoun to blithely split their personalities two, three, or more ways: “I know I can do better…”…”So I said to myself,…” and so on.

The three “I”’s – the executing “I,” the controlling “I,” and the “observing quarterback I” who’s presumably watching the game and calling the plays (call it the “I-formation” theory of personality) — occupy center stage, because they get us through the day. 

Of course, with religious, political, and military true believers, only the first two of those “I”’s are operating.  Someone else has decided the game plan and is calling the plays. 

As soon as we are aware of these “I”’s, we have immediately constructed another entity within our brain that’s capable of observing the whole process just noted.  And in fact every time we create another level of observation, we create another “I.”  Clearly, we stand at the abyss of infinite regress — and probably infinite ignorance about how the brain creates subjectivity and a sense of self.

The complexities of the human mind are both daunting and frightening.  Again, religion offers false comfort and false hope.  And again, humanists must live in — and try to understand — the real world, including, in this case, the world inside our heads.

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Comment by Alan Perlman on February 6, 2013 at 11:01am

Cat, Thanks for the quotes, which show, once again, and very eloquently, that being spiritual and having a soul can be explained without external religious constructs.  Soul is one of those words that seem to name something but don't (same for heaven, hell, etc.). 

How the brain creates the illusion of a separate entity called the "soul," for which there is no physical evidence, is a puzzle that will take a long time to solve.  for the layman, the two hardest ideas to get past are: (1) "I really feel as if I have a soul"; and (2) "My pastor says I have a soul."

I purposely used a Christian cleric in (2). Christianity makes a very big deal out of the soul.  Judaism, not so much.  In all of my Jewish upbringing and education, I never heard anything about it.

Comment by Grinning Cat on February 6, 2013 at 12:55am

Bergen Woods put it very well in his essay "The 'Soul' of an Atheist", a response to a then-sweetie who was amazed that someone could be sensitive and "spiritual" without a god-belief. (He doesn't come on A|N very often, and said I could feel free to quote him.) I've chosen a few pieces:

So, how does that bring us to my concepts of spirituality and soul? How can an atheist use such words? Very easily. Since the beginning of language, humans have been explaining things in supernatural terms. We have developed entire vocabularies of words which have supernatural phenomena as their referents. “Soul” is one such word. [...] For me, the soul is just as real, but it is the product of evolution, and is based, not in the super­natural, but in the physical world, and is the result of trillions of electrochemical impulses in the brain and body of the person. In my frame of reference, soul and spirit are more or less inter­change­able with personality. Our soul is the unique and special product of all that came before, through the evolution of our species in terms of the genetic contribution, and through the sum total of all of the forces impacting upon us from the moment of conception through the present moment. Our soul is the product of all of the learning and love and pain and hunger and satiety and music and art and hard work and illness and tragedy and triumph... and so very much more... that has brought us to the present. Because of the unique combination of all that goes into making a person who she/he is today, every soul is unique. [...]

We need to give our­selves credit for being able to figure things out internally, not always consciously, and not give credit to someone or something outside ourselves. Our soul and all of its manifestations is a very wondrous and marvelous thing. To attribute its wonderful characteristics and its products to something external is to diminish the wonder of being human. We are a wonderful species, highly evolved, and capable of ask­ing questions, answering most of them, and pondering the rest. There are few limits to what we can do. [...]

So, why do I persist in using the word “soul”? It is the word that best denotes that uniqueness which is me and which is you. [...] I am stuck with the vocabulary which exists in con­tem­porary English. I guess in a way, you could say that I use words like “soul” and “spirit” and “spiritual” as metaphors, rather than using them literally. I am an atheist who has a soul and who considers himself to be a highly spiritual person. I value relating to another person on a spiritual level, which means that you and I are com­municating with each other from the depths of our souls, sharing that which is unique to each of us on a very deep level.

Comment by Alan Perlman on February 5, 2013 at 9:30pm

Thanks very much, Dennis...I really appreciate it.

Once the soul is assumed to exist, all kinds of things can be done with it, including using it as a means of control, as you point out.

Higher -- and maybe lower -- animals do have feelings and emotions, so to say they don't have souls is irrelevant.  There's altruism, jealousy, all kinds of human characteristics in the animal kingdom.

Comment by Michael Penn on February 5, 2013 at 11:46am

Very well said, Allan. You are a very deep thinker. Let me point out that all religions do not believe in the body being in possession of a "soul." This soul idea was common with Plato and bled off into religions as man wanted so strongly to survive death. Pentecostal fundamentalists believe you were given a soul at birth, and so do most other Christian groups. This might be why JW's are hated so much by common religionists. They read the Bible that YOU are the "soul" and that man "became a living soul." It follows logicly that when you die you are a "dead soul." I think the "soul belief" became stronger as church and state had their great marriage in order for the King to get soldiers for his army. This way if you died in battle you are "instantly in heaven" and might even have a paper in hand to prove it. Many young men would go off joyously to war.

Next the Christian world gets confused in saying that animals have no soul, only humans. Are the animals not a living being? Then Christians lie for the sake of a child, but children are smarter than we think they are. Take the case of little Johnny, mopeing around in a daze since the death of his little dog. Finally his mother says, "don't cry, little Johnny. Your doggy is up there in Heaven with Jesus." With tears in his eyes Johnny confronts his mother saying, "no he's not! I saw you and daddy bury him in the back yard last week."

Truth from the mouth of a child!

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 14, 2012 at 5:26pm

Tony...after the brain dies and there is no more consciousness, you decompose into the chemicals and molecules you're made of.  Your molecules will disperse...and disperse.  Who knows but that you have a molecule or two from Julius Caesar?  Sam Harris (I'm re-reading End of Faith) goes into the subject of what we mean by "I."  It's your physical body, seen as a whole, e.g., the "my" in "arm."  Whose arm, exactly? 


I have been called subversive and an ideologue.  Guilty on both counts. 


Way far in the future, long after everything's dead, something will happen to time.  Scientists disagree, of course, as to what it will be.  Nobody will ever know.  Me, I'm here, now.  It's the best we can do.


Thanks for reading and for your kind words.

Comment by Tony Carroll on June 13, 2012 at 10:02pm

I (as in my self {lol}) also enjoy reading your postings. I do (now you got me thinking about I everytime) believe (subjective. Damn, now I'm on that. You sir, are subversive. Love it), in a limited form of eternity, in so much as my atoms will continue on after me in the cosmos. After the big rip, when even atoms can no longer be held together, free electrons will continue, or so part of the hypothesis goes. Whatever. I just take comort that I am ( more of those pesky I's again), will one day (hopefully not soon) cease to be as I am now, but will continue as another form via the scientific rules of the universe, no religion needed, or indeed wanted.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 13, 2012 at 8:59pm

Steph....and that's why I do it.  All best, Alan.



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