How the doctrine of the soul makes us less moral

“The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Death becomes a mere rite of passage, like puberty or a midlife crisis.

“The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason. No one can deny the difference between life and death or the existence of suffering, but it takes indoctrination to hold beliefs about what becomes of an immortal soul after it has parted company from the body.”

–Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011), p. 143.

A lot of us were brought up to believe that belief in the immortal soul makes you more humane. Most often it’s stated in a negative way, that if you don’t believe we have souls that survive the death of our bodies, then you’re more likely to treat others with cruelty because, to you, they’re just temporary beings without eternal value.

I know of no evidence that it works this way in real life. In fact, earlier in our history when the doctrine of the soul was more prominent, our ancestors had a much higher tolerance for cruelty, and a good deal of the cruelty was inflicted specifically with the soul in mind, as in the persecution of heretics and people accused of witchcraft.

As the title indicates, Pinker’s book is about the decline of violence over the centuries. He spends a good deal of this thick volume showing that this is really so — that the murder rate today is a fraction of what it was in medieval times, and that even that was an improvement over what was common in human societies before civilization.

In other words, for all the complaints about declining moral values, we’ve actually been growing more humane (slowly, and by fits and starts). If anything, the concept of the soul inhibits this process (for example, in the context of the abortion debate).

We like to assume that wronged people will receive justice in the hereafter. It’s a comforting thought, but makes it easier to tolerate injustice. (“Blessed are the poor, for they will inherit the kingdom of heaven.”) God will make it right, we’re told. And isn’t it more important to focus on getting people to heaven? When I was growing up I noticed that the more conservative and literalist the church, the less it tended to emphasize issues of social justice or poverty, except as a means of “opening doors” to proselytize. There was a certain logic to this, given the assumptions.

More recently, when discussing marriage equality with a Christian friend, I argued that legal recognition of same-sex marriage would improve people’s lives — qualifying for family health insurance benefits would alone make a big difference to many same-sex couples. My friend acknowledged this but refused to support something that he thought would lead more people to hell. If it’s eternity versus the few years of this life, eternity wins. Again, the logic is sound; the premise is the problem.

If you want people to make better moral judgments, get them talking about what is or isn’t humane, ask them how they’d feel in the other person’s shoes, bring up ideas like fairness and reciprocity. There’s no need to mention eternity.

8 thoughts on “How the doctrine of the soul makes us less moral

    • True. For some I suppose the theology is just an excuse, or it endorses and sanctifies their worst instincts. But I think others feel compelled to take a less humane position when they feel their theology requires it.

      • It is used as an excuse, that’s for sure. I always liked this observation by Mahatma Gandhi, and it fits in here very well:

        “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

  1. I have often tried to tackle this tension in Christianity. I find it completely ridiculous. I think it also presses towards laziness even in those who use the soul as a motivating factor for morality. Well, the world’s gonna get worse and worse until it’s over. We can’t change it. Maddening. Some even seem to encourage the demoralization to bring a swifter end. In my opinion, it’s the soul and view of future events completely misinterpreted and completely misused.

  2. It’s funny because this works both ways. The doctrine of the soul can lead to terrible cruelty, but it can also lead to great moral strides. We didn’t get where we are today because of people who thought humans were animals. People like Elanor Roosevelt, who believed in the doctrine of the soul, used it to make great strides in human rights. However, due to the ephemeral nature of life, I’ve always wondered, why should morals even matter if you don’t believe in a god?

    • Just because belief in the soul was accepted by default in the past doesn’t make the concept responsible for “great moral strides.” People believed in the soul throughout ancient times and the Middle Ages, but only in relatively recent times have we started placing a higher value on human rights and dignity. What changed? Has belief in the soul grown stronger in recent centuries? In fact our thinking has generally grown more secular compared to what it was in earlier times. If it’s true that “people who thought we were animals” aren’t responsible for moral progress, then we should expect a decline or reversal of moral progress in today’s ever-more-secular society. Do we in fact see this? Pinker shows that, as far as violence and cruelty are concerned, we see just the opposite, even in recent decades.

      As for why it all matters to a secular person, I’ve dealt with this before in previous posts. See Reply to “There Is No God, And I Hate Him” or These People Are Going to Lose Everything, for example.

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