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. Continue reading

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How belief in the soul distorts the abortion debate

Why did Missouri Congressman Todd Akin so uncritically accept the false notion that women can’t get pregnant by rape?

Before you answer, “Because he’s an ignorant dick who hates women,” let’s go a little deeper. This isn’t about Akin. It’s about an idea that allows people like him to be taken seriously by a large part of our population.

Rape pregnancies pose a dilemma for pro-lifers. It’s obviously a harsh thing to tell a rape victim that she must carry her attacker’s baby to term—or to tell a twelve-year-old incest victim that she’s required to deliver her father’s baby. But mainstream pro-life organizations are still doing this. (And see this from National Right to Life.)

It’s more comfortable for these people to believe the dilemma doesn’t exist. They would wish it away if they could. Akin tried.

But I wish people would talk about the way belief in the soul underlies this discussion. The debate over reproductive choice isn’t only about misogyny and people trying to drag us back to some imagined golden age when women raised the kids and kept their mouths shut. Those people haven’t gone away, but I think most ordinary pro-lifers (and I speak as a former one myself) are cornered by the logic of their beliefs into accepting brutalities that they would never consider otherwise. Continue reading