Religion Week, 2: Soul

by stephenpalmersf

The idea of human beings having a spirit or a soul is humanity’s oldest lie. But it was an inevitable and essential lie. We could not have survived as a species after about 100,000 years ago without it.

The first people to bury their dead, the Neanderthals, were fully conscious, and must have had a concept of life – of self-awareness, aliveness, of the importance of other people – to have had a concept of death. They were aware of themselves as unique individuals with unique identities. This posed one of the deepest of humanity’s problems: how to understand what happened when life stopped.

Given two observations made by every human being, there was only one answer for early humanity, one that became entrenched in thought for tens of thousands of years. These two observations were that individuals were conscious and unique, and that they died. Understanding that human beings were self-aware, and that they died, decayed, and disappeared after a few decades of life, early humanity had no option but to assume that this uniqueness was not in fact annihilated; that some non-physical part, some symbol of the uniqueness of every human being, of their personalities, did survive death. It was an unavoidable conclusion for those early peoples with their restricted understanding of the world; and it was the only explanation, it being impossible for them to imagine non-existence. It was inevitable that they presume the existence of an ethereal spirit which seemed to reside within the body. This explanation did away with what at the time was the inconceivable dilemma of not existing. They believed physical death could be transcended by continued mental life.

Other feelings would have led them to this conclusion. Those early conscious peoples would have felt emotions and love, and their relationships would have been crucial for sane survival. It was thus inevitable that, upon the death of somebody, they wondered what had happened to that unique and irreplaceable character. In such an atmosphere, the notion of an immortal non-corporeal component was inevitable.

Burial rituals were the social answers to these problems. They expressed the fact that people mattered to one another, that everybody wondered what happened after death, and that some generally held, communal explanation was required. Ritual was also vital. From these basic ideas came many others: the idea of an after-life or a spirit realm, which was required for the dead spirits to live in; the idea that ethereal spirits resided inside earthly bodies as a separable entity; the idea that spirits had knowledge not attainable by people, and that they could influence earthly life. All these ideas grew, over time, into religious concepts.

It was not possible for early humanity to know the truth of consciousness and existence. So important were their selves the idea of never letting go came into being; they would not die. Given such incomplete understanding of their selves and of the external world, it was impossible for early humanity to conceive the idea of life ceasing after death. They could not let their selves go. Spirit, they decided, was immortal.

It did not occur to them that spirit was a lie. What mattered was that spirit narratives helped them survive sane.