This isn’t a problem with all religions, mind. In fact, it’s only a problem with a handful. However, it’s a problem with the most popular, and the most violent — and, anthropologically speaking, the most recent. And this is the problem concept: that humans are special, are blessed, are chosen to be God’s favored children, are somehow above the animals and plants and everything else that lives, and have a God-given right of power over life and death with respect to them.
I’m not sure how all of that made it into the dominant narratives, because much of the scripture it’s based on stops well short of the worst of that in wording. But religions are made out of a huge body of traditions that, in those that do have scriptures, have very little support in those scriptures.
One of those traditions is a magic invisible body that inhabits the physical body and is the seat of awareness — a soul, the presence of which is a distinction between legitimate humans and animal kind. For instance, Judaic stories that pre-date the days of the Babylonian exile make no mention of this concept, and all the terminology bears strictly upon the ability to see and hear and breathe and react, a property shared with all of the animals and, as we dig deeper scientifically, present analogously in all living forms.
The concept of an immortal soul and possible attendant resurrection — either spiritual or physical — was obtained abroad, most likely in Egypt and surroundings, and brought back to be incorporated piecemeal into canon in the words of the more wild-eyed of the post-Mosaic prophets. Similarly, the concepts of a platonic ideal of Good and Evil, of the carrot-and-stick pairing of eternal reward and eternal punishment designed to compel obedience in those who could not be trusted to decide these things for themselves out of empathy and conscience, was borrowed and imported from the various flip-flopping dualistic binaries rooted in the clashes of the pantheons of merging cultures dating back to the struggles of the pre-Brahmin Hindu (animal, elemental) devas and (humanlike demigod) asuras that we see echoes of everywhere, ending in the perpetual war of Zoroastrianism and a rare friendly truce between the Aesir and Vana of the Norse. Whole hosts of angels and demons have similar post-scriptural roots, and Satan the Accuser himself made the transition from district attorney and prosecutor on God’s payroll (back in Job) to a full-fledged Zoroastrian counter-deity in post-scriptural tradition.
But the soul is the problem I’m concentrating on today. The soul is the biggest poorly-founded artificial division between Us and Them that many take as divine license to disregard Their merit, as it were. Because the dominant narrative says we can bedevil and torture and kill the soulless without consequence. We have a nasty tendency to claim the absence of a soul in anyone we don’t like, calling them monsters and animals and things instead of people, making them the embodiment of Other, and then the only consequences we have to deal with involve cleaning up the mess — and occasionally fending off the people who take issue with our declaration of the absence of a soul in our victims.
Prior to the assumption of the presence or absence of a soul in ourselves and various creatures, we managed to empathize enough with our livestock and prey and sacrificial victims to make it a matter of policy to kill them quickly and painlessly and with mercy. It seems quite plausible that it’s the assumption of the presence of a soul in Us and an absence in Them that turns US into monsters.
It’s the idea that one already knows the answer to a question that keeps us from searching for a more correct answer.
Take a look at this copy of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness from less than two months ago. And then read this discussion about it here in Scientific American. I’m not in complete agreement with the overt behavioral criteria for determining whether consciousness is present — I consider tool-use, self-recognition in a mirror, and similar items as obvious symptoms, but not determining factors which must be present, for example, to declare the presence of self-awareness. As we develop our skills in creating new forms of life, both chemically derived and more abstractly artificial, it will be increasingly necessary to keep a good set of criteria on hand. And the question of the presence or absence of a soul will far more get in the way than it will help, trust me. We have a hard enough time determining kinship with people with whom we share less than a hundred thousand years of ancestry.
Leaving the supernatural aside, I am convinced we are each inhabited by an invisible body of (strictly speaking) intangible stuff that may or may not set us apart from anyone or anything else, bodies that can, at least potentially, achieve a kind of immortality beyond the existence of a physical body, bodies that can be transferred to other living minds, even. These bodies are made of code, of stories about ourselves that tell us who we are and what we have done and what we can and should do as goals, what actions we should perform (or never perform) under whatever circumstances we can imagine. These bodies are infinitely plastic and infinitely transmissible and can live functionally eternally within our limits to communicate what we mean. These are what we recognize within ourselves and one another as identities, that are barely affected at all by what happens to our physical bodies. This body of narrative is at least as alive as any physical body, and it could be argued that this body was what was originally thought of as a soul by the original philosophers discussing it — making the magical, spiritual body concept of a soul a kind of cargo-cult-like failure to understand the underlying principles under discussion.
But really I have no idea if that’s true. That’s just a story I like to tell myself.