09 Dec 2012

It’s Cool to Believe in a Soul, Just Don’t Use the J-Word

Religious 45 Comments

One of my Facebook friends is clearly a “cool kid” at the lunch table (even though she’s a grown woman she plays it off well). She is not a religion-basher so much but it’s clear that many in the crowd that hangs out with her make fun of Christians at the drop of a hat.

Yet even so, she can easily get away with posting a Facebook photo showcasing a quote from Carl Jung referring to our “souls.” Nobody batted an eye (as far as I saw) or said, “Science has disproven that” or “I can’t believe in this day and age, there are still people who believe in souls.”

You see this pattern a lot. For example Bill Hicks absolutely excoriates religious believers, but he in turn was quite spiritual, and I think many of his fans probably liked that aspect of his worldview the most.

So what’s going on here? Well I have a few explanations:

(1) Deep, out-of-the-box thinkers aren’t necessarily atheists, they just can’t stand organized religion. For example, Hicks mocks Christians for sure, but I don’t remember him ever mocking the actual teachings of Jesus. (Though maybe I just missed a bit where he does.)

(2) For people who pride themselves on being educated, there is a lot of apparently irrational stuff in the Bible, so they can’t endorse those well-defined doctrines held by most theists. In contrast, a vague, “hey man there’s something bigger than me Out There” vibe can’t be demonstrably refuted.

(3) For the partying libertarians who populate my Facebook News Feed, a vague spiritual Oneness with the Universe is fine, since they can keep doing what they want. But if there is an actual sentient Being who–yikes!–is even remotely related to what those preachers are talking about, then that’s a serious buzzkill, so let’s not even get in the same ZIP code as that notion.

45 Responses to “It’s Cool to Believe in a Soul, Just Don’t Use the J-Word”

  1. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Well I think you aren’t being entirely fair to the seriousness of these sorts of spiritualisms. Maybe “seriousness” is the wrong word. Let me put it this way – as humans we obviously have all kinds of experiences that seem to transcend ourselves. We feel things that seem to imply a significance far beyond the material. Whether this is an illusion or not is another question, but the point is it’s not controversial to note that we have those perceptions, right?

    Not being able to pin down what that is may still leave someone in a position to take a spiritual attitude to our existence. It’s the only sensible option in light of those experiences. Perhaps it’s “vague” but it’s not just some kind of cool-kid vibe. It’s seriously responding to the sorts of transcendent experiences we have or think that we have as humans.

    Next to that, very specific stories about very specific gods who act in very specific ways without a shred of evidence does seem a little silly.

    I can say “I feel that we all have souls because I sense a significance and a purpose beyond our material selves“. It’s vague but those perceptions are very real. Another way of putting it is that no faith is required for that kind of spiritualism (or at least considerably less faith – since it’s an actual experience… you do have to have some faith in your chosen interpretation of that experience).

    That’s not the case at all with, say, Christianity. With Christianity you are accepting very specific things you really have no good reason to accept for the most part except that you read it in a book once.

    Maybe people want to connect what they read in that book to their much vaguer spiritual experiences. But to me, that seems more contrived than just saying “I don’t understand exactly what it is, but I feel like there is a spiritual dimension to my being”.

    • Dan says:

      “Well I think you aren’t being entirely fair to the seriousness of these sorts of spiritualisms. ”


      “With Christianity you are accepting very specific things you really have no good reason to accept for the most part except that you read it in a book once.”

      Yeah, that seems like you are being fair to the way Murphy has described himself becoming a Christian.

      • Daniel Kuehn says:

        I didn’t say anything about Murphy becoming a Christian!

        But this is related to his conversion. His seems more like a general sense that there is something beyond us (from what he’s told me). I can see how that can get to a vague spiritualism. I’ve always been curious how the specific claims of Christianity got attached to that vague sense for him – how he went the extra step. Because as far as I know he never had a revelation of Jesus or anything at all like that. So how did those Christian specifics in that old book get attached?

        Aren’t you curious about that sort of thing?

        That – to me – is a much more puzzling question than these more vague spiritualists.

    • Christopher says:

      So believing in a vague power like karma is sensible and deserves respect because, after all, there is no prove that such a thing doesn’t exist.
      However, believing in god is silly and deserves ridicule because there is no prove that god exists.

      • Daniel Kuehn says:

        Karma doesn’t strike me as being a vague belief at all.

        Believing in a vague sense that we’re all spiritually connected and calling that “karma” seems somewhat more justified to me than the more specific beliefs that many religions have to over without any empirical evidence (there is limited empirical evidence that might lead someone towards a vague spiritualism).

        I think we should respect everyone.

        • Daniel Kuehn says:

          *have to offer

        • Christopher says:

          Let’s put Karma aside for a moment.

          If you have a vague belief in something spiritual you are not saying that the thing you are believing in has no specific characteristics. You are just saying that you don’t know what they are.

          So vague spiritualists believe in something just as specific as the christian god. They just leave it open for the moment.

          If your position is that any belief in specific immaterial things should be dismissed, it includes vague spiritualists just the same.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          Karma doesn’t have any “evidence” either.

        • Ken B says:

          The kind of payback is never specified. Nor is the timing. Absence of payback is attributed to some unseen mitigation. This kind of vagueness guards against falsification.

          • YM says:

            I have an interesting karma story. A few years ago in our first year of med school, one of my friends in my group like smeared some stuff on my other friend’s lab coat when we were dissecting cadavers, like it was like a hand print of cadaver juice or something on his back. But later, when we had this official ‘white coat’ ceremony where we were all supposed to look nice and stuff, we all noticed that on the guilty friend’s coat, he had some stain on there, and neither he nor anyone else knew where it came from. Could that have been karma?

            • Christopher says:

              Could that have been karma?

              Probably too specific for Daniel Kuehn. But let’s say you met him a couple of years later and it turned out he had become unemployed and broke – that might be vague enough.

          • Daniel Kuehn says:

            I think the dying part is what guards against falsification!

  2. Daniel Kuehn says:

    That’s not to say that people don’t also peddle a “hey – cool vibe” spiritualism, of course. They do.

    But I think a lot of people talk about spiritualism but dismiss religion because most religions don’t offer nearly as much justification for the claims you’d have to adopt.

    • Z says:

      That’s true, but what justification is offered for karma or anything else?

  3. Daniel Kuehn says:

    To put it in econometric language, your vague spiritualist would rather be unbiased and inefficient than biased and efficient.

    Usually we consider that to be the right way of drawing inferences from observations.

  4. guest says:

    Question Evolution

    Clearly, the paradigm is paramount and everything must be done to save it. Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin is very candid about this fact. In The New York Review of Books he makes this remarkable admission:

    Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs…in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

    • guest says:

      To be fair, he’s referring to how the process of testing deterministic things must be done.

      He’s not admitting to intentionally deceiving people.

  5. devo says:


  6. Yosef says:

    Bob, I don’t know the specific Jung quote, but could the cool kids just be using soul as a useful metaphor for consciousness? The way people often talk about waiting for their muse, or being struck by Cupid. They aren’t being necessarily spiritual, but rather are communicating using established metaphors to convey more complex thoughts. If a biologist, in a discussion of an organism’s focus on survival and reproduction, says the it is driven by Eros and Thanatos, would you say he is being spiritual, or just communicating by relating to familiar and existing expressions?

  7. Eric Evans says:

    “For example Bill Hicks absolutely excoriates religious believers, but he in turn was quite spiritual…”

    This is a misleading impression. Hicks didn’t absolutely excoriate religious believers, he absolutely excoriated what he deemed as fundamentalist Christians, which was a popular topic for comedians during the Reagan-Bush era. He never really explored spirituality in terms of other religions in his comedy.

    I don’t think there was ever a doubt that Hicks identified as a Christian, or at least with the Christian God. And based on his recorded works, the audience wasn’t typically comfortable when he mentioned it either. Much as with George Carlin’s ‘Big Electron’, atheist liberal orthodoxy isn’t equipped to deal with such challenges.

  8. Egoist says:

    It’s cool to believe in

    Adapa, Adrammelech, Aeon, Agasaya, Aglibol, Ahriman, Ahura Mazda, Ahurani, Ai-ada, Al-Lat, Aja, Aka, Alalu, Al-Lat, Amm, Al-Uzza (El-‘Ozza or Han-Uzzai), An, Anahita, Anath (Anat), Anatu, Anbay, Anshar, Anu, Anunitu, An-Zu, Apsu, Aqhat, Ararat, Arinna, Asherali, Ashnan, Ashtoreth, Ashur, Astarte, Atar, Athirat, Athtart, Attis, Aya, Baal (Bel), Baalat (Ba’Alat), Baau, Basamum, Beelsamin, Belit-Seri, Beruth, Borak, Broxa, Caelestis, Cassios, Lebanon, Antilebanon, and Brathy, Chaos, Chemosh, Cotys, Cybele, Daena, Daevas, Dagon, Damkina, Dazimus, Derketo, Dhat-Badan, Dilmun, Dumuzi (Du’uzu), Duttur, Ea, El, Endukugga, Enki, Enlil, Ennugi, Eriskegal, Ereshkigal (Allatu), Eshara, Eshmun, Firanak, Fravashi, Gatamdug, Genea, Genos, Gestinanna, Gula, Hadad, Hannahanna, Hatti, Hea, Hiribi, The Houri, Humban, Innana, Ishkur, Ishtar, Ithm, Jamshid or Jamshyd, Jehovah, Jesus, Kabta, Kadi, Kamrusepas, Ki (Kiki), Kingu, Kolpia, Kothar-u-Khasis, Lahar, Marduk, Mari, Meni, Merodach, Misor, Moloch, Mot, Mushdama, Mylitta, Naamah, Nabu (Nebo), Nairyosangha, Nammu, Namtaru, Nanna, Nebo, Nergal, Nidaba, Ninhursag or Nintu, Ninlil, Ninsar, Nintur, Ninurta, Pa, Qadshu, Rapithwin, Resheph (Mikal or Mekal), Rimmon, Sadarnuna, Shahar, Shalim, Shamish, Shapshu, Sheger, Sin, Siris (Sirah), Taautos, Tammuz, Tanit, Taru, Tasimmet, Telipinu, Tiamat, Tishtrya, Tsehub, Utnapishtim, Utu, Wurusemu, Yam, Yarih (Yarikh), Yima, Zaba, Zababa, Zam, Zanahary (Zanaharibe), Zarpandit, Zarathustra, Zatavu, Zazavavindrano, Ziusudra, Zu (Imdugud), Zurvan, Acidalia, Aello, Aesculapius, Agathe, Agdistis, Ageleia, Aglauros, Agne, Agoraia, Agreia, Agreie, Agreiphontes, Agreus, Agrios, Agrotera, Aguieus, Aidoneus, Aigiokhos, Aigletes, Aigobolos, Ainia,Ainippe, Aithuia , Akesios, Akraia, Aktaios, Alalkomene, Alasiotas, Alcibie, Alcinoe, Alcippe, Alcis,Alea, Alexikakos, Aligena, Aliterios, Alkaia, Amaltheia, Ambidexter, Ambologera, Amynomene,Anaduomene, Anaea, Anax, Anaxilea, Androdameia,Andromache, Andromeda, Androphonos, Anosia, Antandre,Antania, Antheus, Anthroporraistes, Antianara, Antianeira, Antibrote, Antimache, Antimachos, Antiope,Antiopeia, Aoide, Apatouria, Aphneius, Aphrodite, Apollo, Apotropaios, Areia, Areia, Areion, Areopagite, Ares, Areto, Areximacha,Argus, Aridnus,Aristaios, Aristomache, Arkhegetes, Arktos, Arretos, Arsenothelys, Artemis, Asclepius, Asklepios, Aspheleios, Asteria, Astraeos , Athene, Auxites, Avaris, Axios, Axios Tauros,Bakcheios, Bakchos, Basileus, Basilis, Bassareus, Bauros, Boophis, Boreas , Botryophoros, Boukeros, Boulaia, Boulaios, Bremusa,Bromios, Byblis,Bythios, Caliope, Cedreatis, Celaneo, centaur, Cerberus, Charidotes, Charybdis, Chimera, Chloe, Chloris , Choreutes, Choroplekes, Chthonios, Clete, Clio, clotho,Clyemne, cockatrice, Crataeis, Custos, Cybebe, Cybele, Cyclops, Daphnaia, Daphnephoros, Deianeira, Deinomache, Delia, Delios, Delphic, Delphinios, Demeter, Dendrites, Derimacheia,Derinoe, Despoina, Dikerotes, Dimeter, Dimorphos, Dindymene, Dioktoros, Dionysos, Discordia, Dissotokos, Dithyrambos, Doris, Dryope,Echephyle,Echidna, Eiraphiotes, Ekstatophoros, Eleemon, Eleuthereus, Eleutherios, Ennosigaios, Enodia, Enodios, Enoplios, Enorches, Enualios, Eos , Epaine, Epidotes, Epikourios, Epipontia, Epitragidia, Epitumbidia, Erato, Ergane, Eribromios, Erigdoupos, Erinus, Eriobea, Eriounios, Eriphos, Eris, Eros,Euanthes, Euaster, Eubouleus, Euboulos, Euios, Eukhaitos, Eukleia, Eukles, Eumache, Eunemos, Euplois, Euros , Eurybe,Euryleia, Euterpe, Fates,Fortuna, Gaia, Gaieokhos, Galea, Gamelia, Gamelios, Gamostolos, Genetor, Genetullis, Geryon, Gethosynos, giants, Gigantophonos, Glaukopis, Gorgons, Gorgopis, Graiae, griffin, Gynaikothoinas, Gynnis, Hagisilaos, Hagnos, Haides, Harmothoe, harpy, Hegemone, Hegemonios, Hekate, Hekatos, Helios, Hellotis, Hephaistia, Hephaistos, Hera, Heraios, Herakles, Herkeios, Hermes, Heros Theos, Hersos, Hestia, Heteira, Hiksios, Hipp, Hippia, Hippios, Hippoi Athanatoi, Hippolyte, Hippolyte II, Hippomache,Hippothoe, Horkos, Hugieia, Hupatos, Hydra, Hypate, Hyperborean, Hypsipyle, Hypsistos, Iakchos, Iatros, Idaia, Invictus, Iphito,Ismenios, Ismenus,Itonia, Kabeiria, Kabeiroi, Kakia, Kallinikos, Kallipugos, Kallisti, Kappotas, Karneios, Karpophoros, Karytis, Kataibates, Katakhthonios, Kathatsios, Keladeine, Keraunos, Kerykes, Khalinitis, Khalkioikos, Kharmon, Khera, Khloe, Khlori,Khloris,Khruse, Khthonia, Khthonios, Kidaria, Kissobryos, Kissokomes, Kissos, Kitharodos, Kleidouchos, Kleoptoleme, Klymenos, Kore, Koruthalia, Korymbophoros, Kourotrophos, Kranaia, Kranaios, Krataiis, Kreousa, Kretogenes, Kriophoros, Kronides, Kronos,Kryphios, Ktesios, Kubebe, Kupris, Kuprogenes, Kurotrophos, Kuthereia, Kybele, Kydoime,Kynthia, Kyrios, Ladon, Lakinia, Lamia, Lampter, Laodoke, Laphria, Lenaios, Leukatas, Leukatas, Leukolenos, Leukophruene, Liknites, Limenia, Limnaios, Limnatis, Logios, Lokhia, Lousia, Loxias, Lukaios, Lukeios, Lyaios, Lygodesma, Lykopis, Lyseus, Lysippe, Maimaktes, Mainomenos, Majestas, Makar, Maleatas, Manikos, Mantis, Marpe, Marpesia, Medusa, Megale, Meilikhios, Melaina, Melainis, Melanaigis, Melanippe,Melete, Melousa, Melpomene, Melqart, Meses, Mimnousa, Minotaur, Mneme, Molpadia,Monogenes, Morpho, Morychos, Musagates, Musagetes, Nebrodes, Nephelegereta, Nereus,Nete, Nike, Nikephoros, Nomios, Nomius, Notos , Nyktelios, Nyktipolos, Nympheuomene, Nysios, Oiketor, Okyale, Okypous, Olumpios, Omadios, Ombrios, Orithia,Orius,Ortheia, Orthos, Ourania, Ourios, Paelemona, Paian, Pais, Palaios, Pallas, Pan Megas, Panakhais, Pandemos, Pandrosos, Pantariste, Parthenos, PAsianax, Pasiphaessa, Pater, Pater, Patroos, Pegasus, Pelagia, Penthesilea, Perikionios, Persephone, Petraios, Phanes, Phanter, Phatria, Philios, Philippis, Philomeides, Phoebe, Phoebus, Phoenix, Phoibos, Phosphoros, Phratrios, Phutalmios, Physis, Pisto, Plouton, Polemusa,Poliakhos, Polias, Polieus, Polumetis, Polydektes, Polygethes, Polymnia, Polymorphos, Polyonomos, Porne, Poseidon, Potnia Khaos, Potnia Pheron, Promakhos, Pronoia, Propulaios, Propylaia, Proserpine, Prothoe, Protogonos, Prytaneia, Psychopompos, Puronia, Puthios, Pyrgomache, Python, Rhea, Sabazios, Salpinx, satyr, Saxanus, Scyleia,Scylla, sirens, Skeptouchos, Smintheus, Sophia, Sosipolis, Soter, Soteria, Sphinx, Staphylos, Sthenias, Sthenios, Strife, Summakhia, Sykites, Syzygia, Tallaios, Taureos, Taurokeros, Taurophagos, Tauropolos, Tauropon, Tecmessa, Teisipyte, Teleios, Telepyleia,Teletarches, Terpsichore, Thalestris, Thalia, The Dioskouroi, Theos, Theritas, Thermodosa, Thraso, Thyonidas, Thyrsophoros, Tmolene, Toxaris, Toxis, Toxophile,Trevia, Tricephalus, Trieterikos, Trigonos, Trismegestos, Tritogeneia, Tropaios, Trophonius,Tumborukhos, Tyche, Typhon, Urania, Valasca, Xanthippe, Xenios, Zagreus, Zathos, Zephryos , Zeus, Zeus Katakhthonios, and Zoophoros..

    Just don’t use the E-word.

  9. Ken B says:

    You’ve finally done it Bob, you’ve made a Sunday post I can endorse.

    I slam Sam Harris on the same grounds and so do many of his (other) admirers. End of Faith is a superb book, until WHAM Harris’s own vague spiritualism takes centre stage. What, you were just bashing the other guy’s religion, you exempt your own??? Harris denies that and claims we all misread him. I hope so. (I’d like to hear your opinion on the book! :> )

    Materialism straight up, “Darwin’s dangerous idea”, is not the easiest medicine.

    • Daniel Kuehn says:

      What do you think of my point above, though? Certainly there are material arguments for those experiences that lead people towards a vague spiritualism, but you can’t really claim that because there’s a material argument we’ve nailed it all down yet.

      • Ken B says:

        I mostly agree. I think Bob has a point though: oh sure you mock ME for this stuff but you won’t turn the same skepticla eye on your own vague emotional responses. That’s a fair cop.

        I agree we have mental and emotional experiences that have generally gone under the rubric spiritual. That they are not “spiritual” in the sense of being the result of spirits but merely an aspect of having a human mind whose operations we don’t fully understand, is a difficult idea. If you are (I cannot resist!) smug about the powers of your mind to tap into reality you will balk at this; if you believe you’re a jumped up monkey you’ll find it easier.

        Most people use ‘spiritual’ as praise. Except when applied to Christians. Bob has a legit gripe here. ‘Spiritual’ should connote a certain confusion in either case!

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Ken B. wrote:

          Most people use ‘spiritual’ as praise. Except when applied to Christians. Bob has a legit gripe here.

          Yeah, that’s a pithy way of putting it, Ken.

          • Ken B says:

            Thanks. But you left out the pithiest part!

  10. Sam Geoghegan says:

    Another dude who flames Christians and secular fundamentalists alike, is Chris Hedges, although it would seem that he is a Christian himself, also stridently liberal.
    From what I can make out, it’s not so much belief that he deplores, it’s the blinkered religious dogmatism mixed with nationalism, bigotry and neo-con political loyalties.
    These activists have a point don’t they? Fundamentalists have turned Christianity into a hate-filled cult. It would be wrong to say they’re all like that.

    • Z says:

      I agree to a certain extent. But I think in general the word ‘hate’ has been overused. Anytime anyone disagrees with something, all of a sudden they are accused of ‘hate.’ Hatred is found on both conservative and liberal sides in equal portions.

    • Ken B says:

      ” Fundamentalists have turned Christianity into a hate-filled cult.”

      I disagree.

      Before replying, considering how many ways therre are to disagree with that claim.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        You sly fox.

      • Sam Geoghegan says:

        And why would I do that? You can just tell me..

    • Tel says:

      There’s been a few like Pastor Terry Jones who went out of his way to provoke Muslims (but everything he did was within his rights to do, it was just unnecessarily confrontational).

      Also the Westboro Baptist Church seems to have a knack for pissing off a lot of people in the hope of getting a reaction.

      Probably most of the taint against Christians hasn’t been the Christians themselves, but successful “progressive” political propaganda and use of divisive issues like gay marriage, and compulsory payments for abortion, as wedge issues. So now they can say, “Ha ha, if you don’t support gay marriage, you are a fundamentalist whacko.”

      It’s a clever way of capturing the moral ground, because what they are really saying is, “If you don’t support gay marriage on our terms, where everyone must give full respect to whatever we define as marriage, then you are a fundamentalist whacko.”

      You can be sure the exact same political opportunists will throw the gays under the bus any time it suits them to roll out the next phase of their “one size fits all” lifestyle design. Any fringe groups who think they can live peacefully amongst central planners are dangerously fooling themselves. Socialism can only tolerate homogeneity… that is the endgame.

  11. Teqzilla says:

    Well, Christianity is very white and middle american, at least from the perspective of your typical ‘deep’ thinker, and these are both terribly uncouth things to be. Vague and unmoored spirituality on the other hand is eastern, exotic, and best of all, something that dumb rednecks could never get their tiny heads around.

    Another great thing about spiritualism is that it is completely undemanding. You get to become part of something bigger than yourself without conceding that there actually is anything bigger than yourself. Anything you feel or think is elevated just by having asserted your spirituality. Why bother with a bossy killjoy like God when you can turn the whole universe into your yes man.

  12. Sam Geoghegan says:

    I even heard Dr. Phil use the term spirituality. It must be cool in a nondescript, warm and fuzzy house-wife-accessible kind of way as well.

  13. Blackadder says:

    I think Bob hit the nail on the head with the talk of the cool kids table. Hippies are cool. Fundies are not. One of the first things you learn in school is: you don’t attack the cool kids.

    • Christopher says:

      What school is that?

      • Major_Freedom says:

        The cool schools of course.

  14. joeftansey says:

    “In contrast, a vague, “hey man there’s something bigger than me Out There” vibe can’t be demonstrably refuted.”

    Social desirability bias to the max.

  15. Ken B says:

    I have more sympathy here for Bob than he might expect. I really dislike the vague oneness with the universe stuff he attributes to some of the cool kids. It seems to me to licence self congratulation, self-regard, and smugness in away that Christianity (or Islam or Judaism) does not. If you are a Christian you are tied by certain doctrines; you are not just a free-range great soul. You might be inclined to smugmness, but your faith also teaches you you’re a sinner. It has a limiter built in, it demands some attempt at logical coherence, because it make specific claims. New agism does not.

    • Z says:

      That’s why you don’t find too many of the cool kids converting to islam, though it may be exotic to some degree, like buddhism and such. Partly because people associate it with violence, but also partly because you actually have to give stuff up to become muslim.

  16. Sam Geoghegan says:

    Sorry to harp on about this guy, but Bob, would you define Hedges’ faith as vague and spiritual?
    To me it’s pantheism, yet he regularly speaks through the Bible and suggests that religions are human interpretations.


    This will probably get lost under a flurry of new posts.

Leave a Reply