By Maria Runde, December 26, 2010
What is “the soul”? I do not refer to the mind or consciousness, but rather the immaterial essence of an individual life that God supposedly instills in every human being.
Common understanding of the soul is that it represents the immortal, animating life force in every human being, and which is indestructible and persists forever after the death of the body.
Of course, there is no scientific evidence for the soul. The concept that we call “the soul” comes from religious and philosophical writings from numerous cultures and religions.
There is hardly consensus on what the soul is, what its characteristics might be and where it goes after the death of the body. Some believe that the soul is created first and then given to the individual. Others suggest the body came first and then a soul is given to it, and still others maintain the two were created simultaneously.
Another possibility is that there is no soul, and that when the body ceases to exist, we are gone forever.
What does Scripture tell us about when the soul is given to us? The Judaic God gives the soul to a person at the time of his or her first breath, as mentioned in the Old Testament, “And the Lord God formed man (of) the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” (Genesis 2:7).
Many Christian faiths believe the soul is present at the time of conception, thus the well-worn argument against abortion. But what happens to that soul if the pregnancy were to spontaneously abort (the medical term for miscarriage) at this stage? Does the fetus go to heaven? It wasn’t cognizant of anything at all because its brain hadn’t yet formed, so how does it achieve salvation by accepting Jesus as its Lord and Savior?
At least 25 percent of all fertilizations result in spontaneous abortions. How do the faithful explain why an innocent fetus self-destructed and what happens to the soul of that fetus?
There is a phenomenon where a single fertilized egg splits into two or three or four separate embryos during the early phase of human development. The babies resulting from this event are called identical twins, triplets or quadruplets. Where do the extra souls come from, if the original embryo received a single soul at the time of fertilization? Does the original soul divide itself into two or more parts? Or do the extra embryos get their souls later in development, so that technically those lives did not begin at conception, but at some point later?
There is also a lesser-known phenomenon called chimerism, where one embryo is absorbed by another, thus fusing two individuals into one. Does the remaining fetus then acquire its sibling’s soul?
Anthropologists have identified many hominid species that predate “human beings,” as we have come to call ourselves, but some of these human-like life forms would be indistinguishable from Homo sapiens in their physical appearance to the untrained eye. Did Neanderthals have souls?
Their time on Earth overlaps ours to a degree, and recent evidence suggests that there may have been interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans. Where does one draw the line religiously at what is “human” and what is not? So did God give Adam dominion over Neanderthals too, or where do they figure in the Creation story?
When I was in the seventh grade, one of my most beloved teachers, a sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth who was also the most scientific of my nun-teachers, taught us that evolution and the story of Genesis might be compatible. She surmised that somewhere in the millennia of creation that led to humans, God inserted the soul — thus completing the transition from pre-human to Homo sapiens. I found that explanation satisfying at the time, because it neatly combined the two disciplines that exemplified my life — love of science and “good Catholic girl.” However, there is no more evidence for sister’s explanation than what apologists have been doing with biblical inconsistencies.
My perception of myself is that I am no different than any other living thing. I am a biological creature like any other, capable of reproduction, self-preservation and (in the case of higher mammals) emotions. But I am no more special than any of these, and I can accept that knowledge without angst.
I do not believe I have a soul in the religious sense of the word. I know I have a life essence at this moment, and that’s all I need. I do not believe that there is anything of substance that will persist beyond my physical body, and I therefore have the challenge to make the most of every day of life I have.
Reflecting on the words of Mark Twain, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”