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The Atheist’s Soul

April 23, 2015

Atheism, Religion

The Soul

My book club is like an extended family. We have been going long enough that we have already seen three of our number pass away, one from suicide, one from illness and one from not-so-old-age. I mention this only to convey that our members, a sprinkling of bright, secular-minded, financial types, techies and assorted professionals, are all old enough to have experienced at least some of the dark side of life, as well as much of the pain and suffering we invariably inflict on ourselves as a result of our all-too-human frailties. Yet, the other day, my suggestion to read a book about how popular culture portrays the soul and the afterlife, was met with blank stares. After all, to the modern secular mind the soul and the afterlife are just mystical, superstitious beliefs, unworthy of consideration outside of a religious studies course.

Unfortunately, this is to see science and religion as at odds with each other, rather than as practices offering different responses to the human condition. While science attempts to explain, religion attempts to provide meaning. Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, for which they will continue to require religion. To understand how popular culture treats the soul and the afterlife is to gain a greater understanding of the way we see ourselves as well as knowledge of our deepest yearnings.

On reflection, I should not have been too surprised at the book club’s reaction. After all, it’s difficult to even define the word ‘soul’, which is something like a person’s essence, more than personality and character, but immortal and with an ethical dimension. Like much in Christianity the idea of an immortal soul predated the Christian era. Socrates explained that the immortal soul, once freed from the body, is rewarded for good deeds and punished for evil ones. For Plato, man is meant to attain goodness and return to the Ideal through the experience of the transmigration of the soul. Christianity adopted some of these ideas so enthusiastically that Socrates and Plato were actually regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints.

In medieval manuscripts the soul is sometimes represented as a miniature baby inserted by God into an infant’s mouth at the moment of his or her birth. At death this baby is taken away by God or the Devil, depending on how well or poorly its owner had cared for it over the years. If we ditch the mysticism and the immortality, surely it does not stretch credulity to admit that there is something tender and vulnerable within us that needs care and attention throughout our life. It is something that at various times we are forced to acknowledge and respect, as when someone says, “I spent my life working as a bean counter, but my soul was never in it”. We can postpone addressing the soul’s needs, even avoiding them for a while, but sooner or later the soul makes its claim. We instinctively recognize people who have honored their soul just as we recognize those, who at the end of a lifetime of lies, deceits and subterfuges, have a soul so twisted that their face has begun to mirror it, contorted in a permanent expression of rage and despair.

Unfortunately, although psychology literally means the study of the soul (psyche), with few exceptions (such as James Hillman), we will not get much help from this field, which chooses rather to deal with complexes, types, temperaments and traits. So, atheists take heart, professionals may insist that souls abide only in the realms of magic, madness and religion, but if you carefully search within, you may still find yours, just make sure not to tell anyone.

_________________

“What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.” John Gray

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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87 Comments on “The Atheist’s Soul”

  1. UpChuckingwords Says:

    I think that would be an excellent topic, Malcolm. Did you a,ready have a title in mind? I enjoy reading your blog because you always dig deeper, below the surface.

    Reply

  2. madblog Says:

    I enjoyed this very much, very insightful.

    Reply

  3. Mikels Skele Says:

    Acknowledgment of one of your definitions of soul, of course, does not automatically imply acceptance of the others, much less the immortality of it, or even its existence as a non-physical entity.

    Reply

  4. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Great ending, MG – the last clause, esp.

    “Like much in Christianity the idea of an immortal soul predated the Christian era”
    I remain a bit confused when you speak of certain Biblical tenets that had antecedents in philosophies before the Christian era. The “era” helps because you’re referring to the inception of Christianity ushered in by the historical Christ and his followers. But by definition Christianity refers to the marriage of the Old and New Testaments, so I’m not always sure how one could predate Genesis.

    “Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, for which they will continue to require religion.”
    This was my favorite line in your response on IB’s board. Keen assertion. You sound like a prophet. =)

    It’s such a shame that -ologists dismiss the (needs and demands of the) soul because it often harbors the root issues for which people seek treatment (esp in psychology).

    Reply

    • Middlemay Farm Says:

      You’re good, Ms. Wayfarer 🙂

      Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      HW, thank you. The Old Testament does not really speak much about an afterlife at all and little, if anything, is said about an eternal reward in either heaven or hell. As to the notion of a soul, the word does not even appear in the Old Testament so it definitely looks like Christianity got the idea from Aristotle and Plato. Here is Wikipedia on the subject:

      “The traditional concept of an immaterial and immortal soul distinct from the body was not found in Judaism before the Babylonian Exile,[1] but developed as a result of interaction with Persian and Hellenistic philosophies.[2] Accordingly, the Hebrew word nephesh, although translated as “soul” in some older English Bibles, actually has a meaning closer to “living being”.”

      I would like to hear more from you on the “needs and demands” of the soul if you are open to it. I wonder how your own conception of soul differs from the one I spoke about in the post.

      Reply

      • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

        “The traditional concept of an immaterial and immortal soul distinct from the body was not found in Judaism before the Babylonian Exile” Now that is interesting. I’ve not given much thought to this, but the Psalms (many of which are emotional prayers) alone are replete with references to soul and spirit:

        “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Ps. 43.5 which most scholars ascribe to David (before Babylon). The OT also makes reference to Sheol, the place of the dead/dark, about which Wiki says, “When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, the word “Hades” (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol, and this is reflected in the New Testament where Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of the evil it represents.”

        As to your question on the needs of the soul, that is a post all its own. But it is what I have said elsewhere, that we are not machines whose behavior can be isolated for manipulation or direction. We ACT and intend from the deeper place of our desires and fears (these two things often bedfellows, as we fear that our longings and demands will not be met). It is all to say we are more than (the disturbing) behavior (we present for treatment).

        And as for not telling anyone you have a soul, MG…your secret is safe with us. =)

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          HW, the references to ‘soul’ you mention in the Old Testament are translations from the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ which only means soul in the sense of self, individual, person, a life, or being, not in the sense of a spiritual soul. As to the concept of an afterlife in the Old Testament, there is a debate on the subject, but the consensus seems to be that there is very little reference to the subject in the Old Testament. As to what Sheol was, interpretations range from a place of the unrighteous dead (those who die before their time as a result of sin) to a poetic expression describing the extreme state the writer is in i.e. similar to a modern expression such as, “This is hell”.

          I do not claim to understand exactly what you mean by the “deeper place of our desires and fears” but this is probably not the appropriate place for an extended discussion on the subject. I do appreciate you keeping the secret of my soul’s existence 🙂

  5. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    “Unfortunately, this is to see science and religion as at odds with each other, rather than as practices offering different responses to the human condition. While science attempts to explain, religion attempts to provide meaning.”

    This would be fine if religion only attempted to provide meaning. It does not. It delineates mechanisms thought to explain natural phenomena, hypotheses which can be tested. The conflict between Galileo and Pope Paul V, for example, was over science not meaning.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Michael, just as there were 16th century mathematicians and astronomers like John Dee, who straddled both science and magic, so there were 16th century religious figures who attempted to straddle both religion and science. This proves nothing as the realms of science, religion and magic were only just becoming distinguishable. Also, you are wrong that the conflict between Galileo and Pope Paul V was over science not meaning. The Roman Catholic Church had much more than science on her mind in butting heads with Galileo. His heliocentric theory came on the heels of the Reformation when the Church was already hypersensitive to any challenge to her authority. The Church, fearful of losing both her grip and the trust people placed in her teachings, made a power play by opening the case against Galileo.

      Reply

      • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

        Malcolm, are you claiming the attempts at scientific explanation in the Bible are not illustrations of religion practicing science, but of religion “straddling” science?

        Can your theory, then, that science and religion are not at odds with each other, be falsified? If so, how?

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, not all knowledge is testable. The theories of economics are not generally testable because economics is a deductible science. If you asked me to test my theory that chess and chequers are two different games I would suggest you try moving your pawn diagonally in a game of chess and watch the reaction of your partner. It is just that the rules of the game are different. Smilarly, try persuading a Catholic priest that you have tested the wine and can claim definitively that it is not the blood of Christ or indeed, anyone’s blood! He will not accept your evidence because he is playing by different rules.

          In the bible a prayer to end famine would not be falsifiable because there would always be an explanation to explain failure, as in “we are too wicked”. Again, it is just that the rules are different between science and religion.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Sorry Malcolm, I may have communicated my point poorly.

          It is this: since the Bible describes, explains, and predicts natural phenomena, it clearly has one foot in “attempts to explain” (the province of science), not only in “attempts to provide meaning.”

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Unfortunately the word ‘explain’ covers multiple sins. For example, the bible tries to explain why the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea but it does so in the context of a moral parable i.e. they were being punished because they had enslaved the Israelites. I don’t think this is the kind of explanation you had in mind.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Malcolm, it seems you’re ready to argue all attempts at explanation (your word originally) in the Bible are parables. If I’m mistaken, please site one of the many therein which is not.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          The Deuteronomic Code contains several sanitation instructions, in particular, Deuteronomy 23:12-13 contains instructions to dispose of human waste away from the population, in order to keep locations holy.
          The Old Testament contains a variety of health related instructions, such as isolating infected people (Leviticus 13:45-46 ) and washing after handling a dead body (Numbers 19:11-19 ). In addition, the Book of Leviticus provides instructions on handling of wet and dry plant seeds that may have come into contact with an animal’s corpse. (Leviticus 11:37-38 ).

    • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

      Fine, but what’s your point?

      Reply

      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Michael, I was simply answering your question assuming that there was a point to it and you would enlighten me in due course:

        “Malcolm, it seems you’re ready to argue all attempts at explanation (your word originally) in the Bible are parables. If I’m mistaken, please site one of the many therein which is not.”

        Reply

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Thanks, Malcolm, I understand your response now.

          Science attempts to explain the mechanisms underlying effects in the natural world. What causes the harvest moon? What causes cancer? What caused the universe to come into being?

          I was requesting these types of explanations in the Bible that are not parables, I wasn’t asking about instructions–they’re not what we began discussing. Remember our subject was explanation (science) vs. meaning (religion).

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          The particular instructions I copied do imply some primitive scientific hypothesis, like sick people should be isolated from healthy people because the sick can pass on their sickness to others. It is a completely different type of explanation than, say, all sick people are sinners.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          “While science attempts to explain, religion attempts to provide meaning.”

          Are you retracting your earlier contention, above?

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, not at all:

          “Asians are good at math”
          “I know some Asians who are not good at math so please retract your first statement.”
          “???”

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Are you saying sometimes religion attempts to provide meaning but sometimes it attempts to explain?

  6. insanitybytes22 Says:

    Interesting post, Malcolm. People really need to read about the soul and afterlife, if for no other reason, to explore the human experience and the nature of ourselves.

    Reply

  7. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    I think your topic of popular culture and the soul would be fascinating—especially since it’s pop culture. Your book group’s reaction reminds me of my friend’s reactions when they saw I was reading Bush’s book. They looked at me like I must have lost my mind. Where’s the curiosity?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Where’s the curiosity indeed. However, presumably your friend just wasn’t interested in the subject matter, while in the example of my book club it wasn’t just a lack of curiosity, but an a priori assumption that there could be nothing of value in the subject under discussion.

      Reply

      • rung2diotimasladder Says:

        Nah, it’s because they’re liberals. I am too for the most part, but I thought it would be interesting to read the book. And they too had that assumption that there would be nothing of value. But imagine if it had been eloquently written? (I’d probably conclude it was a ghost writer, but that would be an interesting conversation in itself.) Imagine if it had revealed someone they couldn’t imagine, someone completely different? How else would they know except by reading it? Instead they’d rather go on with their knee-jerk reaction against someone who they thought was dumber than nails yet who still managed to become president. I always wondered whether he was as dumb as he seemed, whether it was an act. That was what fueled my curiosity.

        Same goes for your question. Religion in pop culture is a topic that gives us a wide angle lens on society…that would be interesting. TONS to talk about. But I think people don’t want to read things that might rub them the wrong way. Not that their views would be challenged, (I never read Bush’s book thinking my political views would be challenged) but they might not want to look at things from that kind of distance. I would see it as an interesting way to see what patterns emerge, what does the average person believe?

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          people don’t” want to read things that might rub them the wrong way.”

          That’s what it boils down to. It’s very difficult to cultivate the attitude that you can learn something from everyone. In fact I think those people are called saints 🙂

      • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

        “in the example of my book club it wasn’t just a lack of curiosity, but an a priori assumption that there could be nothing of value in the subject under discussion.”

        Malcolm, cognitive-behavioral therapists would call your claim mind-reading.

        As a member of the book club my not voting for your selection was a matter of prioritizing my reading time. I am curious and assume value in all your recommendations. Most of our fellow book club members feel similarly.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, I’m afraid you are being too literal again. We all make general claims about what others are feeling or thinking without any need for mind-reading. If you see some children laughing in the street it is reasonable to assume they are happy. My assumption was a reasonable one based on the reactions I observed. You, of course might very well have been the exception 🙂

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Malcolm, my observation of what you were thinking and feeling at the time was this: you felt betrayed by the lack of support for your book nomination and then immediately felt vindicated by the thought their disregarding this rich domain in life is unenlightened and narrow-minded.

          Isn’t there a better way than reading minds? Yes. I suggest refraining from final judgement until you ask the person involved what they’re thinking and feeling. Not immune to error, yet more likely in most cases to come closer to the reality.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Asking everyone why they thought they had acted the way they did is certainly one option, although it might not be convenient or even possible to do so. My take was based on facial expressions, an option that required no additional research. Moreover, the research to validate my conclusions would be overkill because it is not central to the point of the post. I mentioned the book club only as a literary device to introduce the subject of the post. That is why I said you were being too literal. However, I want to say that I do appreciate all your attentive input on this blog.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          “My take was based on facial expressions.”

          In reality, your take was based on your subjective interpretation of facial expressions. This is prone to error, especially when self-interested motives are a factor.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, everything is prone to error but are you saying you can’t reasonably identify, happy, sad, astonished and jealous facial expressions, especially in the right context?

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Malcolm,

          Not at all. I’m saying your take was not “based on facial expressions.” It was based on your subjective interpretation of facial expressions. To a significant extent, people see what they want to see.

          Subjects in psychology studies in the lab do fine in identifying facial expressions of gross emotions such as happy, sad, angry, and fearful. However when they’re emotionally involved in a real world situation and the emotions identified are subtle, such as a feeling of “nothing of value under discussion,” this is prone to significant misinterpretation.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, I was not in a lab, I was in a real life situation with people I have known for 25 years or longer. We have discussed every subject under the sun so there was some deep context behind the assumption. If you want me to admit that the assumption may not have applied to everyone, fine, but I have a high degree of confidence that it applied to a number of members. This is the real world, this is what all of us do all the time when we make assumptions about what kind of films, books and presents our friends and family members would like, and while we are sometimes wrong, in the vast majority of cases we are right.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Speaking of real life situations, I was depressed for most of my young life before I discovered Dr. Albert Ellis, who was to become my therapist at age 19. It was not uncommon then for someone who knew me to ask, “Why are you so angry?” They misdiagnosed my depressed demeanor as anger and at times as anger toward them.

          As a therapist, I see with my clients a similar misattribution in their reading of intimate associates. In its most pathological state this is called “ideas of reference,” the false notion that people are reacting to you when they emote or act. There are evolutionary psychology explanations for this. My larger point is we all have this tendency which it’s useful for us to be aware of in our daily interactions.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I agree with you Michael. That is why in my interactions with people, I always give them the benefit of the doubt.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          “in the example of my book club it wasn’t just a lack of curiosity, but an a priori assumption that there could be nothing of value in the subject under discussion.”

          I’m pleased to hear it, yet in the beginning of your essay it didn’t sound to me like you were giving them the benefit of the doubt, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          That’s very noble of you Michael 🙂

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          There you go Malcolm, mind-reading again. My crass motivation was to impress your readers with what a high-minded person I am. 🙂

  8. L. P. Says:

    Hi Malcolm,

    I really enjoyed this post because I’m scientifically minded but accept that there are phenomena that science doesn’t yet (and who knows if it will ever) explain. Hence, as you stated, science and spirituality aren’t necessarily in conflict as they address different realms of life.

    However, I’ve enjoyed the work of scientists like Robert Lanza, who wrote Biocentrism, for his attempt to explain some spiritual phenomena from the standpoint of unexplainable scientific phenomena (the mysterious “observer effect” in quantum physics, how light exists as photons and waves – and what happens when light passes through the slit experiment). Some critics regard his musings as hokey, but I think it’s a gutsy and thought-provoking attempt to connect science and spirituality.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Lynn, thank you for recommending Biocentrism. I was not aware of Robert Lanza’s work but having read about his big picture, paradigm shifting ideas I definitely intend to buy the book. It’s suggestions like this that make blogging so rewarding.

      Reply

  9. Snowbird of Paradise Says:

    When we refer to a soul, I’m not sure we are all thinking of the same thing. In fact, when I ask people when they mean by “soul” the answers vary widely and tend to refer to psychological and sociological concepts with an undefined link to eternity. I accept that it refers to some essential personal sense of self, but otherwise I just don’t get it.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      You are right that people have very different definitions of the soul but that should not deter us from trying to separate out the wheat from the chaff and I think you come very close to it when you say it refers to “some essential personal sense of self”.

      Reply

  10. jhana jian Says:

    “While science attempts to explain, religion attempts to provide meaning.” ”

    An excellent clarification, but the accuracy of the second part depends upon how one defines religion. In one sense, the statement is true, but in another sense, it is questionable.

    I personally agree with the statement because I take the word “religion” in the broad sense of the word as the spirit of religion. On the other hand, I don’t see how organized religion (with the exception of some individuals) has attempted to provide meaning to our lives.

    Christianity in particular has traditionally depended upon fear and greed (i.e., reward and punishment) to perpetuate itself. Its concern has been with itself as an institution, not with its adherents. For example, one of the main tenets of Christianity is the idea that our very birth is drenched in sin. That doctrine is not an attempt to provide meaning; on the contrary, it’s an attempt to make us dependent on the church for our soul’s salvation.

    We could of course fill a book going back and forth on this issue. Suffice it to say that I agree with your statement, but that depends upon one’s definition of religion. It is in the spirit of religion that we attempt to give meaning to our lives, but the spirit of religion cannot be institutionalized, it can only be realized (or not) by the individual as we make our way through life.

    “Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, for which they will continue to require religion.”

    I disagree. Religion may be involved, but I don’t think it’s a requirement.

    An excellent post, Malcolm, as usual.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “our very birth is drenched in sin.”

      Jhana, thank you. I always look forward to you thoughtful perspectives. As you know I’m an atheist but I try to look sympathetically at religion, even and especially, organized religion. My take on the concept of original sin is that Christianity recognized that what can often stop us from reforming ourselves is the thought that we are so wicked that we are beyond help. Knowing that everyone is flawed in the same way is actually extremely helpful because it enables us to strive to be better without feeling ashamed. We are also more likely to accept help from a “fellow sinner” than we are from someone whom we suspect is patronizing us.

      “the spirit of religion cannot be institutionalized”

      Maybe, but another way of looking at it is to say that it was the genius of the Christian Church to package its message into a combination of beautiful churches, beautiful art, schools, hospitals, rituals, monuments and calendars. Plato recognized long ago the limitation of ideas alone when he said that the world would not be set right unless philosophers became kings or kings became philosophers.

      “Religion may be involved, but I don’t think it’s a requirement.”

      You are right, I should have qualified this statement. We do all need meaning in our lives, but some of us find it in philosophy, literature and/or art.

      Reply

      • jhana jian Says:

        Yes, the church and organized religion as a whole are paradoxical, just as we as individuals are often paradoxical. I appreciate both sides of the coin. Look at me. I too am an atheist so far as most people would define the word. Yet one look at my blog shows that I have an abiding interest in religion, and that I too take an appreciative (and even somewhat reverential) view of religion, both organized and not.

        Regards always

        Reply

  11. Mike Says:

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    Always very thoughtful!

    Reply

  12. lang3063 Says:

    Malcolm, I really appreciate your reasoned perspective on topics like this. If we can’t ultimately agree at least we can enjoy fruitful discussion, learn some important things and maintain an atmosphere of genuine respect. That’s my understanding of what the western intellectual tradition aspires to.

    Reply

  13. aaforringer Says:

    As you know I recently (as in last of couple of years) had major changes in my life, and I had a major change in my beliefs, from one of strict Conservative Christianity to now more of a Deist world view.

    One conundrum I have had is what to do with my writings that espoused my world view, to now, not so much.

    I am not angry with or hostile towards that view, more like live and let live to those that have it. (whatever gets you through the night) As long as you are not actively hurting people go forth and be happy.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      You have evolved and grown as a result of your life experiences and I respect and admire that my virtual friend. It is those who have similar experiences but who do not change that I feel sorry for. I have known quite a few people whose views have never changed throughout their life and they are rarely interesting people. As to your writings that’s a post on its own. What does one do with writings, collections, memories etc., that one no longer has use for?

      Reply

  14. laurainman Says:

    I don’t understand what a soul is or is supposed to be. “Soul” is a nice, poetic word but i have never seen, heard, felt, or in any way experienced a soul. Do non-humans have souls? I hear words and phrases frequently that have a nice ring to them that really mean nothing to me. This morning I heard on a radio program “On Being” that one purpose of religion was “to redeem the universe”? I know the word “to redeem” but, the universe? What was she trying to say and how could it make any sense?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Laura, thank you. I appreciate your participation in this discussion. There are plenty of things inside your body that you have “never seen, heard, felt or in any way experienced” but they nevertheless exist. We also can’t limit ourselves to just what we can understand. A child doesn’t need to understand what is in mother’s milk to need to know to drink it and I occasionally lift weights in the gym to build muscle but I have no idea why this works other than it has always done so. I don’t believe I have made any mystical statement in this post although I did make a connection between the medieval idea of the soul as a baby and the widespread belief that there is something very important in the concept of self that needs nurturing and protecting.

      As to redeeming the universe I will say that one of my posts is called The Smile that Redeemed the Human Race. Here I used the phrase “Redeemed the Human Race” as a literary flourish to suggest that one good deed might be enough to make up for many bad ones.

      Reply

  15. Dalo 2013 Says:

    Enjoyed this discussion, and the range of beliefs (very strong ones) at times surprises me but then I take heart in it as it shows what a true mystery life is for us all. I fall more into the camp where people “instinctively recognize people who have honored their soul” and but then I figured out after finishing your post that I do not really believe in that…as it is irrelevant. What is relevant, and vitally important is tied up in your ending quote: “What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.” And to tie that back in to how your opened your post, part of the experience of life means experiencing “…at least some of the dark side of life” Cheers ~

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Randall. I’m glad you focused on the ending quote because it does convey a very important message. Most people think of religion in terms of doctrine but beliefs plays a very small part in organized religion, which is mainly about practice, traditions and rituals governing everyday life. Who cares what people believe as long as they act well?

      Reply

  16. D.G.Kaye Says:

    Much to ponder over Malcolm. I think it’s best said by Gray, what matters is how we lived our lives.

    Reply

  17. cattalespress Says:

    Malcolm, for a guy with so many secular-minded people around, you are always so incredibly spirited and soulful; you have extended so much inspiration to me that it is beyond the realm of gravity!…Did you convince your book club or are you all back to reading a secular brand?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “Spirited and soulful”, thank you, I really like that description but, of course, the point of the post was to show that atheists can be spirited and soulful too. I think I have lost the battle over that particular book but the ‘war’ continues 🙂

      Reply

  18. cattalespress Says:

    Reblogged this on WTF? (Where's the faith?) and commented:
    Malcolm is magnificent. Every time I ponder a topic for WTF: Where’s the faith, Malcolm comes up with an idea I can work from! As far as WTF goes, I believe that anyone who has gone through personal loss and crisis has done a least a wee bit of “soul searching.” More to follow…

    Reply

  19. L. Marie Says:

    Very thought provoking as usual. I find it interesting that your book club did no wish to read that book. Were some of the members hoping to avoid polarizing viewpoints?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      No, I don’t think it had anything to do with polarizing viewpoints, we love those :-). Rather, it was a lack of interest in something they considered of little or no value. In short, if there is no soul or afterlife, why bother to study how they are portrayed in popular culture?

      Reply

  20. Ashley Says:

    You’re a coward and a disingenuous apologist for a religion. You are a pathetic excuse for a human being.

    Reply

  21. Aquileana Says:

    Hi Malcolm!.
    .A thorough and clever post as per usual… I particularly liked the excerpts in which you do a sort of genealogy of Atheism and highlight that Christianity assumed certain ancient ideas according to which somehow that Socrates and Plato were actually regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints. 🙂
    All the best to you!, Aquileana 😀

    Reply

  22. Daniela Says:

    Your thoughts in this post resonate my own! I am just reading a very good book titled ‘An atheist’s history of belief’!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Daniela, how interesting as we have a history of thinking about the same subjects at approximately the same time. I checked out that book by Matthew Kneale and it does seems interesting. I look forward to seeing whether it stimulates you to write a post on the subject.

      Reply

      • Daniela Says:

        Indeed we have! Some people might call even call it a bit odd! And by the way – nice photo -:)! Have a wonderful week ahead!

        Reply

  23. authorbengarrido Says:

    In my experience, western atheism is more accurately described as anti-Christianity or, even more fundamentally, anti-religious right-iness. This, while understandable, is not very sophisticated and, I think, misses a much more interesting discussion.

    This atheism as an expression of antipathy for mouth breathing fundamentalists and snake handlers is, in my opinion, why so many atheistic arguments center on things that are absolutely not necessary for the existence of god, things like the problem of evil. It’s also why you almost never hear atheists talking about non-Christian conceptions of God. When was the last time one of your book club members went after Buddhism, for example?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Excellent points Ben. I accidentally stumbled into one of those “anti-religious right-iness” blogs and all hell broke loose with obscenities reigning down on me for being a supposed apologist for religion. As you say, they are not very sophisticated and miss the more interesting discussion.

      Reply

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