Atheism and the Value of an Eternal Soul

* This post was originally published in April of 2010*

In a recent post, former scientist cum New Atheist apostle P.Z. Myers makes an oft heard naturalist claim that the human soul doesn’t exist. Not only do they not exist, it is good that it souls don’t exist as it frees us to enjoy the moment, find hope in an earthly future, and lay claim to all advancements as solely ours.

As is often the case with such claims by atheists, it ignores history, human nature, and is an inherently self-contradictory claim.

To take the last first and understand why the claim is self-contradictory we must start with P.Z.’s description of what humans essentially are, a description necessitated by atheistic beliefs:

“There is no immortal, constant part of any of us that will survive after death — our minds are the product of a material brain. We are literally soulless machines made of meat, honed by millions of years of ruthless, pitiless evolution. And so is everyone else.”

It’s important to dissect this for a moment. The description there creates a biological equivalence between humans and every other living organism on earth, or are least every animal. A mosquito, leech or rat would all be aptly described as “soulless machines made of meat” – and their worth would be ascribed accordingly. For the most part in human history human worth has been measured on a separate scale, particularly in the Christian Era. Humans were thought to be made in the image of the Divine and have been accorded eternal value – that the worth of their lives goes far beyond their biology. Atheism cannot find such inherent worth in humans and so it inevitably diminishes humanity.

Despite this reality Myer’s tries to conjure up a hopeful future, an imagined future, where imaginary progeny will enjoy the happiness of temporal pleasures:

“We do have hope for the future, too. Think for a moment about your community a century from now. Does it make you feel good to think that there will still be people living there then? That they will be talking about things that you find interesting, that they will be doing activities you also enjoy? Do you hope that life will be better for them? Even though we will be gone, we can still aspire to perpetuate our culture, and find satisfaction while we are alive in advancing that cause.”

This is where the contradiction comes in – having reduced humans to ‘meat machines’ he then wants us to delight in the possibility that future ‘meat machines’ will while away their time, perpetuating the ideas that give us joy now, perhaps even improving on our current lot. In this statement we see the derivative nature of atheism, the inherent assumption that our culture ‘just happened’ or that it could have happened absent the very sets of beliefs that brought us to where we are today. The reality is that we stand as a society on a foundation of beliefs that were by in large informed by the very things Myer’s is seeking to eliminate – that humans have inherent worth that goes beyond their physical existence, that are motivated by eternal realities.

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about great universities like Harvard, Yale or Princeton or great charitable works like the Red Cross or Salvation Army, or the thousands of hospitals and research facilities that Christians brought into existence. Or if we consider the great works of art, literature and music that have been created the last several centuries or even the foundational principles that inform Western nations, all of these exist in part or in whole because of the activity of believers who were informed by eternal considerations.

So history demonstrates that not only is the idea of a soul or eternal existence enticing, it is in fact a critical component of the civilization we enjoy and hope future generations enjoy. And the history of societies that have attempted to deny the existence of the eternal human soul isn’t very promising. Whether we are talking about the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, Maoist China or present day North Korea, the reality of societies that categorically deny the existence of the human soul does not give us hope.

And this is what many atheists (and a surprising number of Christians) seem to miss – the value of eternal security is not just in that it gives us comfort for the future; although that is certainly true, in a way atheism never can. The value of the eternal human soul is that it gives weight and worth to human existence today – and it informs how we will treat each other in this life. This truth is contained in one of the most widely read prayers of Jesus, commonly known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’:

“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.”

The eternal will of heaven, the intended dwelling of the human soul, informs us in the here and now. Our concerns aren’t only for the future, but for how this reality motivates us to act today. Because we exist not only for a moment in time, and because our value far outweighs the mere tasks we perform in this life, understanding the eternal nature of the human soul compels us to act to care for others. It also moves us to restrict our own immoral activities, which have consequences not only for the moment, but for all eternity. Indeed, nothing in atheism can or does motivate people to live in a similar fashion. We would be as PZ honestly states it merely temporary meat machines.

And many aspects of our equality and liberty only make sense in light of the existence of the human soul. Human do not actually have biological equality – whether we talk about intellect, or physical strength, or even genetics, humans are not at all ‘equal’ in any respect. The only means by which we can make that claim is if humans have equal inherent worth – an aspect which is beyond our physical natures. This has always been understood to be a soul. In the same way we are ascribed certain liberties which are endowed to us by a Creator – if those are not the product of eternal considerations, then they are merely privileges granted us by the state, and the state can remove them without recourse. This is a tragic possibility in a future where the existence of the soul is denied.

The reality is our treatment of others invariably aligns with how we see others. If we see others as property, we treat them as property. If we see them as merely biological organisms, we treat them as such. And if we truly see them as created in the image of God, eternal souls of great worth, then we accord them the appropriate deference. PZ Myers has told us how he and the New Atheists see their fellow humans – as ‘meat machines’. There is every reason to believe if they had the power, that is exactly how they would treat them.

7 Responses to Atheism and the Value of an Eternal Soul

  1. Lester Fester says:

    Just a couple of points.

    …former scientist cum New Atheist apostle P.Z. Meyers…

    PZ and others, when referring to you, at least do you the courtesy of spelling your name correctly. Doing otherwise, if it’s deliberate, comes across as childish as does the ‘former’ quip. You want to be taken seriously? Then take others seriously.

    Atheism cannot find such inherent worth in humans, and so it diminishes humanity.

    You’re making the common mistake of incorrectly ascribing attributes to people whose viewpoint you don’t really understand. If you want an atheist’s viewpoint, don’t make assumptions – ask an atheist. In this case, we’re just saying that there is no ‘soul’ that exists as a separate entity from the physical body. We don’t deny that consciousness, or an appreciation of art and beauty, or emotions like love and awe, exist – why would we? We experience them in the same way as deists. We just see them as manifestations of physical activity in physical brains rather than as a separate supernatural thing. You’re wrong in saying that atheism can’t find worth in humanity; it just does it in a different way.

    The fact that these sensations and emotions are a result of brain chemistry that’s developed over thousands of millenia is something that most atheists would agree, I think, is itself a thing of awe and wonder. That a doctor could point at a bit of my brain and tell me that’s the part that makes me love my wife doesn’t make my love any less strong or wonderful. This doesn’t diminish humanity – it elevates it. In my view the religious explanation – that it was made that way by a god – reduces all of nature to a tinkerer’s pleasure and that, I find, is diminishing to the point of insult.

  2. jackhudson says:

    PZ and others, when referring to you, at least do you the courtesy of spelling your name correctly. Doing otherwise, if it’s deliberate, comes across as childish as does the ‘former’ quip. You want to be taken seriously? Then take others seriously.

    No disrespect was intended, nor is it clear how a misspelling of his name would be disrespectful; in fact it is a common mistake even amongst his fans. And if I spelled my name Hudsn, I wouldn’t be so bothered that others misspelled it – not that PZ is all that considerate to begin with.

    Nonetheless, I will edit.

    You’re making the common mistake of incorrectly ascribing attributes to people whose viewpoint you don’t really understand. If you want an atheist’s viewpoint, don’t make assumptions – ask an atheist. In this case, we’re just saying that there is no ‘soul’ that exists as a separate entity from the physical body. We don’t deny that consciousness, or an appreciation of art and beauty, or emotions like love and awe, exist – why would we? We experience them in the same way as deists. We just see them as manifestations of physical activity in physical brains rather than as a separate supernatural thing. You’re wrong in saying that atheism can’t find worth in humanity; it just does it in a different way.

    Well, as a former agnostic and materialist, I am fairly familiar with the atheist viewpoint – and have over the years talked with numerous atheists. Not to mention they make their views clear constantly. So none of this has to be guessed at. And I am not talking about what atheists may or may not say, but what is possible for atheism as a philosophical position – and as one who is familiar with that position, I am saying whatever worth atheism appreciates or ascribes to humans, atheism cannot claim that worth is inherent to what humans are, because as PZ honestly states, humans are in the purview of modern atheism, mere meat machines. As much as that is true, there is no more inherent worth in human meat machine than any other similarly described organism.

    The fact that these sensations and emotions are a result of brain chemistry that’s developed over thousands of millennia is something that most atheists would agree, I think, is itself a thing of awe and wonder. That a doctor could point at a bit of my brain and tell me that’s the part that makes me love my wife doesn’t make my love any less strong or wonderful. This doesn’t diminish humanity – it elevates it. In my view the religious explanation – that it was made that way by a god – reduces all of nature to a tinkerer’s pleasure and that, I find, is diminishing to the point of insult.

    Well then you are easily insulted. Let me ask you this question, just as a mental experiment. Would it diminish your view of the love you have for your wife if you found out that she was not in fact real, but a figment or your imagination or a simulation that you had unknowingly been a part of?

    Would it diminish your love for your wife if you found out she was paid a great deal of money to marry you and spend her life with you?

    Why?

  3. Lester Fester says:

    …As much as that is true, there is no more inherent worth in human meat machine than any other similarly described organism.

    Which you seem to take to mean that this brings humans down, somehow, to the level of… what? Amoebas? An alternative view is that it elevates all other life forms to our level.

    However I think most people would agree that humans are ‘special’ in that we have hopes and desires and dreams, etc., that as far as we can tell is something uniquely human. But what’s that got to do with a soul? I think you’ve read too much into the ‘meat machine’ thing. There’s no ‘mere’ about it; the only difference is that atheists say our emotions, feelings, and all the rest are products of our physical bodies – which I and others find amazing and wonderful – while you believe that it’s all located in some formless, undetectable ‘soul’.

    Well then you are easily insulted…

    I didn’t mean I find it insulting to me personally. It’s an insult to people’s intelligence, is what I’m trying to say.

    Let me ask you this question, just as a mental experiment. Would it diminish your view of the love you have for your wife if you found out that she was not in fact real, but a figment or your imagination or a simulation that you had unknowingly been a part of?

    Would it diminish your love for your wife if you found out she was paid a great deal of money to marry you and spend her life with you?

    Why?

    You’ve missed the point and you’re asking the wrong questions. A better question would be: Does the idea that emotions are ‘merely’ the result of chemical and/or electrical processes in you brain devalue those emotions? And the answer would be ‘no’, and that goes for all the emotions I feel – love, hate, wonder, excitement, you name it. To broaden the question: does understanding how something works diminish your appreciation of that thing? For example I happen to find thunderclouds beautiful to look at; does knowing that they’re ‘merely’ water droplets suspended by atmospheric convection, or that the sense of fascination I get from looking at them originates purely in the meat of my brain, diminish their beauty?

  4. [...] they simply don’t honestly assess the implications of their own claims. Occasionally this occurs (as happens here, where PZ Myers acknowledges how atheism reduces humans down to mere biology) but more often than not they try to put a happy face on the nihilism and despair inherent in [...]

  5. Mike D says:

    So much wrong with this. You’re not actually answering your objections to a godless worldview – you’re just pushing them back an arbitrary step. You can ask questions in the here and now, like…

    Why should we value survival?
    Why should we care about living happy lives?
    Why should we care about the world we leave for our children?

    I don’t see why the same types of questions couldn’t be leveled at eternity:

    Why should we care about living forever?
    What difference does it make whether we suffer or not?

    If you would try to convince me, say, that not going to hell and suffering forever wouldn’t be in my best interest (i.e., it would suck), then there’s no reason the same rationale cannot be applied to life here on Earth.

    You’re also confusing biological equality with legal equality. There are innumerable perfectly rational reasons why we ought to value legal equality – like the fact that people are better able to contribute to the mutually beneficial betterment of society when they are not oppressed. How many African slaves could have been great scientists, great leaders, great teachers, great inventors? What if Christians had educated them instead of putting them in chains and defended their right to do so by appealing to the Bible?

    “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.” Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.

    The rest, I think, Lester provided a more than adequate rebuttal.

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