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Thought for the Day and the nature of the soul

In today;s Thought for the Day Lucy Winkett, rector of St James's Church in Piccadilly, was talking about the abuse that had taken place at the Winterbourne View centre for adults with learning disabilities. She rightly condemned this as cruel and iniquitous, but I was struck by one phrase she used: she referred to 'each soul inhabiting each body'. This interested me so much that I hardly took in the rest of what she had to say.

Christian listeners would, I imagine, have found nothing surprising in the reference to souls 'inhabiting' bodies. An immortal soul that separates from the body at death is what mainstream Christian doctrine presupposes. But where does it come from?

As Rosalie Osmond points out in Imagining the Soul, the Christian idea of the soul is very similar to that of Plato, who also conceived of the soul as immortal and departing from the body at death. Aristotle's account, in contrast, left little room for immortality or separation from the body. Yet it was Aristotle's philosophy that was endorsed by Thomas Aquinas. 'Nothing in Aristotle's account leads to the idea of the survival of a human soul with an individual personality, but this difficulty was largely ignored or glossed over by later Christian commentators.'

So there seems to be a basic contradiction in the way that Christians conceive of human nature. Lucy Winkett's remark doesn't make much sense unless you understand it in a Platonic context, yet Christianity is based on Aristotelian philosophy.

David Cameron a vaguely practising Christian

David Cameron tells us that he is 'a committed Christian but vaguely practising'. This, of course, is a very English attitude to religion. I suppose it means that Cameron thinks that Christianity is true but only goes to church once or twice a year, at Christmas and New Year. It also probably means that he has never thought about it very deeply.

In spite of holding this rather illogical position, Cameron insists that we ought to be more Christian in order to uphold morality. No evidence is offered for the alleged dependence of morality on religion, and specifically on Christianity. This on a par with Cameron's insistence on marriage as a guard against family breakdown, which I have written about previously here.

Cameron's view of religion appears to be based mainly on practical considerations. It reminds me of Gibbon's description of attitudes to religion in the Roman empire: 'The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. '

Mona Siddiqui on 'honour killings'

I've said here previously that Mona Siddiqui always talks sense on Thought for the Day. She proved this again today, when she dismissed the practice of so-called honour killings of women by fathers, brothers, or cousins as murder, plain and simple, with no justification in Islam. If only a lot other speakers on the 'God slot' were up to her standard.

Book review: The Figure of the Historical Jesus, by E.P. Sanders

For much of the twentieth century, many scholars held that we can know very little about the historical Jesus. But Sanders is less pessimistic; he thinks we can know quite a lot, although plenty of questions will always remain.

Jesus was a first-century Jew, and we cannot hope to understand him without a good grasp of the conditions in which he lived. Sanders therefore uses the first part of his book - about a hundred pages - to explain what Jesus's world was like. This brings out some differences with the picture most Christians will have obtained from the gospels. For example, although Palestine was under the control of Rome, this did not mean that people's lives were constantly being controlled by an occupying army. The Romans did not administer their minor provinces directly but used intermediaries. Galilee, where Jesus grew up and carried out his teaching, was relatively free under its ruler, Herod Antipas. [More]

More on belief and religion

I posted a piece yesterday on the role of belief in religion, in which I said that the focus on right belief which is so characteristic of the history of Christianity in the West is not necessarily true of other religions. In Our Time today was on Shinto, and it was very relevant to the role, if any, of belief in religion.

Shinto, it appears, derives ultimately from shamanism and is concerned with the propitiation of other-worldly powers (kami), which may affect us adversely if they are offended. The kami do not seem to be 'gods' in the way we think of divinities. There are Shinto 'scriptures' which deal with mythological history but they are not sacred writings. There is no divine creator in Shinto; the world emerged out of mud, it was not created. The Japanese islands arose as the result of sexual intercourse between a primordial brother and sister. The sister is very important in the later history of Japan and the imperial dynasty descends from her.

There is a lot of ritual in Shintoism, which takes place at the numerous shrines, both large and small. These are served by hereditary priests, who may be of either sex. They do not preach, because Shinto is not concerned with issuing moral precepts. People who come to the shrines perform ritual purification by washing but this is not a question of freeing oneself from 'sin'.

Shinto has no doctrine of its own; it borrows from Buddhism, Taoism, and even Christianity. It was not originally concerned with an afterlife, but from the nineteenth century onwards there have developed offshoots from Shinto that offer salvation and relate to a future life.

Some outsiders have denied that Shinto is a religion (they have said the same of Buddhism). Certainly it lacks those elements, such as belief in a central God who created the world, and an elaborate ethical code, which Christians think are intrinsic to religion. As so often, it comes down to definitions. I think myself that Shinto must be classed as a religion, but it is one in which formal doctrine does not exist. What you do seems to be more important than what you believe.

Role of belief in religion

John Gray's A Point of View, which was broadcast last Sunday, dealt with question of belief as a foundation for religion. Gray is not himself religious but he has no sympathy with the 'modern atheists' who want to do away with religion in the name of scientific rationality. Religion, according to Gray, is mostly not concerned with acceptance of creeds but is a 'repository of myth'.

In other words, religions tell stories. This is a view I sympathise with - in fact, it is at the core of my book Religion, Language, Narrative and the Search for Meaning. For many people, religion matters to them in much the same way as does drama or literature. In ancient Greece going to the theatre was a form of religious experience. And the forms of Christian worship that are flourishing most vigorously today are those that involve a lot of singing and clapping and mininal intellectual content.

In a review of my earlier book, Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination, Edward Tabash disagreed with my view that religion would always exist.


With enough time and a sufficiently pervasive rationalist educational outreach encouraging people to ground their beliefs in rational thought, science, philosophy, and the empirical method, the general public--or at least very large numbers of people--could be moved to question and doubt all religious dogma.


This is the idea that Gray is criticising, and I think he is right to do so. But the fact remains that once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine and his successors, the question of correct belief became central to it. And that is still largely true today. Biblical literalists reject Darwin's ideas and insist on the factual accuracy of Genesis. For such people, myths are taken to be literally true. And while Gray is right to say that other religions may not share this emphasis on the role of right belief, Christianity is the dominant religion in the world today.

Book review: Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman is writing here mainly for Christians who believe in the divine inspiration of the New Testament, to show that it is a very human document, with abundant contradictory views of who Jesus was and what his life and teaching meant. This has been the standard view of scholars for the last two hundred years but it has not reached many people who attend church on Sundays, and even clergy who have learned these facts in their studies don't take them into account when preaching. [More]

Mona Siddiqui on Thought For The Day

Thought For The Day is often lampooned by secularists for its perceived banality, and I have to say that most of the contributors elicit in me feelings ranging from boredom through irritation to downright fury. One notable exception to this trend is Mona Siddiqui, who is Professor of Islamic Studies at Glasgow. She invariably talks sense and is refreshingly honest.

Today, for example, she was speaking about assisted dying, and she admitted that although her religion prohibited helping someone to end their life she didn't know if she could refuse if she were ever asked to do so by one of her children. Few Chrstians are as honest about themselves as this.

Religion bad for your brain?

A recent study reported in PLoS One has found that there is increased atrophy of the hippocampus in certain religious groups.

Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was observed for participants reporting a life-changing religious experience. Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also observed from baseline to final assessment among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.

This was a fairly small study (268 older individuals) and obviously needs to be replicated before it is accepted as correct. Still, it is intriguing. We are constantly told that religion is good for your health but is it? The hippocampus is critical for the formation of long-term memories and it shrinks in people who are subjected to stress, so the authors suggest that higher anxiety levels may explain the increased atrophy in those who experienced a life-changing religious experience. The experience itself could be stressful, either at the time or later, or the state of mind that preceded the experience might have been stressful.

The finding of atrophy in people who lack religious belief seems paradoxical. The authors once again invoke stress as an explanation, but presumably this would be valid more for people who were somewhat uncertain in their disbelief rather than in those who were quite confident atheists. Being irreligious is probably more stressult in the USA than it is in Europe.

Alternatively, the cause and effect relationship, if any, could go the other way. Perhaps having hippocampal atrophy predisposes you to have certain kinds of religious attitude. All in all, this study raises many more questions than it answers.

More on the Second Coming

Six o'clock has now passed and we are still here, so we can breathe again. In this morning's Thought for the Day the Rev. Joel Edwards rejected the attempts of biblical numerologists to extract dates for the end of the world from scripture. Yes, he said, the Second Coming is indeed central to the New Testament but we don't know when it will be or what form it will take. In the meantime, we are exhorted to work for a better world and to be found at our post, doing our duty when the day comes.

Well, this is obviously a saner way of thinking about these questions, but it ignores the fact that Jesus was, in fact, an apocalypticist who expected the end of the world either in his own lifetime or very soon afterwards. That this is so is obvious to anyone who reads the texts without preconceptions. I remember puzzling over it as a boy during my Catholic upbringing. For a scholarly but readable discussion of this, see Bart D. Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

Martin Rees accepts the Templeton award

Martin Rees's acceptance of the £1m Templeton award has, no surprise, been condemned by a number of prominent atheists, including Richard Dawkins. Rees says that he has no religious beliefs. but the Templeton Foundation is concerned with fostering "spiritual" awareness, which some see as a sneaky way for religion to infiltrate science and education.

The Foundation's "mission statement" (an appropriate term in the present case?) is as follows:

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

Our vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton's optimism about the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The Foundation's motto, "How little we know, how eager to learn," exemplifies our support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.


I have the greatest admiration for Rees's popular writings on science, a number of which are reviewed on my site. I wouldn't presume to judge his motives in accepting the award, a decision which I'm sure he thought about seriously. Even a couple of his critics, speaking on the radio this morning, admitted that they would themselves have found it difficult to turn down such a large sum, though one of them said he would use it start an anti-Templeton foundation! To refuse it would have been a noble (or Quixotic?) gesture, but Rees, though not religious, regularly attends Anglican services which he describes as "the customs of his tribe", and he also believes that there are aspects of reality that our brains are probably incapable of comprehending, so I expect he found no great difficulty in endorsing the Foundation's aims to the very limited extent that he has.

Dr Giles Fraser on survival of death

Today's Thought for the Day was contributed by the Revd Giles Fraser, who has a background in philosophy. He was talking about death, and told us that he doesn't believe in personal immortality. Christians, he said, are popularly supposed to believe that when they die they go to some other realm and continue to exist in some disembodied form. "Just to be clear, I believe nothing of the sort." He is no Platonist, believing in a soul that persists after death. "When you die, you die."

This seems to contradict the last 2000 years of Christian teaching. So is Dr Fraser a Christian in the same sense as Don Cupitt? Is he, in other words, an atheist who still maintains he is a Christian? I don't think so. He doesn't believe in personal immortality but he does believe in eternity. Augustine and Boethius, he said, described entering eternity outside time. What, if anything, this means I have no idea. Dr Fraser's reference to Blake's "seeing eternity in a grain of sand" doesn't really help much. It needs more than a five-minute talk to introduce ideas like this. I have to say that invoking eternity, which by definition we can't understand or imagine, is something of a cop-out.

Peter Stanford on the Devil

In a recent article in The Independent (24 February 2011), Peter Stanford wrote about exorcism in the Catholic Church. Stanford is a Catholic but he doesn't believe in the Devil. The Church does still accept the reality of the Devil, but as a modern Catholic Stanford is "convinced that the Devil is just a face the church has traditionally put to the otherwise intangible presence of evil in the world"; the Devil is "someone I don't believe exists".

Stanford tells us about Father Gary Thomas, a priest from California whose experiences were the basis for the film The Rite. Thomas was sent to Rome by his bishop in 2005 to train as exorcist. He was reluctant to go, being unconvinced about the reality of possession, but he completed his training successfully and has subsequently exorcised five people who, he believes, were genuinely possessed. But this work has made him vulnerable. "My celibacy gets attacked a lot", he says. Some might prefer to attribute this to testosterone rather than to Satan.

I share Stanford's scepticism about the Devil but I can't helping wondering why he finds it impossible to believe in the existence of one invisible person while, presumably, accepting the reality of at least one (or three) others.

Is there anybody out there with a soul?

Yesterday's Independent had an article with this title by David Whitehouse. It was about how Christianity would react to the discovery of alien life but it contained an elementary theological error. It quotes the director of the Vatican observatory as saying that Jesus could only have come once - to us on Earth. But Christianity holds that the Incarnation was needed to redeem fallen humanity. If the aliens are not fallen there would be no need for the Incarnation. Exactly this theological question was at the centre of C.S. Lewis's science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, and also of the second book in his SF trilogy, Perelandra. Earth was 'silent' because it was in quarantine as a result of the Fall.

I would be less interested in whether aliens have souls (do we?) and more in whether they have any sort of religious belief. If they do, it would suggest that the formation of belief in invisible beings who watch over us and are concerned about what we do is an inevitable accompaniment of advanced intelligence. If they don't, we should have to assume that we are the victims of a collectice delusion.

Atheism in politicians

As we contemplate the resurgence of the religious Right in the USA, it's a relief to reflect that being an atheist is still no bar to political success in Britain. Two of our party leaders, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, have publicly identified themselves as atheists. I imagine that to do this in the USA would automatically guarantee one's rejection in the polls.