Christians and other theists believe in the soul. Or at least they claim to. But even fairly sophisticated believers have what is an incredibly simplistic idea of the soul. One of the most extreme ideas of this comes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe that there will be heaven on earth (quite a reasonable reading of the Bible), with everyone living in the idyllic conditions we know so well from The Watchtower. But it is just silly to suggest that the essence of our being is our personality. How can it be when chemicals can fundamentally change how people behave?
This came up this morning when I read Andrea’s article at Nice Atheist Girl, Suicide Deconstructed. It is a response to Matt Walsh’s incredibly presumptive article, Robin Williams Didn’t Die From a Disease, He Died From His Choice. Andrea does a good job of dealing with him on the issue of suicide. I just want to talk a bit about this bit about his simplistic theology:
This is offensive on so many levels. For one, the implication here is that Robin Williams died because of a defective soul. But it doesn’t matter. Walsh is a small minded commentator whose brain was apparently born without much in the way of empathy, who writes articles like, “I’m Spoiled and Lazy but Walmart Should Pay Me More Money Anyway!” What does matter is that he thinks there is that secret sauce of the “soul” that makes us who we are.
The Greek idea of a soul was that it was our essential nature. But when added to the idea of immortality, the idea get distorted. It is the thing that will live forever if one is a good little girl or boy. But how can that have anything to do with personality? People can be given drugs that totally change their personalities. People can be given experiences that totally change their personalities—for example, childhood abuse. Just on the simplest level, nice people are sometimes turned mean when they drink.
I think this idea that one’s consciousness will be transported to heaven on death is simple wish fulfillment. It is the basis for most religious belief: people are afraid of death. But this is religion as comforting fairy tale. It provides no kind of insight into the nature and paradox of existence. That is bad enough.
But Walsh’s argument curses not only the vagaries of brain chemistry but also the vagaries of the soul. This is an implicit indictment of God. Why did God give Williams’ that soul? And the Bible-as-user’s-manual doesn’t work either. I don’t know Williams’ spiritual thinking, but I assume he was not a Born Again Christian. So why did God give him a soul and brain chemistry that didn’t allow him to find comfort in the One True Word™? This leads us to issues of free will that I absolutely don’t have time to go into, other than to say that I don’t believe in free will and I don’t understand why anyone does.
The thing is that I don’t think Walsh has ever thought much about what the soul is. He’s just a typical cultural Christian who knows his side is right and when he dies he’ll go to the nice place with all the candy and ice cream he can eat. And that’s fine! I hope he’s happy. The truth is that I don’t think he has any more choice about being a shallow arrogant jerk than Robin Williams had with being depressed and finally killing himself. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Williams’ death was sad and Walsh’s thinking is childish.