Soul Searching Project

Fall 2009



The Soul Searching Project evolved from an idea that originally went under something I called The God Problem.  In 2008, I gave a few talks under that title wherein I spoke about my concerns about religious disputes being the spark that could initiate a nuclear war over which tribe got the land rights to a gated community called heaven.  That has been a hot topic since the turn of the century as several popular books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens raised the same concern.  Their collective advice has been that religions are so dangerous they must be given up before life on the planet is entirely destroyed.  But religions have firm footings in history and to think people will drop their beliefs in God because someone told them to verges on magical thinking.

As I thought further about the topic, it seemed to me that one issue was not being dealt with.  Most religions postulate that something survives after death and that "something" is frequently called the soul.  The fate of the soul is an underlying theme in religious disputes because it is that entity that is either accepted or not accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven forever and forever.  But what constitutes the soul?   Is it God's gift to humans that separates us from other species or it something we manufactured on our own?   My materialistic perspective leads me to assume that the soul is a product of the mind and, from a cursory knowledge of the psychological literature on this topic, there isn't much to go on.  So, I changed The God Problem into Soul Searching.

I soon discovered that Soul Searching is such a large, interdisciplinary topic that I wouldn't make much progress on it if I followed by usual, go it alone, strategy.  At about the same time, a few graduate students asked me if they could join my lab.  Then a couple of undergraduates interested in the same topic asked me the same question.  Lab?  I don't have a lab.  Never have.  But I do now and it will be in operation beginning in September 2009, with 13 graduate and undergraduate students serving as research assistants.

The research team will been broken down into several interest groups that will specialize in the following topics: the history of and current perspectives on mind/body dualism including the idea that children are natural dualists, contemporary cognitive theories of religion, the history of hominid evolution particularly the evolution of the hominid brain, case studies of people who are born again and people who have lost their faith, comparative religions, social and cultural conditions conducive to belief and disbelief, and the onset of the "time-traveling self" in childhood.  There is a great deal of literature on each of these topics and each group will be responsible for composing written and verbal reports on the information they review.

Pressure will be placed on each interest group to formulate testable hypotheses. For instance, one branch of the larger undertaking to pursue is the ability to be in one location and imagine oneself in a different location and feel what it would be like to be in that imagined location.  This ability afforded human beings an enormous adaptive advantage that contributed to bringing us through the bottleneck of survival.  This time-traveling self is weightless, can move about wherever we will it to go, and is a primary candidate to be thought of as the soul.  Brain imagining studies and research with people suffering from amnesia have shown that episodic memory must be well established before one can "perceive" oneself in the future.  A deeper understanding of this phenomenon will require in-depth knowledge current research in memory and "theory of mind".


Strategic Objectives and Measures of Progress in Meeting Them

The Soul Searching Project will be conducting basic research on a basic topic.  It will feature a healthy blend of inductive and deductive reasoning geared toward the creation and testing of hypotheses that emerge from these considerations.  It will seek to create a balance between humanistic and scientific concerns and become a focal point for high quality scholarship.  Short-term progress will be assessed by how well the project gets organized in fall 2009.  The spring 2010 assessment will be based on the number of studies launched.  Long-term measures of progress will include the number honors projects and masters theses written, the number of papers published (or submitted for review), the number applications for research support submitted to NSF and other funding agencies, and the amount of outside (and interdisciplinary) attention given to the project.


Update -- December 2009

The question of whether or not the soul exists cannot be answered by science.  But we can study the causes and consequences of people's various beliefs about the soul and that is the area in which we are beginning to make progress.  Here are thumbnail descriptions of a few of projects that are currently under way.


Defining the Soul


A survey published in 2008 shows that 96% of the adult population in the United States believe that people have souls.  That percentage fluctuates worldwide but it is representative in that most people in most nations believe souls exist.  But what do people have in mind when they proclaim belief in souls?  One subgroup in the lab is looking into that question.  In addition to locating definitions in ancient and modern texts, they have begun analyzing over 900 "lay" definitions collected from students and adults of various ages.  Although it is too early to report their findings, it is not premature to announce that there is very little consensus in regards to the meaning of the concept.


The Soul Belief Scale

Another subgroup is pre-testing a scale intended to measure soul beliefs.  Their goal is to create a valid instrument that not only assesses the strength of soul beliefs but also identifies different facets of such beliefs by, for example, separating respondents who believe that souls exist from respondents who not only believe souls exist but also believe souls are released from their body encasements at the point of death.  This instrument will be a critical feature of some research this group has planned for the future.  One of their experiments is designed to test a theory that disgust (revulsion against our animal nature) is important in generating and maintaining soul beliefs.  One hypothesis is that research participants for whom disgust is made salient will more strongly endorse soul beliefs than they did prior to the manipulation.  A reliable Soul Belief Scale is essential for tracking change scores.

Cognitive Structures and Soul-Beliefs


A third group is delving into the difficult problem of discerning if any cognitive systems operate as foundations for soul beliefs or if soul beliefs are by-products (or "spandrels") of systems designed by nature for other purposes.  Brain systems of this sort are matters of great interest to cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and philosophers, so there is a lot of ground to cover. The relevance of "theory of mind" theory and research to this issue is a current focus of this group.

In the Wings


A few projects in waiting include a compehensive review of the literature on cultural transmission of belief systems, the role of human uncertainty in maintaining soul beliefs, and episodic memory as a pre-requisite for forming "future memories".  Future memories require the ability to project self-images into the near or distant future.  It is an unequalled human adaptation that enables us to anticipate and plan for what will or might come next.  Mental time travel of this sort is vital to our survival.  It is an ability that emerges gradually during childhood and, after it is in place, could constitute a major plank in the mental platform for belief in a soul (traveling self?) that is independent of the body and survives death.

My role in the project is to create and sustain a supportive environment for a remarkably talented group of students.  They are self-starters and are committed to the scientific study of important problems.  It is a privilege to work with them.

My other job is to seek outside funding for our activities and so far I have not been successful.  I am looking forward to the turning of the tide.

Our first all-staff event occurred in December 2009, when all members participated in an in-house colloquium for the purpose of delivering progress reports on fall term projects and presented plans for the spring semester.  It was darn good show.


Update – December 2011

A College Course on the Human Soul

In 2008, the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University launched a program that offers interdisciplinary courses to undergraduate students (primarily first year students) under the title of Signature Courses.  One of the special features of these courses is they are accompanied by recitation sections.  That means each course meets two times a week for 80-minute lectures and students discuss the weeks’ topics in the more intimate setting of 55-minute recitation sections.  Recitations are conducted by graduate teaching assistants and each section is limited to 25 students.   That sounds like a simple enough arrangement, but it’s costly.  Rutgers decided it was worth the price.


The catalog of courses at Rutgers reports that “Signature Courses tackle topics of grand intellectual sweep introducing students to questions of enduring importance, establishing a common basis for intellectual exchange among students and faculty inside and outside the classroom, and defining us as members of a common School of Arts and Sciences community.”  To keep up with the growing demand for these courses, a few new courses are added each semester under diverse titles like Politics and Social Policy: Lessons from Europe, Global East Asia, Energy and Climate Change, Immigrant States: Jersey’s Global Routes, Extinction, and Soul Beliefs: Causes and Consequences. 


The Signature Course initiative taken by Rutgers has wide appeal, and, in the ever growing competition for talented students, I suspect that other universities will follow Rutgers’ lead by providing students opportunities to take general education courses on Big Questions or Big Issues of profound contemporary importance.  Let’s face it.  It’s a fabulous, educationally sound, idea.  Most courses available to first year students in most colleges and universities are basic introductory courses, like Chem. (or Bio., Psych., Poly Sci., Calc., Hebrew, Comp. Lit., Anthro.) 101.  Now, at Rutgers, first year and transfer students can enrich their course loads (and their minds) by taking courses on topics that don’t neatly fit inside the boundaries of standard disciplines.  The goal of these courses is to expose students to the value of multidisciplinary approaches to problems, enormous problems, that cannot be adequately penetrated from a single perspective.  That way, when the President of the University on Commencement Day welcomes graduating seniors to the “world of educated men and women”, if he does that sort of thing, his message will be particularly meaningful for students who have taken a Signature Course. 


With one possible exception (the course on the human soul being the exception), all of the courses that were offered under the Signature Course label in fall, 2010, were unquestionably “on topic” in terms of dealing with issues of profound importance.  For instance, the blurb accompanying the course on Extinction says it “takes a multi-perspective, interdisciplinary approach to understanding extinction as a biological and cultural process and probes the meaning and significance of such processes for humans around the globe in the 21st century.”  The prospects of the demise of life on this planet are real and a course that exposes students to the complex nature of this problem has the potential to expand the minds people who could be in positions of sufficient power to stem the current tide.  


The Signature Course on Energy and Climate Change features an impressive list of Rutgers faculty members from the Departments of Chemistry, Marine, Earth & Planetary Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Physics, Planning and Public Policy/Economics, and Environmental Sciences.  The course is described as one that “introduces non-science majors to science and the scientific method in the context of one of the most critical challenges facing us today: society’s need for energy and the resulting impact on climate and the environment. The course surveys climatology, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, economics and public policy as they relate to energy and sustainability considered from a global perspective.”  Who could object to students becoming knowledgeable about such a pressing set of issues?


The Signature course on Immigration focuses mostly on immigrants to New Jersey.  A good choice because New Jersey is the Nation’s third most diversified states just behind New York and California.  The course covers issues regarding how communities are formed and immigrant identities are negotiated in the context of neighborhoods comprised of people with different racial, ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds.  New Jersey represents a perfect laboratory for studying the multiple dimensions of the worldwide phenomenon of immigration and the promises, strains, and problems that accompany it.   Kudos to Rutgers for adding another course on topics of critical importance and real life significance! 


Then there’s a course on the human soul, the exception I mentioned earlier.  The other courses just described deal with tangible topics of immense contemporary importance.  They deal with practical, here and now, problems that continue to escalate and warrant the attention of the best minds.  But the soul?  Where does that fit in?  One would think it does not belong on the same staging area as courses on extinction, energy and climate change, immigration, and any number of other courses taught under the umbrella of Signature Courses. 


A college course that offers credits for taking a course on the soul makes one wonder what has become of higher education.  At a time when math and science scores of high school students continue to plummet, a respected university has the audacity to offer and promote a course on the soul.  Is Rutgers trying to attract the attention of parents of scientifically challenged teenagers to help alleviate its budget woes?  One can imagine such a course being taught at a religious seminary or as a money-making, noncredit evening course for adults with time on their hands, but not as a legitimate course at a major university.  Who is responsible for such a debacle? 


I am.   Glad to get that off my chest.  Yes.  I did it.  I proposed the course and co-teach it with my colleague, Leonard Hamilton.  I’ll explain.


Soul Talk


The vast majority of people throughout the world believe that they and all other human beings are “ensouled” and the majority of soul-believers endorse the idea that souls are released from the body when it ceases to function.   For these people, actually the majority of people worldwide, the survival of the soul is taken to be a fact; a life-sustaining, life-guiding, fear-reducing, mind-calming, unquestioned, reassuring, “it’s going to happen” fact.  If you don’t believe me, ask a dozen or so neighbors.  Unless you live in an atypical community, nine (or at least eight) out of ten people will report that they have a soul and it will survive their death.


Given this wide-spread condition, how did it come about that a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-generational, trans-nearly-everything belief has remained outside the range of academic scrutiny?   I could make a pretty good case that it is a taboo topic, perhaps because it is so sacred that one must be careful not to step on people’s toes or “psyches”.  (When did you take a course on the soul?)   I can also make a strong case that it is an important topic, and an ideal candidate for interdisciplinary treatment. 


However, the idea of creating a course on that topic poses some problems.  For instance the soul lacks a common, agreed upon definition and that problem is confounded by the fact that most attempts to define it hover around the idea that the soul is immaterial.  It is not an object that can be measured or weighed (although some people have tried to do that).  Most people agree that it can’t be seen.  There is no agreement about where it resides.  Descartes’ pineal gland theory proved to be laughable and the idea that it exists everywhere and nowhere is not the slightest bit helpful.  Since these qualities remove the soul as a candidate for scientific investigation, one might expect that a course on the topic would be replete with pious platitudes and word salad lectures on what makes human beings so special and precious, and recitation sections would be comprised of students reciting some things they remember from lessons they were taught as 8- or 10-year olds in religious classes   These are some of the ingredients for a worthless course.  So, perhaps it makes no sense to publicly talk about this “whatever it is” thing or entity that many people believe occupies their tissues now and will forever represent them in afterlife when the clock runs out on their bodies.


But the situation is not as hopeless as it first might appear to be.  Even though most people agree that the soul is not a material object and thereby must be excluded from scientific inquiry, that does not prevent them from believing it is as real as the piece of furniture you are sitting on.  It does not prevent them from believing it is their responsibility to take good care of their souls in this lifetime so they can take up residence in a good place instead of a bad place for all eternity.  That does not prevent them from believing that some supernatural agent like God or one of his emissaries will ultimately judge their souls and determine their everlasting fate.  The critical word is in these sentences is believing.  Antonio Damasio (1994, 1997) has written about human beings as feeling machines that think.  For the present purpose, I will add a word to his assessment and say that human beings are feeling machines that think and believe.  With that addition, we are now in business.  Although it is not possible to transform the soul into a material object for scientific scrutiny, we are able to “measure” beliefs.  If that were not the case, many political scientists, social psychologists, survey researchers, and the like would be unemployed.  Do you believe you have a soul?  Yes or no.  If yes, join the 96% of an adult sample in the United States who agree with you (see Hallman, et. al., 2008).  How strongly do you believe you are ensouled?  Are you absolutely certain?  Pretty sure?   Not all that certain?  Check the answer that best fits your opinion and that will be your score.  It is also possible to assess the strength of people’s beliefs of a soul that survives death.  I’ve not found a survey that asks that question so I can’t tell you the percentage of people believe what you believe.  However, I am confident that if you affirm the idea that your soul will be heading off in one or another direction when you die, you are a member of a worldwide majority.


With these considerations in mind, the target of the “soul” course is not the soul per se.  Instead, as the formal title -- Soul Beliefs: Causes and Consequences -- suggests, the primary topics dealt with in the course are beliefs about the soul, the causes of these beliefs, and some of the consequences of holding these beliefs.  These and other elements of the course are captured in the following advertisement of the course:


Throughout history, the vast majority of people around the globe have believed they have, however defined, a “soul.”  While the question of whether the soul exists cannot be answered by science, what we can study are the causes and consequences of various beliefs about the soul.  Why are beliefs in a soul so common in human history? Is there some adaptive advantage to assuming souls exist?  What cognitive development is necessary in order to believe in a self that transcends the body?  Are there brain structures that have evolved specifically for maintaining soul beliefs?  Why?  How do these beliefs shape the worldviews of different cultures and our collective lives?  What is the role of competing afterlife beliefs in religion, science, politics, and war?  Soul Beliefs explores one of the oldest and most allusive concepts known to humankind.


The course title and its description was an attention-getter.  When it was first offered in fall, 2010, it had an enrollment limit of 250 students.   That cap was reached a month before the semester began and nearly 500 other students who attempted to register were denied admission. This expression of widespread interest in the topic did not surprise me.  A year and a half before offering the course, I had posted a sign on the door to my lab declaring it to be the Headquarters of the Soul Searching Project.  Even though my lab is off the beaten track, the notice immediately attracted the attention of over a dozen talented graduate and undergraduate students who wanted to be involved.  In fall, 2009, our work began.  Before I get to that, it is necessary to describe how I arrived at a decision to create a research headquarters that features the soul.

The God Problem


            My interest in the soul was preceded by a topic I called the God Problem.  The God Problem was the title of talk I gave at a conference in 2008 when I received The Henry A. Murray Award for outstanding contributions to the field of personality psychology.  Yeah, right, listen to him gloat!  Before you to go trotting off with that attitude, let me inform you that not many contemporary students and scholars are familiar with Henry A. Murray (1893 – 1988).   Although I was delighted to receive the award and thereby join other recipients who I greatly admire, Murray’s name is fading fast in psychology and many of his accomplishments are buried in the dusty archives of the history of psychology.  The chilling fact is Harry (not Henry) A. Murray was engraved on the plaque I was given.  The award ceremony in 2008 was given such low priority at the American Psychological Association convention that my talk was scheduled on the final day (Sunday afternoon) of a 4-day conference that took place in Boston in mid-August after most conferees had gone to the shore or the mountains or Las Vegas or wherever people go to recover from intense social networking.


 The size of my audience (small) was further reduced by the fact that the award is usually given to “personologists” (scholars who sometimes engage in softish science) and that term sends shivers of disgust up and down the spines of psychologists dedicated to the application of quantitative science to their discipline.  Adding insult to injury, the convention center was closing down as I spoke and only the few people were able to block out the sound of forklifts scraping poster board stands across the floor main auditorium. 


I asked my audience to imagine how tragic it would be if a battle over the land rights for occupancy of an imagined piece of real estate became the spark that ignited a global war that destroys all recognizable life on our planet.  The real estate is called heaven.   Millions of people believe heaven is real and view it as God’s reward for doing this life correctly.   The problem is most religions that postulate a heavenly abode agree that not every person is granted a ticket.  Heaven is mostly conceived as a gated community.  Valid keys are only given to people with the right credentials.  Several prominent manuals have been written, revised, and rewritten over many centuries that lay out pre-requisites for earning a key.  Here's the catch.  One manual demands that life be conducted according to one set of rules and one or another manual provides another set of directives and, uh-oh, some of the instructions in one manual contradict the instructions in another manual.  So how does one know which manual to read and which directives to follow?  What a pity it would be to arrive at heaven's gate with the wrong key or no key at all.  Not to worry.  Many people are willing to assist in making the right choice.  In fact, the people we know best and others we have been taught to respect are happy to provide us with our no-choice option.  Some of them are paid to do that.  It's their job.  They will explain to us why, according to their manual, other manuals are wrong, dead wrong.   In addition, some of the interpreters of their manual will cite some passages in which God issues directives about how to treat people who worship other gods or the even their God, but in the wrong way.   One option is to convince others to believe what they believe.  Another option is to make their lives as miserable as possible.  The most extreme option is to harm them, kill them if necessary.  After all, that's what they want to do to you.  They hate you as much as you hate them.  History shows that.  They want you off their land and you don't want them even close yours. Their ideas, habits, customs, rituals, even the clothes they wear, annoy you.  They find your traditions and customs equally appalling.  You suspect that false prophets, perhaps Satan himself, have hoodwinked them into working for fake keys and they are sure your key is designed for easy access to eternal damnation.  


All sides in this drama are convinced that God is watching.  He is keeping score, and He's the one with the ultimate authority over who gets or is denied a key. The lines between enemy camps have been drawn and redrawn throughout the ages.  Skirmishes between opposing tribes, major invasions (including one that lasted nearly a century), and the creation of death camps and killing fields have been fueled by arguments over the land rights to an imagined kingdom.  But never before have warring tribes had access to the kinds of weapons now at, or close to, their fingertips.  And so we find ourselves in a bind.  Millions of people believe their version of God is correct, that their pathway to eternal life is the only pathway.  Other versions of God’s wishes are wrong, so terribly wrong that leaders of opposing camps stand ready to use nuclear weapons to defeat the enemies of God and permanently poison this little spot in the universe in the process.   In the meantime, perhaps as a buildup to the final days, some Islamic youngsters living under hopeless conditions are trained and equipped to blow themselves and others to smithereens with bombs strapped to their bodies to promote a cause they barely understand, and Evangelical Christians fill stadiums to celebrate their God and urge him to hasten day of ultimate cleansing; the day when the righteous, the true believers in the true God, will rise up in glory and heathens will be consumed by the fires of hell.


Susskind (2008) issues a similar warning when he writes, "Those two genies of wish fulfillment -- messianic fervor and technological power -- have spotted each other.  If they come together, the world, as it is now known, will no longer exist.”


I informed my audience that, on good days, I foresee a nuclear war fanned by religious fanaticism as a possibility.  On bad days, I think it is likely.  On very bad days, I think it is inevitable. 


            In my conference presentation, I went on to speak about what I considered to be some of the psychological foundations of beliefs in God.  What I said was interesting enough to keep most people in the audience awake, and soon enough, my time was up.  I tucked my misspelled plaque under my arm, avoided being crushed by a forklift, and headed home.


In Retrospect


                I was a Johnny-Come-Lately when I raised the prospects of a war involving weapons of mass destruction being ignited by tribes competing for God’s attention.  Books by Sam Harris (2004), Richard Dawkins (2006), Daniel Dennett (2006) and Christopher Hitchens (2007) were already well-known.  None of these authors (eventually dubbed The Four Horsemen) have any good things to say about religions.  Drawing upon evidence from their own areas of expertise, all would fully endorse a conclusion that religions are so dangerous they must be abandoned.


The argument of these and other leaders of the so-called New Atheists is it is understandable why Stone Age hominids invented supernatural agents to explain what we now understand as naturally occurring events.   “Back then” it was believed that the Earth was flat, it rained when God willed it to rain, people got sick because a dead ancestor was annoyed, and hunting was good because a couple of children had been sacrificed.  The problem today is multitudes of people continue to believe words written and myths created when, as Harris puts it, a wheelbarrow would have been a technological breakthrough.


Critics of religions argue that the time has come to replace out-dated beliefs in supernatural agents with explanations that are more compatible with modern science, and, to that end, most of them embrace Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as a compelling alternative to mysticism.   In his explication of the theory of evolution, Dennett (1995) calls it Darwin’s “Dangerous Idea”.  Ironically, one reason for it to be labeled dangerous is its premises (natural variation and natural selection) are so easy to understand.   The theory of evolution is not shrouded by complicated formulas.  Understanding calculus or mastering elementary physics are not prerequisites for comprehending the idea that human beings are as much the products of the laws of nature as chipmunks , frogs, and spider crabs.  That’s dangerous because it poses a direct challenge to worldviews based on the idea that human beings are exempt from natural laws; it challenges worldviews that rest on the premise that God created Earth specifically for us.   It has taken thousands of years of heated debate and complicated theologies to piece together what He had in mind for us and now believers are told to forget it.  Not a chance. 


This is how I imagine many people with strong religious convictions hear the words of the prophets of the New Atheism. "For the sake of sustaining life on this planet, you must dispose of your most valued ideas regarding the meaning of life.  In order to prevent yourself, your children, your parents and other loved ones from being burnt to a crisp, you must acknowledge that you have bought into a system of untruths and admit that you and almost everyone who loves you is wrong about the fundamental reasons for your existence.  It is urgent that you renounce your religion and walk away from it because time is running out."


That's a mighty tall order.  It is like insisting that all pet owners destroy their beloved dogs and cats to prevent a potential epidemic of rabies.


Raising the specter of death for believers, even for people on the margins of religious skepticism, backfires in many instances, and leads to a forced retreat into the sedative belief that the death of the body, no matter how is comes about, is merely the trigger that releases the soul.  The irony is that repeated reminders that religions and religious differences are leading us in the direction of ultimate doom result in a firming up of the very beliefs that are under attack.  What it boils down to in the minds of believers is they are being told to give up their souls in order to save the planet.  People who believe that the purpose of life is to prepare their souls for delivery into the hands of God for His everlasting protection are not likely to be swayed.


Here are some of features of the current battle between believers and disbelievers.  On one side of the divide, religious believers characterize critics of religions as out of touch, know it all, intellectual elitists; uncaring snobs who have lost sight of basic truths.   Their goal, or at least a by-product of their goal, is to undermine the values that sustain families, communities, and nations.  Their agenda is perceived to be an agenda of hopelessness.  Critics of religions in the ranks of science are charged with being so engrossed in and accepting of knowledge accrued by science that they suffer from tunnel vision.  By definition, science deals only with phenomena that can be observed, but that is but one slice of the cosmos.  The rest of it (most of it, in fact) lies outside the range of their instruments and their minds are simply not able to fathom the real truth behind our existence.  They are dangerous and are not to be trusted.  Let them to stay in their labs, let them play with their gadgets and equations, let them take their extended field trips and organize the bones they dislodge from rocks any way they wish, but they should either be ignored or confronted directly when they step beyond their rightful boundaries and advocate worldviews that contradict the will of God.  Their so-called liberal/progressive agenda is a godless agenda and their ultimate destination is hell.  They must be prevented from taking our children with them.  They might know science, but they don't know God.  God forgive them for they know not what they do, or maybe they do, maybe they are the Devil's disciples, and that's even more frightening.


At their worst, disbelievers who alert us to the perils of religions do not help their cause by ranting against the "idiocy" of religious beliefs.  Declarations like people who believe in God belong to the infancy of our species or proclamations that many of the tenets of Christian, Islamic, Judaism, and most other religions would not survive a proper second grade education are not promising ice-breakers.  Insulting people's intelligence is a terrible strategy for encouraging people to warm up to opinions that differ from their own.  It is a dialogue stopper.  It widens the gap between believers and disbelievers and polarizes groups into hostile camps.

Maybe, if leaders of opposing sides were to dine together and discuss their differences, logic might have a chance to eat away at the premises of superstition, reason might gradually replace mysticism, or some middle ground agreements might be established that reduces the threat of a final conflagration that would end all life in a geological millisecond due to an outbreak of religious rivalries.  Dream on.


Nobody Seems to Talk About the Soul


I say “dream on” because a topic that seems to me to be vital for the maintenance of religious beliefs seldom comes up.  I am referring to the soul and particularly to beliefs regarding its long-term survival.   As far as I have been able to determine, the topic is not addressed in writings of the New Atheists community.  For instance, the word “soul” is not listed in the indices of the major works written by the Four Horsemen and others who have joined them.   And it seems not to be an explicit topic on the agendas of defenders of religion.  Instead, debates tend to focus on topics like the relevance (or lack of relevance) of manuscripts written thousands of years ago to modern conditions; who actually wrote this or that chapter of the Bible?; is the chapter in its original form or was it revised to suit the times?; what evidence exists for or against the idea that humans were planted on Earth 10,000 years ago?; how have ideas about God evolved since the advent of monism?; what is God’s position on homosexuality and which prophet’s words carry the most weight in the argument?  Debates, when they occur, tend to be intellectual debates; debates that activate cerebral systems that enjoy the exercise.  But all card carrying “personologists” (and virtually anyone else who gives it a moment of thought) know that streams of consciousness are frequently conducted under the direction of unseen, non-conscious processes that nature has preserved to work on behalf of our survival. 


Taking the risk of revealing my hand before all cards are dealt, arguments for, against, or between religions eat around the edges of the glue (soul beliefs) that hold faith in place.  Beliefs about the soul and its ultimate destination are so deeply etched into minds and bodies (yes, I include bodies because I’m not much of a separatist) that, unbeknownst to the conscious mind, they automatically direct the flow of incoming traffic by absorbing information compatible with their premises and blotting out information that has the potential of eroding their foundations. 


Some beliefs are not held as beliefs, they are solidified as facts.  Beliefs come and go, but facts remain facts, particularly when they are tucked away as life-guiding assumptions.  The most difficult beliefs to challenge are petrified unconscious beliefs, particularly beliefs associated with survival.  Unconscious facts are not to be fiddled with. They are fastened down and protected by feelings, that, when aroused, make people anxious.   There are Do Not Disturb signs posted in their neurological pathways. They insist on being left alone as they conduct the business of generating magnetic fields that attract information that maintains their stability and repel information that has the potential of disrupting the balance.  They constitute the building blocks that support an entire edifice that houses and organizes the most important things people believe about themselves, their purposes in life, their explanations of why things are the way they are, what to fight for and against…and, for “believers”, what they must do to guarantee that their soul will ultimately end up in the promised land for all eternity.  Fuss with these beliefs and you fuss with matters of utmost importance to maintenance of entire worldviews.  That’s risky business. 


If I am even close to being correct in this portrayal of the power of internalized beliefs, New Atheists have no idea what they are up against. 


Thus I became attracted to the prospects of finding ways to investigate what people believe about souls, to become knowledgeable about the histories behind these beliefs, to find ways to determine the functions they serve both inside and outside the realms of religion, to investigate how beliefs are formed and transmitted, to better understand how they can be tapped to mobilize support for political movements, and a host of other issues begging to be addressed.


I admit that I had some reservations about opening the “soul box”.  Perhaps there are good reasons why the topic gets so little explicit traffic.  Maybe other people had discovered it is a dead end topic and failed to inform me.  Or it could be that the topic is so cumbersome that only a fool would dare to take it on.   Perhaps I was fearful of criticism by fellow scientists for studying a hypothetical concept that has no foundation in the material world.  That couldn’t be it because I’ve spent much of my life being a maverick and am not worried about the consequences of being booted out of any particular tribe.  I am not religious, so I had no fantasies that God might punish me for going into forbidden territory.  So cross that off.   Or maybe it was simply a matter of the field ignoring an obvious topic.  I remembered something Henry Murray (recall “Harry”?) wrote in 1934: “Psychology has not only failed to bring to light the great hauntingly recurrent problems but it has no intentions, one is shocked to realize, of attempting to investigate them.”  Psychology has made an enormous amount of progress since Murray expressed that sentiment, but it could be that research into the matter of the soul and beliefs about it has remained a stone unturned.  I had convinced myself that the concept of the soul is a great hauntingly recurrent problem.  Not only that, but it is a recurrent problem that carries with it potentially lethal byproducts.   Could something simple like bringing afterlife-of-the-soul beliefs to conscious attention by investigating them from variety of intellectual and scientific perspectives lead to the sort of dissemination of information and ideas that might ultimately help to defuse battles over the land rights to space in God’s gated community?  It was a grandiose idea, but worth a try.

The Shop Opens


I was encouraged by the fact that the Headquarters of the Soul Searching Project notice I placed on the door to my lab in 2009 grabbed the attention of some very interested, interesting, and energetic students who didn’t seem to mind that the sign was soon modified to read Headquarters of the Soul-Beliefs Project.  I gave some structure to the “shop”, but mostly I encouraged students to work on answering questions I could not, or had no time, to answer.  That can be an empowering educational strategy when dealing with smart students and together we discovered that the topic of the soul opened all sorts of avenues to topics both within and outside of psychology.   We felt like we were operating on the brink of creating a new subfield of academic inquiry.   Whether or not that turns out to be the case, our “let’s see where this takes us” resulted in exciting times. 


One of the first studies launched dealt with people’s definitions of the soul.  What do people have in mind when they say they have a soul?  Instead of consulting dictionaries or locating definitions online, people working with me conducted hundreds of interviews with their relatives, friends, neighbors, or anyone willing to speak with them. The first question was “Do you believe you have a soul?”  Nine out of ten people said yes.  That ninety percent was then asked for their definition of the soul.  Common responses included “don’t know,” “my piece of God,” ”my inner being,” “my essence,”“who I really am,” “ life force,” “my spirit,”  “ my personality”.    Many definitions were offered and there was very little consensus.  Nonetheless, we had entered the door of “lay” definitions of the soul.


When asked if they believed that their souls (irrespective of definition) would survive their death, over 77% said they were sure of it.  The stories they told about the destinations of their souls were mostly shaped by their religious affiliations (e.g., Catholics told Catholic stories, Muslims reported the Muslim stories, and Jews – well, unlike Catholic, Christians of various sects, and Muslims, there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of consensus among Jewish respondents about conditions of afterlife.   (As one Israeli visiting student told me, “It depends on which rabbi you most recently spoke with”).  Details of what happens to the soul after death varied from religion to religion, but the underlying plot was the same: a person dies, the soul is released, and it goes somewhere.  Of course the details are different from religion to religion, but the vast majority of these stories were told in a “I kid you not, matter of fact, this is what happens when you die”, deep sense of serious conviction.


Knowing that there is a long history behind contemporary soul beliefs, some project members worked up a list of “must read” books that have proven useful for tracking down the historical foundations of these differences.  And since the history of religions goes hand in hand with the history of philosophy, some undergraduates majoring in philosophy who had muscled their way into the lab undertook the task of beginning to educate me and a few other novices about some of the philosophical origins of afterlife beliefs.  We started with ancient Egyptian beliefs and then moved on to Greek philosophers.  My favorite turned out to be Pythagorus who was one of the first to separate the soul from the body because it did not obey the laws of nature. He observed that two physical objects cannot share the same space at the same time, but two souls can.  Try to place a chair in the same place occupied by another chair and you will discover that Pythagorus was correct, it can’t be done.  He went on to argue that is not the case with souls.  Two (and presumably more) souls can occupy the same space at the same time.  It was an interesting idea for a 6th BCE thinker that probably can be better understood in contemporary terms.  For instance it led us to wonder if Pythagorus could be considered as a trailblazer for modern “theory of mind” research with children.  That association led some of my students to some recent literature on children as natural dualists (see Bloom, 2004) and other students to studying some contemporary writings on the evolution of cognitive systems that might be involved in supporting soul beliefs (see Cosmides and Tooby, 1997).


Other topics included speculations about the role of religions in keeping “tribes” together, and spin-off discussions about how soul beliefs could been perpetrated as early mechanisms of social control.   We also talked a good deal about soul beliefs as buffers against the stark realization of death and worked on various strategies for testing some of our ideas by following the guidelines of researchers who have pioneered the field of Terror Management research as reported by in Pyszczysnski (1999). 


Sometimes I held court on the topic of the “traveling self” (our ability to project ourselves in the future) and prepare for what we imagine the future might hold for us.  Our ability to “Step into tomorrow’s shoes and see how they fit,” as Gilbert (2007) phrases it, could be a mental staging area for afterlife beliefs.

By necessity, a good deal of our work was speculative in the opening months of the lab.  But schmoozing never gets the show on the road.  Measurement tools and instruments are critical ingredients for establishing empirical foundations for the projects we had in mind.  To this end, a graduate student took the lead on the task of creating a Soul Beliefs Scale that did a good (and after revisions, a better) job of identifying 3 groups of people: “no question about it” afterlife believers, “hope there’s an afterlife” believers, and “no way, no how” nonbelievers. The next step, an ongoing step, is to validate the scale.  It will be among our first tools to place the laboratory’s research toolkit.


Going Public: A Modest Step


A larger landscape came to view as these developments were taking place and it seemed to me there was a sufficient number of ideas and materials available for a restricted enrollment, Advanced Topics in Psychology undergraduate seminar on the topic to be offered.   Such a course could (and eventually did) include:


My main concern about teaching even a small course on the topic had to do with the real and imagined risks to the psychological balance of students who took the course.   Would a course on the sensitive topic of soul beliefs advertently or inadvertently challenge life-sustaining assumptions of students and make their lives miserable?  Would such a course result in some students involuntarily entering those “Do Not Disturb” pathways I referred to earlier and make it difficult for them to return to safe havens?   Nonsense, I decided, more excuses for being lazy.  In fact, as a veteran teacher, I knew that students (all of us) process information in self-protective ways.  We “take in” what is compatible with our worldviews and don’t listen to, distort, or fail to understand information that is incongruent with rock-hard assumptions.  But every once in a while, fixed ways of thinking are loosened up by exposure to different ways of thinking and something clicks; new associations get linked to old knowledge, and our brains work on making sense out of this mix of information.  That’s how it goes with education and that’s how it went in the undergraduate seminar I gave on the topic of the soul in spring, 2009. 


The most important thing I discovered while teaching a course on a topic that nobody seems to talk about is everyone wanted to talk about it.  We did this in a structured way.  Sometimes we heard from guest lecturers including a brain scientist and a cognitive psychologist.  We read and discussed research articles in child development.  We reviewed the evidence for Out of Body experiences and talked about what constitutes scientific evidence.  We heard summaries of the Four Horsemen’s attacks against religions and tested the waters of other topics.  A highlight for me was when students in my lab gave presentations on their work.


Only one student got emotionally upset in the course.  That was at the end of a lecture I gave on the history of soul beliefs.  A topic had come up (and I don’t recall what it was) that led him to reassess the likelihood that he would have an opportunity to apologize to his grandmother for not attending her funeral when the two of them were reunited in heaven.   He was in genuine pain when he spoke with me after class.  After shedding a few tears, he recovered and went to his next class. 


Going Public: A Big Step


About midway in the seminar, I renewed a previously passing interest in determining if the course was appropriate to be offered as large-enrollment course under Rutgers new Signature Course initiative.  I asked Len Hamilton if he was interested in joining me in proposing and, if accepted, assisting me in developing the course.  He was enthusiastic about the prospects of teaching such a course and agreed to work with me.  Professor Hamilton is a brain scientist and a skilled administrator.   We had co-taught courses in General Psychology before. Our shared interests in the topic of the soul, our compatibility, and Hamilton’s administrative know-how gave me confidence that a joint proposal could not be ignored. 


            There was an unexplained delay between the time the proposal was submitted and when it was accepted.  I suspect that some members of the advisory committee had reservations about endorsing a course on such an unusual and potentially provocative topic.  But whatever questions were raised apparently got answered and the course was eventually approved. 


And that’s how it came about that a course on the human soul became part of the curriculum of Rutgers University.



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