top of page

Soul consideration

Updated: Mar 1

Earl Fowler

Aristotle calculated that it shows up about four months after conception in boys, 90 days in girls.

His logic, borrowed from Pythagoras: This was when the first movements of male and female fetuses in the womb were believed to be felt by their mothers.

The Stoics believed that the thing we’re talking about here first shows up at birth, when the baby starts breathing air directly, but would undergo a radical transformation into the wonderful world of rationality at about age 14.

The Epicureans believed it consisted of a small number of atoms and that its advent was  simultaneous with conception.

Many Hindus also believe that it begins at conception, along with reincarnation. However, the Charaka Samhita, considered an authoritative treatise on health and longevity within the popular alternative medicine system known as Ayurveda, states that the thing in question here does not become attached to the body until the seventh month of a pregnancy. This is based on the common-sense principle that “the occupant doesn’t move into the house until the house is finished.”

Some passages in the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish religious law, have been interpreted as implying that the thing shows up after 40 days of gestation. However, one prominent Jewish take is that it occurs only when the child first answers “Amen.”

There are varying opinions in the Muslim world, but the Maliki school — one of the four major schools of Islamic jurisprudence within the Sunni orbit — says the thing happens 120 days after conception. Mind you, a minority have opted for 40 days. There is no obvious answer when flying by the seat of your jubbah.

Have you, ahem, divined what this has been about? That’s right. Ensoulment — the moment at which a human gains a soul. The moment at which we are believed to become, not unlike Pinocchio, real boys and girls.

Christianity, like the other Abrahamic religions, has been all over the map when it comes to locating the moment when the soul enters the body.

Working from the Septuagint — the first extant Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that Christians call the Old Testament — some early Christian thinkers inferred that fetuses didn’t possess a human soul until they were well developed.

While speculating about whether an early-stage fetus could be animate, Augustine concluded that abortion would be tantamount to murder only once the fetus was fully formed. Still, along with Tertullian, Jerome and most of the other early Christian writers, Augustine condemned abortion at any stage.

It all remained rather a muddle for a millennium, until translations of the philosophical works of Andalusian polymath Ibn Rushd — Latinized as Averroes — restored the lost scientific teachings of Aristotle to the Western world in the 12th century.

By the middle of the next century, Thomas Aquinas — the Dominican friar and priest whose commentaries on Christian scripture and Aristotelianism have been highly influential in shaping Catholic theology — had adopted the ancient Greek view that early embryos do not yet have a human soul.

Following Aristotle — and allowing that Jesus was likely an exception given the unusual circumstances of his birth — Aquinas wrote that human embryos first possess a vegetative soul like plants, then a sensitive (animal) soul, and are finally bestowed with a rational soul by the grace of God after about 40 days of development. Talk about a womb with a view.

What followed next in the Christian world was a bit of — you’ll forgive the expression — an abortion. Which is why we’ll let the Wikipedia article on ensoulment do the heavy lifting here:

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V issued the Bull Effraenatam, which subjected those that carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with automatic excommunication and the punishment by civil authorities applied to murderers. Three years later, after finding that the results had not been as positive as was hoped, his successor Pope Gregory XIV limited the excommunication to abortion of a formed fetus.

In 1679, Pope Innocent publicly condemned sixty-five propositions taken chiefly from the writings of Escobar, Suarez and other casuists (mostly Jesuit casuists who had been heavily attacked by Pascal in his Provincial Letters) as propositiones laxorum moralistarum (propositions of lax moralists) — "at least scandalous and in practice dangerous.” He forbade anyone to teach them under penalty of excommunication. The condemned propositions included:

• It is lawful to procure abortion before ensoulment of the fetus lest a girl, detected as pregnant, be killed or defamed.

• It seems probable that the fetus (as long as it is in the uterus) lacks a rational soul and begins to first have one when it is born, and consequently it must be said that no abortion is homicide.

In the 1869 Bull Apostolicae Sedis, Pius IX rescinded Gregory XIV's not-yet-animated fetus exception and re-enacted the penalty of excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy, which even before that were never seen as merely venial sin. Since then, canon law makes no distinction as regards excommunication between stages of pregnancy at which abortion is performed.

In spite of the difference in ecclesiastical penalties imposed during the period when the theory of delayed ensoulment was accepted as scientific truth, abortion at any stage is currently claimed to have always been condemned by the Church and continues to be so.

In our more scientifically savvy era, the distinction made by physicians today between an embryo and fetus is based on gestational age. An embryo is the early stage of human development in which organs and other critical body structures are formed. An embryo is termed a fetus beginning in the 11th week of pregnancy.

Since no one has ever observed God in the act of implanting a soul into an embryo or a fetus, Catholic authorities ultimately decided to fudge the timing issue altogether as tertiary, unknowable and, in any case, relatively unimportant.

This is the current muddy (some would say deliberately nebulous) position of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, aka the Holy Office, the department of the Roman Curia in charge of the religious discipline of the Catholic Church:

This Congregation is aware of the current debates concerning the beginning of human life, concerning the individuality of the human being and concerning the identity of the human person. The Congregation recalls the teachings found in the Declaration on Procured Abortion: "From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence ... modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the programme is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life, and each of its great capacities requires time ... to find its place and to be in a position to act". This teaching remains valid and is further confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by recent findings of human biological science which recognize that in the zygote resulting from fertilization the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted. Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable.

It’s a bit tricky to unpack and parse, as religious proclamations from high-falutin’ magisteria tend to be, but the gist of it is this: The Church is avoiding taking a philosophical position on when a full human being endowed with a soul comes to be; nonetheless, every procured abortion from the moment of conception on is “gravely contrary to moral law.”

Eastern Orthodox Church leaders eventually settled on the idea that ensoulment occurs at the moment of conception, the same position adopted in the U.S. by the Southern Baptist Convention at an important meeting in 1999. Resolution 7 of that convention states: ”The Bible teaches that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27, 9:6) and protectable human life begins at fertilization."

So let’s go to the sacred source.

King James Version, Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

King James Version, Genesis 9:6: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”

Did you jump straight to the conclusion that “protectable human life begins at fertilization” from that? Bit of a leap of faith. It would be equally logical to draw the inference that embryos are infused with souls after 40 days of gestation, or four months, or any of the other hypotheses tendered through the ages.

The verses of Psalm 139:13-16 are also often cited as an argument against abortion:

13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

Does being “curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth” translate to being infused with a soul at the moment of conception? Or does it mean that some celestial tinkering was underway in the womb while my “substance” was still imperfect, whatever that means? Believers will opt for the former. Skeptics will find this open to interpretation. Souls apart, as it were.

Take a step back to consider the harsh reality up here on the surface of the earth.

Given the fragility and sorry fate of most fertilized eggs in nature, having God or some divine principle infuse each one with a distinct human soul would seem rather wasteful. For fertilized ova to develop and grow, they have to travel down the fallopian tubes and implant themselves in the uterine cavity. Even in healthy women in their prime child-birthing years, this happens naturally only about 25 per cent of the time, scientists say. Usually the process fails, with no one even noticing.

If you want to get more Catholic than the pope on this, why not advance the proposition that protectable human life begins even before fertilization — before the male and the female gametes that carry genetic material are joined in holy matrimony to form zygotes? Why not move the soul-posts? (Insert convert joke here.)

As Chapter 38 of the Book of Genesis makes clear, God was mightily displeased when Onan deliberately spilled “his seed on the ground,” rather than risk impregnating his widowed sister-in-law after the Lord had slain his brother. God was so upset, in fact, that he then offed Onan as well (so much, by the way, for the immorality of shedding man’s blood). As Mark Twain observed in his posthumously published Letters from the Earth, “the Lord could never abide indelicacy.”

Meanwhile, if spermatozoa are hallowed enough to be infused with starter souls or little half-souls, it’s beyond indelicate that up to 600 million of them wind up in a fatal no man’s land, so to speak, with every ejaculation. Or a wad of Kleenex. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Girls are born on the average with ovaries bearing from one to two million oocytes or eggs, about 300,000 of which will still be around by the time they hit puberty. When it comes to fertility, profligate nature is willing to splurge big time and doesn’t fool around. Even when we do.

None of this was known to the ancient Greeks or biblical writers or medieval theologians, of course. The overwhelming evidence of evolution had yet to be amassed — the fact that humans and chimps share 98.8 per cent of their DNA, for one thing. The modern sciences of physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology and geology had yet to converge on the same astonishing conclusion: At 4.5 billion years, the Earth is geologically ancient. No one could have imagined that homo sapiens evolved out of earlier hominids 200,000-300,000 years ago.

And for that matter, what people have meant by the soul, psyche or mind has itself evolved over time.

The concept of immortality is disputed in Judaism, but as in Christianity, Islam and many other religious or philosophical traditions, the soul is viewed as the immaterial spiritual essence of a person. It is conceived as including one’s identity, one’s personality, one’s memories. The ghost in the machine.

For Aristotle, that was as far as it went. The soul was merely the form or essence of a living thing, not a distinct entity that can outlast the body in which it exists. (He was prepared to make some kind of exception for the intellect, but I just reread his treatise De Anima and didn’t find it any more illuminating than my first time through, half a century ago.)

While Christians and Muslims believe that only people have souls, other traditions around the world — including Hinduism and Jainism — ascribe souls to all forms of life. To my surprise, according to an article I just read on the website, so does Judaism. Animists teach that even inorganic entities such as mountains and streams are inhabited by spirits.

The big selling point of Christianity and Islam, naturally (well, supernaturally), is the promise that believers who live virtuous lives — or, for Calvinists, congregationists who have been mysteriously predestined by God — can survive the death of their bodies. Their souls will be rewarded and reunited with cherished loved ones in a better place for all eternity. “Believe in me, and you shall live forever” is a pretty seductive offer. None better.

But not everyone is buying it. In his 2015 book The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs, cognitive scientist Julien Musolino makes a pretty compelling case that there is no scientific basis for supposing that souls have ever existed. He argues that humanity would benefit by dismissing the notion as the ancient balderdash that it is.

“The fact that we haven’t figured out how the brain works does not mean that an immaterial, detachable soul is the answer,” Musolino writes. “People who maintain that it is should offer some evidence.”

Astronomer Carl Sagan’s credo that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence springs to mind at this point. Descrying only exiguities of proof and substantiation amid plentiful dollops of clerical cant, incredulous non-believers like the late British poet and novelist Philip Larkin have long derided religion as “that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die.”

My own view is that when you’re hot, you’re hot. When you’re dead, you’re not.

However, that’s an argument for another day. As English philosopher Francis Bacon observed way back in 1620, “What a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes.”

All I wanted to do here was to suggest that Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker was on theologically dubious ground when he invoked scripture to buttress last week’s ruling by the court that frozen fertilized eggs are “extrauterine children,” immediately engendering a fear of prosecution or lawsuits among medical workers and in vitro fertilization clinics that handle microscopic embryos in the state.

Republican politicians have been scrambling to distance themselves from the implications ever since.

Under state legislation introduced this afternoon (Feb. 27), Republican lawmakers in Alabama’s GOP-controlled legislature proposed giving doctors who perform in vitro fertilization immunity from civil and criminal prosecution to grant clinics enough legal cover to resume providing services. According to news reports, the measure fell short of an earlier draft of the bill, which maintained that embryos created during the IVF process that aren’t implanted in a uterus should be considered a “potential life” but not “human life.”

Honestly, who doesn’t feel that way about our own existence from time to time?

This is from a report by Nomia Iqbal of BBC News:

Delving into religious sources from classic Christian theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and also a modern conservative Christian manifesto, he (Parker) concluded that “even before birth, all human beings have the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

Some anti-abortion groups celebrated the explicit use of scripture in Justice Parker's opinion to justify what for them was a momentous decision.Tony Perkins, president of evangelical activist group the Family Research Council, described it as “a beautiful defence of life.

Parker cited Genesis 1:27 and 9:6 as proof that fetal personhood, via ensoulment (otherwise you’d just have an organic but wholly material cell), begins at conception. And as in the Southern Baptist Convention of 1999, Parker was slapping an interpretation on Genesis verses that doesn’t stand up to even a cursory examination like the one presented here. He certainly doesn’t appear to have read Thomas Aquinas very carefully. But what a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes.

Donald Trump’s three ultra-conservative U.S. Supreme Court appointments sided with the majority, as we all know, in striking down the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that had guaranteed a federal right to abortion in the U.S. for 50 years. The Dobbs decision was cited at least 15 times by the Alabama Supreme Court in its ruling that fertilized eggs are children guaranteed the same protection against wrongful death as all minors in the state.

But that was just for starters. Fetal personhood bills have been introduced in at least 14 states in the current legislative session, according to data from the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Guttmacher Institute.

Backed by most of the 200 judges appointed to U.S. federal courts when Trump was president, winning him lasting support from American evangelicals, the anti-abortion movement’s unrelenting push for universal recognition of fetal personhood is of a piece with the notions that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, that humans were created by God essentially as they are today, that angels exist and miracles happen, that our souls will spend eternity in heaven or hell, and most important, that certain religions are favoured by God more than others.

Believe any or all of this if you want. Polls indicate shockingly high support for ideas like these, along with unwavering belief in astrology, ESP and space alien abductions. But for God’s sake, no civilized country would write them into its laws or allow activist judges to sneak them in through the back door with intemperate rulings.

Ninety-nine years after the Tennessee state legislature passed a law forbidding the teaching in public schools of “any theory which denies the story of Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and teaching instead “that man descended from a lower form of animals,” America is once again at a tipping point where new versions of the infamous Scopes trial will play out before creationist judges as wilfully ignorant and disdainful of modern medicine and basic science as Parker and his sanctimonious brethern have shown themselves to be.

Where have you gone, Clarence Darrow? Your nation turns its loony eyes to William Jennings Bryan.

In previous rulings, Parker has criticized other judges for not sufficiently considering religion in their rulings and espoused the theory known as the Seven Mountain Mandate, which calls for conservative Christians to run the government and broadly influence American culture. That’s what really’s at play here: The orchestrated, well-financed campaign to turn the most powerful country in the world into a theocracy, ruled by men with their feet planted firmly in the seventh century BCE.

The Seven Mountain Mandate is one of the prime motivating factors behind MAGA Republicanism, even though it’s hard to imagine a greater antithesis of Jesus Christ than their vengeful leader. This is from a speech by Colorado Congresswoman and public makeout performance artist Lauren Boebert (whose 18-year-old son, I couldn’t help noticing, was arrested Tuesday on 22 charges following a recent string of vehicle trespass and property thefts in Rifle, Colorado):

“The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how the Founding Fathers intended it. And I am tired of this separation of church and state junk. It’s not in the Constitution.”

Turns out it sorta is. And in a supposedly secular democracy where people are supposed to be free to practise (or not) whatever faith they choose to believe in (or not), the regressive, atavistic tenets of the Christian right should not be deciding factors — or even remote considerations — in lawmaking and jurisprudence.

Let’s remember that the Old Testament also countenances slavery, eye-for-an-eye retribution and wholesale slaughter of one’s enemies, rather more explicitly than the fanciful notion that frozen zygotes are children— which would never have occurred to anyone thousands of years ago when the instructions, stories, poems and prophecies were first being scrawled in Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek. Here’s Twain again, giving us a taste of that old-time religion in Letters from the Earth:

I will tell you a pleasant tale which has in it a touch of pathos. A man got religion, and asked the priest what he must do to be worthy of his new estate. The priest said, “Imitate our Father in Heaven, learn to be like him.” The man studied his Bible diligently and thoroughly and understandingly, and then with prayers for heavenly guidance instituted his imitations. He tricked his wife into falling downstairs, and she broke her back and became a paralytic for life; he betrayed his brother into the hands of a sharper, who robbed him of his all and landed him in the almshouse; he inoculated one son with hookworms, another with the sleeping sickness, another with gonorrhea; he furnished one daughter with scarlet fever and ushered her into her teens deaf, dumb, and blind for life; and after helping a rascal seduce the remaining one, he closed his doors against her and she died in a brothel cursing him. Then he reported to the priest, who said that that was no way to imitate his Father in Heaven. The convert asked wherein he had failed, but the priest changed the subject and inquired what kind of weather he was having, up his way.

You want something truly sacred? Try the clarion call of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, third president of the U.S. and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, for a “wall of separation between church and state” — a rampart now under siege by priests and parsons with horns like the wall that used to protect the oblivious citizens of Jericho. (In a stunning coincidence, the zealots are again based in Shittim.)

And since the conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court are so ostentatiously devoted to honouring the intentions of the Founding Fathers, maybe they could give a thought to what Jefferson’s sagacious elder peer, Benjamin Franklin, portentously replied in 1787 when asked: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

97 views2 comments

2 commentaires

Sorry Earl, everyone knows Aretha and James Brown invented soul.

En réponse à

Not to mention soul men Sam and Dave. Soul survivors, baby!

bottom of page