Reclaiming the material body

Just about every religion believes that there exists something like a soul — an aspect of human existence that is separate from the body and indeed, superior to it. The idea has persisted even in religions like Buddhism, which may be described as atheistic on account of the fact that they don’t necessitate the acknowledgment or worship of a deity. But the spirit or the soul transcends religious boundaries.

On the face of it, the soul is a simple manifestation of the belief that humans are special and that there is an aspect of them that can and will survive death. Hinduism would seem to have a wider definition of what the soul is as their are schools of thought (ISKCON for example) that believe that an individual’s spirit “transmigrates” between species of animals. But in either case, the body is a secondary factor of existence for most of the world’s religions. Even Buddhism, with its suffering-focused attitude, sees the body as something one must eventually leave behind in pursuit of a non-physical ideal — Nirvana.

Let’s be straight. The body is far from perfect. It is subject to damage, disease, ageing, violation, and inevitably, death. It hurts and leaks and breaks and can be rather bothersome.

But at the same time, the body is also all we have. All the pleasures of the world, all the experiences that life has to offer, every single joy that can be had, are possible because of the body.

In fact, here is the simple fact — You don’t have a body. You are a body.

It is an obvious fact that we don’t often hear stated this directly because of an ongoing religious discourse that favours feel-good spirituality over demonstrable reality. Why? Because they have been designed to sound sublime.

I think it was French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who said this about the human condition:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

Just because something sounds nice does not mean it is true. Truth and beauty have no causal relation. Beautiful things are as capable of being false as true things are of being ugly.

The body is all there is to a human being and there is little evidence to support claims of the existence of anything resembling a soul or a spirit that exists independent of the body. When the body ends, life ends. There is no reason to think there is some aspect of you that continues to exist after you die — no reason except religiously and culturally sanctioned wishful thinking.

To those who believe in the existence of a soul, the idea that they are nothing more than a body may seem offensive. However, this is probably only because their view of their own importance was somewhat bloated to begin with. Human beings aren’t and have never been anything more important than the plants and animals they share this planet with. Of course, in their own eyes, they are the masters of the universe who not only deserve everything they can get their hands on, but also have eternal life because they have a special place in the eyes of the person who created the world.The idea of the soul or spirit stems from this very conceit. It comes from our fear of death and the pain that we experience after the deaths of those we love and care for. The soul concept is a way for the living to deal with pain. The dead have nothing to do with it because… well… they are dead and they have nothing to do with anything at all.

Belief in the soul and all that it implies — afterlives, reincarnation, karma, heaven and hell, and salvation — devalues the real world somewhat. It makes us conclude that nothing this world can offer can ever match up to what we imagine to be on the other side of death. Earth is fine, but heaven is better. One life is fine but seven lives are better. Criminals get punished often enough here, but true justice can only be had after death.

The result of all this is that we end up not valuing what we have — a very real and tangible world full of things worth caring about — and instead place all our bets on an imaginary set of variables that are supposed to come into effect after we die. It is not even an exaggeration to say that entire lives are spent by people “preparing” their soul for what happens after the body dies. And when the idea of the afterlife has a firm enough grip on an unquestioning mind, people will even commit murder for it. Jihad anyone?

What we have learned about the body so far does not say anything about a part of it being removed from it and immune to what is known as death. And in the absence of any such evidence, it makes no sense to assume that souls or spirits exist. Death ends all. And the fact that life ends, can give meaning to life. Belief in an eternal life, no matter how strong, is wrong and can waste our lives away in vain pursuits in ways big and small.