This is an excerpt from Icarus of Brooklyn: A Spiritual Quest Gone Wrong by Matthew Alper (Rogue Press, 2012). Alper is also the author of The “God” Part of the Brain. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
According to theologians, humans were viewed as God’s chosen creatures, an anomalous union of beast and angel — the animal with a soul. The more science I learned, however, the more trouble I had accepting this religious interpretation.
Based on what I had learned of the biological sciences, I was convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that life did not suddenly appear on this planet a few thousand years ago — to be forged over the course of seven days — but rather that it had gradually evolved over the course of approximately three billion years. That there existed so much scientific data to support an evolutionary theory of life made it impossible for me to believe in any of the creation myths offered by the various world religions, all of which contradicted one another anyhow.
I now had to reconcile the notion of an eternal soul with the theory of evolution, which now stood as something of a stumbling block for me. The problem I had was: if humans — as God’s allegedly chosen creatures — were the only creature to possess a soul, at what point in the evolutionary process did this aberrant trait emerge? Was I supposed to believe that at some transitional point in our evolution, God came down and injected a soul into our species? Moreover, was this new component then infused into our genes so that we now possessed the capacity to pass this unusual trait along to our offspring? Was it that we suddenly carried some kind of mystical “soul” gene within our DNA?
Unable to reconcile the notion of a human soul with modern evolutionary theory, I decided to try another route. What if souls weren’t exclusive to humans? What if other animals possessed souls as well? What if it was simply a component of all living things?
With this in mind, I now needed to explore the possibility that not just Man but all organic life possessed a soul. Perhaps this would be the manner by which I would reconcile the existence of a soul with evolution. After some consideration, however, I found there were problems here, too.
As I pondered the possibility that all animals possessed a soul, I decided I would start with humans and then work my way down the evolutionary ladder. Presuming humans had souls, I now worked my way back down the evolutionary scale to the other primates. All right, I thought. Apes and chimpanzees express a wide range of emotions complemented by what could be construed as a “higher” intelligence. I suppose it’s possible that they, too, possess souls. I now stepped further back to the less intelligent mammals. How about cats and dogs? Do they possess souls? I thought about how cats and dogs also expressed emotions and a basic intelligence, how if one looked into their eyes one could sense whether they were happy or sad, for instance. Sure, why not? Maybe they have souls as well.
So I went even further down the evolutionary scale, back to the reptiles, amphibians, fish. Do fish have souls? The further back I went, the more dubious the idea was beginning to sound. So I went back further still. Jellyfish, mollusks, insects, sponges? Can a sponge differentiate between good and evil? Is there a heaven and hell for good and bad cockroaches? If they possessed souls then they, too, must be immortal. And if they’re immortal, they must possess their own afterworlds. The concept was getting more and more absurd. And yet I had to reach back even further.
How about one-celled organisms? Does an amoeba — a creature bereft of a simple nervous system, just a nucleus for a brain — have a soul? Then it dawned on me. If individual cells possess souls, then I am an organism composed of trillions of individual souls. Was it possible that every cell in my body possessed its own soul? Was the fingernail I just bit off and spit onto the sidewalk the gravesite of a million deceased souls? Was it possible that every time I masturbated I was committing genocide? That was the last straw for me. It was impossible to imagine that these simplest life forms could possess a soul, which meant that if souls existed at all, they had to be an attribute exclusive to humans, though I had already decided that logic didn’t hold up either. Oh well. No answers here.
Icarus of Brooklyn: A Spiritual Quest Gone Wrong is now available on Amazon.
Stay in touch! Like Friendly Atheist on Facebook: