We atheists can be a scrappy bunch. We like to argue, to dissect ideas, to question language. So when I posted the following, as an ecstatic Facebook update during a night of wild dancing, I expected perhaps a few raised eyebrows at my choice of language, given that my Facebook friends list is filled with atheists and atheist activists:
My therapist tells me we are not our body. We are souls within bodies. The body is a costume for the self. I feel the truth in that tonight. — feeling peaceful.
What I did not quite expect was a barrage of comments, some from very thoughtful atheist activists and thinkers, which took great exception to the post. My therapist is “talking shit”, apparently; he’s “woo-ey”; he’s leading me down a path to dogmatism and magical thinking. Some went way beyond objecting to the use of the word “soul”, claiming that my therapist was disrespecting my Humanist views, was acting unethically, or that the ideas he has been offering me are dangerous and harmful. “What’s going on?”, I thought, as my Facebook wall exploded with a thread which finally petered out after 135 comments, many very down on my poor, maligned therapist.
Well, what is going on?
Let’s establish a few things up-front:
- I do not believe in souls. I do not think we are anything other than physical things capable of having certain sorts of experiences. I think the experiences we can have are the result of physical processes.
- My therapist knows I do not believe in souls, that I am an atheist and a Humanist, and this has been the topic of more than one discussion between us.
- My therapist never has, and never would, attempt to impose his metaphysical views on me in a therapy session. That would be highly unethical. I am not even sure precisely what his religious views are (I know he reads books by Buddhist thinkers, and I think he once referred to himself as a Mormon, but only in passing. I found this quite fascinating).
- I’m a philosopher, and I choose my words varefully (OK, carefully-ish – I did misspell “carefully” – lol!). I did not say “I feel the truth of that tonight”, but rather “I feel the truth in that tonight.” This is a different sentiment: we can find truth in concepts which are not themselves the best possible ways to look at things.
So why talk in this way? What was my therapist trying to have me understand, and was there anything objectionable in it? Essentially, I am currently working with my therapist to explore some of my anxieties about living as a gay man. Being a 31 year old gay academic whose work involves lots of sitting around and not going to the gym can sometimes be tough for me: like many people I sometimes worry about how I’m “stacking up” in my community. I worry if I’m good looking enough, if I’m fit enough, if I’m getting too old (they call 30 “gay death”, and sometimes the jokes actually get you worried). Sometimes I’m nervous to approach a guy in a club or a bar because I worry how I am being perceived, whether they will think I’m “good enough” – and this affects my life in ways I don’t like. It’s not extreme or serious, just sub-optimal. These are all common concerns which I think a lot of people struggle with, at least sometimes. And I like therapy as a way to work through these issues: I like to talk about my anxieties and think through them with an intelligent, sympathetic, well-trained listener who has experience dealing with those sorts of issues in other people. That’s what I’m doing with my therapist right now.
In response to these anxieties he has tried to remind me that other people are “not just bodies”: their physical appearance, which is what I am mostly reacting to when I see someone cute at a bar, doesn’t define the whole them. Inside their hot, tight, well-dressed body there is an inner experience of “being them” that they are having, just like I am having an inner experience of being me at that moment. And I have no real idea what that experience is: perhaps they are just as nervous about talking to me as I am to them. Or perhaps not – but there’s more going on there than I can see.
This is an incredibly obvious point, but one worth remembering. In a very visual culture like gay culture it helps, I think, to remind oneself that the outward appearance we present to the word – the perfectly-styled hair, the tight t-shirt, even the 8-pack abs, are part of a sort of “costume” – they do not define the whole person in front of you. To become nervous to talk to someone because the “costume” they are wearing is “too attractive”, or “too young”, or “too old” – or “too anything” – is to miss the other parts of them which are hidden from view.
I think that’s what my therapist was talking about. He was encouraging me, when I feel a certain sort of anxiety or inadequacy, to think beyond the body to the experience-having creature that body is carrying around. He was not suggesting a metaphysical scheme or point of view, but a psychological practice which might enable me to see a given situation in a different way. It is good advice, and has been helpful to me already: it has provided a way for me to interrupt a cycle of thinking which doesn’t lead to good outcomes and replace it with a different one which is more satisfactory.
But why use the word “soul”, given that it has religious and metaphysical connotations? Essentially, I think, because it is a simple and effective shorthand for the idea to be conveyed. In the context of the private discussions with my therapist, it is a way a complex idea can be expressed with the minimum of fuss. Therapy sessions often, in my experience, develop a bespoke private language which makes little sense outside of the therapy relationship, constructed to facilitate communication. One of the signs of a great therapist, I think, if that they know how to allow that language to develop, and are willing to be playful and challenging in their use of that language to express difficult ideas.
So, I can see why some of my atheist friends would be baffled by my choice of words: my status update was an eruption of the private into the public, and they can’t be expected to know the context well enough to understand.
What they can be expected to understand is that 1) I am not someone who would allow my beliefs and values to be traduced by a therapist without speaking out (and therefore the more extreme reactions are a rather hurtful slight against me as well as against my poor therapist) and 2) that language is a complex and ever-shifting tool which must be handled with care, intelligence, and sensitivity. What’s so disappointing about some of the reactions is the assumption that the use of any language which is strongly related to religious or metaphysical concepts an atheist rejects should be forever verboten. Sure, we should be careful with such language – but we shouldn’t be allergic to it. If, every time a person uses the word “soul” or “spiritual” or even “God” we pitch a fit, we will miss opportunities for communication and to deepen our own thinking. We might end up ultimately rejecting the use of such language in all or almost all contexts, but it is wise never to reject any language out of hand: our first reaction, I think, should be to try and understand what someone is getting at in a sympathetic way, rather than allowing such language to be the spark that sets off an anti-intellectual explosion.
This is a lot to ask, admittedly: withholding judgment when people are using terms which make us uncomfortable can be very difficult. But remember, this is precisely what we ask religious people to do when we ask them to hear us out when we describe our atheistic views. It is infuriating and irrational when the very word “atheist” sparks a knee-jerk reaction in believers – and it is equally infuriating, to me, when words like “soul” and “spiritual” spark a knee-jerk reaction in atheists. Learning to be thoughtful and explorative with ideas, instead of flying off the handle when language we dislike is part of becoming more rational, balanced individual.
While I reject the oft-voiced canard that staunch, outspoken atheists are akin to fundamentalists (the differences between the two are legion), there is an element of dogmatism and tribalism in some the responses to my little post. When we allow the use or non-use of certain words to become a shibboleth – a marker defining who is “in” or “out” of our community – we are acting in ways which do not represent our highest values. We may not like language we associate with religion, but that doesn’t mean we must entirely eschew its use: luckily language is a much more nuanced, subtle, rich and complex tool than that.