The Immortal Soul as red herring



The notion of the soul was invented by the Greeks, round about 500BC. It was modelled on Psyche, and who was Cupid’s girlfriend, a sort of hazy alter ego (later in Latin called anima). A bunch of naïve adolescent philosophical fantasists, namely Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, then set about turning the primitive fiction of the soul (or psyche) into a sophisticated political and psycho’logical metaphor-cum-fact, that is to say, into a useful fiction.  Their soul was first cast in the role of a bion’s (i.e. a living system’s) logical faculty.


When borrowed by Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious entrepreneurs the Greek soul came to be understood as the incorporeal and immortal essence of a living being. The notion of the soul as the immortal essence of a bion was intended to serve as a political and therapeutic red herring that drew forwards towards and into greater political guide and control and towards a happy and safe haven.


The biblical Jews had no soul. They were nephesh, meaning ‘living creatures or beings’. In the Septuagint the term nephesh was translated into Greek as ‘soul’. So the biblical Jews got their soul in dodgy translation.

Now the biblical Jews did not believe in a human after-life.

    At least one Southern Baptist believes that “The whole person is mortal and subject to final and total destruction.” T.R. Clarke (1991)

When you were dead you were dead, to wit, dust to dust, end of story. Indeed, ‘there are ample references to the fact that death is the ultimate destiny of all humans, that God has no contact with or power over the dead, and that the dead do not have any relationship with God.’ (Neusner, Encyclopedia of Judaism)


Ecclesiastics 9:5-6. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their memory is gone. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished, never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”



The soul came into Christianity (and Islam) curtesy of the itinerant Greek tent-maker and Christian cult founder, Paul of Tarsus.  Precisely what he meant by the term ‘soul’ is unclear. However, Paul’s soul (often subsumed by soma) was mortal. After all, bodies not souls would be resurrected on Judgement Day.


It would be the early Church fathers, right up to the ultimate and most malevolent religious fantasist St Augustine, who would make a big deal of the soul (as distinct from the body (i.e. soma), thereby inventing a fictional dichotomy) and of its immortality, clearly recognising its usefulness as political and therapeutic (i.e. comfort and consolation) means. If man (or any bion) had an immortal soul then after the death of the body it could be rewarded in heaven or punished in hell. There was, thus, no escape for wrong doers. ‘Death’, as the Epicureans and Lord Tennyson had claimed, ‘does not close all’. The white lie (because non-scriptural) of the immortal soul was smart red herring politics.


And, moreover, promising immortality, hence an immediate after-life, of at least one (unspecified) component of an individual provided much needed comfort and consolation at the point of death, to wit, a placebo. Any Christian hospice chaplain will tell you how useful it is to comfort the dying with soft words about the immortality of the soul, to wit, with a happy life hereafter, though the claim is wholly (i.e. scripturally) un-Christian.


With like political and therapeutic intent the ancient Indians had dreamt up the notion of the (red herring of the) jiva (translated as soul, later of the atman ≈ brahman) as carrier/transmitter (in Buddhism) of good and bad karma (another red herring) resulting in reward in the next life for good doers and punishment for wrong doers.


What’s a placebo?


© 2016 Victor Langheld