Evidence for the Soul? A Reply to Michael Shermer

That the West is pretty much done with orthodox Christianity is now a well documented fact.  But as atheist Michael Shermer points out in his new book, belief in heaven is still massively popular.  People are losing faith in institutional religion, to be sure, but belief in the soul, they seem unable to shake. Here’s an eye-opening excerpt from Heavens on Earth (emphasis added):

The belief that death is not final is overwhelmingly common. Since the late 1990s, the Gallup polling group has consistently found that between 72 and 83 percent of Americans believe in heaven.  A 1999 study found that Protestants remained steadfast in their heavenly belief at 85 percent over the decades, whereas afterlife belief among Catholics and Jews increased from the 1970s to the 1990s.  A 2007 Pew Forum survey found that 74 percent of all Americans believe heaven exists, with Mormons topping the chart at 95 percent.  A 2009 Harris poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe in heaven, ranging from a low of 48 percent for Jews to a high of 97 percent for born-again Christians.  . . . Globally, rates of belief in heaven in other countries typically lag behind those in America, but they are nonetheless robust. A 2011 Ipsos/ Reuters poll, for example, found that of 18,829 people surveyed across 23 countries, 51 percent said they were convinced that an afterlife exists, ranging from a high of 62 percent of Indonesians and 52 percent of South Africans and Turks down to 28 percent of Brazilians and only 3 percent of the very secular Swedes.

So powerful and pervasive are such convictions that even a third of agnostics and atheists proclaim belief in an afterlife. Say what? A 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans between the ages of 18 and 60 found that 13.2 percent identify as atheist or agnostic, and 32 percent of those answered in the affirmative the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?”  From: Shermer, Michael (2018-01-09). Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (pp. 2-3). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

So a third of surveyed atheists believe in a life after death or “some sort of conscious existence”a higher percentage than in supposedly Catholic Brazil.  That tells me a lot about the world we live in and the health of the Church in Brazil.  But that is not the focus of our present concern.

Our subject is the soul.  The excerpt from Shermer’s book makes explicit some conventional assumptions about heaven and the soul, namely, that if we are lucky enough to get to heaven, we believe that it is our soul that goes there.  And while our soul is there, it does some amazing things.  It talks to the souls of our deceased relatives about the good times back on Earth, for example.  If our soul has such capacities, it means that our soul can remember people and things and can experience happiness. (If the soul had no such capacities, what would be the point of heaven anyway? Why work so hard?)  But if the soul has such powers, then the soul appears to be a mind, or at least to be in possession of a mind—specifically, the very same one that you had on earth.  Which is important—How else are you going to remember where you left your keys?

Let’s process that for a moment.  If our traditional beliefs about an afterlife are true, then the mind you are using right now to read these words is a spiritual organ; every conscious moment of our lives has been a spiritual experience whether we realized it or not. But if the mind is spiritual, then it follows that it must be in possession of spiritual attributes. For one, it must be able to survive the death of the body.  Some scientists claim to have evidence that it does. One doctor wrote a book about his near death experience. Another claims to have weighed the soul after the death of the body—21 grams to be exact.

But Shermer isn’t buying it.  As he argues persuasively in his book, not only can the mind/soul not survive the death of the body, it can’t even survive injury to the brain:

“[T]he soul has been traditionally conceived as a separate entity (“ soul stuff”) from the body, but neuroscience has demonstrated that the mind— consciousness, memory, and the sense of self representing “you”— cannot exist without a brain.
When portions of the brain die as a result of injury, stroke, or Alzheimer’s, the corresponding functions we call “mind” die with them. No brain, no mind; no body, no soul.”  From: Shermer, Michael (2018-01-09). Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (p. 13). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

This argument against the possibility of a soul, or a spiritual mind, is a persuasive one, especially if you have ever seen someone you know experience brain trauma. It can erase their personality completely.  Thus the argument is taken very seriously by philosophers and theologians.  And Shermer is in good company with fellow atheists Sam Harris and Steven Pinker who also use versions of this argument in their books.  But I have a counterargument. It comes from The Immoral Landscape:

“Consider the case of vision for a moment. Certainly it is true that the brain is essential to the ability to see. A brain injury can indeed cause blindness, but anyone who cited such a fact as proof that the brain is the only organ involved in the vision process would be clearly mistaken, for we know

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that the eyes are essential too. This analogy can help us to understand how the brain might be connected to the soul: in the same way that the brain receives signals from the optic nerve, so the brain might also receive signals from a spiritual soul/ mind. In the latter case, the transfer of signals would take place wirelessly. Our present media world offers many illustrative examples. TVs, radios, computers, and phones all have the capacity to function as wireless receivers— why not the brain too? [from The Immoral Landscape, p. 129, Kindle Edition]

So, just as the brain acts as a receiver for vision, mightn’t it also function as a receiver for consciousness?  And if the eyes serve as a transmitter for visual data, what is the transmitter of consciousness?  Could it be the soul?

The materialist will say that such speculation is ruled out by the law of parsimony:  we don’t need a spiritual soul to account for mental phenomena in the same way that we need eyeballs to explain the vision process. This is true if all the properties of mind are reducible to material causes. But as I show in my book, mental health research points to evidence of an irreducibly spiritual property.

No, I’m not talking about life after death.  Scientists have tended to focus too narrowly on this question, but this strikes me as a fatally unpromising path to pursue.  For what skeptic or atheist has ever been persuaded by the author of a bestselling book who claims, “I went to heaven and have come back to tell you all about it!”

Yet it stands to reason that if the mind is the soul, or some other spiritual entity closely associated with the soul, that they would share some of the same spiritual attributes.  And current research suggests that they do.  I’m talking about reward and punishment.

fruit of the Spirit—fruit of mental health

Everybody is well acquainted with the idea that the soul is rewarded or punished for its behavior in this life—heaven for good behavior, hell for bad.  What people don’t understand is that the Bible teaches the same thing about the mind.  In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter five identifies the fruits of the Spirit, which include joy, peace of mind, and self-control.  All of these make excellent remedies for the four major categories of mental illness recognized today: depression, anxiety, impulse control disorders, and substance abuse.  In fact, no less authority than Thomas Aquinas identified the fruits of the Spirit as qualities of a well ordered, flourishing mind.

If Galatians 5 is true, then mental health and happiness are the reward for a spiritual life, while depression and other mental disorders are the punishment for sin—a punishment that many would characterize as “hell on earth,” which is why mental illness has such a strong association with suicide—people will do anything to escape it.

If the theory in Galatians is true, it means that the mind shares an important spiritual attribute with the soul: reward and punishment.“And if it walks like a soul and quacks like a soul, that’s probably because it’s a soul” (from The Immoral Landscape).    And because mental health and illness are experienced in this life, they provide us with an intriguing and empirically verifiable spiritual theory of the mind.  So, the big question is this: is it true?

the evidence

There is simply no way to do justice to the empirical record in the space of a single article. That’s why people write books.  The most authoritative and comprehensive book on this subject is The Handbook of Religion and Health by Dr. Harold Koenig et al. and published by Oxford University Press. The book is more than a thousand pages of the latest research on the effects of religious practice on mental health.  And what the book shows can be fairly summarized by Dr. Koenig’s own words:

“[T]he evidence overall favors a positive impact for religion on mental health. Studies show consistent inverse correlations between religious involvement and negative emotions, such as depression and anxiety, while at the same time other studies report positive associations with positive emotions such as well-being, hope, and optimism.”  From: Medicine, Religion, and Health — Where Science and Spirituality Meet, Kindle Edition, p. 81.  Templeton Foundation Press.

Quite a number of books are out there that document the consistent findings of medical research on the health benefits of religious practices. The Relaxation Response, by Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson, was one of the first books to describe how meditation and prayer can be used to combat stress and anxiety disorders, a major category of mental illness that afflicts millions.  And so one thing the skeptics need to understand is that these findings are no pseudoscience.  The research comes from the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world—Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford, Duke . . . .  No serious student of science can any longer deny the evidence that shows that religious and spiritual practices benefit the mind.  Even New Atheist Sam Harris acknowledges this, for that is the topic of his book  Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. The brief video below comes from Duke Medical School and summarizes the health benefits of spiritual practices:

secular and mentally ill?

Thus we see evidence that the mind is “rewarded” for spiritual practice in the form of mental health and happiness. Is there any evidence that the mind is “punished” for spiritual neglect in the form of mental dysfunction?   Yes there is, but researchers are loath to discuss it.  In all of the articles and books that I have read, in all the seminars that I have attended, the exclusive focus of all of them has been on the health benefits of religious practice. Nobody wants to go near the subject of atheism.  That is until just recently.  In February, I had the good fortune of attending a talk at Duke Medical School by Tyler VanderWeele.  He is a biostatistics professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and he’s been studying the connection between religion and health to see if the connection is causal.  And early indications suggest that it is—at least in the highly circumscribed area that VanderWeele has studied, specifically, with regard to the impact of religious service attendance on life expectancy.  The conclusion that he drew at the end of his talk?  That the current suicide epidemic reported by the CDC is likely connected causally to the decline in attendance at religious services.  Exactly the conclusion I draw in my book and on this website.  And why exactly would the loss of religious devotion produce such deadly consequences? Because the incidence of depression and other mental disorders is higher in people without religious devotion—exactly as St. Paul’s spiritual theory of mental health predicts:  For, just like the soul, the mind is rewarded for virtue and punished for sin. “And if it walks like a soul and quacks like a soul, that’s probably because it’s a soul” (from The Immoral Landscape).

spiritual? or material?

Now let me be the first to admit that none of the evidence I have put forward is going to inspire skeptics like Michael Shermer to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  For they simply deny that the connection between religion and mind requires any belief in spiritual or supernatural causes.  And the scientific community agrees with them.  The consensus opinion is that the health benefits of religious practice originate entirely from material causes.  Religious dietary laws, for example, promote healthy lifestyles which can account for the longer life expectancy of religious people.   And the strong social networks of church communities, along with the emphasis on family values, can offer the kind of social support that explains the lower incidence of loneliness, depression, and anxiety in the religious. The accepted opinion of scientists is that multiple material pathways account for the health benefits of religious practice.  The implication of this theory is that these benefits are therefore not the exclusive property of the religious but can be achieved by anyone who pays sufficient attention to their material well-being. The other implication is that wherever we find high levels of material well-being, we should also find happiness and mental health.

But St. Paul’s theory in Galatians makes the very opposite prediction.  Mental health and happiness are exclusively spiritual properties—the fruit of obedience to, and communion with, God. Thus, when material well-being is divorced from the spiritual, happiness and mental health are sacrificed.

So whose theory is correct?

millennial sturm und drang

The Millennial generation offers the best opportunity yet to study these questions. They are the best educated (see graph) and most affluent generation of all time, and so enjoy a higher degree of

material prosperity than any previous generation. And because they are also the least religious (see graph), they make the perfect lab rats for the questions we are asking.  If mental health and happiness are truly reducible to material well being, then Millennials ought to be flourishing.

But lots of empirical data show that they are not. What the data does show is that the least religious generation of all time is also the most mentally ill. A recent story for Time Magazine reported on the increasing epidemic of mental illness on college campuses, a phenomenon that closely tracks with the entry of Millennials into their college years.  And prior to their college years?

The numbers on the mental health of Millennial children are cataclysmic (see above): Mental illness became the leading cause of disability for Millennial children—a thirty-fivefold increase in just twenty years. By 2007, 50% of all disabled children in the U.S. were disabled by mental illness. That’s more than half a million kids.  And that only counts the ones who are so sick that they qualify as disabled; the vast majority of mentally ill are not disabled.  Moreover, the fact that we are seeing the epidemic carry over into the college years means that the medical field has failed to find a cure for the problem—an opinion of many medical experts, as I document in my book.  Perhaps they have failed because they are looking for a cure that doesn’t exist.  Perhaps there is no physical cure for most mental illnesses because—perhaps—they are not physical in nature.

conclusion

It’s hard to see how mental health can be reduced to material well-being after looking at Millennials. And America, more broadly, confirms the trend: as America has become less religious, she has become more mentally ill—despite all of her material advantages.  As I argue in greater detail in my book, plenty of evidence suggests that the mind behaves like a soul:  It experiences reward for spiritual behavior and the observance of religious laws.  And mounting evidence also suggests that the neglect of such religious observances produces a punishment not unlike the experience of hell itself, in terms of life-threatening depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness.  What the evidence of Millennial mental health suggests is that the prospect for a physical explanation of mental illness may actually be less likely than scientists believe.

For those of us who are Christian, we should be encouraged by the recent developments in the mental health sciences, for their research confirms exactly what the Bible teaches about human  happiness and the soul.

For inveterate skeptics, they must realize that more than 30 years of research has consistently shown that the religious enjoy a measurable mental health advantage over their less religious brethren—whatever the ultimate explanation for this advantage may be.  Science may be on the verge of discovering the human soul, that spiritual core of the human person that receives rewards and punishments for its behavior on earth.  Or perhaps the materialists will succeed in uncovering a purely physical system to account for mental health and illness.  If some version of the “M.ultiple M.aterial P.athways M.odel of M.ental H.ealth” proves true, it doesn’t change the fact that the religious still do better in managing their sanity. Which raises another important question.  How then can secular people be more enlightened, as atheists like Steven Pinker claim, if the religious are smarter about health and happiness?  It seems that atheists like Alain de Botton have the right idea: secular people still have a lot to learn from religion and from religious people.

post script

This article is derived from the much longer argument of my book, which attempts to show that human well-being and progress depend on Christianity.  But as the line of argument develops, deeper themes begin to emerge in the second half of the book.  In the end, the book presents an empirical argument for five controversial themes:
  • The truth and Divine authorship of Scripture. (Because Scripture contains perfect, infallible knowledge of the operation of the mind—knowledge which surpasses human knowledge, even contemporary scientific research.  This is evidenced by its extraordinary predictive power as a theory of mental health.  I argue that this is the main idea of the entire Bible—the story of the human soul-mind and its total dependence on God.)
  •  The existence of God. (Because of the evidence that shows that the mind is both governed by, and designed according to, the laws of the Bible. Therefore, the Designer of the human mind/soul is the Author of the Bible.)
  • The existence of the soul. (Because of the evidence that shows that the mind shares spiritual properties associated with the soul, namely, reward and punishment.)
  • The reality of heaven and hell. ( Because of the evidence that there is actual reward for religious behavior and punishment for sin.)
  • The truth of Christianity and Judaism (Because of the evidence for the four propositions above.)

While I admit that my book does not prove any of these spiritual propositions, nevertheless, I would say that it succeeds in getting us a bit closer to such a proof. And it maps the way forward to what I believe will eventually become a sound empirical demonstration of these transcendent realities.

from The Immoral Landscape:

But even more importantly, we have seen astonishing evidence for a key Christian doctrine. We’ve seen evidence that the mind is governed by the spiritual laws of the universe: the mind that obeys those laws flourishes, while the mind that does not, suffers. What this means exactly—and most importantly—is that the mind behaves as if it were a soul. For just like a soul, the mind is rewarded for virtue and punished for sin. And if it walks like a soul, and it quacks like a soul—that’s probably because it’s a soul—easily the most significant discovery of our investigation.

That the mind-soul is punished for disobedience to Biblical laws should get people’s attention. For if the soul is punished in this life for sin, what hope can there be that it won’t be punished in the next? Moreover, if it is true that mental health is determined by obedience to the Bible, how then can the laws of the Bible be arbitrary and man-made, as the New Atheists allege?

The bold teaching of the Grace Hypothesis found in Galatians asserts that the Bible is the users’ manual of the human mind—that the human mind is designed according to the spiritual principles of the Bible— whether you believe in the Bible or not. This is so because the Bible’s Author happens to be the Designer of the human mind, and the Designer of everything else for that matter.

From: Gravino, John (2016-05-13). The Immoral Landscape (of the New Atheism): How Human Nature Poisons Everything and Why the Church Is Our Only Hope for Survival (pp. 129-130). CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.