Bronislaw Malinowski defines religion as an assertion that death is an illusion; that humankind has an immortal soul or spirit. This belief arises from love of one’s own personality or beingness and is reinforced by the inability to accept one’s own annihilation (Thrower 1999:116). Furthermore, Malinowski asserts that religion serves to reinforce societal values however, to do so it must satisfy a vital need within the individual if it were to play an essential role in human affairs. That need is the belief that one’s short time on earth will be rewarded with another existence in the hereafter (Thrower 1999:115). Malinowski’s theory of religion cleaves to a universal religious attribute-an ingredient shared by most past and present, Western and Eastern religious traditions, as well as many indigenous traditions-that human beings believe their spirit or soul endures independent of corporeal existence.
We can find evidence for the belief in the human soul in past religious traditions. The ancient Egyptians believed that when a person died, their ba, (the personality of the individual) survived death and left the tomb, provided that the individual’s corpse remained with its ka or life force, nurtured by the contents within the tomb. Also, another element of the individual soul was their akh, a transcendent form of the spirit which needed no connection to the body and whose dwelling place was heaven (Nagle 2002:29). The mystery cults of the early Greeks promised initiates liberation from the gloomy Hades of Homeric religion, a place where one’s soul had a minimal existence (Nagle 2002:127). These mystery cults emphasized individuality and a blessed afterlife (Nagle 2002:126). The Western World Religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam share the idea that humankind has a soul destined to face some sort of afterlife experience. Although Judaism has little to say on the subject, it does suggests that the individual’s personality goes to Shoel, a sort of underworld or pit similar to the Greek Hades (Oxtoby 2007:80). Psalms 139 says, “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art here: If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art thereâ€¦And thy right hand shall hold me”. This implies God is present in the land of the dead, giving one hope that the righteous would live in God’s presence as reward for leading a rigorous moral life (Metcalf 1901:340-341). Christianity, specifically Catholic doctrine, believes subsequent to death the soul enters purgatory, a realm where the soul atones for sin and is prepared for entrance into heaven, an eternal place with God or into Hell, a domain of eternal punishment (Oxtoby 2007:80). Islamic views of resurrection are specifically mentioned in the Qur’an and contend no one is exempt from God’s Day of Judgment which rewards those who have been moral and righteous by escaping punishment in Hell to with God in Paradise (Ringgren 1951:6). Many Eastern religions also believe humans have a soul. Hinduism believes the human soul (atman) accumulates karma, a system of cause and effect for one’s actions throughout the course of life. The soul works out its karma in a continuing cycle of death and reincarnation known as samsara. Liberation (moksha) from samsara can be achieved by a transforming experience of wisdom from which the soul attains immortality (a-marta, meaning without death) (Oxtoby 2007:266). Followers of the Eastern religious tradition of Mahayana Pure Land Buddhism revere the bodhisattva Amida, who, having attained enlightenment, delayed his entry into nirvana to help all living beings to be reborn into the Buddha realm known as Pure Land or Happy Land. In this celestial sphere the streets and buildings are made of jewels and void of suffering, old age or death. Devotees of Amida are so transformed by his merit and compassion that they easily achieve the final goal of nirvana, a state of eternal bliss (Oxtoby 2007:405).
Another tradition that believes in the enduring soul is ancestor worship. Described as the essential religion of China, ancestor worship plays a vital role in the Chinese social structure (Addison 1924:492). Contemporary China believes that people are comprised of three souls. The yin soul remains with the body after death. The yang soul ascends to a sort of purgatory and the third soul lives in the ancestral tablet (Addison 1924:492). Filial piety in China is patrilineal and it is the duty of every generation to secure sons to perform rituals to feed and placate one’s ancestors in the afterlife (Oxtoby 2007:449). Those individuals who die without descendants or relatives to care for them become beggar spirits or hungry ghosts (Addison 1924:501). These spirits can be harmful so special banquet festivals, led by Buddhist and Taoist priests, are held yearly to feed and appease these wandering spirits (Addison 1924:501)
We also see the concept of a soul in many indigenous traditions throughout the world, e.g. Siberian Tungus shaman whose soul can leave their body and travel to other realms and communicate with spiritual beings (Oxtoby 2007:13). The Yoruba of West Africa believe their ancestors live in the dominion of the spirits and continue to help their living relatives. The ritual life of Shona of South Africa is devoted to past ancestors, heroes and chiefs who communicate and offer advice to the living through dreams, visions and mediums. Failure to follow the advice of the spirits, or to neglect one’s ancestors can mean punishment of illness or infertility (Oxtoby 2007:31). Other religious traditions such as Jain, Taoist and Shinto also advocate the presence of souls. There are also many other indigenous traditions, too many to list in this short paper, that imagine the existence of souls.
The belief that souls, spirits, ghosts, gods and other non-corporeal entities exist appears to be a universal element in both past and surviving religious traditions. The idea of the human soul continuing beyond death can and does provide a powerful impetus for the living to act in accordance to their cultural values and morals and gain access to a favourable afterlife. Furthermore, the very nature of religion embodies spiritualism and by taking the soul or spirit out of religion reduces it to a secular designation devoid of anything mystical or ethereal.
Addison, James Thayer, The Modern Chinese Cult of Ancestors, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 4, No. 5 (Sep., 1924), pp. 492-503.
Metcalf, Arthur, The Evolution of the Belief in the World beyond the Grave, The Biblical World, Vol. 17, No. 5 (May, 1901), The University of Chicago Press, pp. 339-347.
Nagle, Brendan D., The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History, 5th Edition, Prentice Hall New Jersey 2002.
Oxtoby, Willard G. and Segal, Alan F., A Concise Introduction to World Religions, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Ringgren, Helmer, The Conception of Faith in the Koran, Published by: BRILL, Oriens, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Aug. 15, 1951), pp. 1-20.
Thrower, James, Religion: The Classical Theories, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C., 1999.