Soul Beliefs: Causes and Consequences

Exploration of the causes and consequences of various beliefs about the soul. Topics such as the self, mind/body dualism, evolution, culture, death anxiety, afterlife, and religious and political conflict.

About The Course

Throughout history, the vast majority of people around the globe have believed they have, however defined, a “soul.” While the question of whether the soul exists cannot be answered by science, what we can study are the causes and consequences of various beliefs about the soul and its prospects of surviving the death of the body. Why are soul and afterlife beliefs so common in human history? Are there adaptive advantages to assuming souls exist?  Are there brain structures that have been shaped by environmental pressures that provide the foundation of body/mind dualism that is such a prominent feature of many religions? How do these beliefs shape the worldviews of different cultures and our collective lives? What is the role of competing afterlife beliefs in religion, science, politics, and war? This course explores several facets of this relatively unexplored but profoundly important aspect of human thought and behavior.

Recommended Background

For thousands of years, people have believed that they are endowed with souls and that their souls will survive the death of their bodies.  It is surprising that this common denominator of most religions has operated in the shadows of public discussions. Up to now it has been one of those elephants in the room that nobody talks about.  This course breaks that tradition and, in doing so, opens the doors to the fertile fields of many disciplines that inform us about the durability of soul and afterlife beliefs.  Originally taught as an undergraduate "general education" course at Rutgers University, it has attracted the attention of adults of all ages and many occupations who like to think deeply about matters that pertain to how we function as human beings.
In sum, no background is required; all are welcome.