Question from Heather:
I really appreciate this website, it is quite useful. Early thank you for answering my question.
Most theists often worry about where our ‘soul’ goes when we die. I am more interested about where our ‘soul’ was before we were born. I often ask my theist friends this and most of them are perplexed by the question. Where were we before our existence? Shouldn’t we go back to the same place after our death?
When I asked myself this question I came up with no answer because I don’t know. Why don’t people draw the same conclusions about death?
Answer by SmartLX:
Most people can fairly easily understand and accept the idea of previously not having existed. After all, they normally don’t remember anything before at least a year after their own birth. It’s much more difficult to wrap one’s head around not existing at some future date, because it means directly confronting one’s own mortality. That’s why the fate of souls after death commands so much more of people’s attention than the path of souls before birth. Having an immortal soul gets around the whole mortality thing.
Atheists tend not to place so much importance on the possible types of afterlife, for obvious reasons. Considering the before-and-after question regardless can lead to a level of acceptance, as Mark Twain reached long ago: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
This famous quote echoes one of the popular theological options, which is that each soul has existed for as long as the universe. Many theists believe in at least some period of pre-existence. Jews and Christians can even back it up with Biblical passages, such as Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee…” The ensoulment of a human body is usually believed by the religious to happen at conception, or at least before birth, so it’s implied that before that point we exist as thoughts or ideas in the mind of God. Given that we’re supposed to be here to carry out God’s plan, whatever that is, it stands to reason that we ourselves were also planned.
Moving beyond the Abrahamic religions, the concept of reincarnation suggests that your soul was in another body before yours, and many more going back through time. A soul has to have its first vessel at some point, though; the world’s population has doubled in about the last 40 years, so anyone under the age of 40 only had a 50% chance of inheriting a soul from another human (assuming that’s the default option). Therefore there’s a good chance that either your body is your soul’s first outing, or you were once an animal. Maybe at one stage you were a single-celled organism.
I think those theists who have given this particular question some thought are the ones who are genuinely interested in theology beyond its implications for their own welfare. Everyone wants to know what will happen when they die and how they can make it easier on themselves, but it takes real curiosity to want to trace one’s personal origins. Whether the pursuit ends up making the concept of souls look a bit silly is probably up to the theists involved.
Question from Heather: