The Weight of the Soul

(21 grams)(9.81 m/s²)

During my time in engineering, there were three classmates that I spent the most time with—Gaby, Andrew and Elena. We would sit around a table in the Sandford Fleming atrium, and they would pepper me with questions and challenges to my religious disposition. Beer was served in plastic cups from the engineering bar, stereo speakers blared music from a Winamp playlist, and it really wasn’t long ago at all.

Most of the things they said, and the questions they asked, were reasonable. Some of them were impossible to answer. Some of them were profound, and they were washed away by the tides of ordinary days, limited attention spans and time constraints. Elena once paused in the middle of one of these conversations, and asked me such a question:

“How can you live surrounded by all these people who don’t [believe what you do]?”

I knew what she meant, and I don’t think I answered the question that day. I thought of several short, logical answers, but I couldn’t provide them, because it was not a question of logic.

* * *

It might seem clever to point out that we are all surrounded by people who don’t share our exact beliefs. It might seem tolerant to suggest that we ought to see the world differently; it might seem Torontonian to praise diversity. But it would not seem sufficient to say any of these things. How can so many people take such a truth lightly, if indeed it is of any importance? And how can such a truth be true, if so many people disregard it? Wouldn’t these people matter to such a God? Is there no weight to the soul, that it might make a ripple in the fabric of truth?

There are three difficulties, the first being that we do not wish to imagine that so many people are wrong [1]. But it is the other two that must be acknowledged and wrestled with: The sorrow for others, and the sorrow for ourselves.

Even if we are able to convince ourselves that so many others are mistaken, we do not take kindly to the idea of a weightless soul. It is for this reason that the idea of hell seems so repulsive—not that we could be punished, but that the natural goings-on of so many people should be seen as punishable. Charles Darwin famously said:

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” [1]

I am not writing, here, about hell, but about the idea that human beings have gravity to them. This is different than the belief that many sensible people cannot be wrong—it is the belief that the truth warps according to numbers and strength of conviction. Sitting that table in the atrium, the four of us were acquainted with some experiential truths that we carry with us even today: if we opened an exam and discovered that we could scarcely answer half of it, we knew there would be a serious bell curve. If enough people disobeyed a rule, it would be the rule that would be called into question. If enough of us voted for the opposition, the government would be changed.

It flies in the face of such experience to believe in a God that would create people without winning them over, or that people would ignore God unless he wasn’t there. Despite this, I cannot be ruled by such base impulses, and I cannot believe that the truth changes with popular opinion. I did not have to leave that table to vindicate my decision. In a separate conversation with Andrew, I had once inadvertently mentioned Christianity’s being the largest religion, to which he said: “Oh, but I don’t care about that. I don’t care that ‘the world’ says this, or ‘the world’ says that.” And he was right. If they were to believe in the gravity of the soul, they would have to be religious, or at the very least spiritual. If I were to believe in the gravity of the soul, I would not be able to take religion seriously.

Finally, there is the loneliness and isolation that must surely accompany such beliefs. I would not have denied this. But to take anything seriously—even serious unbelief—requires a complete separation from culture in that particular respect. Mainstream culture has no direction to it; it merely ebbs and flows along behavioural geodesics, and it is blown about by the wind.

I can live surrounded by all these people because I do not believe that the weight of the soul can be summed across persons in such a way. I can live surrounded by all these people because they are not entirely different from me. Many of them have firmly grasped what it means to be human. Many of them also share my understanding of what is, and what ought to be. Only some of them share this understanding for the same reasons, and fewer still [4] behave accordingly.

————————————————————————————————

[1] No matter how you slice the pie, most people are wrong. This is the topic of a separate entry.

[2] It might be ironic to wonder how many people disbelieve on account of this, but that would stray from the point here.

[3] There is no “3” in the body, but I couldn’t think of a better place to write this: is there a “sum of total pain?” C.S. Lewis wrote that he didn’t think so. Nobody experiences the sum of total pain. It may be difficult to describe the importance attached to an experience by the number of people experiencing it.

[4] To say nothing of myself

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