Souls and samosas.
So my club had a samosa sale today. Apparently, not everyone is aware of this form of food, but it’s sort of like a curried Shepherd’s pie in a pastry. Selling these is a pretty common method of fundraising at McGill, and they’re way more popular than baked goods.
As a promotion for our club, you could either give us money, or sell us your “soul”. We had little contracts for people to sign, and they could leave them with us or take them with them, according to comfort level. By the end of it, we were down 100 samosas, and up 14 souls and some cash.
It was interesting to observe people as we explained the offer. Some people were pleased with the idea and signed a contract right away. Other people, strangely enough, demanded to know why we wanted their souls and what we planned to do with them (I still think we should auction them to Campus for Christ, but 14 souls is probably small potatoes for them). One man approached us with money in hand, and when we explained our offer, walked off mumbling that he needed to find some change. I don’t think he came back.
Surprisingly, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, myself. There’s a strong social push to view the term “soul” to mean conscience, self, essence, identity, etc. We’re asking people to sign that over symbolically, despite the fact that there’s no real effect. I often put more meaning into symbolic gestures than I ought to, given how superstitious it is. I think it’s partly to do with being raised in a Christian culture, where gestures like baptism, crossing oneself, maintaining your faith in the face of adversity, not swearing using God’s name, are pretty big things even for people who aren’t especially religious. Obviously, these things aren’t limited to Christianity, but they do feature in it.
I don’t like to say the shahada. I don’t like being in churches, and I especially don’t like having to participate in religious ceremonies. I don’t like verbally wishing people ill, and I sometimes feel worried if I say things like “I’m sure so-and-so is alright.” Some of it’s my dislike for deception. Letting people think I’m religious, or am participating in a religious rite with them feels like lying about who I am and my relationship to them. Like shaking hands with your neighbours during a wedding ceremony, to “join in the community of Christ,” or however it’s put. Doing so says “I am one of you and share your beliefs,” and I don’t like doing it.
It’s often talked about in atheist circles that, in a theocratic situation, we wouldn’t stand firm in our non-faith. If required to convert or die, we’d convert, because why not? We don’t believe in any spiritual punishments for apostasy, and it’s a pragmatic sort of thing to do. Seeing it as somehow harmful to yourself seems to me to be very much a religious ideal of what’s moral, rather than an actual moral deed. The wrong lies with the ones threatening you, not the reverse.
But here, I’m not entirely sure I would. Apart from the lying (and atheists definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with lying to protect yourself or others from harm), I do have something of a superstitious discomfort with the idea. Selling my soul would seem like somehow signing away my own agency, even just symbolically. Obviously I’m not worried about an afterlife, but there is a small part of me that nibbles at me, wondering if I’ll somehow be a bit emptier afterwards.
It’s probably a social thing. There’s so much about the “soulless” in novels, games, movies, etc, that it’s difficult to think rationally about it. This is one of the benefits I see to events like this. It’s uncomfortable for lots of people, sure. But if we can overcome that discomfort, we’ll find we have a wider range of options for our own behaviour and thoughts. It reminds me of George Carlin, being ask if he felt swearing was somehow a sign of a limited vocabulary in his act. He’s quoted in the book Satiristas (by Paul Provenza):
“Yeah, that “You don’t need to; you’re a funny man, you don’t need that stuff” thing. Well, my argument is that you don’t need paprika or oregano or a few other things to make a stew, technically, either — but you make a better stew. If you’re inclined to make a stew of that type, “seasoning” helps.
I know from Bill Cosby’s work, he clearly feels that way, and I’ve always felt that by taking that stand and developing a body of work that didn’t include it, Cosby can never now choose to use that language. I, however, can choose either.
I can do six minutes on The Tonight Show with none of that in it — I can use other parts of my tool kit that work for me; I’m good at them, too, and can do that no problem — but I can also be more of my street-corner self elsewhere, with language of the street if I want to do that, too.”
Atheism, rationalism, skepticism: these broaden our options, giving us additional tools and removing barriers that we’ve placed, not for social protection or order or good, but to prevent us from thinking clearly about certain things.