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Alain de Botton Headshot

Who Will Look After an Atheist's Soul?

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For centuries in the West, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to modern secular ears. He (there were no she's in the role) didn't sell you anything or fulfill any material need, he couldn't fix your ox cart or store your wheat, he was there to take care of that part of you called rather unusually "the soul," by which we would understand the psychological inner part, the seat of our emotions and sense of deeper identity. I'm talking about the priest, the stock figure of pre-modern western life, who would accompany you throughout your years, from earliest infancy to your dying breath, attempting to make sure that your soul was in a good state to meet its maker.

Because in many Western countries, the priesthood is now a shadow of its former self, a key question to ask might be: where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with all the stuff we used to go to the priest for? Who is looking after it? The inner self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the seven loaves and fishes.

The secular response to the needs of the soul has tended to be private and informal: we find our own solutions, in our own time, we construct our own salvations as we see fit. Yet there remains in many a desire for more interpersonal, structured solutions to help us deal with the serious issues life throws us. Probably the most sophisticated communal response we've yet come up with to the difficulties of what we might as well keep calling, with no mystical allusions whatever, "the soul" is psychotherapy. It is to psychotherapists that we bring the same kind of problems as we would previously have directed at a priest: emotional confusion, loss of meaning, temptations of one kind or another and, of course, anxiety about mortality.

From a distance psychotherapists look like they are already well settled in the priest-like role and that there is nothing further to be done or asked for. Yet one could argue that there are in fact a number of ways in which contemporary psychotherapy has failed to learn the right lessons from the priesthood and might benefit from a more direct comparison with it. My suggestion is that society would benefit if therapists were more explicitly reorganised along the model set by the priesthood; that therapists should be secular society's new priests.

For a start, therapy remains a minority activity, out of reach of most people, too expensive or simply not available in certain parts of the country. There have been laudable efforts on the parts of activists like Lord Layard to introduce therapy into the NHS, but progress is slow and vulnerable. But the issue isn't just economic. It's one of attitudes. Whereas Christian societies would imagine there was something wrong with you if you didn't visit a priest, we tend to assume that therapists are there solely for moments of extreme crisis -- and are a sign that the visiting client might be a little unbalanced, rather than just human. A principally physical model of the self is popular, which leads to a preference for problems to be addressed by pills rather than interpersonal relationships. This isn't to say that drugs are not important in many situations, simply to make a supplementary case for therapeutic conversation with a sympathetic other.

There's also, in a serious sense, an issue of branding here. Therapists are hidden away. You don't see them on the high street. They still aren't regulated as they should be. We don't make a place for them among other needs like those for bread or electrical goods. Imagine if the need for therapeutic dialogue was as honoured and recognised as the need for a haircut or a go on an exercise machine. Imagine if seeing a therapist wasn't a strange and still rather embarrassing pursuit. Imagine if one could be guaranteed a certain level of service. Imagine if the consulting rooms looked better and were more visible, to make a case for the dignity of the activity.

Modern psychotherapists' understanding of how humans work and what they need to cope with existence is, in my eyes, immensely more sophisticated than that of priests. Nevertheless, religions have been expert at creating a proper role for the priest, as a person to talk to at all important moments of life, without this seeming like a slightly unhinged minority thing to do. Many people may well say that the pub and a few mates are all they need; after one or two big challenges, a great many more may feel that life is sufficiently complicated that they'd benefit from regular dialogue with a sympathetic third party in a stigma-free reassuring location. For those interested in the challenge, there's a long way to go before therapy really plugs the gap opened up by the decline in the priesthood.

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