love and heretics

It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness

Atheist ponderings on the soul

What is a soul?

psyche (n.) 1640s, “animating spirit,” from Latin psyche, from Greek psykhe “the soul, mind, spirit; breath; life, one’s life, the invisible animating principle or entity which occupies and directs the physical body; understanding” (personified as Psykhe, the beloved of Eros), akin to psykhein “to blow, cool,” from PIE root *bhes- “to blow, to breathe” (source also of Sanskrit bhas-), “Probably imitative” [Watkins].
Also in ancient Greek, “departed soul, spirit, ghost,” and often represented symbolically as a butterfly or moth. The word had extensive sense development in Platonic philosophy and Jewish-influenced theological writing of St. Paul (compare spirit (n.)). Meaning “human soul” is from 1650s. In English, psychological sense “mind,” is attested by 1910. From here:

The butterfly has long been a symbol to represent transformation.

Some have taken this in a physical form literally as we see the butterfly do.

Some transform their physical selves. (think Bruce Jenner).

In ancient Greek, and in religion since I believe the transformation was thought to mean from one life to the next. An after life, the spirit separate from the body.

But, I am here to give an explanation of the term soul to a lowly atheist.

An afterlife is not believed IN as it is not known, or believed to be knowable at this point. So, what could soul mean?

I like the symbol of butterfly connected with soul. Because it is hard to explain.

Some like to accuse atheist of being materialists, and seeing only the physical.

And while some may be, that certainly does not describe every atheist.
I like to think of soul as our rare ability to think, reason, feel, reflect, and transform. Not physically, not into another life, but in this very life.

We have discovered that self transformation IS possible. In fact it is one of the unique attributes of being human. The soul is the part of us that is capable of self transformation, in the here and now. Discovery of who we are, who we want to be, and becoming. Less or more.

Sometimes our transformation can be dark, less instead of more.

To quote The Mad Hatter: “You’re not the same as you were before. You were much more… “muchier.” You’ve lost your “muchness.”

Finding our soul, and our desire is being human.



  1. I really enjoyed this.

  2. archaeopteryx1

    Another Greek word you might research is “pneuma.”

    • Thank you for the tip. Just put it in my book for next.
      (you have not led me amiss yet lol)

      • archaeopteryx1

        (you have not led me amiss yet lol)” – That’s because I’ve never tried getting you drunk – I’m not above that.

        • hmmm. I am beginning to think, arch, that you are incorrigible. lol

          • archaeopteryx1

            That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me!

  3. To quote Duke Leto Atreides:

    “I’ll miss the sea, but a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing him to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.

    • That was brilliant, John. Thank you.

      • Thank Herbert, his words 😉

        • And you for appropriately shining them. 😉

  4. Forgive me if I’m wrong, as I don’t know much ancient Greek, but didn’t psyche also mean breath? Don’t we see this being taken up in Latin with the root “spire”. I’m thinking in terms of “respiration”, but we also see this in “inspire”, “expire”, “conspire” (sharing breath!? Sharing animating principles?!) and “spirit”. In a sense, this animating force, whatever it may be is so physical that it’s tied to the very breath we take in, and ideas that come in are like that very air coming into our bodies. Then we are inspired. If that’s the case, isn’t psychlogy a study of soul as well as a study of our very bodily animation? I’m a Buddhist, so I too, am going to push to reimagine this building-block of our identity and won’t fault you for being too “materialist” in your approach. I love the idea of transformation inherent in the butterfly. Ultimately, that’s what the core of the Buddha’s idea of karma and self are: as per the opening of the Dhammapada, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfish thoughts cause misery when they speak or act. Sorrows roll over them as the wheels of a cart roll over the tracks of the bullock that draws it.

    All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy whenever they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them. — Trans. Easwaran”

    As such, the process of soul, the process of a “spiritual path” is precisely to transform into a better person, one who acts and molds him/herself into a more attuned engagement with the universe.

    As a side thought to my various comments on breath, I noticed the other day an interesting aspect of language. When you lack food, you have hunger. When you lack water/liquid, you have thirst. When you lack air…? There’s no word. Breath is such a fundamental aspect of our lives that we don’t even have a noun for the lack of it. We can’t go without it for more than a stretched string of seconds… Just a thought.

    Thanks for this post! Sorry for the super-long comment!

    • archaeopteryx1

      I don’t know much ancient Greek, but didn’t psyche also mean breath?” – I believe you’re thinking of “pneuma.”

    • Hello zeuslyone! no apologies needed. Always enjoy your thoughts. Here is an interesting link to the connection between butterfly and soul. (it lists many other cultures as well)

      “Greek and Minoan.
      Aristotle gave the butterfly the name psyche , the Greek word for soul.
      Many cultures relate butterflies to the human soul. In ancient Greek the word for butterfly is “psyche” which means “soul”, and was also the name of Eros’ human lover.
      Roman culture
      Coins – butterfly as the symbol of the soul.”

      Pneuma is another connected soul term.
      Thanks for not faulting me ” for being too “materialist” in my approach. ” 😉

      My goal isn’t to knock other approaches so much as to share and enlighten those who carry misconceptions about the atheist and thinking we are exactly ONLY materialistic. I believe being human makes us so much more. Even without belief in a god/gods or eternal life, I recognize our ability to express, learn, change, become, admire, love, feel.

      I do enjoy many teachings from Buddhism.

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