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Most Atheists, I think, would deny the existence of a human "soul" in the Cartesian sense.

However, the defining characteristic of Atheism is disbelief in God or gods. As per Wikipedia:

Atheism, in the broadest sense, is an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism rejects the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.

In some sense, then, Atheism hinges on the denial of deities. I know a few people who don't explicitly believe in a God or gods but nevertheless would describe themselves as vaguely "spiritual" in some sense. I don't know what they mean by "spiritual" and I'm not sure that they do either, but it seems to suggest to me that they believe in some sort of immaterial "spirit" that is in addition to their bodily sack of meat.

I don't know anyone "spiritual" who actively denies the existence of God/gods, but here is one example of someone who seems to have something akin to this. At the very least, it seems hypothetically possible to at once believe that there is no God/gods, and simultaneously that there is an immaterial "soul".

On the other hand, someone who denies the existence of a soul might likely be an Atheist. This is not a necessity: it seems, for example, that some Christian thinkers rejected the existence of a "soul". I don't personally know of any examples on the top of my head, but I suspect that there have been those in other religions (particularly Deism) who might believe in a supernatural creator without believing in a human soul.

So, there are those who disbelieve in the existence of a human soul, including not only Atheists but also Christians and probably others. On the other hand, the majority of those in the 4 largest world religions seem to believe in the existence of a human soul, and some folks who disbelieve in God/gods are still "spiritual" in some sense.

Is there a term specifically for disbelief in the human "soul" or "spirit"? I.e. a term that would unequivocally indicate a belief that humans are not more than their material sack of meat, but that would not imply either belief or disbelief in God/gods?

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 4, 2023 at 16:52
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    "Reductive materialists can be viewed as eliminativists with respect to an immaterial soul." there's an overlap with some buddhism if you think "ultimate reality" drops all ideas of pain and perception etc.. i wouldn't say that, though neither do i assume death is the cessation of what is conventionally "me"
    – user64448
    Feb 6, 2023 at 5:04

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When anyone asked the Buddha about souls, he would begin by saying, what exactly do you mean, and would then answer in those terms. 'Soul' is a tricksy word, on to which people project all kinds of unexamined assumptions. Even to state disbelief in it, you must consider carefully issues around personal identity and continuity, like those raised by The Ship Of Theseus and our cell turnover, and by Teletransportation Paradoxes. Are you the same person you were as a child? Is an amnesiac or an Alzheimars sufferer or a coma patient, 'the same person'? What about the soon to start happening head transplant? What about uploading to a digital medium, and making copies of yourself?

The Buddhist picture is that there is a Middle Path, between having an eternal unchanging transmigrating essence that uniquely relates to each of us, and the other 'extreme' idea that everything about us finishes at death. Here is a well known metaphor putting it into intuitive terms:

The king asked: "Venerable Nagasena, is it so that one does not transmigrate, and one is reborn?"

"Yes, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"How, venerable Nagasena, is it that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn? Give me an analogy."

"Just as, your majesty, if someone kindled one lamp from another, is it indeed so, your majesty, that the lamp would transmigrate from the other lamp?"

"Certainly not, venerable sir."

"Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"Give me another analogy."

"Do you remember, your majesty, when you were a boy learning some verse from a teacher?"

"Yes, venerable sir."

"Your majesty, did this verse transmigrate from the teacher?"

"Certainly not, venerable sir."

"Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"You are clever, venerable Nagasena."

-from The Questions Of King Melinda, Miln III.5.5. Canonical in Burmese Buddhism but not other traditions, and widely translated and read in the Buddhist world

This picture is called Anatma, one of the Three Marks of Existence at the core of the Buddhist picture of how suffering arises, from failing to recognise their inevitability and intrinsicness to being. I put forward the term Anatma, for disbelief in a permanent unchanging individual essence.

In Mahayana Buddhism (China Tibet Japan Korea Mongolia) their picture is that material qualities of the self like the five senses end with death, but karma continues to be transmitted like one candle lighting another, through the Alayavijnana, the 'storehouse consciousness', which arises from perception through inferential cognition (it's interesting to compare this discourse to Aristotle's picture of a 'common sense' & elaboration by Aquinas Descartes and others, like the 'five wits'. Discussed here What does Aristotle think about the relation between blindness, knowledge and memory? and here Do we create knowledge?). This domain of inferential consciousness, is characterised by 'substrate independence', and can be directly compared to the idea of the Noosphere, or Memesphere (the domain of memetics).

I make the case here that the 'rationing of symbolic immortality', of who is remembered well (memory 'kept alive') and used as inspiration (meme-complex replicated), is key not just to making sense of religion, but to understanding culture and political progress in general: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

As a physicalist-materialist Zen Buddhist, this is my interpretation. Buddhist rebirth is a metaphor for what persists and repeats. And although Anatma as a term for disbelief in an Eternal Soul comes with complications, you in fact cannot avoid engaging with those complications about identity and persistence, to do philosophy seriously in any case.

The 'root koan', the core question of Zen, is to contemplate 'Who am I?'. This is not to find a fixed answer, a doctrinal response. It is to decide how to be, who you are, in this very moment, now. Because all notions of self which draw focus away from that, fail to grasp the true nature of the self, and substitute for it mental distractions about who we have been and could become, that are not truly valid or real.

You are - hits with Zen stick

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  • Perhaps my phrasing above wasn't as clear as I imagined. I feel like the Buddhist concept you describe would clearly not fall under the umbrella of "a belief that humans are not more than their material sack of meat." On the other hand, the Ship of Theseus problem does not seem to be a problem in the "sack of meat" view at all. Suppose "Ship of Theseus problem": you were a sack of meat before all of your cells died and were replaced, and you're a sack of meat after. Is it the same "you" in some sense? /shrug. "sackofmeatism" is limited to the "sack of meat" question.
    – Him
    Feb 4, 2023 at 16:08
  • The point of the Ship of Theseus is exactly to draw attention to the problem with our intuitions about identity. By all means challenge notions of the conventional self - also core to Buddhism. As I say "not more than their material" is extremely woolly, & going to mislead. We have different explanatory layers. For instance, the layer of identity intentions & character, is a far more efficient way to predict other humans than the physics of particles, even if they are all reducible in principle to dynamics in that fundamental layer. The self is meaningful, but has limitations by context
    – CriglCragl
    Feb 4, 2023 at 19:50
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    Is it common for people to refer to consciousness emerging from purely physical processes as a "soul" or a "spirit"? Those are not words that I would choose, but I'm not necessarily familiar with all usages of the terms. I suppose that the point everyone here is making is that the term "soul" is so vague as to be meaningless without an entire textbook devoted to one's particular interpretation of the term. Possibly this is a symptom of having asked in the philisophy site. Maybe I should go ask on english.stackexchange >D
    – Him
    Feb 4, 2023 at 20:24
  • @Him imagine: You are a painter. You look at the picture you create. The picture is existence. Your sack of meat body(or bodies) is on the picture, also sack of you mother and other people, their houses, countries, and else. What is the soul or where the soul, while thou art the picture? Feb 6, 2023 at 11:58
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I've poked around, and strictly speaking, there doesn't seem to be a term in currency to express the idea of dis-belief in souls without reference to other views.

Animism is usually contrasted with pantheism in that the former believes everything has a soul and the latter is the belief that a god or gods is everywhere. These are broader and more encompassing than mono- and polytheism.

Materialism and scientism relate the rejection of religions and souls generally and the latter an adherence to the scientific method to determine truths. It should be noted that vitalism did provide a cover for the belief in the soul until scientific communities came to view it as a superseded theory.

If one were to coin a term that reasonably conveyed the idea you mention, 'non-animism' or 'anti-animism' would seem to be good fits. Neither of those elicit any hits on Google Ngram Viewer, so aren't found in their corpus. It seems like you've found a hole in terminology, not an easy task these days. I guess that leaves us to speculate why such a term isn't used.

Primitive religions, that is ones that do not rely on complex doctrines like those of Catholicism or Sunni-ism, for instance, would need a term to explain why there exists the animate and account for its occurrence and dispositions. Then, to impute gods is to take the next step and proffer the actual existence of supernatural beings, and so other than late developments like Deism that seek to cope with modern science by "withdrawing" the supernatural from the everyday, it would seem that if one accepts supernatural beings like a god, one would easily accept supernatural substances like a soul. Once one rejects the supernatural entirely, then there is little cause to talk about rejecting only one or the other but not both. But this is all speculation, of course.

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