Beyond Belief

Going once, going twice—sold to the man with the pointed tail

By Cullen Murphy

--> he intersection of religion and whatever "modernity" happens to be at any given moment takes unpredictable forms—an example of that blend of parasitism and symbiosis known as co-evolution. Sometimes modernity and religion take eons to come to terms with each other (and, of course, often they never do). The Commonwealth of Massachusetts only recently cleared five of the victims of the Salem witch trials, which were held in 1692. It took a great investment of Talmudic energy to adapt telephones, elevators, and other devices to the demands of sabbath observance. Catholic theologians have come to terms with the reality of sex-change operations, though they recently decided that the sex of the soul remains unaltered. (This finding is presumably designed to prevent a rash of surgical transformations by women who want to be priests.)

On occasion, however, a modus vivendi is worked out in a natural and satisfying way. One magazine I look at, Islamic Horizons, which is the equivalent of Christianity Today for American Muslims, advertises credit cards with the sales pitch that the Muslim tithe, the zakat, will be added automatically to the billing statement. Other ads offer Global Positioning Systems that can fix the direction of Mecca from anyplace in the world.

Notions of family life have been updated across the board. Divorce is now accepted in all the world's great religions, though until lately it was not affirmed by any of them as a benchmark in spiritual growth. But with divorce becoming more and more common, various denominations have devised appropriate blessing ceremonies. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians all offer dissolution services. Reform Judaism has added a "ritual of release" to its repertoire.

The relationship between Americans and their cars is likewise receiving significant religious attention—embodied in the question "What Would Jesus Drive?" Were he alive today, would he join Arianna Huffington and condemn the environmentally odious sport-utility vehicle (which also happens to be the favored conveyance, according to intelligence reports, of the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar)? Would he drive a Toyota Prius hybrid? Would he simply walk—or ride a donkey? An open letter to automakers from an interfaith coalition has called for "a new conversation about cars and their impact on God's children and God's creation."

As the nation prepared for war, the clergy who minister to the armed forces on distant deployments could avail themselves of fully modernized equipment. The U.S. Army's new containerized chapel ships in a standard module measuring 8' x 20' x 8'; it holds everything needed for a Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim service. Portability has been an essential element in the success of many religions. The Israelites could carry the Ark of the Covenant into battle. Muslims carried the Koran from the Arabian peninsula across Africa and up beyond the Pyrenees in less than a century. Traveling preachers still hold revival meetings under canvas all over America. (In contrast the Druids, rooted to their sacred oaks, never became a jihad-loving people.) The Army has plans to build and pack forty-four containerized chapels, each one including a tent and a lectern; an electronic keyboard; copies of the Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon; prayer mats and prayer shawls (in camouflage green); and offering plates.

Like the empire of Rome, the American empire carries all its acquired gods into battle at once. Edward Gibbon observed, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that "Rome, the capital of a great monarchy, was incessantly filled with subjects and strangers from every part of the world, who all introduced and enjoyed the favorite superstitions of their native country." He went on, "Rome gradually became the common temple of her subjects; and the freedom of the city was bestowed on all the gods of mankind." The containerized chapel is, in its way, a movable version of the Pantheon.

One technology that virtually all religious groups have embraced is the Internet. For Jews who cannot personally visit Jerusalem, prayers can be sent by e-mail, to be printed out and left in cracks in the Western Wall; Christian pilgrimage sites offer similar e-mail services. A source of guidance for multitudes has been "Belief-O-Matic," a feature on the Web site beliefnet.com that leads the searcher through twenty skillfully crafted questions ("What happens to humans after death?"; "Why is there so much suffering in the world?") in order to reveal "what religion (if any) you practice ... or ought to consider practicing." Catholics in Italy are conducting an electronic plebiscite on who should be the patron saint of the Internet—Isidore of Seville, who produced an encyclopedia? Clare of Assisi, who saw visions on a wall?—and hope to have a recommendation by Easter. Although the Catholic Church suppressed a recent attempt to conduct the Sacrament of Penance by e-mail, there is a secular Apology Room on the Web that encourages visitors to "anonymously share with others" their shortcomings, and to beg forgiveness. The Boston Globe has declared the United States to be in the midst of a "forgiveness boom," though I hope it never extends to Rocky V or the new Comiskey Park.

One way in which the Internet is beginning to make a significant practical difference involves the selling of souls. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon; people have been selling their souls since souls were invented. A vast body of literature addresses the subject. In Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus the doctor agrees to remit his soul to Lucifer in return for all the knowledge in the world. Of course, Faustus eventually comes to regret the transaction. During the 1988 presidential campaign Mario Cuomo was said to have been offered the Oval Office in exchange for his immortal soul, and to have replied, "What's the catch?"

The selling of souls has now made its way onto eBay, the online auction house, providing a literal answer to the rhetorical question from the Gospel of Mark: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" The online traffic in souls became public two years ago when a man named Adam Burtle, of Woodinville, Washington, put up an eBay listing that read "20 yr-old Seattle boy's SOUL, hardly used." Burtle went on, "Please realize, I make no warranties as to the condition of the soul. As of now, it is near mint condition, with only minor scratches." By the time eBay officials stepped in (eBay insists that auctioned items consist of merchandise that can physically change hands), the price had reached $400, and Burtle's soul had been bought by a woman in the Midwest.

A year later a twenty-four-year-old man in West Des Moines named Nathan Wright put his soul up for bid, first on eBay and then, after the watchdogs discovered it, on Yahoo. It went to a television sound mixer in Los Angeles for $31 plus $15 for shipping and handling. (Wright had put it in a jar.) Wright reports on his Web site: "My soul's new owner has vowed to take good care of it. He and his wife are planning a trip to Europe and apparently the soul will be accompanying them. At some point my soul is going to be more well-traveled than me."

More of these transactions undoubtedly lie ahead, especially in a soft economy, and it would be prudent to heed the lessons of our recent bout of corporate malfeasance. Although government must never impede the free exercise of religion, it has every right to enforce fair accounting practices (how much is a particular soul really worth?) and to monitor the trade in commodities. Some issues will prove thorny. In many religious traditions the separation of body and soul is the very definition of death. What, then, is the existential status of the suddenly soulless? Plato believed that human beings possess three souls; should people therefore be allowed to divest two of them (say, Reason and the Passions) while keeping the third (the Appetites)? Can time-share arrangements be allowed—that is, should one be able to acquire the rights to someone else's soul for two weeks a year? What about leasing with an option to buy?

These are complicated questions. The sex-of-the-soul debate may now be resolved, but the task of theology is far from done.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/04/beyond-belief/302706/