A reader writes:
"When a minister tells parents at their son's funeral that they will see their son again, and his soul is in a better place, I cannot dismiss it or heap scorn on it. If we professors hear this language as a description of reality, then we're bound to be irritated by the issue of truant evidence and the lack of warrant. But if we hear it as emotive hope, then our objections fall away."
First, no one in their right minds thinks that it would be appropriate to "heap scorn" upon parents who find themselves comforted by this kind of soul talk. But Asma claims that talk of a soul in this sort of context isn't meant descriptively and therefore not subject to the usual standards of evidence. I don't see that. It seems to me that the priest means to comfort the parents by presenting a picture of reality for which there is no evidence. If he'd said "I hope you'll see your son again" that wouldn't have comforted the parents unless they themselves believed that reality works a certain way and that their loss is merely a temporary separation.
Again, whatever logical or empirical errors the parents make in believing that the will see their son again, I don't think it would justify derision or mockery directed at them in their time of grief. But let's not kid ourselves: they are comforted by a belief for which there is no evidence.
Norm Geras has nearly the same thought:
[T]hat there are 'emotions so deep and bonds so strong' that they survive the deaths of individuals, at least when there are others left alive to remember them, it is possible to recognize this and the force of the feelings that make it true in statements of a quite other kind - such as (just for example) 'We feel for you in your sorrow, and for your terrible loss; your son will be cherished in the memory of all who loved him'. I make no special claim for that particular form of words; it can doubtless be improved upon with some other non-soul-referring statements. But in any case, that there are such alternatives registering the depth of loving attachments and the strength of human bonds faces Asma with a stark choice. Since these sentiments can be articulated directly and explicitly, he must either say why the expression of them can't be substituted for statements about the soul going to a better place and so offering hope of future reunion, or acknowledge that there is more to these statements than merely the expression of deeply-held emotions. That is to say, the soul-statements don't have the meaning, or just the meaning, Asma attributes to them, but embody something extra as well, as they appear to do; they lodge the expression of emotions in an entity - even if posited only at some 'mythical' level - that survives bodily death.
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