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Has the way that you think about the soul changed over the years?
Not much. I’ve learned a lot giving talks in different places. For example, I’ve learned some very concrete things that are important to the soul that I didn’t realize were so important. For example, food. I’d never realized before that food is such an important thing for the soul. So how you cook and what you eat and family traditions of food—all of that is rather important to the soul, not just a thing for your body. Another thing I’ve learned is just simple things like bathing—I often talk about taking a bath. How it’s more likely for your soul rather than your body. I doubt you take a bath to get cleaner, you probably take a shower for that, but bathing is a ritual which is really important for the soul. I quote Henry David Thoreau who said that taking a bath was a sacrament for him. It isn’t a sacrament for most people, but it was for him. So those are some concrete things I’ve learned that I didn’t realize in the beginning [of my writing] were so important.
One passage that I particularly liked in the book was this: “The emptying and graying of the churches is like climate change. Something ominous is happening to us.” What do you see as being ominous?
I feel the same thing about many things. I mention books because I make my living writing and it’s getting more difficult because people simply are not buying books and reading as much anymore. Books are still there, and people still buy books, but not at all like they were. And that’s a strange feeling. I think that what’s happening to us even if we’re not thinking or talking about it much is that our habits are changing and that feels like climate change, it feels like something is happening to us that we have no control over. We’re not even that aware of the change enough to really be able to do anything about it, like think of alternative ways of how to react, so I feel strange and odd about those developments in religion. And I can’t explain it because it’s quite mysterious, but suddenly this change is taking place.
The book has been written for agnostics and atheists as well. Can non-believers have something in their lives that’s akin to religion?
That’s really the point of the book—I think you can. In some ways, atheists are probably in a better position to have a religion of their own than people who attend church because the church, in a way, gets in the way of their own religion. Not entirely, but it does get in the way. People can go to church mindlessly and really not develop a religious way of life. So I think that atheists—although they can be very hard-minded about their own decisions and be rather fundamentalist at times about their atheism—I still think they have a better chance of developing a religion of the type I’m talking about.
So when I say the soul needs religion I don’t mean that it needs church going or going to a synagogue or anything like that. I think that it needs a way of life in which you account for the mysteries in life and that which is beyond what you can explain and control. And if you don’t have that religious sense of wonder and questioning and search, then your soul can become lost in the secular life; you might only be concerned about money or a job or you might unconsciously just do what everyone’s doing and not think about it at all. I think a lot of people are in that position and that the soul is hurt then when people do not have that kind of religion.
You say in your book, “Whether or not you like it you have a soul that complains when you neglect it. Soul needs religion, it’s not an option.” And you make a connection between the soul being hurt and illnesses like depression.
I think you do get depressed when you don’t live from a deep enough place. Vitality comes from being really deeply engaged in life. Not just going through the motions. I think there’s a kind of depression—maybe it’s not the same clinical depression that some people complain about—but I think there’s at least a mild form of cultural depression where we feel that life doesn’t have a lot of zest and meaning so we wonder about, “Why do I get up in the morning?” and “What am I doing at this job?” We think, “This is what life is all about—isn’t there any more than this?” Those kinds of questions are rather depressive. And I think they come from the fact that we don’t engage in life at a deep level. Once you do that, then your work will again have more vitality, and then there’s no room for depression. Your work can really mean something to you. And your life, your family life, or your life with children or animals or nature or art—there can be so much in life that makes you feel alive and makes you want to get everything out of life that you can, and that is an antidote to depression. And that’s a soulful life.