The ongoing debate over the fate of Terri Schiavo is a revealing example of the differences between a secular and a religious world view. Those who advocate that Terry be kept alive and those supporting her right to die have two very different conceptions of the soul. The difference is crucial because differences in their metaphysical views have significant ethical and political implications.
According to the secular philosophy, the soul is the essence of who an individual is – the essence of his character, and the motive force of his actions. It is a unique trait of human beings, who are able to guide their own actions and their course in life through the exercise of their conceptual consciousness. Because the mind is a consequence of the process of the brain, the soul is also made possible by the biological processes of the human body and cannot exist without it. Life, in the secular philosophy, is a process of acting on values of one’s choosing, and happiness is the consequence of their successful accomplishment. This goes on until one cannot or does not choose to engage in the process of value-pursuit and dies.
According to the religious philosophy, the soul is a spiritual entity, separable from the body, and exists in some non-material realm apart from the material world. According to this philosophy, the soul is an immortal entity temporarily attached to a physical body by the whim of an all-powerful being. Since the soul does not “belong” to the mortal being, it comes with certain conditions, usually whatever the local mystics deem to be proper. According to the religious philosophy, a moral life consists of dutifully following the commandments of a higher being in order to make one’s soul less susceptible to misery in a future state of existence, such as heaven, Valhalla, or an afterlife. Since the choice to live is not up to mortal humans to make, the choice to die cannot be either, since their soul and thus their life does not belong to them. Furthermore, the end of mental activity does not mean the death of the soul, which remains trapped in the body as long as it is biologically alive, just as an fetus possesses a soul prior to developing a conceptual consciousness.
The vast difference and the ethical implications of these world views should be clear. In the secular philosophy, man has a “self-made soul” that he shapes and that shapes his life. In the mystic philosophy, man is granted his soul by a god and must obey that deity or expose the soul to “eternal damnation” in the beyond. Religious groups oppose the right to die for the same reason that they oppose happiness as the ultimate moral end: it represents a threat to their conception of human nature.
Terri Schiavo is not an isolated case, as lawmakers claimed when they blatantly disregarded the Constitution and federalism in an attempt to preserve her body – it is an example of the same reasoning they use to oppose the right to die and abortion. It is a reasoning that denies the essential difference between human beings and carrots on a mental and physical level and claims instead that the difference exists in some unreachable, imperceptible, and unknowable realm. It is no wonder then, why they must resort to force to bully their beliefs on those who live their lives for a this-worldly purpose.