Soul Possession: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: killthebird)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Soul Possession.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) This kicks off a new season of original podcasts, marking the end of the hour-long “mashupdates” we’ve recently released.

This episode grew out of something that happened on this blog a while back. We had run a Q&A with Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. In the comments section, a reader named Caleb B. wrote:

Caleb B: What is it about the idea of a soul that even people who confess to not have one are hesitant to sell it? I have been trying, for the better part of ten years, to buy a soul. I’ve offered a dollar amount, between $10 and $50, for someone to sign a sheet of paper that says that I own their soul. Despite multiple debates with confessed atheists, no one has signed the contract. I have been able to buy several people’s Sense of Humor and one guy’s Dignity, but no souls. Additionally, will any Freakonomics reader take me up on this? I’m willing to spend $50 on souls.

We highlighted Caleb’s request in a subsequent blog post and soon enough, he did find a seller, named Bruce Hamilton. This led us to a simple but profound question: In a world where nearly everything is for sale, is it always okay to buy what isn’t yours?

You’ll hear from both Caleb and Bruce in the podcast. For instance:

BRUCE HAMILTON: One of the first things when I realized that there was a guy out there that would produce real money, my first thoughts were wow, if there’s a guy who’ll pay fifty I wonder if there’s someone who will pay fifty-one. I even noticed that eBay has a policy against selling intangible items, so you can’t go auction your soul off on eBay.

We also wanted to explore the moral limits of markets generally. For that, we turned to Harvard law professor Michael Sandel (star of lecture-hall stage and screen) and the author, most recently, of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:

Michael SANDEL: A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being, an unreflective way of thinking and being that just assumes that all the good things in life can in principle be up for sale. And that, I think, diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor, and that money can’t or shouldn’t buy.

As an example, Sandel talks about the Tianjin Apology and Gift Center, where you can buy an apology. The company’s motto: “We say sorry for you.”

We also talk a bit about the nature of the soul itself with Mary Roach, the author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Audio Transcript

Stephen J. DUBNER: Mary Roach is a writer, a non-fiction writer, who is a bit obsessed with death. But not so much the dying part of death as what come afterwards. Her first book, Stiff, is about the secret life of cadavers. In her follow-up book, Spook, she goes looking for evidence of the afterlife. Of particular interest is the thing we call the soul. How real is it? What happens to it when we die? Where is it located when we’re alive? Big thinkers have been thinking about the soul forever, and Mary Roach says there have been some interesting ideas...

Mary ROACH: Oh, yeah, well Aristotle, he had this notion of pneuma like as in pneumatic wind, and it was this spirit, this thing that brought life where life didn’t exist, and it started out in, um, the sperm. So the sperm would sort of on arrival inside the woman’s body get busy kind of building something where there was nothing. And they would sort of, they would breathe life into it, this pneuma, this spirit.

DUBNER: Now, if you don’t like the Aristotelian view of the soul, Roach has some more you can think about …

ROACH: The ancient Egyptians thought that the heart was the center of the spirit that the soul resided there. The Babylonians identified the liver and I think the stomach was a secondary seat of the soul. And the liver is a beautiful, very sleek, kind of streamlined, really boss looking organ. I could imagine looking at that and thinking, yeah, that could be it.

DUBNER: Now, science and anatomy moved forward, of course, and we learned a great deal about these organs. But on matters of the soul? The answers haven’t been so forthcoming. Fast-forward now to the 17th century.

ROACH: Very quickly it became obvious that when you mess around with the brain you change people’s personality, people’s spirit, things kind of shift. So there was a kind of sense that this is where we should look, in the brain. And Descartes, Rene Descartes did a fair amount of this work using livestock heads. Descartes had apparently this sort of room with heads of cows and livestock in different stages of disassembly. And he would sometimes when dinner guests were over he would open the door to this room and say, “These are my books.” And there would be these carcasses and heads, and you kind of had to think that after a while people didn’t want to go over to Rene’s house for dinner very much.



ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonoomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Today we’re talking about the human soul. What it is, what it represents, and, this being Freakonomics, we’d like to ask a different kind of question about the soul. Is the soul, to use a very utilitarian word, transferable? Let me tell you about something strange that happened not long ago on our Freakonomics blog. There was a post about skepticism and, in the comments section of that post, a reader named Caleb B. posed a question, something that’d been puzzling him for years:

CALEB: My question was why are people who profess not to have a soul hesitant to sell it? And it’s kind of come about because throughout my interactions with people, you know, growing up I would run into somebody who professed to be an atheist, and naturally I’d find the conversation interesting and I would ask the question, well if you don’t have a soul can I buy it from you?

DUBNER: Caleb is 30 years old, lives in Oklahoma City. You might think from his question that he’s not a Christian—that’s what I thought at least —but it turns out that he is. Now, we took Caleb’s blog comment and turned it into a blog post all of its own:

DUBNER: Do you have it in front of you the actual blog post, or no?


CALEB: I do not.


DUBNER: Okay, so let me just read a little bit of it.


CALEB: Sure.


DUBNER: This is from Caleb on the Freakonomics blog. “I’ve been trying for the better part of ten years to buy a soul. I’ve offered a dollar amount between ten and fifty dollars for someone to sign a sheet of paper that says that I own their soul. Despite multiple debates with confessed atheists no one has signed that contract. Will any Freakonomics reader take me up on this? I’m willing to spend fifty dollars on souls.” Okay, so did the offers come pouring in or no?


CALEB: Well the first to respond to me was Bruce. And he was very excited, and adamant, and he said I’d be interested in selling you my soul if you’re willing. And so we struck up a conversation and agreed to a contract.


 Bruce HAMILTON: One of the first things when I realized that there was a guy out there that would produce real money, my first thoughts were wow, if there’s a guy who’ll pay fifty I wonder if there’s someone who will pay fifty-one. And I even looked briefly into, I noticed that eBay has a policy against selling intangible items, you can’t go auction your soul off on eBay.

DUBNER: That’s Bruce Hamilton. He’s the guy who sold his soul to Caleb for fifty dollars. Bruce is in his fifties; he’s a tech entrepreneur in Seattle. Unlike Caleb, he is an atheist. He does not believe the soul exists. So, for Bruce, getting paid fifty dollars for something that doesn’t exist was not a hard decision. He did try to understand Caleb’s reasoning before he agreed to sell his soul.

HAMILTON: Yeah, I was real interested in his motivations because I wanted to make sure that he was happy doing this or I wasn’t doing it with somebody that shouldn’t be making such a deal. But he was a perfectly competent guy and he knew what he was doing. We did exchange a little bit of talk about theology or belief, but not so much. I think there was some feeling out about trust. You know, he was going to send me fifty bucks, and he didn’t know who I was. And I guess I was about to get a check that might bounce. But in general I was happy to do it if I could convince myself that he was. And I did convince myself that he was. And for me in a sort of strict Steve Levitt kind of way I would have done it for a dollar or a penny. I was trading something that had no value for something that had some value even if fifty bucks doesn’t mean that much.


DUBNER: One might assume that a guy who offers to buy a soul in this situation, someone who’s posting on a blog asking questions of a skeptic, one might assume that that kind of person would be a skeptic, or a nonbeliever, an atheist, himself, and that the point was to show that, see, it means nothing. But were you surprised to find out that that’s not who he was, that he actually is a, you know, believer who thinks that the soul is real and has value?


HAMILTON: Yeah, I was shocked. I assumed he would be an atheist. It just struck me as a very irreverent thing to do in general. And if he really does believe that the soul is an integral part of a person and that he just took mine, well that wasn’t a very nice thing to do. So I saw a lot of incongruity there and was quite surprised.

DUBNER: That was Caleb’s point, really: all those people he talked to who said they were atheists wouldn’t sell him their souls, which proved, to him, that they thought the soul did have value. But then, finally, along came Bruce.

DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this Bruce, when’s the last time you read “Faust?”


HAMILTON: I don’t know much about Faust. I only know enough to know about what it is. I couldn’t say that I know a lot about Faust.


DUBNER: So I’m guessing that you do know that in exchange for his soul, for selling his soul to the devil via Mephistopheles, that Faust received unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. And you, Bruce Hamilton, you only got fifty bucks. Do you think you got shortchanged here?


HAMILTON: Well, let’s just say that fifty was more than anybody else was offering. So if the open market value was zero and I got fifty, I think I scored.

DUBNER: So Caleb mailed Bruce a check for fifty dollars and a contract to sign, turning over possession of his soul. That’s right: soul possession. But what’s Caleb supposed to do with Bruce’s soul?

CALEB: Can I ever take possession of that soul? I’m not going to put it in a Mason jar, I’m not going to own it in any kind of particular sense. The value to me was just seeing the contract signed by somebody.


DUBNER: You do believe in God, yes?




DUBNER: And what would you make of a God who lets you, a believer, buy the soul of a fellow human being?


CALEB: I don’t know, I don’t know. My wife asked the question, well, do you now have responsibility of Bruce’s soul? If Bruce goes out and does a bunch of horrible and despicable acts, are you going to be held responsible in the afterlife? And my response is really I don’t know. I don’t know.

DUBNER: Coming up... if you can buy a soul...what else can you buy?

Michael SANDEL: If you’ve wronged someone, or if you’re on the outs with someone, whether an estranged lover or a business partner and you can’t quite bring yourself to apologize personally, you can apparently hire the company to do it for you. The motto of the company is “We say sorry for you. For a fee.”




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So a guy named Bruce, in Seattle, sold his soul to a guy named Caleb, in Oklahoma, for fifty bucks. It makes you wonder about the line between what can be bought and sold, and what can’t, or shouldn’t. Now, this line is a fluid line. It shifts from person to person and it especially shifts over time. Markets evolve, for all kinds of reasons, from the political to the moral. Michael Sandel is a political philosopher at Harvard. You may know him from a course he teaches, called “Justice,” which was so popular that it got turned into a public-television show. Sandel’s latest book is called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

SANDEL: I ran across an example of a company in Tianjin, China called the Tianjin Apology Company. If you’ve wronged someone, or if you’re on the outs with someone, if you’ve, whether an estranged lover or a business partner and you can’t quite bring yourself to apologize personally, you can apparently hire the company to do it for you. The motto of the company is “We say sorry for you. For a fee.”


DUBNER: Now how well can that possibly work? Let’s say you’ve deeply wronged me, Professor Sandel. Let’s say that you’ve kicked my puppy on the street, and I get a phone call, or an email, or a telegram from this very lovely apology company saying Professor Michael Sandel wishes to express his regret at kicking your puppy. Is that supposed to work? How is that supposed to work?


SANDEL: Well it’s an interesting question whether it works. I suppose a defender of this could say look have you ever sent a Hallmark card?


DUBNER: Good point. So this is the scenario I want to run past you, Professor Sandel. We talked to a fellow whose name is Caleb who wanted to buy someone’s soul. He offered fifty dollars. And he finally found a seller. So they made the transaction. Paperwork was exchanged; cash was exchanged. Caleb bought Bruce’s soul. I am very curious to know what you, Professor Sandel, think of this kind of transaction.


SANDEL: Well, it strikes me…The first thing that strikes me about it is that it’s a very old idea. It’s not new. Think of the indulgences of the medieval period. And it was after all the sale of indulgences, which is pretty close. Is there a difference between selling your soul and buying salvation? If you can buy a person’s soul, it’s pretty closely akin to buying salvation, which was, you remember that was the practice that was carried out in the Catholic Church at the time that Martin Luther rose up against indulgences, against the buying and selling of salvation.


DUBNER: Indeed, and when we look back on that period of history now and Martin Luther nailing to the door of the church we think, oh thank goodness this is the kind of transaction that we no longer are surrounded by. And yet here’s a guy hundreds of years later who on a scale of one at least is trying to reenact it. It’s different. This is a little bit different. There was not the sale of an indulgence to save the soul in the same way here. This was one person transferring his to another person. I’m curious do you have personally, morally, ethically through the lens through which you see the world have a problem with this transaction?


SANDEL: Well there are two possible problems and only one of them is moral. I suspect that most people would regard this commercial exchange either as absurd or as abhorrent, but not both. People will view it as absurd if they think that there is no such thing as a soul or if they think that the soul is the kind of thing that can’t conceivably be bought and sold in the first place. If you believe that about the soul then you’ll regard this as absurd but not as abhorrent. It would just be based on a mistake. If however you believe that there is such a thing as a soul, and if you believe that bartering in the soul, buying and selling it, it’s a kind of violation of a proper regard for the soul, then you will regard this not as absurd but as abhorrent, as transgressive, maybe even as a kind of sin, which brings out part of the general argument that I would make about markets. In order to decide where markets belong and where they don’t we have to sort out the hard underlying questions about the nature of the goods that money would buy. In this case you have to work out your theology. You have to decide what is the status of the soul, and is there any transgression in trying to buy or sell it? That’s why I say it’s either absurd or abhorrent depending on your underlying view of your status of the soul. You see what I mean?


DUBNER: I do and that’s a very valuable distinction. It makes me curious about you personally, if I offered to buy your soul for fifty dollars what would you say?


SANDEL: Well first I would say why do you want it what do you want to do with it? I would probe to hear what you had in mind.


DUBNER: Let’s say that I feel that…Let’s say that I feel that you are not exercising it properly, that you are not taking seriously enough for my taste and my moral code the responsibility of this spiritual entity known as a soul, and I therefore am willing to pay dollars in order to better curate that soul because I do believe in the sanctity of the soul, and rather than see you not tend yours properly I’m willing to pay the price to take over that responsibility. Let’s say that were my answer.


SANDEL: Well, the more seriously I took your answer, the more genuine I took it to be, and the more plausible I thought it might be as a way of thinking about my soul, my destiny, the more offended I would be. The less seriously I took it, the more I thought listening to you that you were either a crank or a prankster, the less offended I would be, which is to say it would be less of a matter of taking offense and abhorring this than regarding it as absurd and a matter of indifference. But you know it’s connected, this question, how we would regard such an offer is not unrelated to the debate that we’ve heard about in connection with the Romney campaign. Some say that Governor Romney should renounce a practice of the Mormon Church of retrospective conversions. Elie Wiesel you may have noticed came out urging Romney to renounce the practice of the Mormon Church of retrospectively converting some Jews, including Anne Frank. Now the church itself apparently said that the person who did that retrospective posthumous conversion of Anne Frank did so in an unauthorized way. But the question is, if there is a church that carries out posthumous conversions, converts let’s say Anne Frank for the sake of her soul—here’s how it’s analogous to your case of you want to buy my soul the better to look after it—here’s a church, and there’s no money trading hands, is this offensive? Or if you don’t believe it’s efficacious, if you don’t believe there’s anything in it can you really take offense, or is it simply something that’s absurd? So how people react to this retrospective posthumous conversion controversy I think would pretty closely track your question about whether the soul is the kind of thing that can or should be bought and sold. It depends on your underlying view of the status of the soul, or of conversion in that case, or of salvation in the case of indulgences and Martin Luther.


DUBNER: Now, who am I to challenge the model you just laid out, because I think it’s right on in a lot of ways. but, if you divide it into abhorrent and absurd I’m not sure it can’t be both. Because I’ll tell you my position, my personal position on the Mormon posthumous baptisms, which have been going on for years and years, and have included not just the notable names that you mention but many, many, many hundreds of thousands probably millions, but a lot of Holocaust victims, Holocaust survivors, not just Jews, but I know when I was doing genealogy research on my Jewish family from three or four generations ago I came across this issue of the Mormon Church having posthumously baptized relatives who had died in the Holocaust.


SANDEL: Relatives of yours?


DUBNER: Yes. And I found it I have to say both abhorrent and absurd. So even though I pose to you the question about this one fellow who sold his soul for fifty bucks it does sound kind of like a joke or a crank as you put it. But then when we get into something where it’s systematic where there’s a church in this case that baptizes non-members, posthumously baptizes them and admits them into its church, I have to say I quickly go beyond the moral and I go to the legal. And I think if one fellow named Caleb in Oklahoma City is willing and able to buy the soul of another fellow named Bruce in Seattle for fifty dollars, should, let’s say, the Mormon Church be required to pay, let’s say we just set a precedent rate of fifty dollars, fifty dollars per soul per posthumous baptism? Is there an argument to be made here for reparation pay based on the inherent value of a soul?


SANDEL: Well, there’s a risk in that. You called it reparation pay, Stephen, but suppose the people doing the retrospective baptisms consider that it was so important that they were willing to raise the funds necessary to pay fifty dollars per conversion? What that would be doing is converting the reparation, or the penalty, or the sanction, into a cost of carrying out what to them is a very important religious rite. And that connects to the distinction I make between a fine, which is like a reparation, and a fee, which is a cost of doing business without any moral opprobrium or stigma attached to it. A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. It’s a tool that we use, that we put to our purposes. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being, an unreflective way of thinking and being that just assumes that all the good things in life can in principle be up for sale. And that, I think diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor, and that money can’t or shouldn’t buy.

DUBNER: I wondered what Caleb, the guy who bought Bruce’s soul for fifty dollars, would think about the moral limits of the market. It struck me that once you start selling souls it’s a slippery slope …

DUBNER: Let me ask you this, just between you and me now, if I offered you sixty bucks for Bruce’s soul would you resell it to me?


CALEB: I probably would.


DUBNER: Really?


CALEB: Yeah, certainly.


DUBNER: Tell me again exactly what you do for a living.


CALEB: I am a bond analyst for a bank.


DUBNER: So you’re familiar with markets, how they work, when they work, and when they don’t work, when they fail sometime.


CALEB: Generally, yes.


DUBNER:  Do you… Have you considered establishing some kind of a soul market?


CALEB: It might be if I have the technical guru, it might be something indeed that I could do, yes.

DUBNER: And what about Bruce, the seller? On the central matter here, the existence of a soul, Bruce and Caleb disagree. Caleb believes in the soul and thinks it’s worth something; Bruce doesn’t believe in the soul and therefore was happy to sell at any price. But as to how the market should work, even for souls? Well, on this point, the two men are in complete agreement. I asked Bruce if he cared that Caleb would resell his soul …

HAMILTON: Uh, no, he’s completely free to do with it whatever he wants. If he finds a way to make a thousand dollars with it I might be disappointed that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to make a thousand dollars with it before he did. But, if he’s clever enough to do that, I’m all for it. That’s fine with me.


DUBNER: And what if someone else comes to you that doesn’t know that you’ve sold your soul to this guy named Caleb in Oklahoma and offers to buy your soul, what do you do next time?


HAMILTON: Well, you know, the soul is such a nebulous concept and in general these spiritual things are so amorphous that you can just make up anything you want about them and just decree them to be true. So I might just say that my soul is kind of like a starfish leg, you know, you chop it off but it grows back. So there it is. Look I have it again! It’s for sale. So I guess to any of your audience, if anybody else wants to come along and give me fifty bucks, I’m here to take it all day long. And maybe this is a nice way to make a living if I could just do it twenty times a day.








TAGS: , ,

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  1. ryan says:

    Is the $50 offer still good? I could use some money in exchange for my fictional soul.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 7
    • caleb b says:

      My soul budget has been depleted. Besides, now that I have some extra souls, my demand has decreased. You CAN donate your soul to I’ll send over the form and you can give your soul to me if you’re looking for a home for it.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 3
  2. Charlotte says:

    I either bought someone else’s soul or sold my own in high school, I don’t remember which. Hasn’t done any harm, either way.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3
  3. fraac says:

    I imagine a lot of people would have an ethical problem with accepting money for something they don’t believe can be sold, either because it doesn’t exist or for some other reason.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1
    • caleb b says:

      I’ve heard this many times, but don’t think that applies. I am the buyer and I fully recognize that you don’t believe you have a soul. I’m buying the possibility that you do.

      I could buy the mineral rights to your home believing you have gold under your house. You tell me, “I don’t think there is any gold under my house.” Then I say, “sure, there might not be, but I would like to buy the mineral rights all the same.” There is nothing unethical about that contract.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 33 Thumb down 3
      • Pshrnk says:

        What if they do have a soul and it belongs to God or an ex-spouse?

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
      • Derek says:

        But gold is actually valuable. A better comparison would be a prospector who wanted to buy the snake-oil rights to my property.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5
      • Phlash says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

        Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 10
      • Travis says:

        A better analogy would be that you offered to buy my house and I don’t own a house. I’m not going to accept any money from you. You’re not asking to buy “the possibility that I have a house”, you’re asking to buy “my house”, which I don’t believe exists.

        Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3
      • David says:

        If your contract were worded in such a way as to indicate that you are buying that possibility, then I could see how this would be a valid transaction. This makes me feel much better. Otherwise, I can not see how such a transaction would have been considered legal.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
      • pbasch says:

        Actually, I have a neighbor who recently sold his home. It was on the market for about six years because he wanted to retain oil or mineral rights or something. The eventual buyer is foreign and has poor language skills, so I don’t know if they know what they got into. Even if there is no oil or anything under there, what they signed is an eternity of potential legal troubles. Signing that paper means the guy is always going to be there. He may sue for the right to test the soil, make experimental bores, whatever. It’s a hornet’s nest of legal issues.
        As for the contract for a soul, I am a stone atheist, but I wouldn’t sell a piece of paper with my signature on it to someone. You’re basically inviting that person into your life, and they sound a trifle nutty. If they just handed me a $50, and asked me to verbally surrender my soul, then fine. But things come back to bite you, and this sounds like that kind of thing.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
      • Scott Straker says:

        I agree with Phlash. I think that Caleb is asking atheists to commit fraud. In any transaction involving property, surely the vendor must prove that s/he has title to the property in question, or at least some credible documentation that it actually exists. It doesn’t matter whether the buyer believes that the property exists: the vendor must also believe that it exists and that s/he has the legal right to sell it. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a soul, and if I’m wrong and there is one, I don’t believe that I would have the right to sell it. Any attempt to sell it would, therefore, be fraudulent on my part: the fact that Caleb is okay with that doesn’t make it any less fraudulent on my part. I think both parties must enter a transaction in good faith for it to be ethical.

        And by the way, if anyone wants to buy my soul, the price is $50 000. If I’m going to commit fraud, it ain’t gonna be for no pocket change.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
      • Bryan says:

        Well, then I must dissent from fellow atheists who feel this is fraud. Perhaps fraud’s definition is quite different elsewhere, but in the US fraud requires one party to assert with knowledge a fact that is material and false, and for the other party to be ignorant and then suffer damages. In cases where there is an unknown outcome, this is still perfectly above board as long as both parties understand what they’re buying and selling.

        Another way around it would be to sell the rights to a soul should that soul exist. This is like buying tickets to the next Super Bowl for the Cleveland Browns (or a stock option). You have no idea whether it’s worth anything, but it’s a valid transaction. I am aware that Caleb thinks I have a soul, and Caleb is aware I think I have none. We acknowledge and accept the risk that we’re wrong.

        Fraud, I think, would at least require misrepresenting your views.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
      • Peter of Brooklyn says:

        A comment by David (MAY 12, 2012 AT 10:22 AM) raises an obvious issue that the show did not address, and most commentators have only brought up tangentially.

        There is such a thing as contract law, and it is not completely silent on this issue. (First a sidenote, according to the show Caleb B did not but “the possibility” that the other party had a soul. I’m not sure why Caleb B rephrases the transaction in his comment. It’s not clear what it means to buy a possibility, (it’s not an option, which is the right to do something, not the possibility of an event that would make you exercise the option.). But whatever the case, for present purposes I’m going to assume Caleb B and the other guy attempted to create a valid contract for the transfer of the guy’s soul to Caleb.)

        What law governs the contract? Did you guys pick a certain jurisdiction to settle disputes, or perhaps arbitration? There is a possibility that laws of some religion would deal more effectively with it than state commercial law. Roman Catholics have a pretty substantial body of law, and there’s Talmudic, Sharia perhaps even pagan? I think it would have been fun to write in an arbitration clause with Roman Catholic cannon law, arbitrated by a Rabbi experienced in diamond trade disputes, in Brooklyn.

        But sadly, we’ll assume you went with good old, plain vanilla, common law or UCC governing contracts. The way the contract was presented in the show and in Caleb B’s comment above, Caleb agreed to pay $50 in exchange for a soul, however the other party did not believe he had a soul to sell.

        Either way it goes, one party is mistaken. So you’ve got a unilateral mistake, and thus a pretty strong possibility, given the real reasons for the contract, it would be void.

        You should have written it as a kind of option. For example, “So-and-so agrees to transfer all rights and benefits, but none of the duties or detriments, of his soul to so-and-so, only in the event that (a) his/her soul exists, and (b) provided such a transaction is legal under the whatever law governs such transactions. In the event that the rights and benefits of a soul may not be transfered without the duties and detriments, the transaction will be considered void.” (Maybe sign in blood in case that is some kind of formalism!)

        Something like that makes more sense to me. If Caleb B didn’t do something like that, I think he screwed up, because of the unilateral mistake factor. Also, I’d say Caleb B put himself in a worse position. If equity is a factor in the law governing the contract, it would probably be the case that his counter party could have the transaction wiped out, but if there is no soul, it’s going to cost more than $50 to even try to get it back.

        By the way, my impression of Caleb B is that he was a little too clever; he was caught in a bluff. He thought that the interesting fact that no one he had yet met was willing to “sell his or her soul” indicated they all believed somewhere deep down that they had a soul and it would be bad for them to sell it. I think Caleb B’s tactic is a great one, though. It is a good way to get people who claim not to believe in the soul to think about what exactly they are saying and thinking.

        Good try Caleb B.

        To the show’s producers: you all should have looked at the folks who offer to take care of people’s pets after the rapture. I think they have done a better job of creating the contracts. I love my dog enough that I would buy it.



        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  4. Jaime says:

    I was the first person to sell their soul online. When Ebay first came out I was using it frequently. Apparently they didn’t have a rule about intangibles at the time, or it slipped through. I had heard of a couple small news stories about this, but I’m not sure I have any way to prove it.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4
  5. josh says:

    Would Caleb trade souls with me? I’m serious in asking the question. I’m interested in a soul swap

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
    • caleb b says:


      No, I believe that I have a soul, so I wouldn’t trade souls. But I did trade my “irresistible charm” to someone for their soul. We’ll see how the after-life sorts that one out.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2
      • David Stigant says:

        What would you consider in trade for Bruce’s soul? Also, why did you feel that someone else’s soul would be worth $50 to you?

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
      • caleb b says:

        @David Stigant

        I would consider a trade. What do you have to offer? $50 just sounded like a good round number. Plus, for $5 people aren’t going to go through the hassle of mailing contracts back and forth.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
      • BJ Lee says:

        Caleb, I believe I am correct in saying that Christians believe that they ARE a soul and not that they HAVE a soul. The soul is our center of consciousness, which we call “I”. So the contract is to buy the person, don’t you think?

        Also ‘soul’ is a religious word. Philosophy calls it a ‘mind’. Atheists also believe that they don’t have the immaterial thing called a mind. What if you offered to buy their mind?

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Dave Lee says:

    The premise is flawed. Atheists deny the existence of deities, but they don’t necessary claim not to have souls.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 12
  7. Mark says:

    Kembrew McLeod has been selling his soul in various forms since the early 90’s, and is arguably responsible for eBay creating the policy about no intangible objects.
    The people who have gone out to sell their soul definitely have a different viewpoint from those who are out trying to find a soul to buy.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  8. paul o. says:

    50 bucks? If I sell my soul to the devil, I can become an amazing bluesman. I’d rather wait for a bigger and better deal.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1
    • Philo Pharynx says:

      I actually came up with a business idea based on souls. You hear about the devil buying people’s soul all the time. This implies that souls have value in hell. Therefore somebody who owned lots of souls would probably be better off in hell than an average Joe. So I devised Infernal Enterprises. When you signed up, you would conditionally sell your soul if you ended up in hell. It would go to your sponsor or the next higher in the organization should your sponsor not end up damned. Yes, it’s a pyramid scheme for souls.

      It would be marketed as afterlife insurance, as it would only apply if you ended up in hell. Should your soul go on to any other afterlife, the contract would have no claim on you.

      Sadly, a business based on trading souls in a pyramid scheme would not likely survive the inevitable legal challenges.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  9. Jacob says:

    My only problem with this podcast was the discussion about the Mormon after death baptisms. They were referred to multiple times as conversions, but I don’t think even the Mormons believe that. I do think the absurd/abhorrent thought works very well for the the practice. As I understand it, Mormons do the baptisms to give the dead souls the opportunity to convert, or rather in case the dead person has already converted to Mormonism, but needs the physical rite in order to proceed. If the dead person doesn’t want to be Mormon, then I think even Mormons agree, the rite is worthless. It means no more than me saying in this post that the whole world is now Buddhist. Unless you believe the Mormons have the power, AND are worried about dead people converting to Mormonism, there is nothing abhorrent about it, only absurdity. The way I view it, is if they are possibly right, then sure, I won’t turn down any good will you might want to throw my way.

    I also thought the idea of them paying money in order to “convert” souls is funny. Do you, Stephen, own the souls of your ancestors? Who would the Mormons pay their reparations to in order to buy these souls?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 2
    • Benjamin says:

      I totally agree. I found the podcast really interesting philisophically, but, being a Mormon, I was a little surprised at how they portrayed the beliefs of my faith. You’re correct that we absolutely don’t believe that what we do is a “post-humous conversion” as the guest on the show referred to it more than once. We believe one can no more be forced to accept baptism or any other ordinance as they could in this life. Because these ordinances must be done in life, the practice is done as a proxy, and the individual is absolutely free to accept it or reject it. We are strongly encouraged by our church (which, by the way, is actually The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – “Mormons” is just a nickname) to be sensitive to the requests of close family if they don’t want us to perform ordinances for shared ancestors, also encouraged to focus what we do on our own ancestors, and explicitly instructed NOT to perform ordinances for holocaust victims (just to clarify, as that was also alluded to in the podcast) unless we are directly related to them and have permission of living relatives. We want to be mindful of peoples feelings, and I totally understand if the whole idea is a little strange when people hear about it at first. I’m not at all asking someone to take it on board, but if you’re willing to be open-minded about things enough to at least think about what we believe and why we do it, you would understand that we’re not trying to be offensive — it fits within our beliefs and theology, and is even referenced (although not expounded on) in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 15:29.

      I was a little surprised when I felt like Mr. Dubner was getting kind of personal and attacking my faith without even offering any sort of accurate reason as to why we do what we do. The problem is that we’re not trying to do anything with anyone’s souls or take possession of them after this life or any kind of nonsense like that. We don’t lay any kind of claim on anyone. IF what we believe is true, and being baptized is important, then a loving God would have some way of offering that opportunity to the countless numbers of people who never had an opportunity to accept it or even learn about it. We don’t do this because we think somebody did something wrong in their life–we do it so that everyone who hasn’t had a proper opportunity to accept it while they were alive can have the opportunity to either accept or reject it (if rejected, then it really doesn’t mean anything – we don’t know whether or not it’s accepted; we’re simply concerned about providing an opportunity that wasn’t available). Free will is at the heart of what we believe.

      I understand that a lot of people don’t believe what I believe. I try to understand others beliefs, and when I try to understand why they believe what they believe, it helps me to be a better, kinder person, even if it does nothing to change my own beliefs. Thanks for at least taking the time to try to understand where we’re coming from.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 0
  10. Donovan Kliegg says:

    In 1995 at a Burning Man fund raiser I traded my soul for a share in Hell Corporation. Since Hell Co is a dominant player in the acquisition of intangible resources I thought it prudent to get a piece of Hell rather than let them have my soul for nothing. It’s performance was very good leading up to the recession. However, there is a dip (temporary) because the 99% are acting a bit more virtuous than usual.

    I’m not entirely stupid though. As a hedging strategy I also acquired a “Get Out Of Hell Free” card from a teutonic shaman.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  11. Bob says:


    Thanks to you and the Freakonomics team for your thought-provoking podcasts!

    As a believing Mormon, I wanted to clarify/contextualize the Mormon practice of posthumous/proxy baptisms, which has been somewhat misunderstood by the media at large. The basic idea is this: We believe that in the afterlife, people are free to choose to join a different religion, if they wish (but only if they wish). Now, suppose you are dead and you decide that Mormonism really sounds like a good idea after all, and you decide to sign up. Well, in order to be a Mormon, you need to be baptized by someone with proper authority in the Mormon church. Unfortunately, being dead, you can’t really be baptized since you no longer have a physical body. That’s where posthumous/proxy baptisms come in. Basically, someone in the Mormon Church (in this life) will perform a proxy baptism in your stead. Then, in the afterlife, you can choose to accept or reject that ceremony at your discretion. Now, since we Mormons in this life have no idea who will decide to accept or reject the baptism in the hereafter, we perform proxy baptisms for the names of as many of our deceased ancestors as we can find via genealogical research. We want all of them to have the chance to accept or reject.

    That, I think, is the distinction I wanted to make. Names of people who are baptized by proxy are NOT added to the membership records of the LDS church, nor are they considered to have been “converted” to Mormonism. Rather, we believe that they now have the chance to accept or reject Mormonism in the afterlife, just as everyone has that same chance here. If they say “No thanks” to the offer, then they continue on as is.

    Now, there is certainly room for discussion about how some people might view this practice as falling into the absurd or abhorrent categories outlined by Prof. Sandel, but I thought it’d be helpful to provide a more accurate clarification of what the practice actually entails and what we believe. With that clarification, I think the practice is much less like “buying souls” than depicted in the podcast.

    Keep up the great work!


    PS – For more official info on Mormon proxy baptisms, see|question=/faq/proxy-baptisms/|question=/faq/baptism-for-the-dead/

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 2
  12. Alex says:

    I guess this guy hasn’t heard of Hemant Mehta.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  13. Nicole says:

    I loved this podcast! It was both humorous and theoretical. With all these soul sales occurring, the devil won’t have anyone left to tempt. 😉 Keep up the good job, Freakonomics!

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  14. Jena says:

    This installment of Freakonomics really caught my attention, because throughout the podcast I expected the topic of Soul X Change to be discussed. I was quite disappointed that the original online “stock market” for the buying and selling of souls wasn’t even mentioned!

    When I was in middle school, 2000-2001, I introduced my peers to a highly addicting and morally questionable website known then as Of course, there is nothing more exciting to a 13 year-old than the idea of owning the soul of your friends, or better yet, having the most highly valued soul in 7th grade! (This forum thread captures the excitement about buying and selling souls:

    This website has reinvented itself many times under a variety of URLS including and most recently Here is the description of Soul X Change from it’s launch:

    “World’s First Marketplace For Direct Buying and Selling of Souls, the first and only online marketplace for the sale and purchase of human souls, launches today at Citing advantages over the bait and bribe method of
    soul acquisition that has been employed since the beginning of time, Lucifer referred to SoulXChange as “launching the underworld into the new age and reinventing the war between good and evil.” “SoulXChange empowers the aggregation of not only more souls but higher quality souls at a higher
    ROI. This gives us a first-mover advantage over Heaven and what’s his name.”

    The site introduces a revolutionary new technique for establishing soul valuations. News and user-contributed stories help the site assess the values of numerous soul attributes, ranging from profession to marital status, which in turn determine the value of souls. Users register their souls and based on
    the evaluation of that soul are assigned “SoulBucks.” SoulBucks are used to purchase the souls of other users. Similar to the stock market, the logic is to buy low and sell high. Individuals with the top portfolios will have their soul returned.

    “SoulXchange is a unique synergy of frictionless user-centric e-processes and pure evil incarnate,” adds Lucifer. SoulXchange does not mark Lucifer’s first foray into the web. His early invention of the banner ad and the term “viral” have permanently changed the internet world.
    SoulXchange intends to follow this path of invention and revolutionary transformation.
    “Beware, all ye who enter,” said Lucifer, upon closing his announcement. SoulXchange is built on Microsoft technology, as per an agreement with Mr. Bill Gates made in the late 70’s.” -Dec. 15, 2000
    (taken from:

    Given the topic of this podcast, I thought it very important to enlighten listeners about the original Stock Market for Souls! You can visit for a look at the modern day Soul X Change.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  15. Daniel says:

    Happy to exchange my imaginary soul for $50.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  16. Kayla says:

    I’m pretty surprised that no one’s mentioned Hemant Mehta’s “I Sold My Soul on eBay,” ( He sold his soul in 2006 for $504 – a much better price than I got as a cash-poor high school student out to lunch with her friends: two tacos. We drew up the contract on a napkin.

    Incidentally, I’ve sold my soul multiple times for various low-value trades, etc. Since I don’t believe in a soul at all, I’m not sure whether selling it multiple times it is any less ethical than selling it only once. But as I have no idea what the buyers of my, or anyone’s, soul intend to do with it (scavenge it to patch up their own souls? mount and display it? resell it – a fix and flip, perhaps?), it’s hard to say whether I’ve actually committed fraud.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  17. Jon says:

    If it is illegal to sell a part of your body like an organ, would it then be illegal to sell your soul?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  18. Reno says:

    I’m an atheist, but what would make you think that an “earthly” contract would automatically transfer the god given soul to someone else. Also, I do not think atheists should not rip cristains off by selling them something that is not there, but caleb needed to be shown that atheists are willing to sell it. I would not sell my soul for more than a dollar and then probably donate it.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • caleb b says:


      I’ll let the afterlife sort out the legality of the contract. The whole thing developed simply because the 15-20 people I have personally met that were confessed and serious atheists would not sell me their souls, even though they didn’t believe they had one. I never got a good reason as to why.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  19. Chris says:

    So I guess I can go ahead and remove this blog and podcast from my economics feed. What a shame – it was a good podcast before all the reposts and metaphysical nonsense.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  20. mary says:

    Is my soul worth more if I’m a virgin? Female? Attractive?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  21. Caleb b says:

    The number one question I get when offering to buy a soul is, “what are you going to do with it.” I find this very perplexing. What does it matter? I’ve sold a few cars before, never once did I ask or care what the person was going to do with it. It’s the strangest question. If you don’t believe you have a soul, you already think I’m mad for buying something that doesn’t exist. So why does it matter in the least what I DO with it?

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
    • Donovan Kliegg says:

      It occurred to me that after purchasing the souls you could save them. Sounds like a pretty charitable thing and pretty easy. It’s very win-win, non-zero sum, competitive advantage, etc. Atheists that do not value their souls, sell them to Christians who value them. Even better, Christians could charge for taking the unwanted souls off their hands and providing a hedge for the atheists just in case there is a God.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Bryan says:

      I don’t see how this means much. If my niece came up to me and said she talked to a talking dog, I’d ask what he said. I think you’re mistaking bemusement for insecurity.

      And for what it’s worth, you and any others to respond can have proportional claims to my soul (paperwork is unnecessary in the metaphysical realm) if you tell me what you’re going to do with it. Please bear in mind that it’s lightly used. Your claim would be to a quarter of my soul at this point. I reserve the right to further dilute your stake as tavern conversations demand, although foreign ownership will remain at 100%.

      Further, I would offer a clarification of what “atheist” generally means. Some atheists, like Stenger, think science can and has disproven god (let’s call them gnostic atheists). Most atheists, however, are appropriately considered agnostic atheists who see no evidence for a particular god and little to suggest an explanation out of step with our naturalistic understanding. Their beliefs are characterized by skepticism. I, Dawkins, Harris, the late Hitchens, etc. would be uncomfortable asserting certainty that there is no god, and it’s only because a soul tied to the consciousness dependent on our brain’s current state and the theory behind ensoulment strike me as so remarkably anthropocentric and improbable that I’m comfortable dismissing them outright. But I would be very uncomfortable saying deism is impossible.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  22. Mathieu says:

    Bruce’s deal is different from the Mormon’s practice. Bruce sold his willingly because he deemed it non-existence, but the Mormon’s retrospective conversions presumably included many who think soul exists, persists after their death*, is important to them and do not wish to be converted to what they would consider a false religion. The former is a fair free trade, the later paramount to stealing.

    [*] since they are in this state, let us assume that the right to protect their soul on earth falls onto their church or their descendant, which is the case

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4
    • Jacob says:

      Mathieu, did you read through the comments before posting this? There were two very clarifying comments by Mormons, before your post. But I ask you, if Mormonism is a false religion, do they have any power to “steal” a soul? A church or descendant “protecting” a soul from the Mormon church just seems silly to me. The only way that soul would need protection is if the Mormons are in fact correct, and then aren’t you doing a terrible disservice by not allowing them to save that soul?

      I just took your soul, do you feel any different? I’m donating it to Buddhism now. I hope you reincarnate into something you like.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  23. Kate H. says:

    I gave my soul away to a good friend in college. I think of it as a contract; I’m fairly sure I signed a quick note to the effect that, “I hereby give my soul to so-and-so.” However, I would never have sold my soul for money, and I find the idea of a “soul market” distasteful.

    I don’t believe in the existence of souls or of gods. I could be wrong; God could exist. But for me it is like the possibility that the sun could stop rising – not really worth worrying about.

    Even though I don’t believe I or anyone else has a soul, I do take the idea of the soul seriously. In general, I try to take other people’s deeply held beliefs seriously. I don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, but I would not go into a Christian church and take communion. It would be too disrespectful.

    If I understand Caleb’s point of view properly, he would take my reluctance to sell my soul as evidence that somewhere deep down, I really do believe that my soul exists or at least might exist. I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s evidence of my lack of belief in the “Free Market.” I don’t mean that I don’t belief that markets exist or don’t believe that markets are the most efficient means of generating economic growth. I guess I mean that I believe in the subtitle of Mr. Sandel’s book, “The moral limits of markets.”

    Not everything should be for sale, and not every contract entered into without deception is necessarily ethical. Mr. Dubner was insightful in pointing out that while Caleb and Bruce disagree about the existence of the commodity in question, they share a belief in how a market for that commodity should work. I would go further and say they both have a belief in the intrinsic virtue of free markets which I do not share.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  24. Marc LEon says:

    I’m so glad the Smash ups are over. This is a really good episode.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  25. shawn says:

    The smugness of the guy wanting to buy schools just made me red with frustration against such evangelicals. I find it imposible to believe he could find NOBODY in his travels willing to take him up on his silly offer.

    Even if his premise holds that there are no atheists in foxholes and that when confronted with selling our soul that somehow we won’t back up it up…who is to say that simply signing a piece of paper to this guy is valid!?! It’s preposterous to think his almightily god intended souls to be sold in this manner!

    As someone who believes there are really no atheist, but just degrees of agnosticism there could be doubt about giving up a soul assuming:

    1. A soul exists
    2. It could be sold in such a childish manor
    3. That if there is a soul it could be sold

    Even if a soul existing I hold it could not be sold…but I have no issue taking money from someone so sure his assumptions are the correct and only way to live.


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
    • caleb b says:


      I’m not searching the earth for people buy souls from. That’s not how the whole idea started. But if I happened to meet someone and it came up in conversation, I’d offer to buy their non-existent soul. Up until now, I’d probably had 15-20 such conversations without one sale.

      For the record: It’s not about whether I actually OWN the soul, it’s more about someone following through to sign the contract. I don’t care if it’s “valid.” And an atheist shouldn’t care either. My question was, “why are people hesitant to sign away their souls.” I still haven’t received a great answer.

      From some of these same atheists, they were more than willing to sign a contract to sell me their personalities, senses of humor, or dignity. Just not souls. You’d have to ask those 15-20 people why they wouldn’t sign away their souls, I did, and I didn’t get a real answer.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  26. Damian I says:

    So i’m an atheist and i wouldn’t have sold my soul to Caleb for 3 reasons:

    1) I thought that Caleb was obviously trying to score points and whichever answer you give he wins (on his terms). If you answer ‘no’ he wins because his faith is stronger than your atheism. If you answer ‘yes’ because he thinks you’ve made an incredibly stupid decision. If there’s no chance for me to win a game then i don’t play.

    2) In old American documents, i’ve heard people referred to as ‘souls’. There’s a risk that a state may have an old law that used the word soul in this context and if i signed a formal legal document, i may discover i’ve signed away my house. Given 1) above, i would be afraid of being conned.

    3) and most importantly to me. I think Caleb is using the 3 option belief model – you either have a belief in God, OR you’re agnostic, OR you’re an atheist. With this model Caleb’s offer and failure to find sellers for quite a while would indeed suggest that those people who call themselves atheists aren’t. However, this model is inadequate. Richard Dawkins uses a 7 factor model in the God Delusion. This ranges from 1 -absolute certainty that God exists, 2 – strongly believe that God exists but can’t be certain. Live your life as if God exists, 3 – slight belief that God exists, 4 – absolute agnostic – has no preference either way (Dawkins suggests this is a very small group), 5 slight disbelief in God, 6 strong disbelief in God but not absolutley certain – live your life as though God does not exist & 7) Absolute certainty that God does not exist. Dawkins suggests that many believers would place themselves in category 1 – because this is a FAITH position. However, very few atheists would place themselves in category 7 for the same reason. My atheism is a scientific evidence based position and so the possibility ALWAYS exists that new evidence could be found which leads to a different conclusion. I’m a category 6 atheist. I cannot be absolutley certain that i have no soul. In risk management terms this would be a very low probability risk with an infinitely high impact. My rational economic approach obviously leads to a no sale!

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • caleb b says:

      @Damian I

      Actually, you have it backward on point 1. If you say yes, then I believe that you believe you don’t have a soul. If you say no, three possibilities 1) you are a fool 2) you are weirded out by the idea (and I do not know why) 3) you think their is a possibility you might have a soul and you’d like the option to save it some time in the future – I believe this is your category 6 atheist. Here, I think it only comes down to price. If I had offered $1 million, I would have had many, many takers. But I don’t have $1 million. I’m just a guy, so practically, my price is the best available in the market.

      To your point 2) this is just absurd. I don’t want your house and I wrote Bruce a personal check, so if anyone runs the risk of being conned, I think it’s me.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
      • Dave Lee says:

        Your thinking is far too ham-handed and one-dimensional.

        Let’s look at it from another angle. If you did offer $1 million, I’m sure you’d get a lot of religious people, who claim to believe in souls, taking you up on your offer. They could always rationalize that if such a thing as a soul exists, a clumsy physical-world transaction made as a joke wouldn’t carry over to the world of souls.

        You keep saying you haven’t received a real answer, but Damian I hit the nail on the head. People of reason don’t claim to know and understand everything about the universe. Saying there’s no evidence of the soul is not the same thing as saying there is evidence the soul does not exist.

        And I’ll make the point for the third time. Atheists don’t necessarily deny the existence of souls. So leave atheism out of it.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  27. Dave Lee says:

    But as I pointed out earlier, atheists don’t necessarily claim that souls don’t exist. Your very premise makes no sense.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  28. Caleb b says:

    @David lee

    The atheist that I am talking about are the ones I personally communicate with. They confess to not believe in the existence of souls and claim that they are certain God does not exist.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  29. Tom says:

    One of the curiosities of atheism that I have encountered (seems curiosity not absurdity or a prank started this whole thing) is how I constantly read that 3/4 or so of Americans are theists yet it anecdotal-ly seems like 9/10 of people expressing their beliefs in online posts on “agnostic blogs” are atheists?

    This has led me to a number of possible explanations:

    1.) The polls are grossly inaccurate.
    2.) Only old people are theists and they don’t use the internet.
    3.) Atheists feel a need to proclaim their atheism on the internet because they are less comfortable in person, whereas theists don’t really see it as a distinction worth expressing. Maybe they feel their proclaimed atheism will make others uncomfortable in the real world.
    4.) Atheists feel empowered by a “rise” in secularism and a “fall” in Judeo-Christianity and they are just celebrating Star-Bellied Sneetches style.
    5.) Atheists spend more time on the internet than theists

    I really don’t know if any of these are correct or a little of everything. But I am curious as to why the “internet” which is supposedly so universally accessible and diverse, seems to be one big bulletin board for atheists to proclaim their atheism when surveys/polls suggest the majority of people are theists. I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but when was the last time, without prompt, you saw someone start a post with “Well first, I am a theist/I believe in (a) God(s)”.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  30. MikeK says:

    My buddy auctioned online the contract to the soul of my other buddy which he won in a childhood bet. It appeared in a book about weird things auctioned online, and to my knowledge was one of the first of its kind, circa 2000. Still makes me chuckle.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  31. Jim says:

    The question of selling one’s soul to multiple buyers came up in the podcast. From a legal perspective, when property is sold to multiple purchasers, the last bona fide (well intentioned) purchaser without notice of prior sales takes possession. That’s why deeds are recorded at the county registrar, to effect “constructive” (effective) notice to all subsequent purchasers. Patent transfers are similarly recorded at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Without a place to record and search soul purchases, the last bona fide purchaser without actual notice of a prior sale will take possession of the soul. So, if Bruce resells his soul to someone who hasn’t heard the podcast (or didn’t realize he was the same Bruce), Caleb is out of luck and does not own the soul.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  32. Michael says:

    I love your podcasts. I have been listening for a couple months now, and I generally find them fascinating and fair.

    I take issue, however, with some of your comments in “Soul Possession.”

    Specifically, your discussion on the practice of proxy baptism for the dead by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and your analysis that it is both “absurd and abhorrent.”

    The practice may very well be absurd, but not because it is unprecedented. There is both biblical (1 Cor. 15:29) and historical ( evidence that baptisms for the dead were practiced by early Christians. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that their religion is a restoration of the pure, early Christianity of Christ and the Apostles.

    Proxy baptism should not be classified as “abhorrent,” and I think it’s unfortunate that two academics decided to analyze and belittle a religious practice which they apparently do not care to accurately understand (and ultimately, can’t a religious practice only be properly understood and talked about in the terms of those who practice it?). If the LDS practice of proxy baptism were as you described it to be–that is, the forced conversion of people who have died–I would agree that it was both “absurd and abhorrent” because such a practice would violate individuals’ right to choose.

    As background, it is important to understand at least three things about Mormons: (1) we believe in the immortality of the human soul, (2) we believe in the necessity of baptism (as do many Christian sects) and (3) we believe that all of God’s children have free agency, including those immortal souls who have lived on earth and passed away.

    Proxy baptism does not and cannot violate free agency. Since Mormons, like other Christians, believe that baptism is essential, we believe performing proxy baptisms is a valuable service, especially for people who did not have the opportunity to be baptized by proper priesthood authority in their lifetime. Because we believe that the soul is immortal and that God preserves free agency for his children even after they die, it follows that baptism is not forced on anyone–those for whom proxy baptism is performed can accept or deny the ordinance. Thus, faithful Jews will likely remain faithful Jews, even if Mormons perform for them the ordinance of baptism.

    If you really think about it (and if you’re logically consistent), the LDS practice of proxy baptism is actually less “absurd and abhorrent” than the alternative: the belief by some sects that those who were never baptized–including holocaust victims–will necessarily burn in hell.

    All of this being said, the leaders of the LDS church have come to an agreement with parties in the Jewish faith to refrain from performing proxy baptism for holocaust victims. If it has occurred since the agreement was implemented, it has been done without authorization from Church leadership and is therefore ineffectual under our belief system. If it didn’t happen in our belief system and it didn’t happen under your belief system, well, it just didn’t happen.

    I hope this helps you understand the issue from a Mormon’s perspective. In the future, please do not publish your inaccurate analysis of other people’s religious beliefs. You have the right to be offended, but you also have a responsibility to do your homework and accurately represent the beliefs of others.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0
    • David says:

      Well Said Michael. I too found it troubling that two highly educated people would disparage a religious practice while simultaneously demonstrating a distinct lack of understanding of that practice. Thank you for your clarification.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  33. Brian says:

    I enjoy your podcast and have a comment on the latest episode. You spend a significant amount of time talking about the Mormon church and their practice of baptizing for the dead. You’re opinion of why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does this is not based in fact.

    The church believes everyone must make their own decision if they want to accept Christ as their savior or not. Those who don’t get the opportunity in this life will have that opportunity after death. If they do accept, then they can also accept the baptism that was performed for them here on Earth. The church does not believe that anyone can make this decision for anyone else.

    Please visit to learn more, and keep up the good work!

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1
  34. Bob says:

    Well, perhaps he was asking the wrong people in his search to buy a soul.

    For example, if Caleb asked starving children and people in Bangladesh or Ethiopia or somewhere, if they would take $50 for their souls, and in those places $50 meant a lot and could buy food, would he have had a different response?

    The other thing is that many many people already have sold their souls multiple times over and over. That’s what happens when people choose not to say anything, or to look the other way, when something going on in their group is not right (whether it is at work, in the army, at school, at the radio studio, at school, in the family, in government – right? How did all those predatory sub-prime mortgages get sold anyway?).

    A recent example was the pedophile scandal at the Penn State. The people who knew, suspected, or sensed something horrible was going on, chose not to take action because – filtered down – it threatened their livelihoods. In other words it came down to money. That’s the equivalent of selling your soul. This type of thing in varying degree goes on all the time, every day, everywhere in the world. While the Penn State example is particularly egregious, there probably aren’t any of us who hasn’t’ sold one’s soul in one form or another at some point and probably multiple times.

    For example, when any of us object to war, believing strongly that it is wrong to kill innocent men, women and children, we still pay our taxes. Though once removed, we are paying for it. The reason we don’t do anything about it is because the act of not paying out taxes might cause us to be arrested. We could be charged for the crime of not paying our taxes (this isn’t the same thing as hiring an accountant to figure out how to pay the least amount possible), we could loose our jobs. It is a form of being exiled from one’s group, being ostracized, bring shame to ourselves and families. It comes down to money and our ability to earn a living. It threatens our livelihoods.

    The same parallels can be made with buying and eating chocolate, buying and iPod, filling our cars with a tank of gas. Every single one of these actions can be filtered down to looking the other way and in effect selling our souls.

    The soul is being sold all the time if you think of it. And it doesn’t really seem to matter. So if you do take this experiment to places where $50 and a bowl of soup mean a lot, any of those Bangladeshi or Ethiopian mothers and children start thinking about taking the high road in answer to weather or not to sell their souls for fifty bucks and a bowl of soup, tell them to stop kidding themselves and to take the deal.

    And at work, in this environment, the best policy is to keep your head down and do your work. Short of observing outright murder or something.

    That soul you just bought? Sorry, but surely it must already have been sold multiple times.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  35. Bob says:

    As a follow up I was going to say that there was no way that I would sell you my soul. Weird right? But then I realized I wouldn’t do it for $50, but if you offered me a million dollars, I would do it in the blink of an eye. Price is important.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  36. Paul says:

    As an observant member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), I would like to point out that, as others have already done, the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead was erroneously referred to as ‘posthumous baptism’. Mormon belief is that the performance of the baptism provides an opportunity for one who has died without having the opportunity to join the church in this life to be able to join in the afterlife, but this is contingent on the individual’s personal choice.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  37. Rance says:

    I don’t agree with Professor Sandel. I don’t think people view the selling of souls as either absurd or abhorrent. I would break it down first as acceptable and not acceptable. In the acceptable side it could be viewed as absurd, but it could also be viewed by many different perspectives. Some people might think they are doing good by purchasing a person’s soul. He didn’t account for that. There are a number or possibility. Same could be said for the not acceptable side.
    As far as Mormons go, their belief was totally misrepresented. They do not retrospective conversions or posthumous conversions through their practice of baptism for the dead. They believe all people (of accountability) need to be baptized in this world. Those that didn’t have the opportunity need to have some one perform the ordinance in this world. The person or spirit or soul, what ever you want to call them, in the spiritual world can accept it or not. They are not converted. That is their choice. The baptism opens the possibility to conversion. There is still free will.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  38. AT says:

    Ayn Rand- The Fountainhead

    “Ellsworth was fifteen when he astonished the Bible-class teacher by an odd question. The teacher had been elaborationg upon the text: ‘What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whle world, and lose his own soul?’ Ellsworth asked: ‘Then in order to be truely weathly, a man should collect souls?'”

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  39. Ashby says:

    Don’t know if this was brought up earlier in the comments, but something they didn’t talk about, in the part discussing the Mormon practice of retroactive baptism, was the issue of free will. Wouldn’t anyone who is being baptized or converted have to agree to it?

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  40. Kevin says:

    Forget my soul, why not buy my left arm? I’ll send you a piece of paper that says “my left arm” on it. Bidding starts at $1.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  41. Morgan says:

    I just listened to the podcast and was surprised by the misunderstanding of Mormon posthumous baptisms (or ‘baptisms for the dead’). The term ‘posthumous conversions’ is utterly and completely inaccurate and is not used by Mormons because it is not seen as a conversion process. I’m actually surprised to hear the Harvard professor use the term; where ever he got the term, it wasn’t from any Mormons. I believe the practice was never accurately described in the podcast.

    I think to understand the doctrine and practice of baptisms for the dead you have to realize a few things about Mormon doctrine. First, we absolutely believe in life after death, that the soul continues living after this life and that we continue learning and making choices. Second we take seriously Jesus when he says that a man must be baptized by water and fire to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Third we believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be only authorized organization to perform those baptisms; we believe that the LDS Church is the true church on the earth.

    We believe that in the next life we continue to grow and make choices. As Mormons, we perform baptisms on behalf of the dead so that the dead who did not receive the gospel in this life, but receive it in the next, can still receive a valid baptism if they so choose. When we perform baptisms for the dead we do not consider that we have just converted the individual to Mormonism. We are simply giving the individual the opportunity to have a baptism, in case they decide to accept the gospel in the next life. It is an opportunity, an ordinance that the individual can choose to accept or reject, it is not a forced conversion.

    I don’t know if that makes it any less offensive, but if people are going to be offended they should at least have a clear understanding of the whole thing.

    I hope this clarifies things a little. I love the podcasts!

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
    • Donovan Kliegg says:

      It’s analogous to inviting a stranger on facebook to be your friend. It’s a solicitation, maybe taken maybe not. There are all kinds of products that people don’t want to be solicited for, and many different contexts they do not want to be solicited in. In this world, societies can decide what are appropriate contexts for solicitation and even enforce those decisions.

      The problem with proxy baptism of the dead is they have no way to put up privacy signs. They have no method to lobby for protection from the world of the living. There are no spam cops of the dead that can sue for damages.

      Economically, the impacts are unknown in the afterlife. Since its a one way trip, its not unlike sending lawnmowers to some poor country in Africa. If you don’t know they need lawn mowers, they could just be piling up. Worse, you could be like swamping some poor region with free wheat and disrupting the local economy so that it becomes dependent on the aid relief. Thanks to that helpful aid that region looses some of its autonomy and freedom.

      Because its a matter of belief or faith, LDS baptisms of the dead are hubris and could be doing more harm than good to the afterlife. It’s unethical to do such a thing without really understanding the consequences. Sure, inside the faith everyone agrees its a really great thing, but outside the faith its a informational assault. It could easily be spiritual spam, and the justification of the spammer (they don’t have to read or buy this great product) is not unlike the LDS justifications.

      All this is ever more frustrating because Mormans are genuinely nice people. Amazingly polite and kind. It’s perplexing.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3
      • Heath says:

        I want to first address your last comment, Matthew 7: 20 “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”

        As for the LDS belief of proxy baptisms, it is grounded firmly in the free agency of the soul. I am not worried about spamming God, I think he can handle fairly judging his children. What you see is hubris is in fact a belief that we have a responsibility to the whole human family to give them the choice. If we where to believe the way we do and not perform baptisms for the dead then that would be hubris.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
      • David says:

        Your comment was interesting; I have never heard that argument before and I must say that I found it to be an interesting perspective. I also found it to be flawed in principle because there is an assumption in your comment that the Proxy Baptisms that Mormons perform are efficacious. If you do not believe in Mormonism or baptism or god, etc. then the idea that Mormons are performing baptisms for dead people is absurd and laughable. Furthermore, you would see all of the time and money that they spend building temples, researching family history and actually performing posthumous ordinances as a monumental waste of time and resources and would have no effect whatsoever in the afterlife.

        If, however, you believe that these proxy baptisms have an effect on those in the afterlife, as your comments seem to suggest, then it would not be hubris at all but rather an immense feeling of responsibility and love that Mormons feel towards those who came before. There are innumerous souls who have lived and died without ever being given the opportunity to be baptized or much less even hear the name of Jesus Christ being uttered. Mormons believe that these souls deserve a chance to be baptized and accept Jesus Christ if they so desire. What Mormons do is give these people something that they believe to be priceless and something that they didn’t have before. Mormons are doing something for someone that could not do it for themselves. To me, that is far from Hubris, but is as close to true religion as one can get.

        If you feel that there needs to be some kind of spiritual legislation or other method established to ensure that those in the afterlife are protected from “spiritual spam” then you should go ahead and set that up. It would be just as absurd to me as proxy baptisms seem to be to you.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  42. Woody says:

    I thought this podcast was both absurd and appalling. The entire discussion was based on the premise that Bruce had the capability of selling his soul, and that Caleb had the ability to buy it. It’s about as realistic as someone offering to sell me the sun. I could give them money, and they could give me a slip of paper saying I owned the sun, but so what? It would mean nothing. I believe in the soul, but I don’t think anything happened in this transaction (other than spawning a podcast that wasted 30 minutes of my time).

    Another irritant: Mormons don’t convert people after they are dead. They perform the ordinances in their behalf so that if they choose to accept the gospel in the afterlife, the work will have been done. That was a very misinformed part of the conversation.

    In general I like your show; though, the connection to economics can be a little thin at times.

    Better luck next time.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  43. Matt says:

    The idea of selling a soul is absurd. And not because they don’t exist.
    It is because souls do exist and are non-transferable. You are stuck with the one you got.

    Bruce, you still have your soul. Get your money back Caleb, because you never received a soul.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  44. Donovan Kliegg says:

    The podcast isn’t as absurd as some might think, and is far more relevant than the value of a soul.

    People sell intangible things all the time, often for rock bottom prices.

    How much did you sell your freedom for today? How much did you sell your privacy for today? How dear a price to you surrender your beliefs for today?

    Informational constructs, souls included, have some kind of value. As a proxy for other things that are pretty amorphous, intangible and a matter of opinion, it is pretty interesting.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  45. Alex says:

    great podcast, I wanted to clarify a common misconception: Mormons don’t posthumously “convert” the dead, they give the dead an opportunity to accept or reject a mormon baptism in the next life. Mormons are supposed to research their own ancestry and offer baptisms for their own ancestry only, which is why the Mormon church apologized for having baptized Anne Frank (presumably no ancestor of Anne Frank was baptized on her behalf.) Dubner: maybe it will comfort you to know that mormon docterine does not claim to force mormonism on your ancestors by “converting” them, or maybe it will just make you furious, but either way, now you know what to be mad/happy at!
    Note: I am a Mormon if you could not already tell :)

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  46. Trevor Tenney says:

    To use a common word from this episode, I find it “abhorrent” that you would compare posthumous baptisms in the Mormon Church with selling one’s soul for money. Stephen Dubner obviously does not fully understand the doctrine of baptisms for the dead practiced by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. “Mormons”). Please allow me, an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to explain why these two ideas should never be compared to each other in this light.

    We believe that a person must be baptized by immersion by one who holds proper priesthood authority to receive salvation in the next life. This is a belief we hold in common with most other Christian sects. We also believe that all people are endowed with the gift of agency, the ability to make one’s own decisions (in this life and the next). Ultimately it is my decision whether or not I will follow the gospel teachings and accept the atonement Jesus Christ made on my behalf.

    The doctrine of posthumous baptisms helps answer the question of what happens to the billions of people who have lived and died without having an opportunity to hear be baptized by one who holds the proper authority. When Mormons go to our temples and are baptized on behalf of our deceased ancestors, we are giving them the opportunity to accept that proxy ordinance in the next life. Their names are NOT added to Church records. We are NOT “retrospectively converting souls.” This is NOT a “systematic” scheme meant to win over nonmember souls into our Church.

    For those in the Mormon Church that practice posthumous baptisms for their ancestors, this is a great act of love and charity. We are helping to provide out ancestors with something that they cannot achieve by themselves. Ultimately it is their choice whether or not they will accept this proxy baptism, but that is not our concern. We are at least providing them an opportunity for salvation because their baptismal ordinance has been done for them. This also explains why our Church is very involved in genealogy research.

    Recently the Church got into deep water when Church members went against Church policy by submitting names to be baptized that were not their direct ancestors. This happened in particular with Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank. Church leaders have been making greater efforts to prevent this from happening and are even “committed to taking action against individual abusers by suspending the submitter’s access privileges. (They) will also consider whether other Church disciplinary action should be taken.” You can read the official Church statement here:

    I am sorry that Stephen Dubner feels that way that he does about my Church. I don’t mind if he finds our beliefs to be “absurd.” But please take the time to understand our beliefs before you demand or even suggest a “reparation pay” for every ancestor we posthumously baptize. I’m grateful for the opportunity that I have to seek out my ancestors and give them the opportunity to accept the ordinances performed on their behalf.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  47. Ashley Paramore says:

    Great podcast, though, this isn’t the first time a soul has been sold. The Secular Student Alliance has had a number of student groups sell their soul on campuses across the country. Sometimes for a cookie, sometimes for chores.

    However it’s not just souls. Many things that may be tangible are sold that are said to have these intangible, magical properties. Items that detect evil, bring luck, or even keep ghosts away. All magical, all intangible.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  48. taterbizkit says:

    OK, this is out-and-out fraud! Selling something you don’t believe exists, or that you don’t believe you own is illegal.

    What you need to do is buy/sell what are called “quitclaim deeds”. This means “whatever rights I may have, I transfer to you”. Now, of course, quitclaim deeds are worth much less than general or warranty deeds, for good reason. I asked my property professor if he thought I could at least learn to play Stairway to Heaven, get a can of Coke and a new girlfriend in exchange for a quitclaim deed to my soul (instead of the whole guitar virtuoso/cocaine/groupies thing for my actual soul). I didn’t get much of an answer, though.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  49. Kevin says:

    As has been rehashed many times already in the comments, Mormons don’t believe in compulsory posthumous conversion of souls. In fact, I think it would be pretty safe to say that such an idea would be both abhorrent and absurd to most Mormons.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  50. Jonathan Roseland says:

    What a fascinating episode! I am going to try the experiment used on atheists. Next time I meet an atheist I am going to make them a wager of $20 that I can disprove that they are actually an atheist, so if I can intellectually prove that they are not an atheist they owe me a President Jackson. Then I will offer to pay them $10 for their soul. If they are truly an atheist then they do not believe that they have a soul and it’s an easy opportunity for them to pocket $30 for absolutely nothing, if they refuse my offer then they must not be so certain about being soul-less so they are in actuality a agnostic. They must cannot intellectually refuse my offer on any other basis because the market value of their soul is whatever the market will bare so unless they can find another buyer willing to pay more their soul is only worth $10.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  51. Rev. Brian says:

    I have to admit, I suspect the offer of owning someone’s soul strikes many as suspicious not because one really secretly believes that there might be a soul, but that having legal ownership of something so nebulous seems rife for legal complications. In other words, it sounds like it might be a scam. If the wording in the contract was right, I’d happily sell my soul to the highest bidder, whether it was $50 or a homemade vegan chocolate cake 😀

    There is, of course, Hemant Mehta, AKA The Friendly Atheist—pardon me if he’s been mentioned earlier. He wrote the book “I Sold My Soul on Ebay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist’s Eyes”. He auctioned off opportunities to be taken to church services.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  52. Jedsch says:

    But here’s another angle to ponder: tax evasion.

    For example, the owner of a successful multi-million dollar corporation can’t sell the company for $50. Even though its his company, he can’t just decide it is only worth $50. The government would call it tax evasion and declare a fair market value. Everybody would still have to pay up.

    Isn’t that what souls are about? Paying the price to the powers that be in the end? Your eternal soul, if it exists, would have a fair market value far higher than fifty bucks. This deal is going to be declared null and void on judgement day.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  53. Dylan G. says:

    I’d like to hear more from Caleb B. on what happens when he talks to atheists and tries to convince them to sell their souls. Why do they eventually refuse to sell? I’m surprised he has trouble finding buyers. I’m an atheist, and, like many people who’ve expressed the same thing here, I’d be happy to sell, as long as the buyer knows I don’t believe the thing exists, that I’m still entitled to the money if it turns out I’m right, that I’m still entitled to it even if other people someday pay me other money for the soul I don’t believe in, and that the contract places no further obligations upon me. So I’m curious where the negotiations usually break down.

    Are there terms in your contract that routinely turn out to be objectionable to your prospective sellers? It strikes me as dishonest to not mention those terms, and then to go around implying that these “confessed atheists” lacked the courage of their convictions.

    Caleb, you say repeatedly that they don’t give you a good answer. What answer do they give, even if it’s no good? How do you eventually end up negotiating for a sense of humor or some other intangible, rather than a soul?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Caleb b says:

      @Dylan G.
      I’d be happy to talk about my experience. is where you can reach me personally. The easy answer is that I do not know why everyone before Bruce would not sell me their soul. To be clear, I do not care about the legitimacy of the contract (is there even a way to determine that?), all I want is a signature on the page. I’ve speculated many times on why people won’t sign the contract and the most logical two reasons I’ve come up with are 1) people think that there is at least some non-zero chance that they change their mind and 2) i’m a weirdo for wanting their soul and might cause them harm. 2) is completely and obviously wrong because I’m an upstanding member of the community with no real reason to cause harm. So it’s really confusing why they won’t sell a soul. However, selling a sense of humor…people will sell that all day. Bc they believe that it is untransferable (which of course it IS bc it’s an abstract concept). But people think of the soul differently, for whatever reason, even those that don’t believe in one.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  54. Larry OBrien says:

    I will be happy to sell my soul for $50, but only to a fundamental Christian pet owner who needs his beloved animal cared for after the rapture takes him away. My fee? $3,000. Hey dog food is expensive!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  55. trackhed Colin says:

    I am a devout athiest and most importantly a businessman. I will gladly sell my obviously low supply and high demand soul for the low low price of 15,000U$D… as we all know souls are not a cheap commodity! to undercut the market value of a soul to such a low price should definitely be considered highway robbery. Anything that is sought should definitely be held in the regard of how much you’re willing to spend on it. Obviously a curious soul merchant would be hesitant to spend their hard earned money on a soul, but serious soul merchants understand the demand for such high quality human souls.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  56. pbasch says:

    A note about Dubner’s claim that he was surprised that Caleb is a Christian. That didnt’ surprise me at all. It’s very common among committed Christians to say things like, “There are no atheists in foxholes!” in an excited voice (as if it were a surprise that people blinded by fear think irrationally). This sounds like that kind of challenge. I wouldn’t be surprised if the demurral on the atheist’s part were followed by Caleb crowing, “See? See? Some atheist! Ha!”
    As I comment above, selling a paper with my signature on it is not a trivial action, whatever else is written on the paper. It’s better avoided, much as one would leave a subway car when a raving drunk gets on, or cross the street to avoid a fighting couple.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  57. Mary says:

    You talked about indulgences on the podcast like it was a thing of the past. I was Catholic until about 5 years ago. One of the last masses I went to, the priest gave a homily talking about how indulgences are good. That was one of the reasons that pushed me to break from the Catholic church.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  58. Konstantine Palanski says:

    So, I sold my soul for $150 almost two years ago now.

    Here is the contract I signed:

    Let me know if you have any questions about how my life has changed since then.


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  59. steve says:

    Okay, can’t let the Mormons lay claim to all the debunking of some mischaracterization on this episode. Not that I admire the practice, but the paying of indulgences was NOT buying salvation as the good professor Sandel asserted a handful of times. Rather, the payments were for reducing the time one’s soul (or the soul of another, as this could be gifted) would spend in Purgatory for sins that had already been confessed and forgiven. Sure, I’ve fuzzed the details a bit for brevity’s sake, so if anyone really wants to pick the nits, please have at it. But the important point is that indulgences were in no way supposed to buy a soul’s way out of Hell. The soul would spend less time being purified before going to its ultimate destination, Heaven.

    For a secular, though less-than authoritative, explanation see the Wikipedia entry:

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  60. Chad says:

    I lost a lot of respect and interest in this program because of this episode. The comments made about the Church of Jesus Christ of L.D.S. were blatantly inaccurate. Searching for the correct position of the church on the issue of their posthumous baptizing was as easy as going to their official site and clicking a few links to find:

    “Jesus Christ taught that ‘except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5). For those who have passed on without the ordinance of baptism, proxy baptism for the deceased is a free will offering. According to Church doctrine, a departed soul in the afterlife is completely free to accept or reject such a baptism — the offering is freely given and must be freely received. The ordinance does not force deceased persons to become members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or “Mormons,” nor does the Church list deceased persons as members of the Church. In short, there is no change in the religion or heritage of the recipient or of the recipient’s descendants — the notion of coerced conversion is utterly contrary to Church doctrine.” (

    Finding correct information is not that hard, why did you present such misinformation???

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  61. Signe Sandberg says:

    Hey Guys,
    Just caught your podcast on ‘Soul Possession’. Thanks so much for being available on iTunes,by the way. I’m a long time listener and appreciate each of you.
    What was up with the religious slant on this story? I get the economic context but Biblical morality? I guess I am reactive to you “confessed Atheist”. ” Confessed”, really? A proud Atheist would have been a better choice. Like me, for example.
    I would never sell my soul. It would be fraudulent. How can a be a good person and profit off a disagreement in philosophies? I am a molecular energy container. There. Wonderful collection of cosmic dust. Not more or less.
    I give my energy in the most positive way I know how, everyday.
    My ‘soul’ is always available for the taking!
    Love To You Both and Your Families.
    P.S. If curious: I am a 48y/o female. College educated, single mom AND no, I am not mad at ‘God.’ Some Followers?….another topic, for sure!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  62. Mayank says:

    I read and understood the idea behind it, also heard the show and your interpretation regarding this sell.
    How is it different if I sell it or I donate it ?
    I am ready for the transaction. can you send me the contract to review.

    I am vegetarian by choice and by birth I should be following Hindu religion, if this increases the value of my soul.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  63. Ken Parkinson says:

    Unfortunately you got the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead dead wrong. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later day Saints, I do not believe in retrospective conversion. According to Church doctrine, a departed soul in the afterlife is completely free to accept or reject such a baptism — the offering is freely given and and may be rejected or accepted by the dead in the afterlife. Baptism for the dead is more akin to the Catholic practice of praying for the dead or certain eastern practices of burning golden paper or food for dead ancestors. Would you be offended if a Catholic prayed for your ancestor? Should I be offended and seek reparations if Buddhist or Taoist burns burns joss paper for my dead ancestors?

    What is disappointing is that 5 minutes of internet research could have cleared the matter up. It is ironic that the story implies that it is the Mormons who are being insensitive.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  64. A. R. Farmer says:

    Please do not be offended by the practice of Mormons of performing proxy covenants for ancestors. It is an act of love and inclusion. Ordinances that Mormons perform in the temples are not compulsory conversions to our faith. Instead, we are confirming the link that each individual has to their ancestors. The most basic tenant of our faith is that all are free to choose to live in covenant with God—before, after, and at anytime during this life. The dead are not bound, but the living are. Our only hope as Gentiles is to be brought in to the covenants that God has made with Israel. We see ourselves as fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah that the gentiles will bow before Israel and lovingly carry the children of Israel to their honorable and rightful place in Zion (Isa. 49:22). We revere Israel. Being a part of those covenants is our only way to fully realize salvation. If it were the other way around—if the people of Israel were to again build the temple at Jerusalem and, therein, bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3), I would be overjoyed, not offended. Really, if any faith wanted to include me or my ancestors in a blessing, I would be honored.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  65. Ben says:

    I think the main difference in between the mormons and the transaction at the beginning of the podcast is simple. In the latter both parties agree to the transaction whereas the mormons don’t give you a choice. You are dead and they do not ask your family if they can baptise you.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2
    • A. R. Farmer says:

      To clarify, Mormons are only to perform ordinance for their direct ancestors. Even if a member were to show a family connection, the names of holocaust victims and others who have made requests are strictly forbidden from such ordinances. When the Huffington Post contacted Elie Wiesel to create this politically motivated story, they left out two important facts: ( 1) Mormons and non-Mormons can access and submit names to our genealogical database for reference, and ( 2) had those names been submitted for posthumous ordinances– they would have been rejected. Our purpose is to bring families together and we hold the people of Israel in high regard. I hope religious people who know what it is to have their faith misrepresented by the ignorant and the prejudiced will be fair minded enough to consider the source.
      Below is a quote from an under-represented viewpoint:
      The policy of the Church is that members can request these baptisms only for their own ancestors. Proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims are strictly prohibited.
      In this case, the Wiesel family names were not submitted for baptisms but simply entered into a genealogical database. Our system would have rejected those names had they been submitted.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  66. M. E. Pickett says:

    As a Mormon, I believe in the sacredness of the soul, but I’m not outraged by this. I’m more amused than anything else. I don’t believe that a piece of paper can transfer ownership of a soul.

    I wrote a further response to the idea of soul selling on my blog:

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  67. Pat says:

    Surprised Pascal’s Wager never came up in the podcast. Seems like Bruce bit on it and he’ll learn in the next 50 years whether he got a good deal or not.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  68. David Walker says:

    Ha ha ha……. silly people … if you have a soul and that comes from God … how can you buy and sell it with money that comes from man? Basic…. my little four year old could explain that to the self proclaimed “intelligencia” , Being spiritual you can chose to “sell” it in what you believe and who you follow. Two notes on Mormon’s doing temple work for the deceased… first, the names are submitted by their decendents, second, even in the next life, you are given this divine right to chose what you believe, and who you will follow … Anyone, Hebrew ,or otherwise, in the next life, who does not want to participate in that work, or those blessings, does not have to… just like this life, we are free to chose… yes, God loves all his children that much… , even those who do not believe in him, or Jesus Christ.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  69. Chuck Cain says:

    Your podcast includes a guest (Sandel) saying (I summarize) that someone will find this transaction absurd or abhorrent based on their belief in the existence or transferability of the soul. Would my action be abhorrent if I considered the transaction absurd but participated in the transaction anyway? Imagine I “sold” my soul even though I believe that my soul exists but I don’t believe that it is possible to transfer it? I’m taking somebody’s $50 and I’m letting them believe that they have bought something but I have not really sold them anything.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  70. jonathan lewis says:

    hey guys im a huge fan of you’re work i watched freakanomics the movie. and read SUPERFREAKANOMICS i loved both. and i recently discover you’re podcast. this is my favorite one for two imporant reasons
    #1 it discuses an important question people and there opinions on the soul which i enjoyed.
    #2 you had a serioud discussion on an issue fr an hour on something that THE SIMPSONS did an episode on in 1995 and no one seemed to notice. or it would seem that way the young man who bought the soul sai hes 30 meaning he was a teenager when this episode aired. and most saw it several times. the fact that he was able to get on you’re podcast and buy some ones soul then have a discussion about it with out bursting out laughing i find amazing. despite all of this i enjoyed the show. and Ive posted a description of the Simpsons episode for proof.

    “Bart Sells His Soul” is the fourth episode of The Simpsons’ seventh season. It first aired in the United States on the Fox network, on October 8, 1995. In the episode, while being punished for playing a prank at church, Bart declares that there is no such thing as a soul and to prove it he sells his to Milhouse for $5 in the form of a piece of paper with “Bart Simpson’s soul” written on it.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  71. Beverly Kurtin says:

    I’m amazed that folks would not sell their souls since, as noted, it is an intangible and couldn’t be sold. It just goes to show that Americans are as nuts as I thought they were.

    Tonight was the first time I caught your show on my local PBS station…FOOD PRINTERS? If the techies can “print” a model of just about anything, why not food? Sounds like a winner for people in the space station. Would they sell their souls?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  72. David says:

    I take issue with something that Mr. Shermer and Mr. Dubner discussed in this podcast. They mentioned a practice by the Mormon Church of posthumous baptisms (known as Baptisms for the dead) and concluded that the practice was either 1. Absurd, 2. abhorrent or 3. both. Mr. Shermer called the practice ‘posthumous conversions,’ which, to me, sounds as those people are being posthumously forced to convert to Mormonism. This description, however, is categorically incorrect.

    The practice of posthumous baptisms comes out of three main beliefs espoused by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). 1. God loves all people and wishes that everyone be given the opportunity to return to his presence (i.e. attain salvation), 2. Baptism is essential to salvation and 3. All men are free to choose.

    Mormons believe that God loves all men irrespective of who they are or what they do. He desires all men to be happy; not a fleeting happiness, but rather an eternal happiness. Mormons believe that this is only possible by returning to God’s presence after this life. The problem is that all men sin and fall short of perfection and in that imperfection cannot dwell in God’s presence. Baptism is a way for us to be cleansed of our imperfections and be given the opportunity to receive salvation. If you believe that Baptism is essential then think of the billions of souls who lived and died without ever hearing of Christ or Baptism. Is it fair for God to condemn them because of where or when they were born? Certainly not! Therefore, if God loves all of us and desires our salvation, and if baptism is essential for salvation, then there must be some mechanism whereby all people who have ever lived will be given the opportunity to be baptized. This is why Mormons perform Baptisms for the dead; it is an act of love for those who never received the opportunity in life. Furthermore, those who have been baptized posthumously still retain their free agency and can choose whether or not they wish to accept the baptism which has been performed on their behalf. Nothing is forced and no one is converted unless they decide to do so for themselves. To me that is not abhorrent, nor absurd, but lovely.

    For more information go to:

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Donovan Kliegg says:

      Since the corrections keep coming in because the posters can’t bother to read the many corrects that proceeded them, I’m going to keep posting my response. However, I will spare the details of my first response, and just leave it at this.

      Just when you are are dead and gone to heaven, and you thank God (in person), that you’ll never ever have to answer the door again to some stranger offering the Kingdom of Heaven. You’re looking forward to finally getting to sleep in every morning, when…

      “Knock, Knock!”
      “Who’s there?”
      “LDS Delivery!”

      No rest for the saintly I guess.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  73. Keith says:

    What the podcast did not address though was the definition of a soul.  When writing about the soul, the Bible writers used the Hebrew word ne?phesh or the Greek word psy·khe?.
    If one sticks with the Bible-based definition of a soul then what Caleb from Oklahoma ‘bought’ was Bruce from Seattle – Bruce the person.  Buying and selling of another human has been against the law in this country since the emancipation proclamation. 

    Biblical use of the term
    The Bible speaks of a soul as having done work, been impatient, been irritated, and been depressed.
    Leviticus 23:30 – As for any soul that will do any sort of work on this very day, I must destroy that soul from among his people.
    Judges 16:16 – And it came about that because she pressured him with her words all the time and kept urging him, his soul got to be impatient to the point of dying.
    Job 19:2 – “How long will YOU men keep irritating my soul And keep crushing me with words?
    Psalm 119:28 – My soul has been sleepless from grief. Raise me up according to your word.
    1 Thessalonians 5:14 – On the other hand, we exhort YOU, brothers, admonish the disorderly, speak consolingly to the depressed souls, support the weak, be long-suffering toward all.
    Similarly the Bible is clear that at the death of the human organism that the soul ceases to exist – Ezekiel 18:4 “Look! All the souls—to me they belong. As the soul of the father so likewise the soul of the son—to me they belong. The soul that is sinning—it itself will die”.  This is reaffirmed by the statement at Genesis at the creation of man, “God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7).  Note that man “came to be” as opposed to “was given a”.

    Vernacular use of the term
    Even our vernacular expressions in the English language express the same idea.  When a ship goes down and all lives are lost we say, ‘all souls went down with the ship’.  When we enter a room void of another living human being, ‘there wasn’t a soul present’.

    Obviously if the soul was an invisible spirit that survived the death of a person, neither phrase would make sense.  So without reading the terms and conditions of their contract it would appear that Caleb now owns Bruce?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  74. Scot Harkins says:

    Without having combed every comment in both the original blog post and this podcast, I will simply say the question of hesitancy to sell a non-existent item implies belief in said item is illogical. A moral person would be hesitant to sell anything they do not possess. This does not mean they believe in the thing “not possessed”, but that they believe in their personal integrity in carrying out an honest transaction. Even pretending to sell a soul via a contract that presumes to transfer possession is dishonest, even if both parties “agree” (to the fiction).

    People who do not believe in a soul who are then unwilling to “sell their soul” are simply saying “I do not believe I have a soul, and I am unwilling to participate in your lie a soul exists by even entertaining a faux-sale.”

    It is precisely this weak won’t-sell-so-must-believe logic that is a sign of shallow thinking. Think out every angle, not just the convenient angles that support your premise.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  75. Aaron says:

    I understand the professor’s point about how people and groups place values upon a soul when he cited the example of posthumous baptisms in the LDS church. However he demonstrates a lack of understanding of what that ceremony means in the LDS church. He indicates that the ceremonies performed in an LDS temple are “posthumous conversions,” which is not the case. They are physical ordinances (i.e. baptisms) which Mormons believe are required for salvation, performed posthumously for souls of deceased persons. That is not a conversion. A conversion is a choice made by the person (or soul) themselves. Mormons, as most Christians, believe that all must accept Christ as their savior in order to enter heaven. However, unlike most Christians, Mormons believe that all will be offered this opportunity whether in this life or the next. But the requirement for baptism still stands. So it becomes incumbent upon the living members to perform these ordinances for the deceased. The conversion, however, is still up to the deceased person. So the example the Professor gives is ill-applied because it alludes that the physical ordinance that takes place in Mormon temples is based on the belief that it is binding upon the soul of the deceased person. This is not the case.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  76. SomeOneLikeYou says:

    Posthumous Baptism by the Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!) Church

    An essential element missing from your discussion is that, Latter-day Saints, believe that the person on the other side (dead) has to accept the baptism. People still maintain choice and control over their own soul after death.

    It is not a guarantee the person on the other side wants to accept that baptism. If that person doesn’t want it, they don’t have to accept it. This process doesn’t automatically ‘make people Mormon’.

    If people don’t have a soul/the whole concept is just made up and there is no life after death, then Latter-day Saints are just wasting their time.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  77. pbasch says:

    I’ve been reading all the comments by Mormons about the posthumous baptism (or whatever they prefer to call it), and I think I understand the theology. It’s not a conversion, it’s up to the dead person to make a choice, etc etc.

    It’s still pretty rude, intrusive and annoying, just like knocking on a stranger’s door. Not to mention insulting to everyone else’s religious traditions – but no more so than any evangelical practice.

    As a secular Jew, I think that all religious beliefs, old, new, foreign or domestic, are equally nonsensical. But at least some of them are modest enough to keep to themselves and not feel like they have to conquer the world, like Christians, Muslims, and Mormons. That’s just arrogant and rude.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  78. Jessie says:

    A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic on the topic of buying souls:

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  79. name says:

    Indulgences were brought back by Pope Benedict in 2009:

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  80. Chris says:

    I really enjoyed the episode, but had to write in with a clarification. As a Mormon, I consistently see a key aspect of the Mormon doctrine of posthumous baptisms left out of public debate about the practice. One of the foundational tenets of the faith is our freedom to choose. It’s one of the primary purposes of life – to learn to exercise that gift of God in productive ways.

    So it would be blatantly inconsistent to simultaneously believe that souls who are posthumously baptized are in fact “converted” or are now “members of the church.” These vicarious baptisms are performed only to allow departed souls the *opportunity to accept* that baptism as efficacious.

    Therefore, Mr. Dubner’s relatives are merely being offered something similar to those car keys you get in the mail… “just come down on Saturday to Bob’s Honda and if your key starts the car, it’s yours!” I could certainly see non-believers considering this silly, but a more complete understanding of the practice shouldn’t cause offense. As a believer, I find this doctrine far more sensible and compassionate than a belief that anyone not lucky enough to be born near Christians and convinced by them to be baptized to be damned to hell.

    Loved the debate about the ethics of selling the intangible, though! Just had to clear that up :)

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  81. Sam Anderson says:

    Your podcast stated that there were two attitudes one could have about the “soul market”; those who believe in the soul who find it repugnant and those who don’t who find it absurd. However – I actually fall into a 3rd camp you didn’t acknowledge. I believe in a soul, but still find the soul market absurd, because I believe the soul is non-transferrable to another person.

    It sort of deepens the irony because I’m also a Mormon. Maybe my attitude (above) toward the soul may also elucidate Mormon posthumous baptism (used as an example in the podcast) for you. When we posthumously baptize someone, it’s not to “own” their soul for Mormonism. It’s not to count them on the records of our church or to even consider them in any cultural or theological way a Mormon. We don’t refer to people who were posthumously baptized as adherents to the Mormon faith (or even Christianity, if they weren’t previously Christians). We believe their disembodied ‘spirit’ is as it was on earth, holding the same thoughts, feelings, biases, and – yes – even religion that it had on earth. We believe departed spirits can accept or reject the baptism performed for them if they ever chose to become Christian/Mormon in the afterlife – what we view as largely just a continuation of this life. However, we can’t know of guarantee any of them will.

    Indeed it’s incorrect to refer to posthumous baptism and “posthumous conversion” interchangeably, as your guest did. Conversion is a person’s personal faith decision. Baptism is just the sacrament by which they commence such a converted path. Mormons would never refer to posthumous baptisms as posthumous conversions, nor treat them as such.

    Also – and this is the important thing to note for the case of Jews – Mormonism isn’t seeking to change the rich cultural identity of Judaism – for the living or for the dead. Indeed there are living Mormon converts who refer to themselves as “Mormon Jews”. They still feel a deep sense of belonging to their Jewish culture and heritage, while having accepted Mormon theology and sacraments. I definitely understand why it’s still offensive to many Jews, and certainly respect that.

    Thanks for the great podcast and keep up the good work.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  82. Kendrick says:

    Hi mr Dubner,
    Thanks for the podcast; I thought it was a great subject. I too might it abhorrent and absurd if a church was claiming to have converted my deceased relatives. Fortunately you can rest assured about yours. The process of conversion is for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (and most other religions) a process of making a choice.

    The practice of baptism for the dead is a means of providing a choice to those who no longer are capable of a physical baptism. It is an invitation and has no value or meaning if they choose not to accept it. So for those of our ancestors who choose to accept it, I think we should respect their decisions. For those who don’t, it is as though nothing happened.

    Thanks again.

    Also in the future, the church prefers to be called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or LDS church if that’s too long for you to say.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    just because a person is not interesting in having a “personal relationship” with a God does not mean that they do not feel that they don’t have a soul. or If they do not believe in a god or higher being, doesn’t mean they will bite the bait of the believer who wants to prove a point in a sort of malicious way. I mean, asking to buy a soul is not really a Christian sort of thing to do Why would one who professes to believe want to buy a soul. If one is truly a believer how could they do such a thing? A true believer should be smote with lightning!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  84. Kyle says:

    Caleb – you claim to be a Christian, but you care more about whether or not an atheist is willing to sell you his soul than you do about your own salvation. (When asked whether you thought “owning” another man’s soul might have negative consequences for you in the afterlife, you basically shrugged – you didn’t even say “I hope not”). This seems like a huge incongruity to me. Am I missing something?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  85. Daniel Asher says:

    This excellent piece “Soul Possession” did not address whether it is ethical for the seller to sell something that he believeed to be nothing. For example, delusional person walks into my house and admires an imaginary bouquet of flowers. He offers me $50 for the imaginary flowers. Can I accept the money? I would argue that if I believe it to be nothing I can not enter into this transaction. I would further argue that it is NOT a transaction at all, but a type of fraud. Likewise with my soul. If believe the soul doesn’t exist then I am not entering into a genuine transaction by selling. Just because there is a willing (perhaps delusional) buyer doesn’t allow me to take his money.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  86. Adam Yaksich says:

    I loved the episode Soul Possession. Great job on the podcast except for one item. You missed the mark on why Mormons do baptisms by proxy and took offense — I will explain. Latter-Day Saints (or Mormons) are a lot like Catholics in that we believe there are certain ordinances that are absolutely necessary in order to live with God. We are like Baptists in that we believe baptism is a by immersion and it is a conscious choice. (Baptists are generally in disagreement over the necessity of baptism since only faith — not works — is required.) We are like the Jewish faith in that we build temples to God. Inside those temples, you could think of the work as a perpetual Yom Kippur — Day of Atonement. The work is done to potentially make things right between God and the soul of man. One of these ordinances is baptism for the dead. That soul still can choose to accept or reject the work.

    Note that the ordinances performed are different than the Torah since Christ marked the end of traditional Jewish blood sacrifice. God has demanded it be done for everyone however most of this work will be done after Christ returns. This is a whole other discussion.

    So here are some poignant questions for different faiths:
    Catholic — What happens to an infant if they die without baptism?
    Baptist — Why did Roger Williams separate himself from the Church of England and what does Baptist mean? Is baptism necessary according to Christ? What happens if you live and die without ever hearing about Christ?
    Jewish — Anciently, on the Day of Atonement, where were ordinances performed? By who? With what lineage? What was worn? Why was this done?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  87. Chris says:

    This parlor game appears to make a claim that if atheists won’t sell their soul then they acknowledge the soul’s existence. This appears to lend credence to the claim…god must exist. Unfortunately the existence of souls or gods is not a proof of either claim. Gods can exist and there be no souls. Souls could exist and there be no gods. This game is pretty weak proof for a soul: Atheists won’t sell their soul so the soul must exist.

    Similarly, just because I can’t prove souls or gods DON’T exist doesn’t mean they must. If that line of argument worked then I could make any non-existence claim…Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, angels, Zeus, Ganesh. No, we’re way past that. There must be some evidence to support a claim.

    I think Caleb is paying far too much. I’ll take $1 for my soul and feel guilty for taking that much.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  88. matt says:

    How about selling stock in ones soul?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  89. Steven says:

    I wanted to clarify on some of the subject matter presented in this podcast. When Romney was brought up and the Mormon religion, it was stated that our posthumous baptisms were offensive to you, for “converting” those who have past on without their consent. This, however, is not the case. That is not what we believe. We believe, that after the vicarious baptism, that individual then has the choice to accept it or not. We do not consider them a member of the church after the baptism. We believe we are simply giving them the opportunity to accept it or not.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  90. Katherine says:

    What I found frustrating about this podcast was that there was an assumption made that being atheist means you don’t have a soul. I found this definition of “soul” just now:

    1: the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life
    2a : the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe
    2b : capitalized Christian Science : god

    I am not religious; I do not believe in God. I do believe that humans are special beings on Earth, though, and what differenciates us from other living things is exactly as described in definitions 1 and 2a – our ideas, our morals, and all things that make us sapient. Philisophically, I would consider selling my soul to be giving those things away, and although I do find the whole transaction absurd, it would also bother me quite a bit. God, a creator and judge, has nothing to do with it. My soul is wholy different, because I am my own creator and my own judge, and I’m not about to give that up, for any amount of money.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  91. Matthieu Tremblay says:

    I think it’s absurd to say that atheists would not be bothered by things like posthumous baptisms. Although I don’t believe in God, I think the belief in God is extremely important to many people, and I would never disrespect them by telling them what to believe. There is a horrible assumption made by the religious that atheists are callous and evil people. (Perhaps, this comes from the directive of the Church to “save” souls.) I would like to make it clear that being an atheist does not mean you lack empathy, morals, or RESPECT FOR THE DEAD.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  92. Jordan says:

    It’s dishonest or fraudulent to try and sell what doesn’t exist or to sell what is inalienable. So it seems attempted soul-selling would be abhorrent for believers and non-believers alike. The episode didn’t seem to capture this point.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  93. Naomi says:

    Interesting that if one does not believe in a ‘soul,’ that it is assumed by Professor Sandel they would not take “offense” to the one offering/requesting to purchase it. For me, I have measured these such things according to what the OTHER person believes.

    For instance, when I declared I was not a Christian believer, but was told by a Christian that they were “praying for me,” I made a judgement on what I believed their intensions were and what prayer meant to them. If it was someone who I believed valued me and wanted ‘the best’ for me– and actually took time to pray for me, then I took that as a kind gesture and was genuinely thankful. If it was someone who I didn’t think valued prayer or said they’d pray but was motivated by judgement or disgust with me, then their comment didn’t mean anything to me or I took offense.

    If I did not believe in the Soul, but someone offered to buy it out of believing I could not or was not properly tending to mine, I’d take offense because of their belief about my soul. One offering out of genuine concern and goodwill would probably taken as a compliment.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  94. William K says:

    I think the host missed an important question for caleb, “Caleb, suppose I had a check here for 1 million USD and I wanted to buy your soul. Would you be willing to sell it?”

    Even if caleb is not willing to part with his soul at the price of a million bucks, I am certain that the willingness to sell one’s soul increases with the dollar figure offered for that soul even among the religious.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  95. Alberto says:

    In 1999 I bought a sould from a homeless man in Toronto for $3 Canadian (which back then was like $0.25 USD) + a liter of Absolute Vodka. I think I got a pretty good deal, and I still have the soul plus pictures documenting the transaction, as well as a contract.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  96. JoJo says:

    I find the idea of soul exchanges/possesions BOTH absurd and abhorrent.

    The idea caleb would monetize souls thru creation of an secondary market via a soul exchange/marketplace is both absurd and abhorrent.

    But most essential to this podcast and argument is that the soul was never defined. So Bruce in Seatlle is wise to suggest that he could sell his soul more than once. Though this creates a paradox, how can he sell something he doesnt think exsist?

    In fact, that last sentence would make the contract unvalid (pick up your business law-101 book or see the UCC). So once again I find the topic and the transactions absurd and abhorrent.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  97. Sam Rogers says:

    Stephen I’m very disappointed that you would call out the Mormon’s beliefs of baptisms for the dead as both abhorrent and absurd. You have a Jewish and a Catholic background, would you be OK with someone calling those beliefs abhorrent and absurd? There’s plenty in both religions to call out as such, but it’s not politically acceptable to do so. Somehow anyone can get away with doing this to Mormons, however. But I thought you were better than that.

    Not to mention that you both got the facts completely wrong. Mormons don’t believe that posthumous baptisms convert anyone. Mormons believe after people die, they have the choice to accept or deny the baptism that was performed on their behalf. I’m not surprised that you didn’t come close to accurately describing our theology, but I am surprised you stooped to call our beliefs abhorrent and absurd without any caveats.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  98. Sam Rogers says:

    I just went back and read all the earlier comments. How is it, after all the complaints about your treatment of Mormons, that you can’t be bothered to address this? Are you so high any mighty that you don’t read comments? That when comment after comment clarifies a gross misconception you made about our religious beliefs, you don’t bother to respond? That you don’t even care that you seemed to miss the mark and disrespected a religious group?

    Whoever is moderating this, please take a few seconds to forward this to Stephen.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  99. clintk says:

    This is two years late, but I just listened to the show. If anyone has questions about why the mormons do proxy baptisms for the dead, here is a link that will take you to a discourse given by a mormon leader; he clearly explains all motives.
    Also, I want to add that as a poor college student, I am glad that Freakonomics Radio exists. It is free and entertaining, and that makes me happy.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  100. Kelly says:

    You got the definition of indulgences wrong. Indulgences don’t grant salvation. According to the the Catholic Church:

    “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven”

    Eternal punishment is hell. Temporal punishment is like paying for a window that you broke, even if the owner forgives you.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  101. Jamie says:

    The Mormon church does not believe that posthumous baptism forces their conversion. We believe that baptism by proper authority is something everyone has the chance of receiving. We do not believe that they have to accept what we do for them. They have as much agency in the next life as they have here.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  102. Ryan says:

    For what it’s worth, Mormons don’t actually believe the posthumous baptisms they perform constitute conversions of deceased persons, as is suggested in the podcast. It may be splitting hairs for some, but the idea is that the ordinance is there if the deceased person should choose to accept it. If Jesus said baptism is essential for entering the kingdom of God, the thinking goes, then there’s no skirting the ordinance. Mormons take the logic of the command pretty far, obviously, even seeing 1 Cor. 15:29 as biblical evidence of the practice anciently. Rather than converting the dead, though, they see it as making the ordinance available if the deceased person should want it. Think of it like someone buying you a ticket to an event. You don’t have to accept the ticket or attend the event, but if you decide to, you can pick up the ticket at will call.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  103. MB says:

    You have wrong the part about the Mormon Church. (Did you ever use the actual name?) Mormons don’t believe they make the deceased join the church. They believe they are giving these people the OPTION—this is a huge difference and would have completely changed the conversation on the podcast. I appreciated Elie Wiesel’s book but he either didn’t listen to what the Mormons had to say or has a nonsense opinion of what they’re doing.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • MB says:

      I should probably add that I’m not Mormon; I’d hate to have them take the blame if somebody takes unintended offense at what I wrote.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0