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.


[THEME]

 

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?

 

CALEB: 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.”

 

[UNDERWRITING]

 

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.

 

 

[CREDITS]

 

 

 

 

TAGS: , ,

Leave A Comment

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

 

COMMENTS: 140

View All Comments »
  1. 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 20 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 25 Thumb down 0
  2. 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
  3. Bob says:

    Stephen,

    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!

    Bob

    PS – For more official info on Mormon proxy baptisms, see
    http://mormon.org/faq/#Baptism|question=/faq/proxy-baptisms/
    http://mormon.org/faq/#Baptism|question=/faq/baptism-for-the-dead/

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 2
  4. Alex says:

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

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  5. 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
  6. 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 http://www.soulxchange.com. 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: http://forums.winamp.com/archive/index.php/t-46936.html)

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

    “World’s First Marketplace For Direct Buying and Selling of Souls

    SoulXchange.com, the first and only online marketplace for the sale and purchase of human souls, launches today at http://www.soulXchange.com. 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: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DebunkCreation/message/13207)

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

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  7. Daniel says:

    Happy to exchange my imaginary soul for $50.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Kayla says:

    I’m pretty surprised that no one’s mentioned Hemant Mehta’s “I Sold My Soul on eBay,” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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