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The soul of gender

How trans ideology appeals to deep spiritual instincts

The concept of “gender identity” is a modern day version of the soul, elevated in importance above the body, linked to bodily modifications, sacrifice, public confession, and a change of name to signify transformation to a higher, truer self. Although gender identities and souls can be understood as connected to but independent of the body, the soul of gender differs from religious conceptions of the soul in that the ego is elevated rather than transcended. The quasi-sacred elevation of gender identity is part of the zeitgeist of our time but is ultimately divisive, reductive, and unhealthy, in both individual and collective terms

The 19th century anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor’s doctrine of survivals was the idea that cultural practices often survive in modified forms as societies change. Sneezes, for example, were believed to be spirits or demons exiting the body and were therefore followed by a blessing. The practice of saying “bless you” has survived. The eastward orientation of the priest in Christian churches could also be identified as a survival from the time the sun was worshipped. In a similar way, the idea of “gender identity” can be seen as one manifestation of the survival of the concept of the soul.  

Early understandings of the soul in the Homeric poems dated to the eighth or seventh century BCE saw it as something only humans have. Although some humans do have anthropomorphic “fursona” identities, animals don’t have gender identities — that we know of, anyway

By the fifth century BCE having a soul simply meant being alive.  The soul was associated with ways of acting, with pleasures, feelings, intense emotions, sexual desires, moral qualities, thought and cognitive abilities. In a similar way, some people believe that everyone has a gender identity and this identity is associated with the whole gamut of actions, feelings, thoughts, desires, and perceived moral qualities.

Questions about where the soul came from have been debated through the centuries of Christianity with different theories put forward. The theory of creationism, dating to the beginning of the fourth century, credited God with putting souls in bodies and this became the dominant theory in Christianity by the fifth century CE. The body is understood as a container of the soul in the same way that the body is seen to house the gender identity. 

The idea of a gender identity divorced from the body is mirrored in other Christian writings. The letters of Saint Paul the apostle, written around 50CE, include teachings about the body from early Christianity. In 2 Corinthians, Paul calls the body a mere “tent” that houses the “true self” (2 Cor. 5.2). A person’s gender identity is often understood as their “true self”. 

Some forms of early Christianity involved severe body mortification. Syriac Christianity, associated with the literature of the apostle Thomas including the Gospel According to Thomas and the Acts of Thomas, was highly dualistic with the world portrayed as a “corpse” and the body as “poverty” into which the “great wealth” of the soul had come to exist. The result of this outlook was detachment from the world and from the body. Unlike in Syriac Christianity however, there is an attachment to the body in gender ideology that can involve the body being altered to match the person’s gender identity. This aligns with the symbolic understanding of the body as a “clay jar” in Corinthians in that the body can be shaped at will. 

The separation of the soul and body is also linked to teachings in Eastern religions about reincarnation or metempsychosis, the transmigration or rebirth of the soul into a new body. The writer Barbara Kay has compared a parent’s establishment of their child as being transgender to the discovery of the child in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and therefore holy. Kay points out that whilst the Dalai Lama has had a physically healthy life, the children identified (by themselves or their parents) as transgender can be set on a path of lifelong dependence on drugs and possible extreme body modifications that can impact sexual function and even cause sterility. 

Making changes to the body to align with a religion or belief is something that has been widely documented. The Russian Skoptsy sect advocated breast and genital mutilation in women and the removal of the penis and testes in men in order to restore the body back to what they believed was the original condition of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Christian Saints have been associated with mutilation and bodily mortification. Body modifications mentioned in the Hebrew Bible include permanent changes such as circumcision, scarification, tattooing, and piercing, and temporary changes to hair styles or using the application of cosmetics, changes in clothing or jewellery. These changes can communicate an identity or belief system. Sacrifice and bodily mortification have also been used in various religions as a way of appeasing or pleasing the god/gods in a similar way that bodies are altered in order to align with the sacred gender identity. 

The process of transitioning is associated with a change of name and this also has religious parallels. In Hinduism, for example, popular contemporary Hindu yogi Sadhguru was named Jagadish Vasudev by his parents. The Irish Zen Buddhist monk Maura O’Halloran was given the name “Soshin” when she joined the Temple in Tokyo. In Catholicism, new names are taken on in baptism and confirmation as well as when a woman joins an order of nuns. A new Pope chooses his reign name. The changing of name is linked to a new spiritual phase of life. 

Another factor that can be noted in gender ideology is the tendency for people to make public confessions after transgressing the boundaries of what is acceptable — or not — to say. Cleansing the soul. Some of the high profile people that have made public confessions include singers Macy Grey and Bette Midler, writer Judy Blume, the singers Ne-Yo and Róisín Murphy.

Although gender ideology can be understood as a new type of secular religion, there are also differences between it and traditional religions. These include the focus in some religions on the life of the soul after death. This is not given attention in gender ideology, other than in the work of the transhumanist Terasem Faith which has the belief that “God is technological” and which has its focus on eternal life using “mindfiles”, cyberconsciousness and nanotechnology.

The contemporary sacralisation of gender identity is reductive, divisive and unhealthy

Within traditional religions, the religious soul is often associated with transcendence of the ego. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of his Transcendental mystical experience that egotism vanished and he had the idea that he was nothing. D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese Zen master wrote that Nirvana is freedom from the ego. This is different to contemporary understandings of gender identity where the ego, the sense of self is elevated rather than transcended and requires social affirmation. Gender identity is formed within and by a community. Asceticism has no place when affirmation of others is required. 

Invisible, intangible internal subjective identities and ideas are real and important for those who believe in them. However, we are living at a time when a scientifically unfalsifiable sense of a gendered self is often prioritised above biological sex in education, politics, and culture with implications for freedom of expression; for physical safety and fairness in women’s sports, prisons and changing rooms; and for the psychological and physical well-being of children and young people. Humans are complex and multi-faceted. The contemporary sacralisation of gender identity is reductive, divisive and unhealthy for both individuals and for society more broadly. We live in multicultural societies, and we can accept that people have different religious beliefs. We should apply this level of tolerance to ideas about gender identity. No-one should be compelled to believe.

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