Spiritual Fire

Some theists think it a very clever argument to ask an atheist if they believe in the existence of love. After all, the thinking runs, no one can deny that love exists – but it is impossible to prove that love exists. But if atheists believe in one thing that cannot be proven to exist, how can they in good conscience reject other things, such as God, merely because they cannot be proven to exist either?

Now, I do not deny the existence of love – far from it. But I do not believe there is anything contradictory in accepting the existence of love without believing in the existence of God. The analogy fails because the two are dissimilar in a fundamental way, and so cannot be compared.

Before saying any more, I should make it clear that I have never argued, nor do I believe, that science is the only way of understanding, viewing, or perceiving the world. I do not claim that things that cannot be studied scientifically must not exist. However, I do believe and will argue that we must investigate a subject scientifically if we wish to obtain objective, reliable information about it. As just about anyone will readily admit, objective and reliable information about love is essentially non-existent, and objective, reliable, scientific information about God is entirely non-existent. But that is where the crucial difference lies: for one of these, this is just as we should expect, but for the other, it is not at all what we should expect.

By its nature, love is subjective, a personal mental state. When I experience it, it exists only in my own mind, and my personal perceptions and sensations of it and about it define its existence. Since it is not supposed to exist anywhere but in my mind, when I do feel it in my mind, that alone is evidence enough that it exists.

But God, if he is as the monotheists say, is not subjective but objective. If he exists, then presumably, he does not just exist in my head, and his being and nature are not defined by what I think about them. If he exists, it would be perfectly appropriate to expect evidence of that fact independent of thoughts in people’s heads. Subjective sensations can be evidence for a subjective experience, but not for an objective being.

In plain language: love is something that’s not supposed to exist anywhere but in personal mental states, which are inherently unverifiable. It would be unreasonable to demand evidence for it, and indeed, it would be unnecessary. Everyone has experienced love; everyone knows what it is and what it feels like. A claim to be in love is not inherently extraordinary, and there is no special reason to doubt it.

But God is typically not defined as an inner mental state, but as an actual, objective being with an existence independent of what anyone thinks. There is every reason to believe that there would be empirical evidence of the existence of such a being, and every reason to demand it – because the existence of God is an extraordinary claim. It is not in accord with everyday experience. To all appearances the cosmos runs by itself, guided only by the regularities of natural law. There is no obvious sign of an overarching intelligence, and even those theists who believe in miracles would probably admit that they believe them to be vanishingly rare. It is only right to ask for evidence, and strong evidence, before accepting the existence of a being whose qualities clash so drastically with observed principles of reality.

As a backup tactic, some theists might say that I have already conceded the argument regardless, merely by admitting the existence of love. After all, it is commonly claimed that “God is love,” and so to say that one exists is to say that the other exists – or so the thinking goes. Needless to say, I dispute this. To equate an object or idea with God is not to imbue that object or idea with all the qualities traditionally associated with God. Point at love if you want, and call it your god – but I won’t thereby admit that it’s transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing, the creator of the universe, the judge of the dead, or even that it exists independently of humans. No matter what one chooses to name it, it will remain nothing more or less than the same old sloppy, embarrassing, confusing, uplifting, wonderful feeling it is and always has been. As the saying goes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The same applies for every item or concept – truth, justice, reality, and so on – used in this misguided class of argument in an attempt to define God into existence. I won’t deny that a particular quality exists simply because someone names it God, but neither will I worship it, nor will I admit that traditional theism is in any way confirmed thereby.

So what is this atheist’s view of love? In my view, love is an evolutionary impulse, the result of millions of years of natural selection acting on our genes, subtly shaping us to instill within us the desire and the drive to reproduce and raise families and so begin a new round of evolution. In my view, love is an electrochemical phenomenon, the result of cascades of hormones and neurotransmitters exciting patterns of signaling in certain regions of the brain.

But in my view, love is also a sublime sensation, loftiest and most spiritual of the emotions, a feeling that can move us to produce humanity’s most beautiful works of art and acts of compassion, or provoke us to our darkest crimes of passion. Simply put, it is one of the things that makes us human, and for all the chaos and heartbreak it causes, our lives would be much duller and less wonderful without it. It is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is the source of our most crushing miseries and our most blissful happiness; and despite all the struggles and conflict and failures, when it works it is the most beautiful and powerful feeling there is.

There is no paradox in proclaiming both that love has a physical basis and also that it is real and meaningful. As argued in “Life of Wonder“, just because we understand how something works does not make it any less special or genuine. Love is an inherent part of human nature, part of the lives of atheists and theists alike, and we do not need the approval of a supernatural being to confer legitimacy on it or on any of our other feelings. It is meaningful precisely because it is meaningful to us.

But what, exactly, is love? How are we to define it? Love takes many forms, and no one definition can perfectly express all of them. Nevertheless, there are many definitions that capture different aspects of what love is: the state where the happiness of another is equal to your own; the act of giving someone the power to hurt you out of trust that they will not use it; the desire to always be together with someone; the appreciation of a thing based on its unique qualities. But the essence, the true nature, of love is ultimately beyond words, indescribable, like all qualia. The most that can be said is that we know it when we feel it. However, there is one possible definition that I feel comes closer than any other: the feeling – and I use this word with no theistic connotations intended – of having been blessed. To be so happy, about nothing in particular, that you find yourself laughing for no reason; to view something so beautiful and spectacular that your breath involuntarily quickens and your heart surges in your chest; to wake up next to your partner in the morning and feel amazed that someone so wonderful would want to share a life with you – that is what it means to be in love.

Of course, for every exhilarating peak, there is an equally dark and lonely valley. It is undeniably true that the happiness love can produce when it works is matched in equal measure by the misery it can produce when it fails, and sometimes it seems as if it goes unreciprocated far more often than not. Some might even ask whether love has, on balance, caused more harm than good in this world. Might we be better off without it? Would our lives be less troublesome and less depressing if they were more placid and even, without the dizzying highs and lows of love?

My answer to this question is that love is far more than the desire for partnership, as important as that is. Love undergirds every noble human endeavor and inspires us to achievements that no lesser motivation could have produced. From the love of nature, to the love of knowledge that inspires science, to the love of freedom that brought about open and democratic societies and the patriots willing to fight for them, to the love of beauty that produces great works of art, literature and architecture, to the love for all feeling creatures commonly known as empathy, all that is good in this world ultimately comes from love. Were we to give it up, we would be giving up humanity itself.

To those who are devout religious believers, atheism may seem comfortless, even frightening, because it proposes to strip away the illusions that so many have grown to depend on and take for granted. To people who have never known life without these beliefs, losing them may at first seem like being cast adrift at sea on a stormy night. However, the truth is that in this transition we do not lose anything worth holding onto, and we gain much that is good as well. Free of the strictures of organized religion, we become empowered to set our own purpose and find our own meaning and significance in life. And an atheist’s life can still be full of love – for family, for friends, for life itself – as well as all of the other things that make our lives worthwhile. Being in love is not part of being religious; it is simply part of being human. It is a birthright that belongs to all of us alike.