How does love fit into atheism?

Recently, I’ve discussed the topic of love with a few atheist friends. All of them claim to discredit a God because religion is based on “experiences” which can be rationalized with biological processes. However, I am perplexed as to why they, as atheists, don’t believe in a God (and regard him as just a series of experiences with no concrete evidence); yet they do believe in love, which is also really just a series of experiences with no convincing scientific/physical evidence. How does love fit into atheism? Why is lack of evidence sufficient to discredit a God, but not adequate to discredit love?

Posted: October 26th 2009

Dave Hitt www

First off, thanks for a good question, one that requires some real thought to answer.

As other’s have pointed out, love can’t be precisely measured or even precisely defined, but it’s still a very real emotion. Just as it is possible to love someone/something that doesn’t exist, it’s also possible to have a real belief in something that doesn’t exist.

For instance, we still feel love for others who have died. The target of their affection no longer exists, but their feelings for them are still there and still real. Taking it one step further, it’s possible for someone to love a fictional character, to feel a great deal of affection for them, even though they never existed. The character was never real, but their love for them is. That love doesn’t prove the character exists.

If someone believes in a fictional character and loves them their belief is a very real (although unquantifiable) thing. It doesn’t prove that the character exists, though.

Posted: October 30th 2009

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It’s simple.

Love is an abstraction, a label that we put on a set of emotions or frame of mind. It doesn’t have physical existence.

When somebody says, “I’m in love with you”, they aren’t speaking of the existence of a physical thing, they are speaking of their internal state of mind – it’s shorthand.

So, if you want to equate god to a feeling that has no physical manifestation, I’m fine with that.

Posted: October 30th 2009

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George Locke

God is usually defined as some sort of intelligent being existing independent of humanity. God is not a series of experiences. Belief in god is a series of experiences, but the object of that belief is not the experience of believing.

The key issue is that love is a feeling whereas god is not. To prove that love exists, all you have to do is find a single loving person. Defining love is tricky, but once you have some sense of what it might be, your job is easy. Defining god is also tricky, but finding a believer doesn’t prove that god exists, merely that faith exists.

Posted: October 30th 2009

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Extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims is the name of the game. Though I accept the existence of love as an emotion (along with all the others: hate, anger, envy, jealousy, lust, fear, greed, etc.), I do not accept any emotion as being a force that can magically effect change by its very existence (certainly emotions can indirectly influence events). In order for me to accept that form of love, I would need extraordinary evidence.

In addition, the expression of emotions, a very interesting topic indeed, varies from culture to culture (sort of like religious beliefs, whose existence I also accept though not recognizing in themselves as being reflective of truthful reality). Some cultures emphasize responsibility as a major proponent of love. Others, emphasize the romantic aspects of love. Despite these differences, we are still dealing with an real emotion – no matter how subjective – an emergent property stemming from our nervous system. And though we can be sure of our own emotions (if we do not repress them that is), we can be terribly wrong regarding the emotions of others.

Though emotions exist in most people, there are people who have a dampened emotional affect as in psycho/sociopaths and folks who once were capable of feeling emotions who find themselves, after specific brain injuries, no longer able to feel and express any emotions at all. Accompanying this kind of brain damage is complete apathy. So we know emotions can qualitatively exist because we know when they do not. Evolutionary psychology clarifies this observation by noting that emotions allows us to act, a definite advantage for survival (try sitting under a fruit tree, expecting ripe fruit to fall into your expectant and open mouth instead of actively foraging, hunting, or planting crops and see how long you last).

Our emotional nature, in its complexity and subjectivity, brings both negative and positive aspects to our lives. It is something about which we need to be informed—we do not come with operating manuals. Religious beliefs fail horribly at bringing comprehension regarding our emotions. Religions often praise certain emotions over others, without recognizing they all play important roles in our functioning while frequently encouraging the repressing of certain emotions which prevent us from learning how to control our emotions.

Emotions, though an emergent property, along with the mind, stop happening when our brain dies. They do not occur without a functioning brain. They start and end with our lives. This is a much more demonstrative activity than the existence of a supernatural being which apparently exists eternally in the supernatural realm (as there is no substantial evidence showing that any supernatural entity interferes with our lives).

Emotions have been hijacked by religions. Religious beliefs capitalize on these wondrous and challenging emergent properties of ours.

Posted: October 30th 2009

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brian thomson www

I think this question is a good illustration of what I call the “atheism as replacement religion” fallacy. Christianity, Islam and others have lots to say on topics such as love, so the presumption is that atheism should have something to say about it too.

The bad news is: when you give up religion or other ideologies, you give up this source of “moral authority”. You have to figure it out for yourself. The good news is: there are plenty of smart people out there who are willing and able to advise you, without any claims to moral authority. With the Internet, it’s easier than ever to find like-minded people and talk to them.

In other words, while atheism has noting to say about love, there are plenty of people – atheist or otherwise – who do, and some of them are here. 8-)

Posted: October 30th 2009

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flagellant www

“A deity exists” and “Love exists” are two very different propositions. To “prove” either of them, it is necessary to produce evidence.

Firstly, where is the evidence for the existence of God? As far as I’m concerned, there is none; further, such scientific, reliable evidence that we have indicates that the existence of God is most unlikely.

Just consider the vicious God of the Bible: it used to be believed that disease, floods and earthquakes were punishment from God. Now, we understand the existence of bacteria and viruses, how the weather works, and the movements of the Earth’s crust. Although there’s more to learn, the interventionist God becomes increasingly unnecessary and unlikely.

If a person “feels” or “experiences” that there is a God, this is not evidence: it may simply be a manifestation of hope or delusion. Hoping that there’s a god or believing in one – as in a drug induced hallucination – doesn’t count as valid evidence, although one might call both belief and illusion “experiences”. Personal experiences can be very unreliable; I wonder how many people sincerely believe that they will win the lottery this week… They cannot possibly all be right and the likelihood is that they are all wrong.

“Love”, on the other hand, manifests itself in such a way that it is undeniable. Consider the love between partners and the love between a mother and her child. These are universally observable, even if we’ve never experienced them ourselves. One might argue that “love” is simply the engine for ensuring the survival and continuation of our species. You could call it something else, if you wish, but there is sufficient evidence to know it is real. There’s not the slightest evidence for a deity, though.

Posted: October 30th 2009

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Reed Braden www

Love is an abstract human concept, like the concept of God. There is no concrete way of measuring love. I can’t go to my boyfriend and say, “I only have three loves for you, but I hope that we can reach the point of ten loves and live happily together forever,” but I can tell him that I’m beginning to fall in love with him. You can study the effects of love on an individual, but you can’t study love itself. I can’t run a scan on your brain and point to a spot on your MRI and say, “Look! This woman has a massive love in her parietal lobe that needs to be removed before she dies of toxic love shock,” but with the right equipment I can study your expressions, micro-expressions, heart rate and hormone production when your lover walks into the room.

Just like with love, you can feel the presence of God and you can measure the effects of belief in God on an individual. We know love exists because we can measure its effects and we can feel its presence, we can also pinpoint what chemical reactions in the brain cause love. We can do the same with belief in God: We can measure its effects, some of us can feel him watching or caring for us and we can even pinpoint what in the brain is causing us to feel like he’s there.

However, the similarities stop there. We know that love exists, not because we can measure the effects, but we know what chemicals in the brain cause it. Love is created within the brain and has a clear origin. God, according to believers, exists outside of the brain, so the analogy falls short there. The feeling of God’s presence is created in the brain, much like love, by the chemicals that regulate emotion, and it is that feeling that we can explain and measure and know to be real. God himself is not proved or disproved with this logical experiment.

Whether or not God exists and is controlling the chemical processes that make us feel love or feel his presence—or feel anything else for that matter—is not answerable with this analogy since the feeling of belief is entirely different than God himself.

And, no, I don’t think that the fact that emotions, even the strong ones, are determined by chemical processes cheapens the concept of love, belief or anything else. To brand the naturalistic explanation of love as “bleak”, as so many believers do, is dishonest and shows a great deal of ignorance in what science actually shows. It’s not poetic, sure, but it helps those who are in love or who have belief better understand why they feel so strongly. And understanding is never a bad thing.

It’s also interesting to note that this argument for the existence of God almost always uses love. The same correlations between God and love are true of sadness, fear, hatred and other negative human emotions. It seems to me that since the New Testament insists (either nonsensically or pantheistically) that, “God is love,” Christians think that if they can prove that love can’t be proved but it must exist, God can’t be proved but he must exist. The logic in this assumption is horrendously flawed on an easy-to-understand and elementary level, but so many apologists who should know better use it! It reeks of intentional dishonesty.

Posted: October 30th 2009

See all questions answered by Reed Braden

SmartLX www

Because love still works even if it’s nothing more than an abstract concept, a human construct.

If there is no universal, ethereal standard of love, declaring one’s love for something or someone means no less because one has imbued it with one’s own superlative emotions and devotions.

If God is merely a human construct instead of a real entity, by contrast, it really makes a difference. Promises of reward and threats of punishment after death are false. Prayers are said to no one, or to oneself. Teachings ascribed ultimately to God may still stand on their own merits, but they are no longer guaranteed to be sound advice.

There’s no harm in saying that love exists only in the same way as happiness, or an agreement, or a controversy. It doesn’t need evidence to be established as a concept, because we have simply taken existing parts of the human condition and named them “love”.

You just can’t get away with that when it comes to God. Either He’s there, or He isn’t and the religious are either wrong or pretending.

Posted: October 29th 2009

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