In the unending ideological chess match between theists and atheists, atheists are often asked how they can believe in something like love if they don’t believe in God. After all, they say, we can’t prove love exists, either. So, check and mate!
Not so fast. It’s true that, as an atheist, I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in the Devil, either. Or immaterial, immortal souls. In fact, I don’t believe in anything supernatural. But I do believe in love. I even believe in soulmates. But how can I believe in love or soulmates if souls don’t exist?
Atheists like me don’t believe in the supernatural because we look to science as the sole arbiter of what exists—and we don’t find any evidence for otherworldly phenomena. I realize the logic seems inescapable: if science says love doesn’t exist, then I can’t legitimately believe in it. Or as one Christian writer succinctly puts it: “If humans have no soul, and are merely evolutionary [sic] advanced animals, is ‘love’ anything more than instinct or hormones?”
Yes, a lot more. “Love,” “soulmates,” and “souls” are words humans have created to denote sometimes baffling, but undoubtedly real, experiences of great significance to us. They name the most vital connections human beings can have with one another. Once we understand that there are genuine levels of complexity in nature, and that our “folk psychology” necessarily describes the world at a high level of abstraction, we see that love is indeed real—and robust.
Viewed in this way, we can reclaim the name of love from its rarified state. We can turn this word into flesh. To see how, we can consult those sages of the ages who made it their mission to think deeply about human nature—the philosophers. When my friend Bill asked me to be the best man at his wedding, I wanted to give a speech that was unique. I certainly wasn’t going to quote a Bible passage, much less the one everyone uses for their wedding. You know the one I mean:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a beautiful passage. But it describes an ideal love, and it promotes a perfection of which we all inevitably fall short. So instead of paying lip service to an unattainable ideal on the happiest occasion of my friend’s life, I paid tribute to the eminently achievable, messy-but-precious wonder of human love. Instead of quoting the Apostle Paul, I paraphrased Aristotle—inspired by a bit of Nietzsche.
Nietzsche was fond of tipping over sacred cows, excluding nothing from his withering critiques—love included. For example, in his 1882 book The Gay Science, he compares love to avarice:
“Sexual love betrays itself most clearly as lust for possession: the lover desires unconditional and sole possession of the person for whom he longs; he desires equally unconditional power over the soul and over the body of the beloved; he alone wants to be loved and desires to live and rule in the other soul as supreme and supremely desirable.”
To put it a little differently, if you have no problem sharing your significant other with someone else, or if you don’t care if they love you back, then you either don’t love them, or you’re not human. Everyone experiences jealousy of this sort—we don’t want to lose our “possession,” because it makes us feel good. Nietzsche wasn’t completely cynical, though. He goes on to describe an alternative to the kind of neurotic codependence many people call love:
“Here and there on earth we may encounter a kind of continuation of love in which the possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for possession—a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them. But who knows such love? Who has experienced it? Its right name is friendship.”
Love is somewhat of a late arrival in human relationships. For most of the ancient world, friendship was valued more than the kind of love we celebrate every February. According to historian Stephanie Coontz, “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage.” The ancient Greeks even considered romantic love to be “madness from the gods.”
But Aristotle’s examination of the nature of friendship shows us that we can talk sensibly about love in a way that doesn’t succumb to either extreme of mental illness or ignoble egoism. Aristotle concluded that there are three kinds of friendship: one based on utility, one on pleasure, and one on a kind of mutual admiration.
I don’t think anyone today would call the first kind true friendship because it’s based on how useful the other person is to us—maybe we’re only friends with them because it will help our career. Not too much depth or investment there. The second kind isn’t much better, because we can get the same kind of pleasure from someone else—there are many attractive, entertaining, sexually-skilled people in the world. The best friendship, according to Aristotle, is where each person admires and celebrates the other person’s uniqueness. Both partners recognize the singularity that the other is, and both strive to create a third thing, Nietzsche’s “shared higher ideal.” The first two kinds of friendship are almost incidental, whereas the third is intentional. It’s like saying “any port in a storm,” versus only this port will do.
Authentic friendship transforms lust into love, and allows us to realize that our partner “represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again,” as Hermann Hesse so eloquently put it in the preface to his novel, Demian. Acknowledging our mutual individuality and natural imperfection motivates us to cultivate an ethic of compassion and understanding that allows all the cherished qualities of which the Apostle Paul speaks to blossom. Is there a better name for that than love? Are two people who share that connection not worthy of the term soulmates?
That’s the kind of love I, as an atheist, believe in. That’s the kind of love I wished for my friend and his bride. There is no greater love than this, and we don’t need to rely on a God to help us achieve it.