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What is love? how materialist atheism fails to have a satisfactory answer

July 9, 2014

I heard a quite provocative presentation this morning entitled ‘Can man love without God?’ I was intrigued by the presentation. The presenter, Michelle Tepper, initially asked how atheist materialism could account for ‘love’. 

It seems that atheist naturalism struggles to present an adequate account of ‘love’. It is certainly difficult to describe love from a purely ‘scientific’ perspective. i.e. it is not something we can see, measure,taste or touch. Tepper presented a couple of atheist attempts at describing what love is (from sources such as asktheatheist,com and daylightatheism). They proposed that love is an abstraction, it is a subjective feeling, it doesn’t have any physical manifestation, it speaks of an internal state of the mind – perhaps it isn’t rational? According to the atheist it seems that love is simply chemical reactions.

But is love simply chemical reactions? I wonder if this is too reductionistic? 

Yet if we accept this, that love is simply chemical feelings, the outcome becomes unsatisfactory. Tepper went on to suggest that if love is only a feeling it leads to a consumerist attitude – ‘love’ becomes what I can get out of it. Hence relationships only last as we benefit from them. ‘Love’ only lasts as long as the feelings.

Yet humans hunger for more, humans want love to go beyond the transient. True love transcends the feelings and in some cases when we feel true ‘love’ we sense an aspect of the spiritual that atheism can’t explain.

Tepper argued that the best source of this ‘love’ is God. 1 John 4 describes ‘God as love’. She said that love comes in relationship (we can’t love being alone) and God is love because God is Trinity. She went on to propose that love is never self-centred, in fact love is sustained through self-sacrifice (we wouldn’t have many friends if love is all about me). We either sacrifice ourselves of the relationship and God sacrificed himself on the cross to save his people. Her main thesis was that self sacrifice as a worldview was only reasonable if love was eternal. 

She wasn’t saying that atheists can’t love, but that the best explanation for love (as self sacrifice) as a worldview was if love were eternal.


I think that the most powerful form of Tepper’s argument from love is a form of the argument from rationality. i.e. 

If naturalism is true, then all experience is reduced to chemical processes.

Love cannot be reduced to chemical processes

Therefore naturalism is false.

Yet, I’m not quite sure that Tepper was arguing this (even though I think a good argument can be made here) Tepper seemed to be arguing self-sacrifice makes little sense unless love is connected with something eternal (otherwise, why sacrifice oneself needlessly?). I think there is some strength to that, although I felt that Tepper didn’t adequately dealt with the presence of altruism in humans and in the animal kingdom. This would suggest that there is a form of self-sacrifice which is beneficial for survival. 

Anyway, it was quite provocative and raised a number of questions. So what do you think? How can an atheist account for ‘love’? What is love?

  1. “Love cannot be reduced to chemical processes.” Agreed completely.
    “Therefore naturalism is false.” Does not follow; displays ignorance of decades of scientific exploration of love.
    Chemistry is not the proper science for studying love; chemicals do not love one another. People do (and we can also speak of love in other ways); the proper level of analysis is that of whole organisms, interacting with one another in a social and physical environment. Thus, the people who have made careers out of scientifically studying love tend to be social psychologists. And yes, we can and do measure love, in much the same way as we measure other things that whole interacting organisms do. We can and do measure prejudice, discrimination, aggression, altruism, personality variables, attachment, and much much more. These things are far more complex than simple chemical reactions, and as a result they are measured more imperfectly, but they are (and have been for decades) the subject of scientific research.
    True, not the research of chemists or physicists. If we could (spoiler: we can’t) reduce love to a single chemical, the presence or absence of the chemical would tell us precisely nothing about *who* you love, which I hope you would agree is rather important.
    “Materialist atheism” is perfectly compatible with the vast preponderance of the social psychological literature on love and interpersonal attraction. To the best of my knowledge, the experts in the field have not had to resort to invoking a god in order to explain love.
    Some unasked advice: Whether you should stick to chemistry and physics (maybe just a little biology?) when examining whether “science” (or “materialist atheism”) can explain love, or altruism, or this or that… it depends. Do you want to make religion look good? Then go ahead and ignore the sciences that actually have been looking at these topics. Do you want to know the actual truth? Then open your eyes, widen your perspective, and look for answers where there is a long history of scientific examination of the very questions you are asking!

  2. “Love cannot be reduced to chemical processes”. Why not? Any evidence for that? You are talking your feelings and start mystifying them. But does that change anything? No really.

  3. Love can’t be an objective (outside man) reality and also be simply a feeling (like pain) or an emotion (like happiness). Love is more or love is really nothing special.

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