Welcome to Further Than Atheism, an ongoing exploration of the wide open range of ideas that lies beyond the only idea that all atheists share: that life is best lived without gods. Atheism can be a beginning, more than just an end in itself. When they confine their attention to what they do not believe, atheists restrict themselves to mere reaction to the ideas of the religious. Standing alone, atheism consists of mere refusal. Held along with compatible philosophies, however, atheism allows for an infinite variety of positive possibilities. The search for such possibilities is what Further Than Atheism is all about.
For thousands of years, love has been associated with divinity. Almost all religions teach that true love is possible only through membership in and obedience to their particular faith. Many religions are so arrogant as to teach their followers that love is nothing but aspects of the gods they worship. While the Greeks may have been metaphorical when they proclaimed the existence of Eros, the God of Love, Christian doctrine makes the literal claim that God is Love (tell that to the victims of the Salem witch trials).
Many religious people also believe in the predestination of love. This doctrine is given official support by churches, who incorporate it into their marriage ceremonies with ritual decrees such as "What God has joined together, let Man not tear assunder." Many churches go so far to insist that wedding ceremonies become little more than worship services, in which everyone in attendance must participate, whether they are members of the church or not. A favorite sermon at these weddings lectures the audience about how the wedding is about God and coming to church every Sunday. Apparently, the people getting married are just pawns in a great cosmic plan to get people into the pews. Nonetheless, as soon as the new husband and wife get out of the church, they place the focus back on themselves, cooing to their each other and to anyone else who will listen such strange ideas as, "God brought us together" or "We were made for each other".
Of course, within a year or two many of the same people will file for divorce and insist that the whole thing was a stupid idea. How's that for predestination? Perhaps God works in mysterious ways, but it seems more likely to me that love is a strictly human emotion and not part of some divine plan to make us all look like idiots.
Given the popular association between religion and romantic love, it's quite tempting for atheists to reject both. I've known atheists who reject relationships along with religion, saying that monogamy is just another manifestation of the designs of church leaders to control people's private lives. These atheists try to replace love with fairness or ethics or collegiality. Much of the time, these atheists end up giving and getting very little love at all, remaining distant out of fear of appearing to be unreasonable.
Fortunately, most of us atheists know better. We know that love is not the exclusive property of religion and that feeling in love is no more unreasonable than feeling happy. We love love and seek to give and get it as much as we can. Love is a basic part of being human, and we'd no sooner give it up than we would stop eating or breathing.
Still, the everyday expression of love has been jumbled up with the culture of religion to such an extent that it is often difficult for atheists to speak of love without sounding spiritual. For example, when I speak to my wife I am tempted to spew out familar phrases such as, "I'll love you forever." Well, I know I won't love my wife forever because I won't be around forever. I'm going to die eventually, and I don't think I'll be in the position to do as much loving with worms crawling through my brains. I could say to my wife, "We were made for each other," but I don't believe that either. I don't think we were meant for each other any more than I was meant to wear a blue t-shirt this morning. Neither can I, as an atheist, tell my wife that I fell in love with her at first sight. The religious may well believe that it's possible to know other people enough to love them just by giving them a single glance, but in my experience love comes after a lot of intense interaction.
What's an atheist in love to do? As Valentine's Day creeps closer, my advice to lovelorn atheists is that the best way to be romantic is to be real. Soap opera gushings about destiny, guardian angels of love, soul mates and so on are nothing but empty promises, and no lover worth loving will want to hear them. The best love is irreligious, without need of fantasy or delusion. Love is not a miracle, but a down and dirty mess with consequences and commitments. We atheists fall in love with people, not angels.
Real love is based upon honest and affectionate trust. There's no need to promise a lover Heaven and Earth. Start by promising yourself -- a promise that should keep you and your lover busy for a long time to come.
Riled up? Don't let it bottle up. Talk back!
Got irregular thoughts of your own?