Could love be a myth, a mirage, a fantasy? How could anyone in their right mind think love is a myth?
Nobody who knows what love is could say such a thing. Only those so hard or so hurt could even think it.
Even atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris believe love is not a myth. Love is real.
But their belief in love depends on what they mean by “real.”
And it is just here that these heralds of atheism and their disciples veer from the truth. For they affirm the reality of love, yet they mean something different than most people mean, something entirely different than Catholics mean, when they say love is “real.”
So, what do they mean by “real” love? What could they mean by “real?” Doesn’t “real” mean real?
Well, to them, love is a “real” experience. Love is “really” important. Love has a “real” place in our world and in our culture, in our relationships and our morality. But would they say love is actually and factually “real” beyond its experienced reality?
No, they don’t. They don’t because they can’t. They can’t because they’re atheists.
For if they really understand their atheism the way they claim, love goes the way of all other things, all aspects of life, all experiences of living. Love is not really “real.” It just “seems real” because it is a human experience. And that experience is its fundamental, factual reality. It is a biochemical sensation or a personal experience. Or it is an adaptive artifact from a more primitive era that promotes social order, though it is no longer necessary for our survival.
So let’s suppose you are the spouse of an atheist who believes all of life is only sensory, only material. That makes love a mere biochemical event. Well, when your atheist spouse hugs you, are you just his or her favorite biochemical mass, his or her favorite pile of organic matter, his or her favorite animal in the species? It not only doesn’t sound romantic, it doesn’t even sound like love. It sounds shallow and silly, and even a little sick.
Or imagine your spouse is a “less aware” atheist, who sees love as a primitive adaptation arising from survival or a form of ancient sociocultural engineering designed to protect the tribe from outside invasion or to prevent calamitous competition for mates within the tribe.
Well, when your spouse professes his or her love, what does he or she mean? When he or she says, “I love you,” does he or she really think this is merely an attempt to enhance survival or civilization or to avoid fights over sexual partners?
Imagine a superficial atheistic spouse who believes he is simply having a sensation of love. When he says he loves you, what does he mean? Is he simply reporting on his latest interior emotional sensation, which is subject to change at any moment for any reason? Is “I love you” merely a report or a headline from the emotional frontiers of his personal, internal experience?
And what could such a confession of love mean? And what happens tomorrow if that feeling changes or disappears? That doesn’t look like love at all, not even a little.
These sound more like the professions of the unstable, the unreliable and the unloving. Love can’t be any of these. For love to be real, it must be real, objectively real. And if you are even remotely sensitive, you almost recoil from such ridiculous examples. Intuitively, the perspective is too shallow in its conception, too diabolical in its effects to entertain in any serious way, even if you are an atheist. And this is just where followers of atheism struggle to hold on to the rhetoric of love, though they deny the objective truth of it.
For love is really real. Love is inherent in us, a native component of what it means to be human, to be most fully alive. Surely, to deny the actual reality of love, the love in us, the love we want, the love we hope to be, is to define us differently than we are. It is to define us down, to remove our dignity and our nobility, our heroism, our stature and our divine spark. And what remains of us without love’s reality?
Nothing else remains but a shattered shell of selfishness and self-interest. For without the leaven of love, we cannot rise above our pride and our passions, our senses and our sensuality, our survival and our self-centeredness. Without love, we are nothing noble, nothing of substance, nothing but substance. We are left with our selfishness and our survival, our sensory passions and our slavish service to the powerful and the dominant.
But, thankfully, love is not how atheists see it. For, once again, they are wrong, thoroughly and completely wrong.
For real love is amazing in all its many forms and fashions, in all its subjects and objects, in all its lasting and fleeting sensations. For it is more than just sensation or emotion, more than just an idea or an impulse, more than just a duty or a commitment. Yet it is all of these.
Love is an emotional thing, certainly, but so much more than simply emotion. It is a mental thing, a character thing, a “being” thing. It is all these things, at least when we get it right: when we experience it in its fullness, when we surrender to it or when we seek it in its deepest degree. Love is the grandest of all human experience, the summit of our lives and being.
Think about it, about love and all it is: romantic love, parental love, the love of family and friends. Think about our love for our countrymen and our co-workers; love for the poor, the helpless, the hopeless; love for country, world and our faith; love of truth, goodness and beauty; love in spite of trials and disappointments, in spite of suffering and rejection, even in spite of death; love in joy, triumph, accomplishment — and our desire to share these with others.
Think about love described in Scripture: the love that is “patient, kind, not jealous, not inflated, not rude,” that “does not seek its own interests, is not quick-tempered, that does not brood over injury”; love that “does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth,” that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” — how “love never fails.”
For love is something we all know, something we all show in the small courtesies of daily living, in the small concessions we all make to others, in the small sacrifices we all make for those in need. It is all around us in so many common ways.
And it is upon this certainty, upon love’s real reality that atheists and their disciples’ case is torn open and the light of truth and “real” love floods in. For love is the final and fatal exception to the atheistic case for a godless universe. It is the heat-seeking missile, the armor-piecing shell that shatters their already weakened worldview and opens their minds and hearts to real loving liberation.
Love is the ultimate bewildering part of life and living for an atheist, a ubiquitous, relentless reality haunting their case for a godless, empty, silent, purposeless universe.
For atheists, acknowledging love and love’s reality is to admit to God’s existence and character all at once, even without knowing it at first, for love may be the nearest, most obvious, most unmistakable proof of God’s existence.
Love embraces more than just the exteriors of science and sensation or the interiors of the mind, its emotions and its many rational manifestations without diminishing them in the slightest. Love exceeds the effects of the scientific, the rational, the moral and the aesthetic critiques of their woefully inadequate worldview.
Love is relentless. It is the one proof that refutes all alternatives, all misinterpretations. It does so by its very nature, almost without explanation. It is common sense, a common sensation, a common truth. Love is real, and we know it. We know it in our bones and in our being. Love is real.
Therefore, the case for God is closed. It is obvious. It is common sense. It is undeniable.
God is. And he is Love.
And when it comes to persuading the atheists, love comes right out of left field. For it is not some new scientific discovery, nor some finely nuanced philosophical proof. And it is more than appeals to morality and beauty or law and tradition. When it comes to persuading atheists, love is like the “fool’s mate” in chess. If love is acknowledged or conceded as “real,” the game is over in two moves. If love is real, not just in an experienced sense, then where does this come from?
Love must have a source, a cause, a perfect embodiment for it to be more than simply sensation. And for it to be really “real,” it must be more than just simple sensation. Otherwise, love can only be an ephemeral emotional experience, a passing thought, a transitory impulse, like everything else we experience.
The love we feel and live and share has a perfection we all recognize. And this perfection reflects the source, the cause, the embodiment of love. Just as we know the universe has a first cause, so too must love have a first cause. Just as our reasoning must have a reality and a cause outside the sensory universe, so too must love have a reality and a cause outside of the physical world. Just as morality and beauty must have a cause, so too must love.
But if love is real and has a reality beyond the mere physical, biochemical plane, beyond our senses and our sensations, beyond a phenomenal reality arising from the interplay of neural activity, then love is real in all its aspects and effects. Then we know the source of love. And it is God.
Love is God’s very nature.
And when we love, we become more like him. For not only are we his image bearers, regardless of philosophy, regardless of religion. But when we love, we bear a clearer, fuller image of him. When we love, we become a more complete reflection of him. For when we really love, we become his messengers, his disciples, his children.
And, in these moments and times, we not only find out about God. We find him. Really. Truly. Intimately.
Frank Cronin, a former atheist, writes from eastern Connecticut. He has a master’s degree in theology from Regent University. His post-master’s studies include Harvard, Columbia and Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2007.