Dear Atheist, How do you define Love?

Richard Dawkins

If you’re alive in the 21st century, you have a loved one who is an atheist or agnostic. All my atheist loved ones believe in “love.” But what is love? Here’s the problem for atheists:

If humans have no soul and are merely evolutionary advanced animals, what we mean by ‘love’ is in fact instinct or hormones.

Atheist Richard Dawkins in a letter to his ten-year-old daughter explaining the importance of evidence in science and in life:

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

I believe that Dawkins is not being honest here. Note that he feels the tension in his own words. What he is saying sure sounds like something “priests” talk about. So if love is not religious, what is it?

Take the two basic forms of love: love of a parent for a child and the nuptial love between husband and wife.

Parental Love is Instinct
When mommy says to her one year old, “I love you,” the atheist says she is not expressing anything metaphysical or spiritual. In fact, says the atheist, the mother is verbalizing the instinct to preserve her species, just as a mommy zebra protects and fosters the growth of the baby zebra. That’s it. Nothing more. It’s instinct combined with verbal tags. When a parent “loves” her child, she is just adding a verbal cue to an evolutionary advanced instinct to carry on the species.

Spousal Love is Hormones
The same empirical reality is true between two lovers. For the atheist, nothing sacramental, metaphysical, or spiritual is happening. The two don’t “become one flesh” as we say in the Bible and wedding liturgies any more than a rooster and a hen “become one flesh.”

So when a man says, “I love you,” to his wife, he is expressing something about his hormonal levels toward her as a mate. What he is really saying is, “My hormones surge for you,” not “You are my soul mate,” because the atheist doesn’t believe in souls or metaphysical connections between humans.

Incidentally, a man’s hormones might start surging for another woman (or several women) at some point. The same man might also be ready to say, “I love you,” to these new women.

All this is to say that atheists would write the most dreadful Valentines cards. Examples might be:

“Would you be my Valentine? I want to buy you dinner. My evolved breeding instincts respond well to you.”

“You’re physical appearance sets off a hormonal response in me to mate with you.”

You see, if there is no soul, then there is only the bubbling of the brain. There is only the response to stimuli and hormones. As Christians, we root love in the soul. But the soul is a metaphysical reality that assumes the existence of God.

When I love a friend, as a Christian, it means, “I love your soul.” But for an atheist, friendship is an evolved behavior related to living in a pack or herd or tribe. At root it has to do with self-protection and food acquisition.

I would challenge the atheist to come up with something better than Dawkins note about “love” to his daughter. Dawkins says, “There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.”

Okay, so what is this “inside/outside” dichotomy of Dawkins. It sure sounds like what we Christians have called “soul/body” for over 2,000 years. It’s no wonder that Dawkins is worried that his daughter might float her ideas toward the sayings of the priest.

How can an atheist speak about the inside and outside? Even more, how can atheist say he loves and not mean anything more than instinct and hormones? I would especially like to hear from female atheists. Is love only a physical response?

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