Love in the Time of Atheism

[Originally published on Medium]

A good friend just sent around this post about love from Marianne Williamson, (she who, rather than Nelson Mandela, said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” etc.) in which she waxes that the bright connectedness of romantic encounter is, spiritually speaking, far more real than the typical separation between individuals.

To call either the high of romantic encounter or the separation between egos unreal is, I think, to miss reality. Both, insomuch as they are really experienced by real minds and hearts, are utterly and unassailably real.

That romantic love is, from a scientific point of view, a neurochemical process is also just plain true. It’s a mutual addiction between two people, a dopmanie- and oxytocin-fueled persistent mutual desire. The question is, Is love also more than this?

At this point in my, like, cosmology, I don’t reserve a place outside of nature for heaven or hell or God or karma. None of us can be certain about such things, of course, but as far as I’ve been able to see, this old and enormous universe and our tiny, short place in it are all we get. If I’m proven wrong with streets of gold, so much the better.

So natural things, then, are all there are, from my point of view. And love, then, is a natural thing, a biological and neurological happening in a person. Let’s widen the perspective from romantic love to all natural loves—romantic love, mother-child love, brotherly or familial love, tribal or community allegiance, etc. All of these have roughly the same origins, naturally speaking.

A funny thing about our biological systems is that they don’t only hit the targets they evolved to hit. There’s usually a distinct evolutionary purpose to a system that is strong enough to sort of pull it into existence across generations, but once it’s in place it often also fires in other ways, too. Take, for instance, the immune system. Obviously it’s extremely biologically important. It keeps us alive. But it also causes me allergies and tries to close my airways with asthma. It misfires.

Love, too, I think, misfires. I think that part of our extreme susceptibility, as a species, to chemical addictions is because evolution has kept a path open for the sort of chemical addictions that are foundational to the natural loves. Other chemicals just travel that path and, bang, we can’t get enough.

But love also has a positive misfiring. To my mind, the most positive misfiring. The sort of connection that we find with a lover in the first waves of romantic encounter makes another person, often for the first time in our lives, as real and salient and important in our little worlds as ourselves. And then again at childbirth, suddenly the very centers our worlds crack open and allow another person residence.

And what we’ve learned as a human culture is that when we bring another person into that molten core of our lives, all sorts of things happen, both challenging and wonderful, and the consensus is, more wonderful than challenging.

Biologically, one thing that happens is that our brains, flooded with love’s chemicals, enter a sort of second childhood during which they are flexible to change dramatically, to help us align our lives with each other. (Protip: If you want to learn a new language, meet a lover who speaks it. It’ll never be easier.) And on a more interpersonal level, love drives us to create the bonds of mutual care that preserve us when we are sick or weak or tired, and that magnify our joys.

And here’s the positive misfiring. What we have learned over time is that, if we can expand the circle of our love, by our own force of will and teaching and cultural passing-down, if we can invite more and more people to take up residence closer and closer to that molten center of our lives, then we can expand the sort of understanding and care that love naturally builds. And so, over the past centuries, the circles of our love have slowly grown, from families to communities to countries to all of humanity and the whole living world.

Of course we haven’t yet perfected the love of the whole world. Far, far, far from it. But we’re moving in that direction, creating the first fragile strands of a web of love that could support the planet. So, even though I believe that love is wholly natural thing, in expanding it ever further from its evolutionary purpose we have made it the world’s closest thing to supernatural.