In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Love as religion—"I'm truly blessed for everything you give me"

Both religion and love are making an impressive comeback.
Heaven on earth that's what you've made for me since the day we met. (The Platters)

I lost my faith, you gave it back to me,I was blessed because I was loved by you. (Celine Dion)

Lovers often compare their love to religion just as religions emphasize the centrality of love in their dogmas. Both love and religion are perceived to be central to human life.

In many respects, romantic love resembles a kind of religion. Both are similar in that they dictate basic beliefs, demand fundamental moral standards, and bestow high moral status upon their objects. Like faith, love is regarded as an expression of profound, unique, and morally pure attitudes. The basic assumptions underlying Romantic Ideology can indeed be found in many monotheistic religions. Like many religions, Romantic Ideology is basically characterized by its comprehensive and uncompromising nature. Not unlike the function of religion, love is considered to give meaning to life, to overcome all obstacles, and to provide a share in eternity.

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The comparison of love to religion is made explicit by lovers. Thus, the following line, which is common in one version or another in prays directed at God, is also often used to describe the attitude toward the romantic beloved: "You are the only one that can give me comfort; you touch my heart in such a way that all I can do is cry your name." Some even replace God with the beloved: "I do not wish God to aid me nor to give me joy and happiness except through you." Consider also the following lines from a letter written by the English poet John Keats:
Love is my religion-I could die for that-I could die for you. My creed is Love and you are its only tenet-You have ravish'd me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often 'to reason against the reasons of my Love.' I can do that no more-the pain would be too great-My Love is selfish-I cannot breathe without you.

It is indeed common to find in romantic conversations expressions such as, "Heaven has sent you to me," "I was quite sure that love as we are experiencing it right now only existed in the imagination of some people," and "our love is a dream come true" (see In the Name of Love).

The relationship between God and His people has been described in the Bible and elsewhere in romantic terms, such as betrothal and marriage. When the people of Israel followed their idols, they were like an unfaithful partner-their activities are described as betraying God and as committing adultery and prostitution. God is described as jealous of the people of Israel. Pope Benedict XVI argues that "Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and His people and vice versa." The fidelity to God and martial fidelity are celebrated as the utmost human accomplishments.

The similarity between love and religion is also expressed in the resemblance of the beloved to God. The beloved is often characterized as "the sweetest angel in heaven and on earth," and as a "divine gift." The beloved is perceived to be a perfect person whose existence cannot be comprehended. The beloved may be described with phrases like, "the most genius creation on earth." Hence, loving the beloved is often claimed to be so easy, since, unlike other people who are always found inadequate in something, the beloved is perfect and complete. Moreover, our inability to find the perfect mate may be compared to our inability to meet God: the fact that we have not found one does not imply that one does not exist.

In light of these similarities, love may take on some of the functions attributed to God: love may provide the comfort zone that enables us to escape existential anxieties and everyday fears. The loss of a lover is therefore the loss of the meaning of life. In order to prevent such a loss, love, like religion, contains elements such as self-sacrifice, devotion, the experience of the sacred, and means to attain spiritual perfection.

Love and religion, as well as the beloved and God, are perceived by devoted lovers and believers to be morally pure: they are considered major factors leading one to choose a moral life. However, despite their profound moral value, both love and religion have been used as an excuse for justifying immoral deeds, which can become global scale atrocities, as in the example of religious wars, or personal atrocities, as in murdering the beloved in the name of love. Ronald de Sousa describes this problematic aspect of love: "It is a commonplace that love motivates some of our worst behavior, ranging from dishonesty to murder. ... But what is most astonishing is that we regard love as a justification for treating people far worse than we would ever condone treating a stranger."

Both religion and love are making an impressive comeback in modern society. A rise in religious belief leads to a related rise in belief in the prevalence of sin, as religion conditions us to regard sin as God's foil (Portmann, A History of Sin). In a somewhat different manner, the comeback of love in modern society increases infidelity, in part because ‘true love' is considered to have no boundaries and to disregard many other values. The high value attached to love leads people to justify their infidelity by claiming to put fidelity to their heart above conventional fidelity. Lovers consider that the greatest expression of freedom and honesty is to act in accordance with one's heart. They believe that love is more important than formal, outdated rules and that freedom of the heart is more important than loyalty to emotionally false rules.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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