Love and Religion

The entanglement of two central concepts in human existence.

Posted Dec 03, 2019

Love is central to our lives, and so is religion to many. How are they related? Can we separate love from religion? The answer depends on our fundamental thoughts about our existence.

If we believe that we were created by God—whatever our understanding of God may be—then love might be viewed as a divine gift. Alternatively, we may interpret love as an evolutionarily important physiological phenomenon. It is not helpful to argue our opinion regarding the validity of these views or attempt to discredit either one. People find comfort in both, and our failure to accept others’ existential beliefs is an ongoing, major obstacle to peaceful coexistence.

Undoubtedly, we are all born with a capacity to love. This capacity likely varies in each person, but it is inherent in all. We are also born with numerous self-serving instincts that conflict with our impulse to love. This dynamic, the quintessential yin and yang, will remain a lifelong challenge, and it critically influences our success with relationships, including romantic love.

Concepts of boosting love (and happiness) in our lives emphasize the need to control these competing drives. Similarly, the major world religions almost invariably ask for humility and selflessness in the quest for spiritual enlightenment and/or in following the path of God. As is the case with love, religion emphasizes devotion and effort as vital elements to success. When Jesus asks us to love our enemies, he illustrates what an enormous challenge we are facing. Not surprisingly, in daily life, we often succumb to our egotistical urges and don’t succeed with either—love or enlightenment.

Armin Zadeh
Source: Armin Zadeh

Few of us are aiming for sainthood, and we don’t necessarily have to live in a monastery to find internal peace and happiness. However, the general balance of love vs. egotism in everything we do appears heavily tilted towards the latter. Why else do we struggle with poverty, racism, misogyny, discrimination, etc. and find acts of true selflessness remarkable in our society?

Every thought or deed is motivated by love or self-serving (mostly subconscious) drives. The challenge is to make ourselves aware of our choices and achieve a balance which works for our life and for society.

For thousands of years, religion has been an option for helping us with the challenge of achieving this balance. Most religions provide a framework of rules which foster loving-kindness towards others and restrain egotism. Through community organization, education, and regular praying sessions, members receive guidance and training in—essentially—being loving.

Undoubtedly, religious organizations have been successful in guiding many people toward kinder ways of interacting and in establishing purpose, happiness, and inner peace for their members. On the other hand, religions may not be helpful—and may even be detrimental—if their teachings are not adequately followed or are misunderstood. Unfortunately, throughout history into present-day life, there are examples of horrific deeds that have been carried out in the name of various religions.

That’s generally not the fault of the religions—they almost invariably teach acceptance and loving-kindness towards others—it’s the failure of the individual to adhere to (or to understand fully) the religions’ teachings. Harming or discriminating against others is against the core principles of all major religions. Once formed, however, religions (like any other social institution) develop dynamics shaped by some in the pursuit of power and influence, which challenge both foundational concepts and the intentions of religions.

The development of a group, by definition, involves distinguishing that group from other groups, posing additional challenges, e.g., followers of different religions fighting over which is the “better” faith or “true” god. Religions also come with a worldview established centuries ago that may not appear accurate to current generations, which may explain the decline in members in many parts of the world.

Armin Zadeh
Source: Armin Zadeh

At the end of the day, it’s each person’s choice whether and what input she/he requires for moral or spiritual guidance. Given the described internal challenges we all face, some type of guidance is helpful to most of us.

On the one hand, religion provides the convenience of an established structure with an included support community that helps many working toward the goal of being loving. Others, however, prefer acquiring secular direction and support. Secular options are plentiful and allow for individualization, but may not include the comfort of large, worldwide communities.

We need to find out what works best for us—what matters are the results. If we claim to believe in love and/or religion but act unkindly, we achieve the goal of neither (and are untrue to the core concepts of both). Love (as an independent phenomenon), just as religion, asks us to accept each person’s choice and to resist the notion to impose our view on others. Since both religious and secular paths can lead to a respectful, loving attitude toward others, the purpose of peaceful coexistence can be served through either approach—as long we truly apply it.