For the Love of God

I just want to riff a little. The other day I was going back through some of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking The Spell and got back to the passage where he talks about belief in God being an affectation similar to being in love. He begins by quoting William James:

There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we most dreaded has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time of tension in our soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm, deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived. —William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Dennett, Daniel C.. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (p. 249). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Dennett then follows it up with this statement:

…it isn’t just like falling in love; it is a kind of falling in love. The discomfort or even outrage you feel when confronted by my calm invitation to consider the pros and cons of your religion is the same reaction one feels when asked for a candid evaluation of one’s true love: “I don’t just like my darling because, after due consideration, I believe all her wonderful qualities far outweigh her few faults. I know that she is the one for me, and I will always love her with all my heart and soul.”

Dennett, Daniel C.. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (pp. 250-251). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is what I would like to muse about today. It struck a chord with me and adds some weight (IMO) to my previous post Belief and religiosity are not a measure of intelligence where I put forward the assertion that religion is an emotional rather than an intellectual position. I hadn’t been able to put it into words before, but this simple analogy (from a neuroscience perspective it is quite possibly much more than an analogy) helped me, in examining my own faith. Why was I was not only willing but able to put aside rational thought with deference to my need to believe? There are many persuasive arguments for why people are not moved persuaded by facts alone to leave their faith, i.e., cognitive dissonance, willful ignorance, and confirmation bias. Personally, confirmation bias was my go-to tool for denial. Finding ‘facts’ to support my faith and connecting the non-existent dots. But there was always something more. I didn’t intentionally read information and then dismiss it out of hand, I was basically blind, deaf, and dumb to conflicting information. Is this starting to sound familiar to you? I’ll wager that most of the people reading this will have had similar experiences in their lives. Perhaps not religious ones but ‘Crazy, what in the world was I thinking?’ love experiences.

Many of us have been through the experience, often with or as a parent, of being told that a particular love interest was ‘Bad for us’ ‘Not the right person for us’ or ‘Why can’t you see who that person really is?’ And? Did we listen? If you were anything like most people, this only pushed you closer to the love interest. I would tell myself ‘They don’t know her like I do! They are so blind! Our relationship is so perfect.’ If you follow me on Twitter this is starting to sound very familiar, isn’t it? The modern cry of the theist is the personal relationship they have with their Deity of choice. (was it really a choice?) It is very likely that they really have (in their mind) a relationship with Dieu de la Famille. The same neurochemicals that are released in ‘Love’ are released in religious fervor and supported by ritual and ceremonies. Love can be broken down into Three stages:

  1. Lust: Testosterone, Estrogen
  2. Attraction: Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Serotonin
  3. Attachment: Oxytocin, Vasopressin

Now, obviously one would hope that lust didn’t play a role in an attraction to a Deity. But then again, there are countless stories of mortals being seduced by gods in many Grek myths. And yes, like it or not, even Christianity (Mother Mary?) The attraction to a powerful, authoritarian, protector type of God makes sense in our evolutionary roots as well, since our tribal origins depended on a hierarchy to maintain order within the group. So, we fall in love. Even the language used by religion supports this feeling:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” ~ 1 John 4:7-8

As the Father has loved me, so have, I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” ~ John 15:9-10

He is not a lover who does not love forever. Euripides

Ritual behaviors, such as prayer, have been shown to cause a release of serotonin ( see the attraction stage above) and performed in group settings the discharge tends to be of higher concentration. Now if you were ever a believer and experienced what is often referred to as ‘the spirit’ moving through the church you know what a high-level serotonin release feels like. This has the benefit of creating connectedness within the group. Are you ‘feeling the love’ yet? Good now let’s add some group singing, maybe some unison hand clapping and, voila’! We have a dopamine release. The experience intensifies and you are definitely falling in love.

Now, with repeated ritual sessions we get oxytocin and vasopressin release. You may already be guessing what they do? This NCBI article  tells us all we need to know:

The fundamental ability to form attachment is indispensable for human social relationships. Impairments in social behaviour are associated with decreased quality of life and psychopathological states. In non-human mammals, the neuropeptides oxytocin (OXT) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) are key mediators of complex social behaviours, including attachment, social recognition and aggression. In particular, OXT reduces behavioural and neuroendocrine responses to social stress and seems both to enable animals to overcome their natural avoidance of proximity and to inhibit defensive behaviour, thereby facilitating approach behaviour.

Yep, we are hooked. The group becomes our family, and as with most typical family dynamics, we bond over a common theme or goal, which, in this case, is God, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, etc.

As we tie this up let’s make one last comparison to that love relationship. When you fall in love with that person and have those overwhelming feelings for them, it is easy to cast them in a ‘They can do no wrong’ light. They listen to the best music, read the best books, have the coolest friends. If you have ever had one (or more) of those kinds of burning loves I will wager that, if it is over (it’s not? congratulations!) you can still look back and conjure up those feelings. Love and the biological processes that go with them are, by necessity,  powerful things and they often mark us in profound and permanent ways. I still long for the community I found while under the spell of group religious rituals. There is a community there that harkens to us from our deepest ancestral past. It feels good because it is supposed to. Because it provided a safe place where we could trust those within the group because they performed the same rituals and fell under the same spell of neurochemical release.

There never had to be a God to love. Only the euphoric enhanced idea of love and community in which to share.

4 Replies to “For the Love of God”

  1. The falling in love is the easy part. When all of the unrevealed baggage surfaces sometimes it’s best just to bail out. That lead me to divorce my religious roots and start anew. So much bs and hype without substance of fact. Great post. Thanks for the follow.


  2. Your explanation of love and love-related feelings being reducible to brain chemicals was really interesting! I always roll my eyes when theists say “are you telling me that love is nothing but a chemical reaction?” Well… yeah. Thanks for posting!


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