© 2016 ARMIN A. ZADEH

Love and Religion

by Armin A. Zadeh

Can we separate love from religion? This question has occupied theologians and philosophers for centuries. Ultimately, the answer depends on our thoughts about our origin. If we believe that we were created by God — whatever our understanding of God may be — then we see love as a divine gift. If we do not, we may interpret love as an important biological drive. It is not helpful to compare the support for these views or attempt to discredit either one. People find comfort in both, and no one should be judged for their spiritual beliefs.

From a practical standpoint, with or without the underpinning of religion, love requires focus and devotion. 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 impulses that conflict with love. We need to learn to control these competing drives in order to sustain and express love.

The major world religions are remarkably consistent in their insistence on the need for devotion and effort in the quest for love and spiritual enlightenment. They all offer strikingly similar teachings on love, emphasizing that the defeat of egotism and the development of altruism are key for finding spiritual enlightenment and/or the path to God. All major religions recognize the necessity of a strong mental focus to suppress selfish impulses we inevitably experience. Jesus’s command to love our enemies requires that we make enormous efforts to love. Developing such a great capacity to love would grant us happiness regardless of our circumstances. The Buddha emphasizes that defeating self-serving impulses, through rigorous meditation and deliberation, is essential to achieving inner peace. Reaching the state of nirvana implies a state of total selflessness, leading to dissolution of the self and oneness with all living things.

The fact that the principle of selflessness is common, and fundamental, to all of the major world religions suggests that it strikes a central chord in the human mind. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore referred to love as the ultimate truth that lies at the heart of creation. In Hinduism, the most commonly pursued path to liberation of the soul is through love, in the form of total devotion to God. Similarly, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the love of God is central to faith, with salvation and heaven being the reward for a life dedicated to God.

Although different religions frame their spiritual goals in different terms, they refer to the same underlying phenomenon: the state of inner harmony and satisfaction that comes from freeing ourselves from all self-directed impulses and gladly devoting ourselves to the happiness and well-being of others — that is, to love. Thus, a plausible explanation for the influence of the world’s great spiritual leaders is that they recognized the power of love as the key to joyful human existence.