Unfortunately, Lennon was a far better musician than he was a philosopher. But despite his poor philosophy, his beliefs have been peddled to hundreds of millions of listeners throughout the decades, and his beliefs have unfortunately gained popularity. Like Lennon, many today believe that love would be in a much better condition if we could just rid it of the burden of religion. However, I am here to tell you that without religion - specifically without a religion like Christianity which has a relational God at its center - love is dead.
But what if, like Lennon, we imagine a world without God - what do we get? How would we make sense of the moving love we see in Ernst and Kristy's story? In a world without God, what you see is exactly what you get. Everything is physical.There are no souls, no angels, no demons, no afterlife. Everything is simply physical matter. There is not sensibly anything that is commendable or inspiring or praiseworthy. Nothing deeper than simple synapses firing in our brains to give us the illusion that we are in love, acting out of love, or loved by any others. We call this concept materialism. Today I want to give you three specific ways a lack of belief in God - or a belief in materialism - undermines our understanding and experience of love.
On materialism, intentionality does not exist. When rain falls from the sky, no magic has occurred. It's simply that the water which evaporated into the sky gathered around dust particles and became so heavy that the cloud could no longer contain them, falling as precipitation. When you turn on a heater to warm the frigid air in a room, the heater doesn't magically zap heat into the air. Rather, through conduction and convection, warmer particles with higher kinetic energies bump into colder particles of air and circulate around the room until the particles which bump into you are moving with more energy than they were before. In these actions there is no intentionality. Rain does not act as it does to aid the farmer and hot air has no concern for your comfort. Everything is simply cause and effect.
On materialism, we are no different than water droplets or air particles in the sense that like them, we are mere matter in motion. Like water pulled to earth by the effects of gravity or heat distributed through the gas laws, our bodies and our actions are guided by unintentional, mechanistic processes. While we are certainly more complex than a water molecule, our bodies and brains adhere to the exact same chemical, mechanical, and physical processes as the rest of nature. And if we are merely physical creatures reacting to physical processes, then anything we produce must likewise demonstrate itself as a physical reaction to a physical process. Like begets like, biologically or philosophically. On materialism, love is then just a physical reaction our bodies and brains create to prior conditions. We don't act in love, but rather are acted on by natural forces to produce actions we then call love. There is no intentionality in any act of love, only mechanistic, determined reaction.
When considering the story of Ernst and Kristy, materialism saps it of its inspirational qualities. Ernst was simply doing what his genes and experiences had programmed him to do. With all the stimuli in his life leading up to the point when he saw the bone marrow registry, Ernst could have done nothing else but choose to become a donor. Like the rain falling from the sky, Ernst was matter in motion, set on a course by previous causal forces, and not of any immaterial intention or volition.
Beyond the problem of intentionality, on materialism, nature's only "concern" or "goal" is survival. Really, survival is not a goal of impersonal nature, but simply a description of how nature functions in the eyes of those who value survival. I don't consider the eroding of a cliff face as some travesty levied against the cliff by nature, nor should I lament my slowly decaying body as some slight against me. A rock and a person have the same value in a materialistic world - a value of 0. There is no good, no bad, no better, or no worse - all there is is "just is." The universe is indifferent to the existence or survival of anything - rock or human. However, as it relates to life, only those who survive and only those who wish to survive are able to pass on their genes in large numbers. This means that if I have a false belief, but my false belief helps me to survive better than your true belief, then my genes will get passed on while yours will not, even though I'm wrong and you're right. Let's take for example the notion of free will. If I am a nihilist who believes that there is no God and therefore no soul, then I likely conclude that there is also no such thing as free will. If there's no soul, no will, no morality, and no God and I conclude there is no meaning in life, then I may believe I have nothing to live for except pleasure. For some, this thought of determinism and the removal of agency and the sense of "self" may be too difficult to deal with. If the goal of an individual on this system is to experience as much pleasure as they can, and their lives are fraught with difficulty and pain, then they may commit suicide in higher numbers than other groups. If nihilism were true but tended towards producing more individuals inclined towards self-destruction, then the truth of nihilism would be significantly hampered by its tendency to produce martyrs, while the fiction of free will would propagate through the blissfully ignorant. In nature, there is no inherent value to truth. True beliefs or false beliefs, only those which are advantageous to survival determine what will continue in its existence.
To demonstrate further this notion of survival as the determinate factor of action, I want to turn to one of my favorite atheists, the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens once held a debate about religion with his Christian brother. I believe that in this debate Hitchens gives us one of the best, most honest looks at what love, on materialism, truly is and how it is tied to one's own survival and self-interest. Hitchens says,
It's in my interest that people don't suffer. I don't want someone bleeding to death from AIDS on my doorstep. Not just for their sake - for mine I don't want that. Oscar Wilde in 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' puts it very beautifully. He says, 'socialism would free us from the awful necessity of living for others.' George Bernard Shaw when he ran for office in London said that there should be no more houses built for the working classes without baths. It was objected by [certain politicians] who said, 'why give the poor baths? They're so stupid they won't know how to use them. They'll keep coal in them. They don't deserve baths. You're wasting your compassion on them.' He said, 'I don't want them to have a bath for their sake, I want them to have a bath for my sake.' That's the right mix of self-interest and morality.
Coming back to Ernst and Kristy, we can observe that on materialism, Ernst's love was actually rather foolish. Rather than be awed and moved by Ernst's love, we should be repulsed by it. We should never do such a thing in a world where survival is selected. We would never put ourselves in a position where our chances of infection were greater or where our pain was increased without benefit to ourselves. Sacrificial love is a weakness nature seeks to cull. It is likely that Ernst's line is weaker than others, and his offspring have less of a chance at survival. We may praise Ernst because we want people like him to be around if we're ever in need of altruism directed towards us for our survival, but there is no way that an individual should seek to emulate Ernst in a materialistic world.
So on materialism, not only does nature fail to produce love, and not only does nature select against truth and self-sacrifice, but nature cannot prescribe love. Nature can't tell us that love is good and should be pursued. This is because on materialism, only descriptions exist.
When I walk into the doctor's office, the first thing they do is look at my body and listen to me describe what is going on. Maybe they hear a cough, they feel that I have a fever, or I tell them I saw a rash on my leg. Together we make observations about what is happening with my body. The doctor then takes into account all of the descriptions, and through her expertise, makes a prescription. She prescribes some medicine for me to take or some routine for me to follow. What I do with her prescription is my business. For patients with chemotherapy, a doctor's prescription is only followed if the patient desires to extend their life. But if that patient seeks a high quality of life during their remaining months, they may choose to forego the doctor's prescription. They may value a prescription for quality of life over a prescription for the extension of life. Understanding this distinction between the observation of description and the goal of prescription are extremely important as we discuss love in a materialistic world.
Lennon, like most of us, rightly believed that love is something more prescriptive than descriptive. It has some sort of a moral nature. We're required to love our fellow humans, at least to a certain extent. We all expect others to love at least enough not to murder, rape, or steal. Unfortunately, Lennon's notion of love crumbles in a materialistic world because materialism can only provide us with descriptions, not obligatory prescriptions. If I want to survive in this world, I may not want to do drugs. But who can tell me that this is what I should or should not do? I have no maker who created me towards certain ends and can tell me what I ought to do. I define good and evil for myself. I may break civil laws if I do drugs, but those aren't objective moral laws, as these change from country to country and are made up by majorities of people who agree on them. If I offend a group of people with different, self-created moralities, who cares (especially if I can avoid being caught)? The same is true with murder. If I want to get along in society and not risk going to jail, there is a prescription for me not to murder. But who is there to tell me that I am obliged not to murder? I can do whatever I want. Murder may go against that which is normal, but aberrations in mechanistic systems are not immoralities. Hear Ted Bundy - one of the world's most devious and prolific serial killers - on his very logical conclusion about morality in a materialistic universe.
THEN I LEARNED THAT ALL MORAL JUDGMENTS ARE ‘VALUE JUDGMENTS,’ THAT ALL VALUE JUDGMENTS ARE SUBJECTIVE, AND THAT NONE CAN BE PROVED TO BE EITHER ‘RIGHT’ OR ‘WRONG.’ I EVEN READ SOMEWHERE THAT THE CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE UNITED STATES HAD WRITTEN THAT THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION EXPRESSED NOTHING MORE THAN COLLECTIVE VALUE JUDGMENTS. BELIEVE IT OR NOT, I FIGURED OUT FOR MYSELF–WHAT APPARENTLY THE CHIEF JUSTICE COULDN’T FIGURE OUT FOR HIMSELF–THAT IF THE RATIONALITY OF ONE VALUE JUDGMENT WAS ZERO, MULTIPLYING IT BY MILLIONS WOULD NOT MAKE IT ONE WHIT MORE RATIONAL. NOR IS THERE ANY ‘REASON’ TO OBEY THE LAW FOR ANYONE, LIKE MYSELF, WHO HAS THE BOLDNESS AND DARING–THE STRENGTH OF CHARACTER–TO THROW OFF ITS SHACKLES…I DISCOVERED THAT TO BECOME TRULY FREE, TRULY UNFETTERED, I HAD TO BECOME TRULY UNINHIBITED. AND I QUICKLY DISCOVERED THAT THE GREATEST OBSTACLE TO MY FREEDOM, THE GREATEST BLOCK AND LIMITATION TO IT, CONSISTS IN THE INSUPPORTABLE ‘VALUE JUDGMENT’ THAT I WAS BOUND TO RESPECT THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS. I ASKED MYSELF, WHO WERE THESE ‘OTHERS?’ OTHER HUMAN BEINGS, WITH HUMAN RIGHTS? WHY IS IT MORE WRONG TO KILL A HUMAN ANIMAL THAN ANY OTHER ANIMAL, A PIG OR A SHEEP OR A STEER? IS YOUR LIFE MORE THAN A HOG’S LIFE TO A HOG? WHY SHOULD I BE WILLING TO SACRIFICE MY PLEASURE MORE FOR THE ONE THAN FOR THE OTHER? SURELY, YOU WOULD NOT, IN THIS AGE OF SCIENTIFIC ENLIGHTENMENT, DECLARE THAT GOD OR NATURE HAS MARKED SOME PLEASURES AS ‘MORAL’ OR ‘GOOD’ AND OTHERS AS ‘IMMORAL’ OR ‘BAD’? IN ANY CASE, LET ME ASSURE YOU, MY DEAR YOUNG LADY, THAT THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO COMPARISON BETWEEN THE PLEASURE THAT I MIGHT TAKE IN EATING HAM AND THE PLEASURE I ANTICIPATE IN RAPING AND MURDERING YOU. THAT IS THE HONEST CONCLUSION TO WHICH MY EDUCATION HAS LED ME–AFTER THE MOST CONSCIENTIOUS EXAMINATION OF MY SPONTANEOUS AND UNINHIBITED self.
Looking at Ernst and Kristy's story one last time, we can see that Ernst's story in a materialistic world should not motivate us towards similar actions. Ernst may make many observations and descriptions. He may tell us that he saved a life. He may tell us that he felt good about what he did. He may state that he handled the bone marrow operation unscathed and we'd likely be fine if we did it too. But nothing about that makes love something which can call us to perform similar actions of altruism. We may be surprised at altruistic love, but we shouldn't be moved by it. Ernst's actions are just a series of actions, feelings, and events we can observe, but that's all we can do. On materialism, I define my morality and purpose, not Ernst.
As I hope you can see, a world without God makes love as we understand it to be, unintelligible. Without God, love is mechanistic and unintentional, self-centered, and love is not an objective good which can be prescribed with obligation. But with God - with God - love is truly love.
Our God, through the Bible, paints a beautiful picture of love. He created the world with ensouled creatures who are more than mere matter - creatures with agency and wills capable of receiving their maker's moral commands. Their role was to love God, take care of nature, and love each other. They were to be anything but self-centered. Unfortunately, humanity chose to look away from God and unto themselves. Chaos now ensues in a world where love once flourished. But God - a God who says that he himself is love - has mercy on us. Through Jesus Christ, his son, God left his throne to live like us, suffering and dying so that we could be released from our sinful self-focus. God calls those who follow him to do the same thing he did and embody love to the world. God tells us that this love is for everyone, not just our neighbors who can repay us for our love, but even for those who are our enemies - love is for those who persecute us and seek our harm. God's love is not a fake love which masks self-centeredness - it is self-sacrificial. God's love is not a creation of some random or mechanistic process - it's relational. And God's love is not a mere suggestion, it is a command which his creations are expected to follow, not simply because God their maker commanded it, but because God himself demonstrated it.
I will agree with Lennon on one thing. All we need is love. But the definition and quality of love varies significantly between Lennon's world and God's world. If he is right about our need for love, and if his world can't provide it, then I challenge you to question whose world you're living in and whether it can produce the kind of love you know love to truly be