By Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD
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’ 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.
These religions all teach us that a state of peace can be attained by anybody, as long as we are willing to devote sufficient effort to it. As with love, attaining this state requires us to control competing impulses such as egocentric feelings, aggression, ambition, and lust, and religious teachings provide guidance on how best to resist these temptations. Because achieving complete control of our egotism is difficult, few succeed in following a perfect path, just as few become masters of the art of love.
Religions may emphasize love because love is the key to a happy, fulfilled life. The claim that love is a supernatural or God-given power is as valid as the argument that it is a biological drive to preserve the species. Regardless of the diversity of spiritual beliefs, love has been a powerful force throughout human history. We have learned that following the loving impulse predictably leads to processes in the human brain that induce contentment in the individual while reinforcing the species-serving action or thought. It is conceivable that because of the magnitude of the species-supporting benefit of loving, the intrinsic neurological reward for our focus on loving behavior is more enduring than that of other impulses. Accordingly, engaging in loving activities leads to the most lasting contentment among human activities and pursuits. While the internal reward — the release of euphoria-inducing hormones—in response to self-serving impulses may also be high, it is short-lived and ultimately less satisfying than the reward for following the impulse of love. Given the importance of preserving the species, we are true to our biological destiny if we control self-serving impulses and prioritize love.
It is easy to understand why love is often seen as a divine attribute and why religions place such importance on it. Love has a profound effect on how we perceive our lives and our environment. A focus on love can turn a feeling of misery into happiness—which may be viewed as miraculous. The serenity that arises from a loving mind may be felt as supernatural, particularly in the absence of other plausible explanations.
Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD, is the author of The Forgotten Art of Love. He is a professor at Johns Hopkins University with doctoral degrees in medicine and philosophy as well as a Master’s Degree in public health. As a cardiologist and a scientist, Dr. Zadeh knows, from first-hand experience, about the close relationship between heart disease and the state of the mind. Visit .