Unconditional love


Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.

1 Corinthians 13 48


In unconditional love, punishment, condemnation and rejection are replaced with accepting, forgiving, correcting, helping and teaching.  

Unconditional love is a form of reciprocity that involves several key features: cooperation, interdependence and shared destiny.  It comes in degrees: we may, in practical terms, love someone more or less unconditionally.  It tends to arise in situations of “symmetry-based reciprocity” where, say, two people are long-term friends who depend on each other, or they are cooperating towards a common goal, and it is in the interest of each to help the other where necessary.  

Alternatively, or at the same time, unconditional love may be the result of gratitude.  For example, imagine how you would feel towards someone who risked their life to rescue your child from a fire.  

And of course, unconditional love is very common within families and between relatives.    

In classical reciprocity, tit-for-tat, typically, the partners may not be closely involved or interdependent or share a destiny.  This immediately means that each does not have a great incentive to cooperate with – be faithful towards – the other.  There is always a temptation to cheat or free-ride: for one to break the cooperative agreement with the other.  Therefore, there needs to be some kind of threat of punishment in order to enforce good behaviour on both sides.  

Where there is shared destiny, there is much less temptation to cheat since the cheater hurts themselves by damaging the relationship which benefits them and the person whom they need.  

This is what is meant by unconditional love: it is in the interests of each party to help the other rather than reject them.  



Unconditional love and organised religion

There is a contradiction at the heart of traditional monotheistic religion: between God's unconditional love, and the conditions that God imposes in order for people to be able to access it (one must be a member of a particular religion).  These two kinds of love sit very uneasily together.  

In this atheist philosophy, there is no contradiction.  The equivalent of God's love, and the currency of love, is the Healing Principle and this is given to everyone, saint or sinner, without condition.  This is effectively a power that is placed in our hands and it is up to us to use it ethically or unethically.  

I believe that the religious contradiction comes from the history of the human species and of the birth of monotheistic religion.  

The key to understanding it is the difference between “symmetry-based” and tit-for-tat reciprocity.  For most of human history, from Homo erectus 2 million years ago, up to our own species Homo sapiens from about 200 thousand to 15 thousand years ago, it is thought that we lived in small groups.  Within these small groups, each person depended on the others to cooperate together towards the common goal of surviving (by cooperative foraging and cooperative breeding).  This meant that the well being of each person was immensely valuable to the others.  The situation was one of cooperating towards shared goals, and so it would have been necessary for people to help and educate each other in the completion of their daily tasks.  There would have been little temptation to cheat seriously because the offender could have found themselves cast out of the group, which spelled almost certain death.  People were known by their reputations, so would have been anxious to be seen as good cooperators, and this is a form of automatic self-policing.  


From The Guardian – “Were we happier in the stone age?”

... friends in the stone age depended on one another for their very survival.  Humans lived in close-knit communities, and friends were people with whom you went hunting mammoths.  You survived long journeys and difficult winters together.  You took care of one another when one of you fell sick, and shared your last morsels of food in times of want.  Such friends knew each other more intimately than many present-day couples.


It is these interdependent primal conditions that we may hypothesise gave rise to the extremely altruistic instincts of modern humans, as when we are cooperating towards a common goal, we need to help the people we are cooperating with.  In these small groups, altruism towards friends would have been much stronger and more unconditional than we are used to today.  

This situation did not last forever: groups grew larger, the challenges of coordinating the members of the group, on a large scale, needed different solutions.  This is where religion came in.  One reason the monotheistic religions have been so successful is their role in governing and policing prosocial norms of cooperation and trust on a large scale.  In large groups, most people are strangers to each other so reputation loses its power to make people behave well; and they are not so personally interdependent.  Therefore the dominant form of reciprocity is [conditional] classical tit-for-tat and not [unconditional] symmetry-based, it is much easier for people to cheat, deceive and free-ride, and policing the situation becomes a problem.  

The idea of God as a judgmental, vengeful eye in the sky, threatening hellfire and damnation for sinners, was a very effective way of policing society, especially in the absence of an effective police force.  God required certain things of His followers in order for them to receive His benefits, such as ethical behaviour and conspicuously following the cultural rules and undergoing certain tests in order to indicate that they were trustworthy and genuine followers of the religion.  (This conspicuous following of the rules helps to form somebody’s reputation in a religiously observant society.)  It is not surprising that this judgemental aspect of religion has stuck with us to the present day, even though the state has taken over the function of policing in the modern secular West.

The result is that modern monotheistic religion now has two varieties of God's love, unconditional and conditional.  This is one of the main sources of contradiction and cognitive dissonance we encounter when thinking deeply about the philosophy of religion.