Virtually all the world’s cultures have a version of the golden rule, easily derived with or without any references to the supernatural. For Christians, the usual expression of this, from Matthew 7:12, is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A closely related idea from Christian teachings, summed up in Mark 12:31, is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Deceptively simple, these ideas incorporate more complexity than a first reading might suggest. I’m no Christian nor any kind of expert on Christian understandings of these ideas and related ideas like forgiveness. The most impressive expression I ever heard of this Christian perspective came from then-President Barack Obama on June 18, 2015, after the murder of nine members of a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Obama’s a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a hymn I love the sound and dislike the words of, included in the full 37- or 38-minute speech, was incredible. A good written Christian source is Randal Rauser’s 2015 book, “Is the Atheist My Neighbor?”

Christians I admire greatly — John Lewis; my neighbors, who are politically conservative and devout Christians and the best neighbors you could ask for; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; some kin; and others — practice loving their neighbors (literal or figurative neighbors) well. Some non-Christians I have little use for, including another neighbor who’s probably an atheist, are beyond my ability to love.

Self-proclaimed atheist Joseph Stalin and self-proclaimed Christian Adolf Hitler deserved no love from anyone. And who knows whether Dylann Roof, the murderer of those nine people in Charleston in 2015, was a Christian or whether Dimitrios Pagourtzis of Santa Fe is really an atheist? I cannot love or forgive them, whatever I should do.

But what must a nonbeliever do in general? Because I don’t think there’s a God or that anyone died for my sins, must I still love my neighbor? What if that neighbor plays loud music at 3 a.m. or cusses me out if I walk on his lawn? What if she hates me because I don’t like her aggressive dog? Can I hate the “sin” but love the sinner? Isn’t everyone better off if I adopt the idea I saw on a Quaker bumper sticker: “Love Thy Neighbor — No Exceptions”?

Human beings all across Galveston County and where I live in Atlanta, religious and irreligious alike, are as varied in lovability as anyone can imagine. Do they deserve to be loved by their neighbors?

My answer is “yes” — if by that is meant that the default is to love them and to treat them the way I want to be treated. If a neighbor’s music is too loud, she deserves to be asked, cordially, to turn it down. If it gets louder instead, maybe it’s time to call the law — lovingly, of course.

And, I’m firmly convinced, no neighbor near or far deserves to be hated because of his beliefs, opinions, religion, irreligion or politics. Forgiven or respected? Possibly not.

Loved? Yes, at least for openers.

Ed Buckner is a native of League City now living in Atlanta, Georgia.

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(3) comments

Bailey Jones

Ed, I'm not an atheist - I simply can't find any scientific justification for such a belief. Several years ago I adopted the term "antidoctrinarian" as a descriptor for my own spiritual path. Over the decades I have gravitated toward secular Buddhism because (as taught in the west) it's agnostic on the afterlife, emphasizing practices that lead to a happier life. Those practices, coincidently, also lead to a better world. A secular Buddhist loves their neighbors, not for the sake of their neighbors, but for the sake of their own personal peace.

As a kid, I listened to tapes of Alan Watts that were played on our local rock and roll radio station in Dallas on Sunday mornings. I still enjoy listening to him. In the past few years, I've discovered Jack Kornfield's books to be great guides to living, and enjoy them as audiobooks. The simple practices contained in the basic tenets of Buddhism can be practiced by anyone, regardless of faith or belief. I think they make people better. If interested, you might try Kornfield's "Roots of Buddhist Psychology".

(Disclaimer - my opinions on Buddhism are my own and somewhat simplistic, I'm not looking to get into a debate over what other people "believe" about it, nor do I consider myself to be a particularly "good" Buddhist.)

I don't know that appreciating the benefits of "love thy neighbor" requires any belief system, other than the ability to imagine two worlds - one where "love thy neighbor" is practiced, and one where it is not.

Ted Gillis

I find that my best neighbors are the ones that I have no idea what their religious beliefs are.

Ed Buckner

Mr. Jones and Mr. Gillis, I've had a good deal of respect for both of you for quite a while now, and I didn't even consider what either of your preferred religious labels might be. My preferred label is usually "secular humanist" or--sometimes--"atheist" (by which I mean only "lacking any supernatural beliefs"). But how well one treats his fellow human beings and, to a lesser extent, how well one thinks, matter, while religious labels and beliefs aren't important to me.

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