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The "Golden Rule" (a/k.a. Ethics of Reciprocity)

Background. Failure of religions;
Why reciprocity is so important now.

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Religious groups differ greatly in their concepts of deity, other beliefs, and practices. Many Eastern religion stress philosophy of life over theological concepts; Western religions often do the opposite. Non-theistic ethical and philosophic systems, like Humanism and Ethical Culture, also exhibit a wide range of beliefs. However, there is near unanimity of opinion among almost all religions, ethical systems and philosophies on one topic: that each person should treat others in a decent manner.

Almost all of these religious and secular groups have passages in their holy texts, or writings of their leaders, which promote this Ethic of Reciprocity. The most commonly known version in North America is the Golden Rule of Christianity. It is often expressed as "Do onto others as you would wish them do onto you."

One result of this Ethic is the concept that every person shares certain inherent human rights, simply because of their membership in the human species. People are individually very different; they come in three genders (female, male, intersexual); different sizes, colors, and shapes; three sexual orientations; various gender identities, different degrees of ability, etc. They follow many religious and economic systems, speak many languages, and follow many different cultures. But there is a growing consensus that all humans must be considered equal in importance. As a minimum, all should enjoy basic human rights.  The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is one manifestation of this growing worldwide consensus. 1,2

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A failure of many organized religions:

In our opinion, the greatest failure of many organized religions is their historical inability to convince their followers that the Ethic of Reciprocity applies to all humans, not merely to fellow believers like themselves. It is our group's belief that religions should stress that their members also use their Ethic of reciprocity when dealing with persons of other religions, other genders, other cultures, other sexual orientations, other gender identities, etc. Only when this is accomplished will religiously-related oppression, mass murder and genocide cease.

Crimes against humanity require that the victims first be viewed as subhuman and the as not worthy of life. If the Ethic of Reciprocity is applied to all humans, then no person or group of persons can be seen in this way.

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Why the Ethic of Reciprocity is particularly important today:

The survial of the human species may depend upon this Ethic.

There are on the order of 30,000 Christian faith groups in the worlds, and untold numbers of faith groups within other religions. Many teach that they alone have the full truth, and that all other faith groups are in partial or complete error.

In the past and now, this has generated a great deal of religiously based hatred, conflict, and violence. It has triggered extensive oppression due to heresy hunters within religions. It has contributed to wars between religions and between different traditions of a single religion. Today, with the availability of weapons of mass destruction, it is quite possible that future conflicts may increase in intensity to endanger the survival of the human species.

There are only two approaches that we have found to prevent this. One appears impossible, the other merely very difficult:

  1. Create doubt among believers about the validity of their beliefs. It is unlikely that 9/11, Waco or the attack on the Murrah Building, etc. would have happened if the people involved had even a slight doubt about possessing absolute truth. Unfortunately, one of the features of religion is that many believers tend to tenatiously believe that their beliefs are absolutely true. Thus, creating doubt and skepticism is virtually impossible and is often considered a sin.

  2. Have faith groups widen the range of the Golden Rule to encompass not only fellow believers but people of all faiths and none. In Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-31, and Luke 10:25-37, Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ's) parable of the Good Samaritan shows us that he intended the Golden Rule to apply to other humans. When the Golden Rule is interpreted in this way, human rights -- including religious freedom -- become a priority by all and for all.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The English text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is at:
  2. The text is available in other languages is at:

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Site navigation: Home page > Religious information > Theory of Reciprocity > here

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Copyright 1995 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-JUN-09
Author: B.A. Robinson
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