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The ethics of reciprocity, a.k.a. the golden rule

Using the golden rule(s) to teach
religious tolerance and understanding:

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Teaching about religion in schools:

If the world is to successfully make the transition from widespread religious hatred and intolerance to religious coexistence and acceptance, a good place to begin is in the education of young people about the religious faiths of the world.

Unfortunately, religion is a profoundly difficult topic to teach in public schools, particularly in the United States. There are a variety of reasons for this:

  • Public schools are funded and operated by governments. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires the separation of government and religion. This is most often expressed as requiring the "separation of church and state." Many school faculty incorrectly interpret the federal Constitution as requiring that they never discuss religion in class. However, it is religious indoctrination that is forbidden, Comparative religion is a valid subject to study.

  • There are between 20,000 and 30,000 different denominations, sects, and movements within the Christian religion alone. (Sources differ) Although the groups all base their beliefs on passages from the Bible, there is an amazing variety of conflicting beliefs taught by individual faith groups. Christian faith groups mostly teach that God is a Trinity, but some believe that God is a unity. Most believe that the Holy Spirit is a person; others look upon the Holy Spirit as a type of force that God uses to make changes in the world and the rest of the universe. Some believe that personal salvation is based solely on an individual's good works; others teach that salvation is solely determined by a person's beliefs. Some interpret Hell symbolically -- perhaps as a metaphor; others teach it as a real torture chamber for eternal punishment; still others believe it is simple isolation from God. Some faith groups meet on Sundays; others on Saturdays. Teachers discussing these topics with children may well trigger objections from parents who want to control the religious concepts to which their children are exposed.

  • Religion is a major force -- both for good and evil -- in the world.
    • It sometimes motivates people to dedicate their life to helping the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the needy.

    • It can motivate others to commit acts of great evil. The Protestant Reformation triggered a series of wars in Europe. As a result, Germany lost about a third of their population. Today's violent events in the Middle East can only begin to be understood if one studies how Islam split into two main traditions -- Sunni and Shi'ite -- early in its history and how the two traditions differ from each other.

  • About 33% of the world's population identify themselves as Christian. If one considers the other main religions of the world: Islam (21%), Hinduism (14), Buddhism (5%), Chinese traditional religion (6%), Native/indigenous religions (6%), Sikhism (0.4%), Judaism (0.4%), etc.. then teaching about religion becomes very complex.

  • One factor that adds immensely to the difficulty of teaching religion is that most people consider that only their particular faith group within their religion has the fullness of truth. Doubt is often looked upon as a sin. Further, most people seem to regard all the other tens of thousands of faith groups in the world to be be in error to various degrees of seriousness.

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Thus it is important for students to have a basic understanding of religion. Yet one religion cannot be taught as absolute truth in public schools without conflicting with the federal Constitution. Trying to cover all religious beliefs would be too complex. What would be a reasonable path forward?

An argument might be made that religious education in public schools could have as its foundation the one teaching that is common with all or essentially all religions in the world: the Ethic of Reciprocity. This is often called the Golden Rule. This simply states that everyone is to:

"Treat other people as we would like other people to treat us in return."

There is a second, less commonly used, rule: the Silver Rule. It is a negative expression of the Golden Rule:

"Do not treat other people as we would not want other people to treat us in return."

Both the Golden and Silver rules conflict with the commonly used "Iron Rule" that is found everywhere in the world:

"Might makes right. Do whatever you are strong enough to force upon others for your own gain."

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The Golden and Silver Rules are found in the source documents of the main religions in the world:

  • Christianity:
    • "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12. From the King James Version of the Bible.

    • "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Luke 6:31. King James Version

  • Islam:
    • "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." #13 of Imam "Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths."

  • Hinduism: "This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." Mahabharata 5:1517

  • Buddhism: "...a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?" Samyutta NIkaya v. 353

  • Chinese Traditional Religion: Confucius said:
    • "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence." Mencius VII.A.4

  • Native/Indigenous Religion: One example is from Yoruba, (the Aboriginal religion in Nigeria):
    • "One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

  • Sikhism:
    • "Don't create enmity with anyone as God is within everyone." Guru Arjan Devji 259

  • Judaism:
    • "And what you hate, do not do to any one." Book of Tobit 4:15

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The Golden Rule is also found in religions with relatively small memberships in the United States:

In alphabetic order:

  • Satanic Temple:
    • "Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word." #7 of the Temple's Seven Tenets. 1

  • Unitarian Universalism: There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:
    • "Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. "The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all." #2 of the 7 principles. 2

  • Wicca is a Neopagan religion partly based on Celtic Pagan religion. A core belief is their Wiccan Rede:
    • "An it harm no one, do what thou wilt." (In modern English it is: "Do what ever you wish, as long as it harms nobody, including yourself").

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What would result from a widespread teaching of the Golden Rule in schools?

Students would realize that all the main religions of the world agree on a core principle of caring behavior towards others.

When news outlets report of another suicide bombing, crucifixion, mass murder, beheading, etc., students would realize that the perpetrators were doing these actions in violation of a core teaching embedded in their religion, not because of their religion.

When the world is faced with a problem like the current plight of refugees trying to escape from their country towards freedom, Christian students might go to their Bibles looking for guidance. They might just find the story of Jesus and his family escaping from the infanticidal intention of King Herod the Great and finding sanctuary in Egypt.

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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. "Tenets," The Satanic Temple, undated, at:
  2. "2nd Principle: Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations," Unitarian Universalist Association, 2015, at:

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How you may have arrived here:

Home > Religious information > Golden Rule > here
Home > Comparing Religions > Golden Rule > here
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Copyright 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2016-FEB-04
Latest update : 2016-FEB-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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