Religious Commonality and the Golden Rule

It is not now realistic to expect religious people to agree with one another or converge on any one expression of beliefs; the schisms are irreversible.  The most that can now be hoped for is mutual respect and agreement on how to behave.  The Golden Rule, which is also known as the ethic of reciprocity, provides a formula which has proved helpful.  It can be expressed in a widely acceptable form as:

Don’t treat other people in a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated.

There are many ways of expressing it, reflecting its rich history.  It is striking how, in the Axial Age (from 900 to 200 BCE), to use Karen Armstrong’s words in the introduction to The Great Transformation:

“…in four distinct regions, the great world traditions that have continued to nourish humanity came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece…..Each tradition developed its own formulation of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not have done to you.” [pp. xii and xiv]

The wording varies widely, as in these examples from the Abrahamic religions:

  • A Christian version of the Golden Rule appears in The Bible, Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets”.
  • A Jewish version of the Golden Rule appears in The Talmud, Shabbat 31a: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”
  • A web-page on the Golden Rule in Islam quotes Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 72 as saying “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother or his neighbor what he loves for himself”. It also quotes several other texts, which contain slightly different wordings and interpretations.

13 versions are listed in the Golden Rule Across the World’s Religions, with varying wording but the same message.  The different religious groups will never agree with one another on everything, but there are many elements of commonality and they all have a basis for supporting the Golden Rule.

The relationships between their beliefs can be visually summarised by the image of a flower.  At its centre is the Golden Rule – a shared emphasis on consideration towards other people – and the petals are the doctrines, authoritative texts, leaders, rituals, important figures and the codes of practice (such as dress codes and dietary rules).  There are multiple petals of each type, representing the fact that it is in these aspects that the different religions and sects vary. 

Protestants and Catholics, for example, share the same Bible (whilst interpreting some parts of it differently, giving rise to doctrinal differences) but they have different leaders and several other differences.  A deep schism in Islam arose from a dispute over leadership.  None of the Abrahamic religions would question the Golden Rule, though.



This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4222b.htm