Replacing Religious Morality: Empathetic Reciprocity or Following the Golden Rule

Joe my co-writer for this blog, introduced me to an interesting article entitled,” Raising Children without religion may be a better alternative.” (See the article here)

The article was a summary of a more in-depth study in the Los Angeles Times compiled from research from the PEW Foundation.

Joe writes: “A couple of things struck me as interesting. One is that secular people like myself find no need for convoluted and complex rules for morality. No need to fast or wear certain clothing or recite certain prayers or read and interpret certain texts to find morality. Morality is a simple concept. If one practices empathetic reciprocity, a college educated version of the golden rule, nothing else is needed.”

As a Christian and a pastor I agree with Joe’s words that ‘morality is a simple concept’. The axiom is found in the Golden Rue, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Jesus said this, quoting from the Hebrew book of Deuteronomy. It is a timeless truth that we are to treat others as we would like to be treated.

I agree too that people without any religious or spiritual tradition can be equally moral as those of us who come from a religious tradition. The reality is we are all flawed as human beings. We are all capable of great altruism and selfish and petty behavior.

I disagree however with a thread that sometimes emerges in Joe’s writings, that people from a religious tradition are limited in scope and parameters as to who will be accepted and who will be loved. Certainly this is true in some religious traditions. This was certainly present in some but not all aspects of Catholic teachings when Joe was being raised.

Limited parameters can easily be found in some but not all aspects of my Baptist tradition. It’s true too that I’ve known some dogmatic atheists with limited parameters of who is acceptable.

Having said that, I can speak to a stream of tradition within my Judeo-Christian tradition from which I drink freely. This is the stream of justice that the great Hebrew prophets (Isaiah, Amos, Micah) drank from. This is the stream that Jesus drew strength from.

In another blog I write, this week I pen an article entitled ‘Foolish Wisdom’, it has to do with seeing the humanity in neighbors who are homeless. I quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, ‘that when you embrace the broken and forgotten ones, it is as if you are embracing me. For these broken-hearted ones are my family.’

I’m not going to argue that Jesus’ morality is superior to that of others, religious or otherwise. What I do believe is that such teachings provide a moral compass and specific challenge, that shows us what ‘loving others as oneself’, can really look like, in real life.

Without such guidance how far outside our comfort zone and cultural frame of reference, will we truly go? Are humanists and atheists capable of being good and moral people? Of course! Are religious folk sometimes narrow and judgemental? Yes! Yet, I also think that ancient religious tradition can challenge and stretch us in understanding how deep we can go. Left to my own devices I think I’d stay in the shallow end of the pool, rather than live and love deeply. How about you?


About Kent Harrop

I am bi-coastal...I was raised in New England (Rhode Island) and for twenty years 1994 - 2014 served as pastor of First Baptist Church McMinnville, Oregon. In May 2014 I moved with my wife Tricia back to New England and serve on a team of ministers at the First Baptist Church in Beverly, Massachusetts. I love the beauty and geographic breadth of Oregon and the north shore of Massachusetts. A growing edge for me is the integration of the contemplative and prophetic life. Tricia and I enjoy gardening, camping and kayaking on rivers and ocean. We have two grown daughters who are strong, smart and adventurous. The purpose of the blog is to explore the relationship between faith and the wider culture. The views expressed here are my own.
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One Response to Replacing Religious Morality: Empathetic Reciprocity or Following the Golden Rule

  1. Karen says:

    I think if you have an example, parent, teacher, mentor, you learn by example. So a child raised ina loving and compassionate environment will see those traits as the norm. If they miss out on that, it would be hard to see how any later-on religious or spiritual teaching could override that, at least unti the child was older and had some level of discernment. And if they were fortunate to have that compassionate example set early, then many different spiritual paths could resonate with them. Thank you for this thoughtful post.


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