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Religion, The Golden Rule, and Revolution

by John Spritzler

April, 2004

[Also see "The Golden Rule"]


The great religions of the world appeal to their followers for laudable reasons. Religions invest human life with meaning. They affirm the dignity of all human beings and declare that there are eternal moral truths. They (sometimes) inspire their followers to make a better world. Unfortunately religious beliefs and passions have also led people into bloody wars, justified (supposedly) horrible cruelties, and legitimized (supposedly) elite rule. If we look carefully, though, at the implications of the Golden Rule in religion and where it comes from, I think we can find the possibility of human beings creating a world very different from today's -- a good, just and decent world, reflecting the best of what the great religions have ever offered, but based not on religion but on the source of religion and the Golden Rule.


Different religions understand God (or gods) and the supernatural differently, but when it comes to human relations in the everyday world they all agree on the Golden Rule. The Buddhist sacred literature says, "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." Islam teaches, "That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind." Confucius said, "Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you." Jesus preached, "All things therefore that you want people to do to you, do thus to them." All of the world's major religions embrace some version of the Golden Rule. [1]


Human dignity and eternal moral truths


The Golden Rule is based upon two fundamental convictions. First, that all human beings have dignity. That is why one should take the feelings of others into account. Second, that there is such a thing as right and wrong based on eternal truths. That is what enables us to say that the Golden Rule is Golden -- that it applies no matter what the particular situation may be, and for all time. For the most part, people have relied on religious beliefs about the supernatural to sanction these two convictions about human beings and morality. If, for example, we are created by, and in the image of, an all powerful and wise God, then we all have dignity. If the Ten Commandments were handed to Moses by God, then they are eternally true.


Capitalism attacks these two convictions underlying the Golden Rule. Capitalism is based on a morality of selfishness, and it legitimizes (supposedly) itself by insisting that human beings are naturally selfish. The "invisible hand" made famous by Adam Smith says that selfish behavior makes for the best possible world. But if people are selfish, then where is their dignity? If selfishness is all there is, then what is right today may be wrong tomorrow, depending on what serves one's interests at the moment. Where are the eternal moral truths? In the face of this onslaught by Capitalism's morality of selfishness, many people value the old religions and their supernatural beliefs as a way of refuting Capitalism's attacks on human dignity and its contempt for any timeless notion of right and wrong.

Regardless of what one may or may not believe about the supernatural, there are good reasons, having nothing to do with the supernatural, for believing in both the dignity of human beings and the existence of eternal moral truths.


Why is it that all of the world's great religions, though disagreeing greatly about theology, nonetheless concur on the Golden Rule?


The explanation must be that there is something common to all human beings that is captured by the Golden Rule and reflected in all of these religions. And what is that? Human beings are a social species. We depend upon each other. From the time we are infants dependent on our parents to the time we are old and dependent on our children, we need each other to survive. When we were hunters and gatherers we succeeded through teamwork. We lack bodies designed for individual survival in a hostile environment -- we have no thick fur or sharp claws. We rely instead on our ability to create a culture that facilitates complex social labor which enables us to do what we cannot do as individuals. Everything we rely on in our daily lives -- from material things like the house that shelters us and the food we consume to the emotional support we need to carry on--is the product of many people's collective efforts.[2] We have succeeded in making the world conducive to our survival and comfort because we are able to form long term relationships of mutual aid, cooperation and trust; and such relationships of solidarity could never be maintained unless people had a natural inclination to behave the way the Golden Rule says to behave. If some aspect of human nature did not resonate with the Golden Rule, if on the contrary humans were simply selfish creatures, then it would have been every man, woman and child out for him or herself and we would have perished long ago.[3]


The potential to create a social culture that supported behavior in accordance with what later came to be known as the Golden Rule was an early survival mechanism of our species. It was hard wired into our human nature [3]. Religious leaders made the Rule explicit, but they did not invent it. No religion, regardless of what it said about the supernatural, could ever have taken root without making the Golden Rule its central morality for living life on earth. To do so would have been as impossible, and as much in violation of human nature, as to declare, "Thou Shalt Not Eat."


Seeing the origin of the Golden Rule in human nature makes it possible to assert the dignity of all human beings and the eternal nature of some moral truths without having to rely on any claim about the supernatural. Human beings have dignity because we are all members of the human race which, as a result of our being an intelligent and social species, has produced a culture of profoundly positive values summarized by the Golden Rule. Furthermore the morality of the Golden Rule is eternal because it reflects the unchanging social nature of the human species.

We can make a better world

A world based entirely upon the Golden Rule would bring us close to heaven (or as some once called it, the Kingdom of God) on earth. Clearly however we are not there. And why is that? Is it because of the devil? Original sin? Or can something else provide an explanation? Again, it helps to look at human nature.


Human nature is not simple. It includes, as we have seen, the potential to create a Golden Rule culture of beliefs, values and behaviors that support relationships of solidarity and trust. But it also includes the potential to create a selfish culture supporting arrogant, exploitive and oppressive behavior. Human society cannot survive if only the selfish culture prevails, but it can survive if a minority culture of selfishness exists as a parasite sucking its life from the majority. And that is what has prevailed for the last several millennia. A culture of solidarity has developed among the majority of people who do the useful work of society, and a parasitic culture of selfishness and domination has developed among a minority class of ruling elites. The conflict between a Golden Rule-based culture of solidarity and a parasitical minority culture of selfishness has taken different forms over the centuries, as a conflict between slaves and masters, peasants and lords, and workers and capitalists. [4]


For thousands of years rulers have taken advantage of people's beliefs about the supernatural by reinforcing versions of such beliefs particularly suited for controlling people. Royalty claimed to be ordained by God to rule over commoners. Priests claimed to know God's (or the gods') will better than ordinary people. This was a world view designed to justify an elite's privileges and power over people and to legitimize all kinds of oppression and inequality. Rulers controlled people by turning them against each other in terrible religious wars and religious persecutions.


Only relatively recently with the rise of capitalism did the elite class in society change the way they justified their lordship over others. They talked less about God and more about human nature. We are all creatures driven by selfishness, and that is our human nature, proclaims Capitalism. Those who get rich by looking out only for "number one" are just like everybody else except more successful. Capitalism congratulates itself for having organized society around this principle of selfishness, arguing that it is the first social system to acknowledge the truth about human nature and to figure out how to harness it to produce greater wealth for society. This is the creed of Corporate America and it dominates our mass media. As of this writing the latest TV "reality" show features billionaire Donald Trump as a sort of role model and hero deciding which of the people competing to be selected as his apprentice are, like him, sufficiently unscrupulous, ambitious and determined to step on others to rise to the top.


While the mass media portray a world in which such selfishness is the norm, the truth is very different. A society of only Donald Trumps could never survive for long. Millions of people may watch the Trump show and be entertained by it, but if they behaved that way in relationships with family members, neighbors and fellow workers then life as we know it would come to a grinding halt. Our children would die un-cared for, we would all be robbing and stealing from each other, and factories and offices would produce nothing useful because of rampant back-stabbing, mutual fear and mistrust. But we do love and care for our children, we have neighborhoods where people look out for each other, and we produce useful goods and provide important services because people help each other and cooperate every day without giving it a second thought. They routinely treat others as equals, respect their dignity, and act out of consideration for their wants and needs. And every time they do this, consciously or not, they are resisting Capitalism's attack on their culture of solidarity -- on the Golden Rule.


The fundamental conflict in societies all over the world is this conflict between the great majority of people whose morality is based on the Golden Rule versus the relatively small number who have contempt for it. On the one hand are the billions of people who believe that relations between people should be about caring for each other and treating other people as fellow human beings deserving dignity and equal respect. On the other hand are the elites -- of all nations and races and religions -- with the opposite notions of right and wrong. They believe it is right to dominate and oppress others, to treat people as mere objects to exploit for one's own selfish aims, and to climb over others to get to the top. They believe that the only incentive in life is to rise above others and that therefore it is morally wrong to permit everyone to have an equal say in society and an equal share in its benefits because then nobody would have an incentive to work and society would go to hell in a handbasket. And they believe that life is a cut-throat competition in which those who fall to the bottom do so because they are inferior beings, less worthy of respect and dignity than themselves. This anti-Golden Rule morality is the morality of Capitalism. It attacks the very concept that most people hold about what it means to be a human being.

For thousands of years up to the present time, most people have been trying their best to live their lives by the Golden Rule, even in the face of attacks from elites. What the world needs is for the morality of the Golden Rule to triumph over its most powerful enemy in the modern age--Capitalism. The world needs a popular and democratic movement to succeed on such a large scale that ordinary people finally are able to shape all of society by their morality instead of letting people with the opposite morality call the shots. Such a triumph of democracy would constitute the revolutionary overthrow of Capitalism.


Why didn't this happen long ago? One reason is that ordinary people lack confidence in themselves as the source of what is good in the world; hearing themselves described instead as selfish, or as less godly than their rulers, has taken its toll on their assurance that they ought to be in charge of society. This problem has plagued people for millennia. The other reason--a relative newcomer only 150 years old -- has also wreaked havoc on people's efforts to make a better world. It is the theory and reality of Communism.


The Communists talked about "revolution against Capitalism" and about creating a different society based on equality. But they were never about democracy. In fact they opposed democracy. They opposed it because, like the capitalists, they believed that ordinary people are motivated by selfishness and are brainwashed by Capitalist values. It would be crazy to let such people have real power! Communists hoped to re-mold people to be "better" in the distant future, but first (according to Marxism) it was necessary to coerce them into increasing economic production, since people could not be expected to care about each other and share things as long as there was still any material scarcity.


Anti-democratic Communist regimes have nothing to do with the revolutionary expansion of democracy that is needed to overthrow Capitalism. This is why, far from overthrowing Capitalism, "Communist" nations re-created capitalist relations of inequality and exploitation by another name. The Communists are wrong about people. We need more democracy, not less.


To overthrow Capitalism we need a democratic movement of billions of people confident in the rightness of their Golden Rule morality and the wrongness of capitalist morality; confident that trust and caring for one another -- not economic productivity or profit -- should be the standard by which to judge all human relations and activities; and confident that nobody -- not capitalists, communists, priests nor mullahs -- have any right to exploit people for selfish gain or deprive them of their dignity and an equal say in society.


Such a democratic and revolutionary movement would embody what is best about human spirituality, despite its having nothing to do with beliefs about the supernatural. Like all great religions it would aim to inspire everybody to join in a great effort to make a better world for all. Like all great religions it would express a moral vision in which the dignity of every human being matters more than material wealth.



1. For evidence of this see "The Golden Rule" and Christian Apologetics by Edward T. Babinski

2. For more discussion of this see We CAN Change The World, by David G. Stratman, New Democracy Books, Boston, p. 250.

3. See Peter Kropotkin's 1902 Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution for a discussion of this in the context of the entire animal kingdom. Kropotkin shows that many animal species survive because they engage in mutual aid, which is an expression of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule (mutual aid) is thus instinctual in many animal species, from which it follows that it is likely also at least somewhat instinctual (hard wired) in humans. I say "at least somewhat" because while most humans act, or try to act, according to the Golden Rule, some clearly don't.

The late renowned Harvard University evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould [1941-2002], wrote respectfully about Kropotkin and his assertion that one factor (not the only one!) of evolution was survival of the fittest species (not individuals), which is to say that evolution is shaped by higher-level (species) selection (with fitness resulting from mutual aid/cooperation) and not only by lower-level (individuals) selection (with fitness resulting from success in competing with other individuals of the same species):

"Prince Peter Kropotkin, the charming Russian anarchist who spent 30 years in English exile, has generally been viewed as idiosyncratic and politically motivated in his famous attack on Darwinian competition, and his advocacy of cooperation as the norm of nature--Mutual Aid 1902). In fact, Kropotkin, who was well trained in biology, spoke for a Russian consensus in arguing that density-independent regulation by occasional, but severe, environmental stress will tend to encourage intraspecific cooperation as a mode of natural selection (Todes, 1988; Gould, 1991b). The harsh environments of the vast Russian steppes and tundras often elicited such a generalized belief; Kropotkin and colleagues had observed well in a local context, but had erred in overgeneralization. But Darwin and Wallace, schooled in the more stable and diversely populated tropics, may have made an equally parochial error in advocating such a dominant role for biotic struggle over limited resources in crowded space (Todes, 1988.)"


"In summary, three of four classical arguments against higher-level selection do not apply to species, while the fourth loses its force in a world dominated by punctured equilibrium. I see no barrier to the cardinal importance of species selection in the history of life."


--The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, pp. 471 & 652


John Locke [1632-1704], in his famous An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, took great pains to deny that humans are born with innate ideas and he insisted that "Moral rules need a proof, ERGO not innate." But even Locke admitted that, "I deny not that there are natural tendencies imprinted on the minds of men;...". [Chapter 2]


There are examples (many cited by Locke) of societies that had (and have) practices that seem to violate the Golden Rule, such as infanticide in the ancient Roman society. I think these examples illustrate the unfortunate fact that some categories of people have been (and are today) considered by some societies to be not, or at least not fully, other human beings, and hence not covered by the Golden Rule.  

4. This is discussed in greater depth in my article, Worshiping A Strange God

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