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The Dark Side of the Golden Rule and Other ‘Universals’

The Dark Side of the Golden Rule and Other ‘Universals’

By Don Frew


The following reflection is excerpted from a longer presentation Donald Frew delivered at the August 2011 annual gathering of the North American Interfaith Network in Phoenix, Arizona, dedicated to exploring the Golden Rule.

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Don Frew is an Elder in the Covenant of the Goddess in Northern California.

Don Frew is an Elder in the Covenant of the Goddess in Northern California.

I think I bring an unusual perspective to the topic of the Golden Rule. On the one hand … I’m about as much of an interfaith movement “insider” as one can be. I joined the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council in 1985 and have been doing interfaith work on behalf of my faith tradition for over 25 years. I serve on the board of directors of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio and on the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative. I represented my religious organization, the Covenant of the Goddess, at all of the modern Parliaments of the World’s Religions, where I was invited to join the Parliament’s Assembly of the World’s Religious & Spiritual Leaders.

On the other hand… I’m a Witch. That’s about as much of an “outsider” as one can be. There are still interfaith councils in the U.S. that won’t allow Witches to join. Even worse, there are many places in the U.S. where people still lose pets, jobs, child custody, or even their lives for being Witches.

So the topic of inclusion and exclusion in interfaith is one that is dear to my heart.

Illusion of Similarity

Usually, representatives of different faiths come together in interfaith work for the first time around those aspects of our faiths that we have in common. It’s always easier to focus on what we share than on what is different. Unfortunately, when we focus too much on those similarities we weave an illusion for ourselves that those similarities define what it is to be religious.

This illusion results in “universal statements,” such as “We all worship the same God” or “All religions are really paths to the same truth,” and “All religions have the Golden Rule.” In reality, religion on Earth is more diverse than we can imagine and it is almost impossible to come up with a statement that is true about all faith traditions.

Years ago, when I joined the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council as the elected representative from Covenant of the Goddess, I was greeted with a barrage of assumptions about religion…

“Whom do you worship?” they asked.

“Well, no one really.”

“Well then, to whom do you pray?”

“Well, we don’t pray, as such.”

“Well, what do you believe?”

“We don’t really have beliefs.”

“What is your Bible?”

“We don’t have one.”

“Where are your churches?”

“We don’t have any.”

“Who is your prophet or leader?”

“We don’t have one of those, either.”

“How can you achieve salvation, then?”

“We don’t even have the concept of salvation.”

And so on, and so on ... All of which gave the impression that we were either not really a religion, or at least were a seriously inadequate one. Half-baked, you might say.

Nothing could be further from the truth. But this isn’t a “What is Wicca?” talk, so I’ll save my response to those questions for another time.

Whenever we make universal statements about religions we run into two problems:

1) We are almost certainly wrong.

2) We exclude those faiths who don’t agree with the statement, or worse, we subvert those faiths in their efforts to be taken seriously and to belong.

It’s worth mentioning that there is what might be called a “flip side” to the “universal statements” we make in interfaith. For instance, we often excuse the perceived failings of one or more faith traditions by saying, “Well, of course all religions have the same problem and claim to be the only true religion”; or “… have language condemning other faiths”; or “… have language condoning violence against others”; or “… place women in subordinate roles.” And so on.

No, all religions don’t. Wicca doesn’t. I’m sure others don’t, as well.

This was driven home to me when, as a member of the Parliament of the World’s Religions Religious Assembly, I was asked by Dr. Gerald Barney to answer his 40 or so “Millennium Questions” about what each religion had to say about entering the 21st century.

The questions included ones like: How does your faith tradition address the second-class status of women in the tradition? The majority of our clergy are women and most covens are led by women. How does your faith tradition address the conflict between religion & science? We see no conflict. What science tells us about the natural world tells us more about the Divine. We have no creation myth other than the currently accepted scientific view of the origins of the universe.

My point is that the negative “universal statements” we make are no more likely to be true than the positive ones.

Left Out on the Golden Rule

My faith tradition does not have a statement like the Golden Rule. Instead, we have a complex web of teachings about ethical behavior, relating to the immanence of the Divine and the interconnectedness of all things, and the responsibility that flows from these truths.

Photo: Pinterest, Charlie Random

Photo: Pinterest, Charlie Random

What simple maxims we do have – as “abbreviations,” you might say, of those teachings – are what’s called the Wiccan Rede, or “An it harm none, do as ye will,” and the popular “All acts of magic should be acts of love.” Neither of them are really the same as the Golden Rule. The closest thing we have to the Golden Rule is a general awareness that living in dynamic engagement with the world means that, inevitably, “what goes around comes around.” But that’s still not the same thing.

One result of this is that members of my community – widely considered one of the largest religions in the U.S. – hear that I’m attending a conference titled “Many People, Many Faiths, One Common Principle: The Golden Rule” and wonder why I’m here. They assume that such a conference at best has nothing to do with their religion and at worst would exclude them from attending. I came anyway.

It doesn’t help that the Golden Rule has been, and is still being, used to justify proselytizing to my community. “Since I would want someone to witness Christ to me,” the reasoning goes, “that other person over there will obviously appreciate it when I witness to him.” This may sound like the kind of mental gymnastics that characterize so many objections to the Golden Rule, but for us it is a very present reality.

When I attended the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Washington DC several years ago, I endured at least 50 attempts to convert me each day over three days. Even when I was away from the convention and at the Smithsonian Institution, people from the convention I would bump into would start witnessing. Many people quoted the Golden Rule to me as part of the lead-in to their spiel.

To Witches, the biggest problem with the Golden Rule is that it encourages its followers to project their own beliefs onto others, rather than listen to those others to hear what might be different.

One problem for us that hasn’t been addressed is that the Golden Rule assumes an essential sameness of the actors involved, i.e., that they are both human. For us, the whole world is a living thing and all of its parts alive and capable of being in relationships with us. We believe that such a relationship with the natural world is an important part of saving the planet from environmental collapse.

How do I apply the Golden Rule to my relationship with a tree? Or with a rock?

We are so different – even in things as simple as sensory apparatus – that there is virtually no way of understanding the other in the way that so many have said is necessary for application of the Golden Rule.

How do I figure out what a tree “wants” to do or be done to it? Does a rock “want” at all?

Our ethics offer us guidance on this, but the Golden Rule does not … at least not for us.

I’ve talked to one Golden Rule proponent who tried to convince me that Witches do have a version of the Golden Rule and tried to lead me through the logic he used to reinterpret our views and statements as really being variations of the Golden Rule. It’s perfectly fine that they think we have a version of the Golden Rule and just don’t realize it. But it misses the point.

If the followers of my faith tradition do not see the Golden Rule as part of our tradition, it is not the place of any interfaith representative to try to convince us that we’re wrong. This would be like a very inclusive Christian trying to convince us that we really do worship the same God they do, we just don’t know it.

If the interfaith movement wants to be inclusive, then it has to approach and engage religions on their own terms, not try to force them into pre-existing concepts of what really is or isn’t a religion.

Header Photo: J. Trotter