Aggregating Skeptical Thought

The Ethics of Reciprocity

I know I’m not covering any new ground here, in fact, this post contains a number of links to other sites that cover this very topic. I will however tell you why I’m writing this. I have 8 and 10 year-old boys. One of the things that I am trying to do is help them establish critical thinking skills without being heavy-handed or “preachy”. IMO one of the best ways to help illustrate certain concepts (especially moral concepts) is the use of stories. Quite frankly, this is where many religions have atheists beat. They have well-known stories and more structured mechanisms (Sunday school) for illustrating many of these concepts particularly to children.

Unfortunately, where many of these Sunday school sessions (yes I’m sticking with the let’s-only-pick-on-christians tactic) is they mix more universal concepts with rather more dubious stories. For example, the story of Cain and Abel is a good example of jealousy, murder and the idea of Reciprocity (Golden Rule). It does a good job of illustrating that if you don’t treat others the way you would want to be treated there are often long-term consequences to those actions.  Unfortunately, this story is mixed in with next weeks lesson on the fall of Jericho, where genocide is the order of business. How is a child supposed to distinguish the more universal Golden Rule concept from the Chosen People/Master Race/Us-vs.-Them logic?

For obvious reasons I don’t go to the Bible very often (read: ever) to illustrate a point. The Sunday school approach is very preachy but quite frankly it’s very effective. So the question is how does an atheist/secular humanist help reinforce those more universal concepts without a canned set of stories to refer to?

I’ve been more conscious of this question of late simply because my children have returned to school and they are being exposed to a lot of different children with different understandings of their parent’s beliefs (let’s be honest I doubt many 8 year olds are developing concepts of Hell without a little parental or …umm…. churchal? input).

Here is my thought process

  1. Identify “universal” moral concepts
  2. Understand the meaning of each concept and its development historically.
  3. “Arm” yourself with a few illustrative examples of each.

One of those items that I have identified as a biggy is the Ethics of Reciprocity or more commonly known in North America as The Golden Rule. This is perhaps one of the biggest but also easiest to illustrate. It usually doesn’t require a canned example because there is usually a very immediate example, like

  • “Quit punching your brother in the face, you wouldn’t want him to do that to you. Would you?”
  • “I wouldn’t put shaving cream in your brothers shoes, you wouldn’t want him to do that to you. Would you?”
  • “Do NOT spray your mother with the hose. She will smack the living…” Oh wait that’s something different.

Did I mention I have 8 and 10 year old boys? Anyway, in my search for clever ways to drill this point home I have stumbled across some resources that I thought would be helpful on this topic.

First, Dale McGowan wrote/compiled a great book for non-religious parents that covers this and many other topics. It’s title, Parenting Beyond Belief, which I might add is a great book and I think is a great book to give to believers as well. Not only can believers benefit as parents but I belive it will help to illustrate in very concrete terms that morality can be taught/reinforced without a single reference to a god or sacred text.

Hate to use the phrase “The Golden Rule” and think the “Ethics of Reciprocity” is too snooty? Check out’s list of 21 world religions with a similar belief.

Here are some links to humanist perspectives on The Golden Rule.

In general here are some websites for parenting:

When I get there I will probably post on some other items like the Scientific Method or what I call (I doubt I just made that up) the Ethics of Universality (“What if everyone did that?”).


Filed under: Atheism, Religion, , , , ,


  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.