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Exploring Religious Ethics in Daily Life

Religious ethics are the moral principles that guide religions and that set the standard for what is and isn't acceptable behavior. Surprisingly similar from one religion to the next, these fundamental principles flow from the core beliefs and ancient wisdom of religion, as well as its teachers and traditions.

Virtues are standards for ethical, moral conduct — they enable you to look at yourself in the mirror every morning without cringing. Personal virtues, such as humility, gratitude, and hope honor God or, in Eastern religions, reflect a higher state of being.

The golden rule: A universal principle

As a small child, you may have grabbed a toy from your playmate, who, of course, immediately started to wail. You'd then hear your mom/dad/teacher say something like, "Well, how would you like it if someone did that to you?!"

Sound familiar? The lesson these adults were trying to teach is what is popularly known in the West as the "golden rule." This rule commands people to get beyond their own selfishness and self-absorbed isolation. The golden rule serves as a reminder that what hurts us hurts others, and that what heals us, heals others.

In nearly all the world's religions, personal morality begins with this simple concept: Treat others as you would like to be treated. As such, the golden rule is perhaps the most basic of the personal virtues.

The different faiths all have their own version of this universal message:

  • "Not one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself" (40 Hadith of an-Nawawi 13, Islam).
  • "Wound not others, do no one injury by thought or deed, utter no word to pain thy fellow creatures" (The Law Code of Manu, Hinduism).
  • "Do not do to others what you would not like yourself" (The Analects 12:2, Confucianism).
  • "If you do not wish to be mistreated by others, do not mistreat anyone yourself" (Counsels of Adurbad 92, Zoroastrianism).
  • "We obtain salvation by loving our fellow man and God" (Granth Japji 21, Sikhism).
  • "Having made oneself the example, one should neither slay nor cause to slay. . . . As I am, so are other beings; thus let one not strike another, nor get another struck. That is the meaning" (Dhammapada, Buddhism).
  • "One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire" (Anusansana Parva 113.8, Hinduism).
  • "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18, Judaism).
  • "Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." (Matthew 7:12, Christianity).

Compassion

The word compassion means, "to suffer with." Having compassion means that you can feel others' pain. In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, showing compassion to others is how believers imitate the infinite kindness and mercy that God showers upon them. Although humans' capacity for compassion and kindness isn't limitless, as God's is, believers strive to nurture it, even when doing so is hard, because it brings them closer to God.

One of the central virtues of Buddhism is karuna, understanding and identifying with the suffering of all living beings. Karuna is the reason that some people who achieve enlightenment return to this world as Bodhisattvas to teach others. Their compassion is so great, they return to a world that needs them. In Hinduism, compassion is called daya, and, along with charity and self-control, it is one of the three central virtues in Hinduism.

Humility

In the monotheistic religions, humility is a sign of respect for God and awareness that all blessings flow from God to whom all thanks are due. In Judaism, for example, Moses is considered virtuous primarily because of his humility.

Christianity provides the classic religious statement of humility in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed be the meek for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5). Jesus' point here, which other religious traditions echo, is that the secular world recognizes and rewards power and wealth, but the religious world lifts up the ones whom the world has passed over and crushed. Humility, therefore, is not just a virtue, but also an opposite virtue from the ones that the nonreligious world prizes.

In Islam (which itself means surrender), humility is a primary virtue. Muslims demonstrate their awareness of the greatness of God and humankind's place in the world by observing the Five Pillars of their faith. Each pillar reinforces the proper order of the universe.

Taoism focuses believers' thoughts on the awesome beauty and wonder of Nature. As you ponder the magnificence of Nature, you learn to respect our place relative to the stars and the seasons — a humbling experience.

Through humility, Buddhists can release anger and learn to live a life free from attachments and suffering.

Hope

Many of the sacred Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts and rituals include the idea of hope. In Christianity, it's one of the three cardinal virtues (the other two being faith and love). In Islam, it's the understanding that Allah knows all; what happens, happens for a reason, and the faithful will be rewarded in paradise and the irreligious punished in hell.

In the world's religions, hope is made possible by human limitations. Most people don't know the future and, because they don't know it, they fear it. Hope reduces this fear. In religion, hope is closely linked with what comes after death.

For Christians, the hope that sustains them is the hope for the speedy second coming of Jesus as the Christ and eternal life in Heaven. This hope sustains Christians through what they often perceive to be the immorality of the earthly kingdom.

In Zoroastrianism, Islam, and, to a lesser extent, Judaism, the hope is life or some form of existence after death. That belief in the world to come is a sustaining virtue. Knowing that death isn't the end helps people believe that no burden is too great to bear and that they won't be separated forever from the people they love.

Of course, monotheistic faiths aren't the only ones that consider hope a virtue. In Buddhism, hope springs from the idea that any person can attain enlightenment.

Religious hopefulness is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism is the attitude that things are great. Religious hopefulness is actually built upon the idea that things aren't so great, but that we don't see the whole picture. The incompleteness of human knowing is met by the hope that the world holds more promise than we can see from our limited perspective.

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