I'm curious as to what the word for religious philosophy that, although it may have come from a religious figure, or said in some religious context, can, and often times is, used in a secular context.

For example, the expression "Do unto others as you would have done to you." is derived from the Christian bible, but this is a fairly common ideal of many societies. I know that it's not just religious figures that have talked about that kind of concept, (for example Immanuel Kant with the Categorical Imperative), but what would be the best word or way to describe this kind of philosophy that is non-religiously contingent?

I’m looking for a word that describes a philosophy that is religiously originated, but itself doesn't require anything more than wisdom or comprehension to understand. (i.e. one doesn't need to believe in -just as an example- God, or any other such "unproven aspect").

  • Are you looking for secular?
    – Dan Bron
    Apr 18, 2016 at 12:42
  • No, I mean more of a word that describes a philosophy that is religiously originated, but itself doesn't require anything more than wisdom or comprehension to understand. (I.e. One doesn't need to believe in -just as an example- God, or any other such "unprooven aspect". I don't know that that's the best way to phrase it, but I hope I've at least somewhat conveyed my meaning. Apr 18, 2016 at 12:59
  • 2
    I don't understand why "morals" doesn't work. Someone may have an idea of moral behavior and for some people, these morals are based on religious teachings and for others, they are not... and for many, there is a mixture of religious and non-religious moral beliefs. There's not always a word for everything specific.
    – Catija
    Apr 18, 2016 at 20:48
  • 1
    Or ethics.... oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ethics
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 18, 2016 at 21:20

4 Answers 4


I would suggest Natural Law. The idea behind natural law is that we can use reason to recognize some values and rights that we have because we are human. One of the most famous expressions of this idea is from the US Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Yes, the Declaration does mention "their Creator" and "Nature's God", which has religious connotations, but the main idea is that because we are human, we have certain rights that we don't have to earn from or be granted by a higher power; we are born with them. We can discern right from wrong using our reason and our observation of Nature. Because of this, human-made laws should be derived from or based in Natural Law.

Plato identified four Cardinal Virtues, prudence, justice, temperance, courage, that have been expanded upon by later philosophers. Justice, or fairness, would be the virtue that corresponds to the Golden Rule mentioned in the question. Some Christian religions, particularly Catholicism, have incorporated Natural Law concepts into their views, which causes some of the overlap between secular law and religious teachings.


I think the word philosophy would fit here, actually. We want to distinguish between two distinct meanings of the word:

  1. A field of academic study, encompassing metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, etc.


  1. Some particular set of doctrines, principles, or beliefs; a worldview

Here I'm talking about the second definition. The meaning is sometimes clarified by using the phrase personal philosophy. You can also be more specific using phrases like moral philosophy, or for example, "What is your philosophy regarding X?".

  • The OP seems to be looking for a word that means "the secular use of religious idioms". Nothing about philosophy carries that connotation. Plus, the question title includes the word "philosophy"... so I think the OP already is aware of it.
    – Catija
    Apr 18, 2016 at 21:13
  • @Catija There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about what exactly OP is looking for. My impression is that OP wants a word that describes those religious ideas which are not specifically theistic, which generally fall under (the colloquial definition of) philosophy.
    – Era
    Apr 18, 2016 at 21:17

I think you might be looking for "metaphysics":



It can also be thought of a social contract.

  • 2
    Not my d/v, but I've always understood "the social contract" to primarily refer to the obligation of governments to act in the best interests of the governed (with an implicit obligation on citizens to obey the law / government instructions). I don't know that I ever hear it used in respect of how people treat each other in other contexts. Apr 18, 2016 at 16:14
  • I've heard the Golden Rule compared to a social contract many times. Drive by downvotes (not yours, I realize) have little value. oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Hobbes/…
    – TimR
    Apr 18, 2016 at 17:30
  • I'm not really trying to convince you "Golden Rule" and "the social contract" are different things (though they do have very different connotations to me). I just posted my comment as a possible explanation for someone else's d/v. I agree that in general a d/v with no reason (either contextually obvious, or justified by an appropriate comment) is of little value. Apr 18, 2016 at 17:47
  • I think the OP is looking for examples of philosophies which, although they often appear in religious contexts, express an idea that is not founded on any metaphysical or otherworldly or eternal principle, but is really quite mundane and secular. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ass is quotidien advice, whereas "I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt not have strange gods before me" hinges on the metaphysical idea that there can be but one Creator.
    – TimR
    Apr 18, 2016 at 21:03
  • I haven't voted on the question or any answers here, but I note that several people have mentioned secular, which seems the obvious word to me for this general area. I do find it irritating when Xtians imply that without the ten commandments we'd never know about the Golden Rule (known in ancient Egypt millennia before Xtianity, and usually attributed to ancient Greeks anyway). But I wonder if the distinction OP is getting at is a matter of deist/theist, rather than religious/secular. Apr 18, 2016 at 21:35

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