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Essay donated by James B. Gray

On Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

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An important distinction in the religious realm is that between orthodoxy (i.e., correct belief) and orthopraxy (i.e., correct behavior)—which hereafter I will refer to as D and P for the sake of convenience. These concepts are often presented as opposites—analogous to the two sides of a coin. However, not only are there differences between D and P, but similarities as well. My goal here, in fact, is to identify similarities as well as differences with respect to D and P (from my perspective—admittedly—as a P person).

A similarity that can be pointed out at the outset is both D and P are normative concepts, in that both involve value judgments. "Correct" belief, on the one hand, refers to belief in that which is alleged to be true. And "correct" behavior," on the other hand, is behavior alleged to be good. So that of the classic triumvirate of truth, goodness, and beauty, two are involved with the concepts of D and P (although some associate beauty with both truth and goodness). In addition, it is pertinent to note at this point that belief and behavior (if not correct belief and behavior) overlap in the sense that beliefs are associated with everyone (whether in the D camp or P one), and the same is true regarding behavior.

One might argue, I suppose, that belief and behavior occupy separate realms, for behaviors are events that occur in the physical/material realm, and beliefs exist in the intellectual/mental realm—with the latter being, only with difficulty, thought of as "events." However, one can make statements about behavior only after one has identified types of things, and named them. So that in a sense, behaviors don’t even exist until types of behaviors have been identified and named! We can observe behavior occurring in the real world (by humans, by animals—even by, e.g., clouds), which fact "tells" us that what we are observing is real. But all we have is "blooming confusion" until we start using our minds to identify types of behavior and simultaneously provide a name to each type. Which behavior (yes, this intellectual activity can be thought of as involving behavior) may then be followed by the development of hierarchical classifications (of either logical division or grouping varieties).

The intellectual activity that I refer to above should not be thought of as involving description but, rather, pre-description—and specifically construct creation. The reason: one has not yet made any statements regarding behaviors. Which is not to say, however, that all statements are of a descriptive nature (e.g., there are also normative statements). Descriptive statements are, though, the fundamental ones; and the basic principle that should guide one creating such statements is that they should be "truth-telling" ones. That is, they should be objective—meaning that they should have intersubjective reliability (i.e., regarded as "true" by those qualified to make that judgment).

Descriptive statements purport to report truths about the real world, an assumption underlying them being that the "things" being described are real things, not fictitious ones. Which points up the fact that just because one creates names for things, it does not follow that those names have real-world referents. For example, the name "unicorn" exists, but it does not follow that unicorns exist—in the real world, at least.

Some names are created for things that are clearly invented, rather than discovered: the world of fiction is filled with examples, as is the world of movies. In other cases, however, names have been created for things that some claim to have real-world referents, while others dispute that claim—the primary case of interest here being that of "God." In such cases it may be impossible to resolve the dispute because the parties involved cannot agree on what constitutes adequate proof as to the existence or non-existence of the thing in question. The fundamental difficulty involved with such cases is that because the thing in question cannot be observed directly, its existence can only be inferred. But inferred from what? Given that the parties involved are unlikely to agree on an answer to that question, their dispute will likely remain unresolved over time—and may, in fact, become rancorous, given that each party has a psychological investment in its position.

Any given statement that makes reference to "God"—i.e., God has certain characteristics (e.g., omniscience, omnipotence), God has done certain things, God is currently doing certain things, etc.—is likely to be accepted as "true" by some people, but denied by others. Those who do not accept the statement will fall into two categories. On the one hand are those who disagree with the statement on the basis that because (they say) "God" is the name for a non-existent entity, the statement is meaningless. On the other hand are those who believe that "God" is the name for a real entity "out there," but disagree with the given statement because they do not accept the concept of God embedded in the statement, disagree with the characteristics attributed to God in the statement—or both. Regardless of the basis for disagreement, the two (or more) parties involved will likely never resolve it because of an inability to establish objective evidence for the existence of God.

But I am getting off the track here, and must return to my main theme—similarities and differences between D and P. I have already offered some brief comments on similarities between the two, and therefore will devote the remaining paragraphs below to differences—concluding the presentation with criticisms that D people make of P ones, and the converse. In discussing differences I do so under the headings Beliefs, Proper Beliefs, Behavior, and Proper Behavior.

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The beliefs of people can be separated into the categories "secular" and "religious," and the first observation that can be made regarding D people in our society is that they accept most of the beliefs "out there" that can be given the label "secular." There are, however, exceptions such as denying that the earth is old, denying that evolution (especially of the polytypic variety) has occurred, asserting that homosexuality is a matter of choice, and asserting that males are superior to females. So far as religious beliefs are concerned, D people typically believe that:

bulletThere is a Being "out there" (i.e., God) who is human-like in having the capability of making decisions, but otherwise is far superior to humans; for God is all-powerful (i.e., omnipotent), all-knowing (i.e., omniscient), etc.
bulletGod is the Creator of the cosmos, including all of the lifeforms in it.
bulletWhat the Bible reports about God—as to what God said and did—is factual information about God.
bulletTherefore, the facts reported in the Bible should be believed.
bulletAlso, the behavioral injunctions (i.e., behaviors enjoined and forbidden) attributed to God in the Bible should be perceived as intended not only for people living during "Bible times," but for all people at all times. Given that all of the behavioral injunctions attributed to God in the Bible are accurate reports, they must not be obeyed selectively: all, rather, must be obeyed.

P people tend to accept virtually all of the "secular" beliefs current in our society, which fact distinguishes them somewhat from D people. However, given their orientation to behavior—proper behavior in particular—they especially have an interest in beliefs that pertain to behavior. They have an interest in:

bulletExplanations that have been offered of human behavior (dealing with such factors as the role of human biology, present context, upbringing, the "discrepancy" factor, etc.).
bulletThe identification of excuses that people use to engage in behavior that they, as P people, regard as improper.
bulletThe identification of obstacles that people (whether D or P) face in behaving in a manner P people would "lift up" as desirable.
bulletThe identification of behaviors that could possibly be engaged in by P people either to help remove obstacles that prevent people from engaging in behaviors that P people regard as desirable, or help others see that the "reasons" they give for engaging in undesirable behaviors are (from a P perspective) actually just excuses (and as such, not well-grounded).

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Proper Beliefs:

The orientation of D people is to "proper" beliefs, and their concept of what constitutes proper beliefs is very much Bible-related. Thus, they tend to "hold up" such "proper" beliefs as:

bulletThe Bible is "God’s Word."
bulletGod created the cosmos.
bulletGod is omniscient, omnipotent, etc.
bulletJesus was born of a virgin.
bulletJesus is God’s son, sent to earth to die a sacrificial death, to atone for our sins.
bulletJesus was resurrected, then ascended to Heaven.
bulletJesus will return some day, and at some point after that event those who "believe in" (or believed in) him will be raptured off to Heaven.

The P person has a simpler concept of what constitutes "proper" belief: proper belief is belief in that which has been established as being objectively true. Which means that P people reject many of the religious beliefs of D people, on the basis that the latter’s beliefs cannot be established as demonstrably true. Indeed, they are likely to point out that a belief that refers to the future by its very nature cannot be established as true: projections are of a different order than facts (as anyone who watches the weather news on TV knows!). But although the P person rejects many of the beliefs associated with "Ddom," s/he has the wisdom to recognize that the life of any person on the one hand involves projections (whose "truth" cannot be established a priori), and also beliefs whose veracity cannot be established definitively. Thus, the P person will harbor beliefs as to what exists and what is true, along with projections as to what might occur, with the full knowledge that these do not meet the rigorous standards of scientific objectivity—which facts will not bother the P person because s/he knows that this is simply how it must be, and one must then simply try to be as reasonable as possible in what one believes.

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Behavior as a subject to research and learn about is something that D people tend to lack an interest in—for the simple reason that they tend to believe that human behavior has no deterministic element but, rather, is a matter of choice. Given this, what’s the point in attempting to find non-existent "laws" which explain human behavior? P people do not deny that humans have "free choice," but also recognize that regularities can be observed in human behavior—which fact suggests that human behavior is subject to scientific (i.e., empirical and theoretical) study. P people would add, however, that given their orientation to what they regard as "proper" behavior, they are especially interested in discovering and learning facts relative to behavior that relate rather directly to their particular orientation.

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Proper Behavior:

D People derive—or say they do!—their notions of what sorts of behaviors are "proper" from the Bible. However, their notions of what is "proper" tend to relate more to behaviors that should not be engaged in rather than behaviors that ought to be. Therefore, insofar as "sin" is a part of their vocabulary—which it is!—their orientation is more to sins of commission than omission. Furthermore, they often assert that sinful behaviors are a result of Original Sin (which they connect to a "sinful nature" that we are alleged to have been born with)—thereby not perceiving that they are changing the "ground rules," given that this view is in conflict with their assertion of free will. Paradoxically, D people seem to believe that sinful behavior is inevitable, despite the "fact" that people have free will. And that because sinful behavior is inevitable, police are necessary (especially for the purpose of apprehending offenders, rather than preventing sins from occurring in the first place), a court system with lawyers and judges are needed for trying the accused, and jails/prisons are needed for incarceration of those found guilty—the purpose of incarceration being not only to prevent those found guilty from harming others, but to punish them ("an eye for an eye"). How this view of the purpose of incarceration relates to their (confusing) views as to the basis of human wrong-doing is not clear.

An important category of improper behavior for D people is verbal behavior—whether oral or written—that denies the truth of beliefs that D people hold dear, or is regarded by them as blasphemous. D people denounce such offenders as heretics or blasphemers, and tend to believe that they are justified in attacking such people—not only verbally, but physically. Indeed, the killing of such people is often regarded as within the realm of permissibility by D people—whether or not such killing is against the civil laws of their society. Thus, there are some in our midst who, because the Bible declares killing is sin, and that the killing of a fetus involves, well, killing, they have God’s permission to bomb abortion clinics—despite the fact that that might involve killing its occupants! It’s not clear what theory guides such behavior, but an "eye for eye" one must somehow be involved.

The orientation of P people is to behavior that they regard as desirable, and because "desirable" may be interpreted variously, herein I will confine my comments to my personal views on the matter. As I state in "Worship" (on this site), "desirable" behavior is behavior that contributes (directly or indirectly) to the well-being of one’s fellows and/or the survival of species—including our own! They therefore engage in direct actions to help others, attempt to influence the voting of legislators, work with members of their church (or organizations such as Habitat for Humanity), etc. They may relate their planning and actions to the Tradition I refer to in "Worship," some other "theory," or simply to, e.g., the Golden Rule.

P people recognize that some people, for a variety of reasons (or because of a number of different factors), engage in behaviors that detract from the well-being (or even lives) of others, and therefore agree with D people that there must be police officers to not only apprehend offenders, but deter offenses from occurring in the first place; a court system; and jails/prisons for incarcerating those convicted. However, P people tend to perceive offenses as the result of a faulty societal situation rather than individual defect, so that on the one hand they support measures designed to prevent offenses from occurring; and favor programs for those incarcerated that are oriented to treatment/restoration rather than punishment.

P people recognize that when it comes to religious matters the views that they hold are not shared by all others. In fact, some P people suspect that the specific views of any given person are unique to that person—so that it would be wise for one to recognize that one’s own views are "merely" subjective. So that one should not only try to avoid "pushing" one’s own views on others, but should strive to be tolerant toward others; that, indeed, one should welcome learning about the religious views of others, for this might help one make one’s own views more mature. Thus, the attitude that P people tend to have regarding the religious views of others often differ sharply from those held by D people—which fact has consequences rather different from those associated with the attitudes of D people.

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Criticisms: Of D People Regarding P People:

For D people it is obvious that the (Christian) Bible is "God’s Word," and therefore not to be taken lightly—one’s soul being in danger if one so does (i.e., one runs the risk of spending eternity in a very warm place). D people look at the Bible as having authoritative character, and therefore believe it essential that what they say and do is authorized by the Bible. Given their belief-system, they take offense at the treatment of the Bible that they perceive on the part of P people—people who lack sufficient reverence for the Bible, even to the point of not giving it much attention at all. They may therefore accuse P people of living by man-made rules, rather than God’s laws—which fact they may find deeply disturbing. What may especially bother them regarding P people is that they perceive them as having an ambiguous, amorphous concept of God—if, in fact, they even believe in God. Thus, D people find it easy to think of P people as either agnostics or (Heaven forbid!) atheists; and because they believe D people are headed for Hell, believe it their obligation to warn P people of the danger they’re in, and try to convert them. If P people resist these attempts, D people—because they may perceive P people as a sort of pollution (!)—may feel it as their duty to rid the world of this form of pollution.

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Criticisms of P People Regarding D People:

P people tend to be much more tolerant than D people, but this does not prevent them from being critical (although not vociferously, usually) of D people. They may argue that:

bulletD people are very selective in their use of the Bible—using only passages that support their preconceived opinions.
bulletD people use the Bible to authorize views and/or behaviors that they prefer, rather than viewing the Bible as a book whose basic thrust can be determined—so that one can then allow the Bible to "author" one’s life (to use terms borrowed from theologian Delwin Brown).
bulletD people fail to recognize that a variety of concepts of God are present in the Bible, which fact can be interpreted as giving one permission to arrive at a concept of God that one finds reasonable.
bulletD people fail to recognize that the basic thrust of the Bible is a valuing of universal (human) well-being, and that the Bible can be perceived as a partial record of a well-being Tradition—a Tradition that began before Bible times, and has continued after Bible times down to the present. So that, given this perspective on the Bible, the point is for one to become a part of that Tradition.
bulletP people may even come to conclude that the reason people are attracted to the D "philosophy" is that they want to live by the society’s dominant secular values (i.e., greed, materialism, and selfishness), yet do not want to admit this, either to others or themselves. The D philosophy is, then, attractive to them because it enables them to live by the society’s secular values while pretending to live by Biblical values. Therefore, D people are either people who have fooled themselves (and others) as to the basic thrust of the Bible, or are hypocrites who know full well what the Bible is "about," but want to make others believe that they are "Bible-believing" folk.

It is my considered opinion—as one who has done extensive reading in and about the Bible, and who is a Senior Citizen who has been "churched" virtually all his life—that the Bible strongly supports the orthopraxy position. Yet, it seems that most Christians in the United States are either in the D group, or a group with the D philosophy and P one sharing honors. If NeWFism (see my essay "Worship: An exercise in revisioning"" on this site) were to develop and expand, the situation might change. Let us hope that this happens!

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Originally posted: 2007-NOV-13
Latest update: 2007-NOV-18
Author: James B. Gray

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