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Essay donated by James B. Gray

Part 1 of 2: On Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy,
(correct belief and correct behavior)

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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). 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.

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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.



The beliefs of people can be separated into the categories "secular" and "religious." 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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This topic continues in the next essay

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Originally posted: 2007-NOV-13
Latest update: 2015-JUN-11
Author: James B. Gray

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