A Team Sport

The psychological research on moral formation provides an interesting insight on this data. Jonathan Haidt argues that we develop our moral framework through, among other things, shared physical activity. Or, as he says, religion is a “team sport.” This means that

trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.

While theology matters, it isn’t the whole of religious faith. “Believing, doing, and belonging are three complementary yet distinct aspects” of what it means to be a religious believer. It is “beliefs and practices” together that “create a community.” [1]  This is why believers, of any tradition, who don’t participate regularly in their tradition’s worship, tend to take their moral cues not from their own religious tradition but from some other source. In America, that source is typically the surrounding secular culture.[2]

If Haidt is correct then given the relatively low participation rate of Orthodox Christians in weekly worship we should expect to see a lack of theological orthodoxy that corresponds with a relatively low rate of moral orthopraxis. And, in fact, we do.

While there are no doubt many factors that contribute to these numbers, when asked about their understanding of God, Orthodox Christians prove themselves to be rather less than orthodox (much less, Orthodox). 32% think of God as an “impersonal force.” Another 6% say they believe in a god that may, or may not, be personal; an equal number don’t know what they believe about God. Atheists make up 4% of those who still call themselves Orthodox. Finally, 1% have some “other” notion of God than those offered in the PEW study.[3]

In other words, about half the Orthodox Christians in America, don’t believe in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Without prejudice to divine grace, this means that about half of all Orthodox Christians are predisposed to NOT experience God’s love for them. The god in which they believe is, at best, an impersonal force. And when asked if they are certain that personal relationship with God is even possible only 47% of American Orthodox Christians said yes—which isn’t to say they have a personal, much less loving, relationship with the Holy Trinity, only that they were certain such a relationship is possible.

Demographically, morally and spiritually, Orthodox Christians in America have taken a beating. That other Christian and non-Christian traditions are in similar situations is, at best, cold comfort. The condition of Orthodoxy in America raises a practical question. What is the Church to do? How are we to respond to the corrosive effects of the religious free market? And, since we’re asking hard questions, can we really lay the blame on the marketplace of ideas or might it be as well that Orthodox Christians have failed to use the freedoms America has afforded the Church?

As a first step in our working together to answer these question, let’s look at two different strategies for facing the challenge inherent in the free market of ideas: Withdrawal and Competition.

[1] Haidt, Jonathan, Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (p. 290). New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, p. 209.

[2] Pew Religious Landscape Survey: Practices and Social Attitude.

[3]