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When Greek Orthodox Spouses Are Not Religious

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

Results from the Interfaith Research Project (IRP) suggest that most Greek Orthodox young people of dating age will eventually spend some time considering their dating partner's religious background. Moreover, if there are too many differences between their own Greek Orthodox religious background, and their dating partner's religious background, information from the IRP suggests that these types of relationships will generally fail to evolve into something serious.

This was not, however, the case in all instances. Some Greek Orthodox participants involved in the IRP stated that they had not spent any time considering their perspective mate's religious background because they did not consider themselves religious. In these cases, many of these types of participants had either drifted away or remained nominally connected to their Greek Orthodox background.

The remainder of this article will briefly introduce the reader to just such a person who will be identified as John. It should also be noted that the descriptions and observations that follow have not come from one particular individual named John, but are the result of several individuals who participated in the IRP. Furthermore, while it is difficult to determine just how many of these types of lapsed intermarried Greek Orthodox exist, there is no doubt that they do exist and most everyone of us is acquainted with someone like John.

Meet John

John (37) is a successful small businessman who has been, in his own words, "happily married for 12 years." When asked to describe his religious affiliations, he states that "I come from a Greek Orthodox background, but I don't really consider myself a very religious person."

When John is asked to amplify upon this last statement, he offers the following additional information. "Well, I can't remember the last time I was in church. My wife goes sometimes with the kids, but they go to the Catholic Church. If I go at all, it's because someone died. But don't misunderstand, I still consider myself a Greek-American, but I don't go to church, that's all."

John is then asked to describe some of his religious experiences while growing up. With a half smile on his face almost resembling a smirk, he proceeds to answer with the following disjointed remarks. "My parents would bring us to church, but to this day I don't know why. When I would ask them why I had to go, they would yell and say something lame like, 'you just have to go that's all.' But none of their answers ever made much sense to me."

At this point in the conversation, John is asked if this discussion is making him feel uncomfortable, and he emphatically states, "no, not really, actually I'm finding it rather refreshing." He then proceeds to offer further information. "Don't misunderstand me, I loved my parents. They were good people. They worked hard to ensure that my sibs and I obtained a good education and would have a happy, comfortable life. But I don't think either of them really knew much about Greek Orthodoxy. So we went fairly regularly to church, but that was as far as religion went around our house…. I don't know, maybe they went because their conscience bothered them, or that's what people did back then, but I quickly decided that I wasn't going as soon as I could make my own mind up."

John pauses for a few moments as if to collect his thoughts, and then shares the following additional observations about his father. "But my dad was kind of proud of his ethnic background. He sometimes talked about being Greek, but even when he talked about being Greek, he had as many bad things to say about the Greeks as he did good things."

John is then asked to describe more of his childhood church experiences. John smirks again, and sarcastically repeats part of the question. "My church experiences…. Do you really want this information? Well, okay, here goes. I remember going to church and being bored, I mean, really bored. I couldn't understand anything. Besides the fact that the services were in Greek, and people looked at you sternly if you fidgeted too often, I have very few other memories."

After more of the same information is shared for several more minutes, and our conversation begins to come to a conclusion, John is asked if the Orthodox Church could do anything for him and his family now. John shrugs his shoulders and states, "I doubt it, but it did feel good talking to someone about this…. Sometimes I feel like it might help my kids and family, but I just don't know…. Maybe a few more discussions like this might help some people like me."

Some Observations about this Interview

What can be stated in succinct terms about this short interview?
First, the compelling reason(s) why intermarried Greek Orthodox Christians like John have stopped coming to church has little or nothing to do with being intermarried. Many of these types of lapsed Greek Orthodox appear to have severed their relationship with religion before getting married.

Second, other factors such as (a) their parents' lack of understanding of Orthodoxy, (b) their parents' nominal faith in God, and (c) the Church's inability to effectively reach out to John in a meaningful, personal way appear to have infected his thinking about religion and/or the Church.

Third, if intermarried parents expect their children to develop a bond with Greek Orthodoxy, they must be prepared to put in the necessary time to learn the faith and mirror it by example to their children.

Suggestions for Reaching John

While many lapsed Greek Orthodox like John may never come back to the Church, information from the IRP suggests that nominal believers like John may respond if the Church finds ways of identifying them, connecting with them in a non-judgmental manner, and allowing them some latitude for ventilation.

In short, many of these types of individuals' stories infer that they have never found a meaningful reason to renew their religious ties. When these types of people get married and have families, however, marriage and family needs may compel them to rethink the value of religion if the Church can respectfully show them how it can have a positive impact on individual, marital, and family well being. Amen.