Greece’s New Godless Prime Minister

I’m encouraged by the victory of Syriza, a “far-left” party with very real communist roots, in the recent elections in Greece. Syriza took nearly half the seats in the unicameral Hellenic Parliament, and secured a majority by entering into a coalition with the “far-right” Independent Greeks.

The idea of a far-left-far-right coalition might seem far out, but I’d take it more as an indication of the gross inadequacy of a one-dimensional “political spectrum” as a framework for describing where parties and individual politicians really stand. Syriza and the Independent Greeks disagree on a lot of issues, but they’re united in rejecting the program of EU-imposed economic austerity that “centrist” politicians tend to favour or at least accept, albeit perhaps for primarily socialist reasons in the case of Syriza and primarily nationalist ones in the case of the Independent Greeks. Given that austerity is currently the issue in Greek politics, however, a coalition of anti-austerity parties makes perfect sense regardless of whether those parties are on the same page in other respects.

So why do I find the results of the Greek election encouraging? It doesn’t hurt that Syriza’s leader and Greece’s new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is an atheist with a rather defiantly informal demeanour, although it has to be said that he’s an atheist who is a bit distastefully cozy with Pope Francis and deferential to the Greek Orthodox Church. Atheists can be as daffy as anyone, of course, not to mention foolish, unscrupulous, lazy, paranoid, and many other things, but at least their – or rather our – lack of religious convictions dries up one common wellspring of daffiness.

More importantly, though, I just want Greece to get out of the wretched economic mess that the country has been floundering through for several years now. Yes, the misery and grinding poverty are partly self-inflicted, a result of the chickens of tax evasion and a bloated public sector coming home to roost – but only partly, and in any case enough is enough. It’s been a long time since the days of Plato and Aristotle, and even longer since the days of Homer, if indeed the man ever existed. Nevertheless, ancient Greece was a fount of achievements in philosophy, mathematics, literature and many other fields, and probably has a better claim than anywhere else to be called both the birthplace of reason and the birthplace of Western civilization. As a Western rationalist I feel a great affection for the place, perhaps similar to the affection that evangelical Christians tend to feel for Israel. I hope Greece gets back on its feet, sooner rather than later.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a communist. I wouldn’t be surprised if Syriza has some pretty unrealistic ideas about economics and other matters, but nothing I’ve read about the situation in Greece has suggested that austerity is leading to anything but further agony and dysfunction. It’s about time that the Greeks got off their knees and started pushing back, and I’m delighted to see an atheist leading the charge.

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