Irreligiosity in Greek Culture, Angelos Sofocleous

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are the demographics for humanism in Greece? Because most of the population is Greek Orthodox.

Angelos Sofocleous: According to the latest Pew report, 90% of the Greek population identifies themselves as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. It has to be stressed, however, that many people identify as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church only by convention. From birth, Greeks are proselytized into the Greek Orthodox Church by baptism at a very young age – when they are a less than a year old – and, therefore, on paper, almost every Greek citizen is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church.

What is more, as the Church is strongly infiltrated and influences almost every aspect in the public and private sphere, including education, politics, family, culture, and tradition, most find it difficult to break away from religion as this is often accompanied by intense criticism from family members, colleagues, and the wider community. Although rare, some are even ostracized from societal religious gatherings, or from their families altogether.

With blasphemy laws still present in the Greek Penal Code, many of which were applied in various cases in the previous years, it is of no surprise that Greece has many ‘closet humanists’ and ‘closet atheists’; people who are afraid to come out as humanists or atheists, speak up against religion or openly criticize it. Specifically, Article 198 of the Greek Penal Code states that “1. One who publicly and maliciously and by any means blasphemes God shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than two years”.

Nevertheless, the percentage of Greeks who identify as humanists has risen to 14.7% (compared to 2% in 2006), according to new research by Kapa Research. Of course, no major cultural change took place that would justify a sevenfold increase in the number of humanists in Greece. Cultural changes are taking place in the country, but it’s also the case that people are less afraid of identifying as humanists or atheists. This, however, remains an anonymous survey; percentages would be lower considering those who are still not as courageous to identify themselves as non-Christian.

Jacobsen: Does humanism have a hard time gaining influence in the country?

Sofocleous: “In the name of the Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity,”; this is how the Greek Constitution begins. Merely by looking at this, one can see how religion lays on the foundations of the modern Greek state. As it follows, humanism has a very hard time gaining influence in the country.

Before giving a satisfying answer as to why humanism has a hard time gaining influence in Greece, one should consider how easily the Church influences every aspect of social and political life. The Orthodox Church of Greece is one of the most wealthy and powerful organizations in Greece, probably only comparable to the State itself. It enjoys great privileges, such as exemption from taxation, exemption from austerity measures, while it is almost fully funded by the State. At the same time, the Church is legally unbound to give any percentage of its income back to the State. Salaries of priests, clerks, and employees of the Church amount to 220 million Euros per year, while the Church’s wealth amounts to billions of Euros, an amount impossible to be calculated, as no official reports are given.

Despite the fact that the Constitution does not recognize any official ‘state religion’, it states that the Church of Greece is recognized as the ‘prevailing religion’ in the country. What is more, the Statutory Charter of the Church must be passed by the Plenary Session of Parliament, and the Archbishop presides over each opening session of Parliament. On what regards national celebrations, these are often jointly attended by leaders of the State and Church, and equal status is given to both.

What is more, the Church has a major say in politics, education, and civic life, including the school curriculum and LGBT rights. State leaders meet regularly with Church leaders to discuss, advise each other, and exchange opinions on political and societal issues. Also, Church leaders have a considerable exposure to media, managing to influence the general public. At schools, a morning religious prayer is said, and religious symbols, such as icons and crosses, are present, as is the case in most of the state’s buildings. Furthermore, Religious Education in schools is one-sided, presenting Christianity as the only true religion, while it merely criticizes other religions and considers them ‘sinful’. Schools, instead of being places where students can freely express themselves and develop their ideas, are doing the opposite by strictly limiting the ideological scope of students, and their freedom of expression and association.

Due to the large influence of the Church, humanism also has a hard time gaining influence in Greece because, as politically active, the Church holds a right to far-right agenda, sometimes in line with Golden Dawn, a Greek Neo-Nazi parliamentary party. Hence, the Church influences the political ideas of a great number of people and often spreads homophobic and anti-immigration statements. Greeks have strong feelings of cultural superiority and national pride, something also outlined at the Pew report. In fact, three-quarters of the public (76%) says that being Orthodox is important to being “truly Greek.” They believe that their religion, language, culture, tradition, is superior to those of other nations. This, of course, holds them back from even conceptualizing humanism’s basic ideas. Humanism has no place for any kind of superiority, especially when one claims to have superiority innately e.g. by being ‘born Greek’ – whatever this may mean.

It is also difficult for any Greek to avoid engaging in religious practices, as a great number of cultural events and traditions have a religious background. Such events are often the only time families come together and the only time Greeks have the chance to engage into activities with members of their wider family. Therefore, completely abandoning religion, has the consequence of abandoning other practices which can be described as non-religious on their roots, but which, nevertheless, are directly influenced by religion.  Families maintain religiosity within them and pass it onto the younger members, constructing their religious identity.

Besides societal structures, even the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, despite the fact that he considers himself an atheist and despite being the first Prime Minister to give a political and not a religious oath, has close ties with the Church. Before being elected in office, and during his first weeks in office, Tsipras adopted a mostly secularist worldview and, upon election, he tried to implement it. However, such is the great power of the Church that Tsipras realized that a State-Church separation would not be politically or financially beneficial, and as a result keeps the Church in the government agenda and gives it an advisory role, with the power to influence government strategies.

Humanism, then, has a hard time gaining influence in the country, not primarily because it would be an unappealing concept to most, but because the Church itself is so deeply infiltrated in social and political life, at a degree in which it’s almost impossible for humanism to gain any considerable support over Orthodox Christianity.

Jacobsen: Among the youth (18-35) subpopulation, are they more or less likely to be religious, and are they more or less likely to be humanists?

Sofocleous: There is something that needs to be distinguished before proceeding to answer the question. As religion is deeply enrooted in the country’s culture and traditions, and the Church is greatly involved in education, religiosity needs to be distinguished from following religious traditions or attending mass. It follows, then, that one cannot determine which members of the population, and subsequently the youth, are religious or are simply following religious traditions. Attending church because of a marriage, baptism, or funeral, or attending family gatherings in Christmas, Easter, or other religious celebrations, cannot be classified as religious acts, as they are only done by convention.

Church attendance and following religious traditions are, unfortunately, what most surveys measures. Most young people, whatever their beliefs might be, still follow religious traditions, even if it’s just a family gathering which has a religious background. However, this does not tell us much about those who actually believe in God.

Nevertheless, the number of people who reportedly believe in God amounts to 79% of the population, according to Eurobarometer 2010, in contrast to 98% that is reported by official data. The reason that official data mention a higher number is that Greeks are registered as Christian Orthodox from a very young age, and most do not bother to change their legal status from ‘Christian Orthodox’ to ‘Atheist’, ‘Agnostic’ or ‘Non-religious’. It is expected, then that the difference of, nearly, 20% between the two sets of data, is due to young people’s decreasing religiosity.

As a general rule in the country, religiosity and attending mass or religious traditions, must be clearly distinguished, as one does not imply the other.

As young people move away from religion, it’s fortunate to say that they also adhere to certain humanist principles, even if they are not aware that they are humanists. Young people become more educated and thus they show greater reliability on science and reason rather than faith and belief. They have also become more environmentally aware, and some are following vegetarianism/veganism.

What is more, a great number of people in Greece are disillusioned with the Church and despise it, even if they believe in God. The reason is the great amount of wealth that the Church has, of which a miniscule amount is used to help people (something which is most of the time done in discriminatory ways e.g. by only helping Orthodox Christians). It looks provocative to many that, at a time when unemployment and poverty in Greece is at an alarmingly high level, the Church does not adhere to its principles and remains passive on the financial crisis that Greece is going through. For this reason, even more people are secularists and call for the complete separation of Church and State, in order to lift the special privileges that are given to the Church, something which is also a humanist principle.

Jacobsen: Of the negatives of the Greek Orthodox faith, what antidote does humanism provide for the Greek citizenry, potentially?

Sofocleous: Apart from the belief in God as a supernatural figure, Greeks also tend to believe in superstitions, prefer faith over reason, and have a large sense of national pride, something that puts barriers between them and people of other nationalities. First of all, humanism can show the benefits of rationality over faith, something which has various real-world implications which assist in society’s improvement.

The Church’s great influence is also something that divides rather than unites people, against all groups which do not adhere to the Church’s strict principles: homosexuals, atheists, heathens, communists, socialists, even refugees.

The Church, largely, has become the voice of ultra-conservative politics in Greece. It holds back the country from progressing, as it’s a financially damaging institution which also spreads harmful and hateful ideas.

Humanism could provide the Greek citizenry with what it could provide anyone who chooses to follow humanist principles:

They will be able to use their own rationality and collective responsibility as the source of moral code; not the Church, any priest, monk, or ‘holy book’. This will make it possible for them to treat others in a more humane way, and do not consider those who do not follow the Church’s teachings as ‘sinful to God’s eyes’ or as ‘harmful to society’. Being able to see LGBT people, refugees, or any other minority group members who are often discriminated against, as fellow human beings, will aid in building a society upon dignity and respect, and not hatred and discrimination.

Adopting a more humanist worldview will also help the country get rid of its blasphemy laws. There are various examples of blasphemy laws being enacted. In 2012, three actors in the play “Corpus Christi” were arrested on the charge of blasphemy. The play had to be canceled after demonstrations by fundamentalist Christians and public outcry, and the organizers, producers and cast continued receiving violent threats. In 2013, Dionysis Kavalieratos, a Greek artist, was tried in court on blasphemy charges for his Christian-themed cartoons displayed in a private art gallery in Athens.

The most known case is the case of Philippos Loizos, a Greek man who, in 2012, was arrested on charges of “malicious blasphemy and religious insult on Facebook”. Loizos created a Facebook page named “Elder Pastitsios”, a wordplay between Saint Paisios, a late Greek monk who is considered a prophet by many, and Greek food ‘pastitsio”. Loizos was given a 10-month suspended prison sentence which was later quashed.

The abolition of blasphemy laws, and the adoption of humanist policies, will allow free speech to be respected in the country, and an understanding that citizens cannot be silenced or arrested for criticizing religion.

Humanism will also allow Greeks to realize the openness and plurality of today’s world and heal nationalism-incited violence. Due to their rich ancient history, Greeks feel superiority over other nationalities. This goes far beyond national pride and is the reason of the country’s regress, shown by the country’s high number of believers in God or the supernatural, the presence of a neo-Nazi party in the Parliament, and the limited acceptance of LGBT people, immigrants, refugees, and other minority groups.

Jacobsen: Who are exemplars, in history, of humanism in Greece?

Sofocleous: Ancient Greece was a center of development of humanism, along with other centers of thought in the ancient world: Ancient Rome, China, and even different Islamic centers later on. Humanist thought in Ancient Greece was reflected both in philosophy and art.

In literature, one can refer to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to see how ancient Greeks viewed the meaning of divinity and deity and how they altered it, by putting human characteristics to the divine, and divine characteristics to humans. Humans and gods were not seen as having wholly different attributes, and did coexist, showing that humans could be attributed divine characteristics without, at the same time, claim divinity. Also, Greeks attributed much more realistic characteristics to gods, by not seeing them as perfect or omnibenevolent, but as creatures who often behaved like humans and had human needs. Ancient Greek gods could take a human or animal shape and interact with humans and develop relations. This ‘need’ of gods to interact with the physical world, raises the status of physicality in front of divinity.

In this respect, Homer viewed humans as inherently worthy of respect for their nature, and viewed them as able to develop themselves without requiring divine intervention or any supernatural contribution.

However, in Iliad and Odyssey, gods still remain central figures and play a primary role. Where humanism comes in in these literature works, is in the use of reason and rationality in solving arguments and conflicts. Even in wartime, ancient Greeks tried to adopt a democratic and rational approach to the conflicts that arose.

It would be largely an ignorant move, though, to consider Homer as a wholly humanist writer or proponent of humanism. What is important in his works, however, is that human experience is put at the epicenter of events. Humans are seen as being able to get divine characteristics by nature and not by nurture as is the case in the philosophy of other religions, such as Christianity. The fact that the status of humans is raised to imitate god-like characteristics, gives great importance, trust, and respect to humans, as does humanism.

Where humanist ideas flourished, however, in ancient Greece is in the field of philosophy. Despite the fact that the societal structure of ancient Greece contains characteristics that would be considered undemocratic today (large gender inequalities, slavery, nobles controlling the State), ancient Greece was where democracy was firstly introduced, developed, and applied. Along with democracy came freedom of speech, independence of thought, advancement of the sciences, arts, and philosophy, and a turn-away from religion, superstition, and faith.

In particular, Protagoras (lived 5th century BCE), an agnostic Greek philosopher stated that “Man is the measure of all things” (Greek: Panton chrimaton metron αnthropos – Παντών  χρημάτων μέτρον άνθρωπος). He saw humans as fully able to determine what is true or not, and was a strong proponent of relativism, considering that different viewpoints about a certain issue can be all true at the same time. Although this idea would probably not get much credit today, it is a significant advancement that Protagoras considered that the truth could be reached merely by human means, and humans could determine the value of things by realizing and adopting their own rationality.  He is considered one of the first philosophers to doubt the existence of God, claiming that there is no way of knowing if gods exist or what they might look like “because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life”, an idea for which he was severely criticized.

Epicurus, (lived 4th to 3rd century BCE) one of the most famous atheist philosophers of ancient Greece, adopted and developed a number of humanist ideas. He stated that there is no life after death, as neither the body nor the mind survive death. He also showed the inconsistency of attributing certain divine characteristics to a God, rendering it impossible for there to be an omnibenevolent, omnipotent and all-knowing creature. He is considered the first philosopher to develop the ‘problem of evil’, later stated by David Hume as: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”. Epicurus was against the idea of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God, and thought that, even if gods exist, they would be alienated from the world of humans and would be unconcerned from what is happening in it. He did not see morality, or the physical world, as something that gods would involve themselves in.

Aristotle (lived 4th century BCE), although he did not wholly adhere to humanist principles, as he believed in the immortality of the soul and considered God as the ‘first cause’, he introduced and developed logic and rational thinking. Until now, Aristotle’s logic is considered one of the major works of logic today, and is of great use to philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences. Aristotle greatly contributed to humanism as well, by showing how certain truths can be reached without referring to the supernatural or any creature which exists beyond human nature.

During the middle ages and Renaissance, humanist ideas were re-introduced and spread by various Greek scholars. Their impact and influence, however, was limited as the country was under Ottoman rule at the time. For this reason, many of those scholars were active in other countries, mainly Italy. Greek scholars, during the Renaissance, managed to spread Greek literature and philosophy, and developed its teaching. Emmanuel Chrysoloras and Theodoros Gazis were both important humanist figures of the era. They greatly contributed in the expansion of Greek literature in Europe, as Chrysoloras translated the works of Homer and Plato’s Republic into Latin, and Gazis translated works of Aristotle.

Demetrios Chalkokondyles, a student of Gazis, is considered as one of the most influential Greek scholars and humanists. He was highly respected in Italy, where he taught, and first managed to edit Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and get them printed as a book.

Ioannis Argiropoulos, considered as a continuer of the works of Chrysoloras, wrote on ancient Greek philosophy, and translated many of Aristotle’s works too, including Nicomachean Ethics, from Greek to Latin.

In general, philosophy, primarily in ancient Greece, is a major proponent of rational thinking, managing to develop a humanist world under which societies flourish because of reason and logic, and not through belief in the supernatural or any god or gods.

Jacobsen: What sorts of activism do young Greek humanists tend to involve themselves in?

Sofocleous: Greece currently has two organizations which promote humanist ideas: The Atheist Union of Greece, and the Humanist Union of Greece. Most of their members belong to the 18-35 age group. It has to be stated, nevertheless, that, as Alexandros Sakellariou, a Greek professor of sociology, has noted, “atheists unlike other minority groups studied by sociologists do not tend even nominally to join specifically atheistic organizations and this means that atheists, especially the young ones, could be described as disbelieving without belonging”. Despite this, both organizations are active in promoting and protecting humanism, atheism, and secularism in Greece.

The Atheist Union of Greece is doing great work in informing the public about their rights regarding religion. As already explicitly stated, religion is deeply involved in Greek culture and society. Because of this, many practices such as baptism, marriage, funerals, oath in the government and military, are considered by the general public to only be possible through religious means i.e. through the Church. This is not because of any law which states that the above practices need to be performed through the Church, but because of how these practices were always, by convention, religious.

The Atheist Union of Greece helps students get an exemption from Religious Education at schools, helps whoever is interested to be registered as non-religious on official papers, or not register their religion at all, and inform the public about the difference between baptism and naming, among others. Baptism is considered a ‘must’ in Greek families, and it is considered by the general public as the procedure by which a child officially gets a name, when this is not the case. Furthermore, the Atheist Union of Greece promotes a humanist agenda by encouraging people to “Do good without God”, as one of their campaigns is named, and is considered the major protector of atheism, secularism, and humanism in Greece.

The Humanist Union of Greece, is active in securing a secular Europe, ensure equal treatment of all humans regardless of their religion or beliefs, and fight religious fundamentalism in Greece and Europe. It’s continuously active in campaigns concerning freedom of speech and incidents of hate speech and racism in Greece. With the rise of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, attacks against immigrants and refugees in Greece has increased, and the Humanist Union of Greece is a strong voice of condemnation for such incidents. More importantly, it campaigns for the abolition of blasphemy laws in Greece and worldwide, an issue which puts limits on freedom of speech in the country.

3 thoughts on “Irreligiosity in Greek Culture, Angelos Sofocleous

  1. Οveral, he raises good points, BUT he seem to fall into several mistakes ! I ll mention only 2, in brief:

    1. He seems to identify humanism with atheism. Although both trace their roots in ancient Greece, these two are not the same. It is a commom practice of all neo-atheist groups to conflate the two, in order to give themselves societal purpose and meaning , but that doesn’t mean they are right. Theists could be humanists too, and so could atheists. Irrelegiocity does not mean atheism, and neither does secularism. Atheism can be distinguished from neo-atheism on several levels, philosophical and practical. In a nutshell, neo-atheism has political agenda than philosophicall, and it dictates ethics.

    2. His political and societal analysis of Greece (including Cyprus) is a bit off. On the practical level, families and their relations are not how he describes them. He exagarrates in order to make a point. Also, being patriotic or nationalistic is not a property only of the far right. Left can be patriotic, and atheists could be nationalistic, etc. Neither atheism has a moral stance on moral pseudo-dilemmas such as homophobia , etc. Being an atheist does not imply that you care about gay rights etc.

    Finally, regarding the ancient Greek references, i won’t get into it here. Big discussion by itself…

    • “Being an atheist does not imply that you care about gay rights etc.”

      True, of course, but it is difficult to come up with any strong objection to homosexuality without the adherence to some form of religious dogma. It seems to me that anti-gay, anti-Semite or anti-Christian all imply some religious adherence of some kind. As atheists we should be happy to be free of these societal impediments, even if we are somewhat lacking in a well thought-out humanism of our own. We should be anti-Christianity or anti-Judaism as these are fallacious literary constructs, not people.

      It would be great if more atheists were also humanists, at least according to the humanists societies.

  2. Well, that’s not completely true. There are several secular arguments against gay adoption, or marriage, etc. (check online) These issues are all equivalent. Some might object adoption, but not marriage. It depends… Some arguments could be societal based, others aisthetic, moral, etc. But,not all are religious based (which are ridiculous) .

    But, thats not so the point. The point is that atheism has no inate or inherent morality. But the fact that some attach their own ethics (leftist usually) on it, and then create a narrative which they try to impose on othets too, is preposterous.

    As a classical atheist i am, i have often this issue with so called “atheists”, who are all ideology, and rhetoric, and activism, yet they little knowledge of even the basics on atheism.

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