You must have heard by now. The Greek National Elections came and went. Today Greece has a new Prime Minister (Alexis Tsipras) as the head of a new ruling coalition between his party, the “Coalition of the Radical Left” (SY.RIZ.A.) and the “Independent Greeks” (AN.EL.). I’ll let the political pundits and the economists deal with that this will mean for the EU, the bailout and the local and european economies. I’d rather focus on the significance of the elections on the secularism front.
And I have to say that despite the julibations caused by today’s secular ministerial installment in the greek and international atheist community, I remain skeptical. SYRIZA is too much of a mixed bag to warrant anything other than the mildest of optimistic approaches.
Some introductory remarks
The history of the relationship between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek State is long and very complex, but if you’re a reader from the U.S. or any secular state in general, you must bear in mind the following points when reading any commentary about the subject, including this post:
- The Orthodox faith is interwoven with the Greek national identity to the point where
- Greeks are considered de facto Orthodox
- rejecting Orthodoxy can be viewed as treasonous (not legally)
- the entitlement of a Greek to the title “orthodox christian” means that he cannot really distinguish his own opinions from church doctrine to the detriment of both
- thankfully (if one can call it that) declaring yourself as an atheist is to many people an equivalent to saying that you’re a Communist, which bears much less of a stigma in Greece
So, moving on…
On the Up Side…
…SYRIZA being a strongly leftist party has made the right wing church-goers and their shepherds extremely agitated. Since the last elections of 2012, when it became apparent that SYRIZA’s popularity and uptick in the polls was here to stay, we’ve witnessed underhanded attacks from unofficial church groups (the official church remained prudently silent). A couple of examples:
This pamphlet comes from a group that has apparently no corresponding real-world actual organization (or none that I could find). The signature seems to be like “a concerned citizen” albeit more specific.
This pamphlet supposedly comes from the “Metropolis of Kalavryta”, but the Metropolitan has claimed ignorance on the matter and accused unknown people who meant to discredit him. (source)
It is of course impossible to verify the origin of pamphlet like these and I might even grant the fact that it might have been the work of provocateurs (and leaflets like these were mostly absent from this year’s elections), but the sentiment seems genuine enough, especially since SYRIZA’s MPs has been playing air guitar with the Religious Right’s nervous system for the past few years, with stuff like these:
- During the 2013 conference called “The Church and the Left”, held by the Faculty of Theology of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, SYRIZA MP Manos Kourakis suggested that the state should not pay the clergy’s salaries as it is the case today (don’t draw hasty conclusions, the story behind this is way too complex), but priests should get paid by those who profess their faith in the Orthodox Church (aka the German Model). While this doesn’t mean the Orthodox will be taxed significantly more, the non-Orthodox will be unburdained. This was quickly distorted in the polemical view that SYRIZA wants to tax the faithful.
- SYRIZA has repeatedly stated the view that Church and State need to be separated. For instance, in 2008 SYRIZA abstained from the religious installment of the new parliament for this exact reason: “…so the record will show, once again, the need for discrete roles of the Church and the State.”
- Many of SYRIZA’s members are in fact atheists, though it is unknown whether they are atheists for philosophical reasons or due to marxist ideology. Personally I would bet on the second option. Tsipras himself has declared himself an atheist in an interview in 2011, much to the delight of the opposition. He has also not baptized his son (he just gave him a name at the Registrar’s Office), and hasn’t married his wife, but preferred the cohabitation agreement.
All this was topped off with yesterday’s ministerial installment, which was sealed with a secular oath and not the customary religious one. This was apparently annoying enough for the outgoing government of New Democracy to issue a statement:
Bad start from Mr. Tsipras. He is purposefully ignoring a centuries-old tradition of the Hellenic Nation, whose course is intertwined with Orthodoxy.
This is certainly a step forward, but really just a minor one. And to the Americans who seem to make a big deal of this: Guys, really, in Greece for politicians to be out as atheists is not really noteworthy. It’s quite common for people with a marxist background (hell, the Communist Party habitually abstains for the swearing-in of the parliament every single time). If he actually does something to promote the separation of Church and State… now THAT will be noteworthy (but, read below). But for that to be done effectively, we’ll need a constitutional ammendment and that cannot be done in this parliamentary term.
On the Down Side…
… (and yes, there is a down side, as was to be expected) the biggest disgrace of all came to pass during this election campaign. Mr. Tsipras has been courting the semi-devout for votes, but he really became the butt-end of jokes in the Greek Atheist Community when, on January 6th, he took part in the Theophany Celebration of the Blessing of the Waters, where he released a dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit annointing Jesus during his baptism in the River Jordan.
He also made a statement:
Today is an important day for Orthodoxy, a grand celebreation for the greek people. As for me, I wish the light of justice and truth will warm henceforth our homeland.
Holy ambiguity, Batman! Of course the Greek Atheist audience was appalled by this, but we’re a tiny minority, so who gives a tiny rat’s ass about us. The man needs votes in the ballot box. Respect, however, doesn’t come easy. As a fellow member of the AUG said about the photo op: “Pidgeotto, I chose you!”. Oddly, many of us have chosen to forget all that stuff as soon as he got elected…
There were prior signs of this, of course.
Last March, Rena Dourou, the candidate backed by SYRIZA for the Regional Governor of Attica, stated that “SYRIZA will take no unilateral action to change the relationship between Church and State”. Ouch!
Last June, Yannis Amanatidis and Makis Lykopoulos, entrusted by the party to deal with religious matters, made a point of writing their condolances to a Mount Athos Monastery about the death of Monk Moses (had never heard of him prior to this). Did the death of a monk really warrant such an adulating letter of condolances? Doubtful.
And yesterday, Tsipras made a point of visiting the Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece in person to inform him that he won’t be needed to perform the swearing-in ceremony, but is welcome to attend. He also said “I come for your blessing; the relations between State and Church will be upgraded and more substantial than before”. Last week he also visited the Archbishop of Crete, also in order to get his blessing.
Yes, SYRIZA has been pandering to the religious sentiment of the Greeks to get votes. We all knew it would happen, just not so blatantly. But, I must accept the fact that antagonizing the Church would not have been a sound political move at all. Who needs the respect of the Secularists anyway, right?
On the Funny Side…
…the Religious Right did an encore on this lovely incident and a newspaper published a front page based on a humourous piece by an atheist friend of mine; in it Elder Paisios (now canonized) supposedly said/prophesied “Everyone will say that we belong to the West, but then a sharp east will come and the Franks will be terrified”. “Sharp East”, if read backwards with a greek accent, sounds like “Tsipras”. You really can’t make this stuff up!
All in all, I’ll opt for well-guarded optimism. I know that Tsipras and SYRIZA in general would really like to secularize the country, but there are two caveats:
First, I know the people don’t want for the country to really become secular and if push comes to shove, SYRIZA will chose not to antagonize neither the people, nor the Church, at least not during this term. We will see a lot of backflipping on a lot of issues and just a trickle of improvements.
Second, this government’s majority in the parliament depends on the extra seats provided by the right wing “Independent Greeks” and they won’t be very accomodating with any sort of radically secular agenda. Currently the real issue they agree on is that they don’t really like the way the EU is treating the country. Ideologically they’re opposites and given that the fiscal policies really need to take precedence, most secular issues will take a third, fourth or fifth seat; if they’re brought up at all.
So, if you need me, I’ll be over there, not holding my breath.