Now this is something you don’t see every day.
The Atheist Union of Greece (AUG) typically makes press releases and sends letters to public officials regarding matters in its fields of interest, but this was the first time a meeting was arranged face to face with an elected representative.
On August 6th two members of the AUG, the president (Fotis Frangopoulos) and the treasurer (Antonis Markouizos) met with the Deputy Minister of Culture, Education and Religions (Tasos Kourakis) and discussed several issues, the most important of which was the continuing problems students face when trying to get an exemption from religious education in all three levels and 12 years of public education (elementary school, junior high and high school).
The Deputy Minister was reportedly friendly, the discussion lasted about 30 minutes and and the AUG was promised that the Ministry would try to resolve the issue as swiftly as possible. I should note that a promise from a politician pretty much means jack shit in Greece (pardon the French) even under normal political conditions, let alone the current tumultuous situation (as I’m writing this the government has resigned, trying to renew its approval with national elections on September 20th). In any case, however, it was a first step and that should not get overlooked.
I have translated the text presented to the Deputy Minister below, but before you read it you should probably check out this article first, since it describes the various ways Orthodox Christianity intersects with school life in Greece. Originally it was intended to be included here, but it grew rather lengthy and I placed it apart. If you want to learn even more about Orthodoxy and its role in the modern Greek State, you can check out this article as well.
Matters for Consideration by the AUG to the Ministry of Education
- Exemption from Religious Education (RE) for all
- Encyclical that guarantees an exemption from RE without the obligation to disclose religious beliefs in a negative or positive manner (i.e. that the student is not an Orthodox Christian) and without cross-referencing their beliefs (with a previous school diploma, student data sheet, birth certificate or other file or document).
- Explicit order to the schools that they should inform adequately the parents about their right to request an exemption; namely in the following ways: verbal announcement on the first day of school, written announcement prominently displaced in the school for the entire year, information leaflet distributed to all students on the first day of school or the first day they start the new school year.
- Adequate time allowance for the exemption application (at least one month) or abolition of time restrictions (a change of beliefs can happen at any time and a student being exempt from a class does not cause problems for the school program).
- Guarantees that the encyclical will be obeyed (there have been instances where principals refuse to allow exemption, causing distress to parents and students). A central agency in the ministry should be set up for exemptions in case the principal refuses to cooperate (principals who refuse to reform should be immediately reprimanded).
- Abolition of the registration of religious affiliation on student data sheets and school diplomas
- Legislation reform that will stop including the student’s religious beliefs on the school diplomas for Primary and Secondary Education. All schools should be informed that religious beliefs are not be recorded on the students’ data sheets.
- Explicit order to the schools that they should accept no document that includes the religion of the student or their parents.
- Coordination with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Office of Urban and Municipal Affairs) in order to inform all Register Offices of the ruling No.134/2001 of the Agency for the Protection of Personal Data, according to which a copy of the birth certificate should not include religion, unless it is specifically asked for (explicit orders should be issued to all employees that are involved in the process of issuing such documents to abide by this ruling and the citizens informed of this) and to inform citizens that they have the right to expunge theirs and their children’s religious affiliation from the Citizen Registry with a simple application (if the old religious affiliation is not replaced with a new one).
- Clarifications on the method of exemption for school church attendance
Ability to be exempted from all the school church attendance obligations with a single application at the start of the school year. Written announcement to all parents, at least a week in advance, with the option to opt out; students should either be otherwise occupied in school or, in case it’s impossible, they should be able to remain at home.
- Clarifications on the process of the morning prayer
The recitation of the prayer should be abolished and replaced with a few minutes of silence, so anyone who really wants to pray will be able to do so. Otherwise the recitation of the prayer should be performed by a faculty member and not a student, so they won’t be pressured, directly or indirectly, to lead the prayer.
MIDDLE TERM GOALS
- Change of the passage about atheism in the RE book of the 2nd grade of High School.
Atheism is presented in a skewed and offensive manner. The passage should be removed or rewritten by a team of experts along with an AUG representative.
- Removal of religious references from the books of other subjects.
School books are full of references that are either sectarian or take it for granted that all Greeks are Christians. These references should be replaced.
- Removal of exaggerations and untruths from RE books.
- Removal of exaggerations and untruths (references to miracles as being factually true and in doctrines as if they were the only and absolute truth) and biased and non-objective references to christian beliefs that do not align with Orthodox Christianity.
- Compilation of new books by experts in philosophy, sociology and psychology; representatives of all major religions, as well as atheism, irreligion and agnosticism should be allowed to participate.
LONG TERM GOALS
Full secularization of public education. Namely:
- Abolition of school church attendance, morning prayer and the start of the year benediction.
- Removal of religious symbols from classrooms.
- Abolition of the feast of the Three Hierarchs* as supposed protectors of the greek literary tradition and its replacement with a day dedicated to education.
- Abolition of RE in elementary and junior high school.
- Abolition of sectarian RE. Replacement with a philosophy of religions class only in one high school grade (1st or 2nd) with an impartial presentation of all forms of religion and irreligion.
The only official reaction in the Parliament to this meeting seems to have come, ironically, from a member of the former Government Coalition (belonging to the right wing party “Independent Greeks”). The reaction came in the form of a question to the Minister of Education (archived here 12.08.2015). The MP Dimitris Kammenos, after quoting the AUG press release, which among other mentions that the AUG representatives had an interesting exchange of ideas with the Deputy Minister and are at his disposal for future cooperation, asked the Minister the following:
- Based on the fact that the Ministry is (also) Ministry of Religions, how can there be any “…extremely interesting meeting and exchange of ideas and be at your disposal for future cooperation on the necessary improvements on Education” with avowed atheists? Isn’t this against the basic mission and role of a Ministry of Religions? What constructive thing can be achieved with such a meeting other than the acknowledgment of atheist representatives by the Hellenic State.
- Why didn’t the Ministry issue an announcement about this meeting? How is it that an atheist NGO made an announcement by itself for such an important issue?
- What is the position of the Ministry on each of these urgent, middle term and long term issues of the Atheist Union of Greece??? Which of these is it willing to address, which not and in what time frame?
Some of my own comments: (1) Yes, apparently Greek citizens who are also atheists don’t deserve to be acknowledged by their own government, don’t have anything constructive to offer to the religious discussions in the country, should have no say over the education received by their own children. (2) The meeting was a minor thing for the Ministry, hence the lack of an announcement. For the AUG it was of course important, especially since it was its first meeting in person with an elected official. Notice however the characterization “NGO” used for the AUG. While not technically wrong (it is an organization not owned by the government) the term in Greek has a negative connotation, since it is often used to refer negatively to organizations who live off of State and EU money and produce nothing of value.
I have no idea if the Minister answered at all (I’d be interested in the answer as well), but my guess is that he had more important fish to fry, such as prepare for the upcoming elections.
The Church of Greece reacted in a similar fashion, through its leader Archbishop Ieronymos. During a visit at the Monastery of St. Kosmas Aetolos at Thermo, Aetoloacarnania on the saint’s feast day, August 24th, he said among other things:
There are theories [he means the Englightenment] which allow us to sacrifice man for our own personal paradise and others that lead to the exploitation of man, which makes him lose his dignity; but there are also the Teachings of Christ, which respect man and views him as irreplaceable.
An esteemed group of people who claimed to be atheists visited the Minister of Education and requested the abolition of any relationship between the Church and the School, so the children can feel free […] When St. Kosmas said the damage would be done by people of letters, what did he mean? […] There are two types of wisdom. One is life experiences and degrees, which are useful especially today, but there is another one, the Wisdom of God. Where the two meet, there happens a miracle and a charismatic person is created. Only with letters and no divine Wisdom, a dangerous human is created. That’s what St. Kosmas had in mind.
So the Minister and any Minister could say that we have a Constitution in this country and the Constitution needs to protect all people. All parents who don’t want their children to get a religious education should be free to be exempt, but with what nerve do you ask for the abolition of RE, prayer and school church attendance? And these are position circulating in writing, in memoranda […] Since we are headed to elections, we cannot remain neutral in this issue. We need to ask each party to say what its position is. They should say if they want to close the church, to chase away the priests, to stop these celebrations [he means celebrations like the one he’s talking at] or if they want to say “no, we will continue with the customs of this land”.
Classic oblique fear-mongering: The Enlightenment is bad and allows us to sacrifice man for our own personal paradise (where this comes from, I have no idea); the “other” theories I assume is Marxism, Communism and Capitalism (the usual suspects, but the article doesn’t clarify) and Christ makes everything better (ok, he’s a priest, so that’s to be expected). But we also have atheists who will do “damage” and are “dangerous” since they lack divine Wisdom, but are book smart. He makes of course a valid point about the Constitution, unfortunately (see more on that on the complementary article) and thankfully he accepts that imposing religious education on those who do not want it is wrong.
However, the Archbishop frames the issues of the abolition of prayer, church attendance etc. not as a part of a secular state that remains entirely neutral to religious affairs (perhaps we should add this next time; not that it would matter too much to those willing to misrepresent our positions), but as a deliberate attack on Christianity. And there are memos on these, you see… they circulate in writing… they want to abolish religion altogether, close our churches, chase away the priests, eat our babies and draw mustaches on all icons of the Virgin Mary to boot. The reminder about the Elections rounds up the speech nicely.
Admittedly, Ieronymos is not quite as charismatic as his predecessor, but quite skilled at crafting needles to poke at the fears, insecurities and paranoia of the religious majority when he wants to. Nicely played.