I have a dream that one day the Greek people will be liberated from Orthodoxy and fully revive Hellenism. This dream may not be so farfetched as recent news reports that Greece is planning to follow the secular example of other European countries and separate State from Church.
For those who do not know, the Orthodox Church is deeply rooted in state affairs. Article 3 of the Greek Constitution, Relationship of Church and State, acknowledges that the “…prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ. The Orthodox Church of Greece, acknowledging our Lord Jesus Christ as its head, is inseparably united in doctrine with the Great Church of Christ in Constantinople…” The political cartoon below criticizes the deep “roots” by showing the Church built on a tree stomp (perhaps the cutdown tree of Hellenism) with its roots breaking through all the institutions of the State (education, military, judicial, and so on). It reads, “The Church has deep roots in Greek society!”
— Πάνος Ζάχαρης (@Panos_Zacharis) October 13, 2017
The disproportionate power and influence of the Orthodox Church in Greece have resulted in Greece’s poor ranking in international ratings for freedom of religion. Humanists UK reports that “Greece’s blasphemy law is actively enforced and continues to be among the worst in Europe. Prayer and religious instruction are mandatory in Greek schools, and even secular courts are adorned in Christian imagery.” I myself have been to court in Greece; it was very unnerving to see an icon of Jesus behind the judge hanging on the wall.
Not all Priests are in agreement with the proposed split as many vow a “holy war” against the Prime Minister. I do think it is a losing battle for them. The Church and State will separate eventually but the people are split over this. Some believe it will have negative consequences for the country, viewing this as an attempt to change the national character. Some look forward to the split citing that the Church is a drain on the country. The Guardian reports that “[t]he Greek church is by far the country’s richest institution with hotels, enterprises and other assets in its portfolio. The scale of such wealth frequently caused friction during Greece’s long-running financial crisis. Under the deal, revenues from properties whose ownership has been contested since the early 1950s would be split 50-50.” Maybe their so called “holy war” is really over euros.
Obviously, I think separation will be a positive change on the national character of the country. I see more opportunities for Hellenism’s revival with the separation. The removal of the Church from matters such as education means the end of indoctrination and propaganda via mandatory religious instruction. With time Hellenism will naturally fill in the void which will then eventually lead to wider activation. I say “wider activation” because Hellenism is not missing in Greece; it is just underutilized. Hellenism is in the schools, children read Homer in ancient Greek, learn mythology, and of course ancient history. However, it does not go deep enough from what I gathered from my conversation with my teenage cousin in Greece. The serious stuff is always saved for higher education. What is lacking in public education which makes it shallow is the absence of meaningful exegesis, at least with the case of my cousin, but I think it is safe to assume it is the norm. How much exegesis can a Christian teacher provide on the real meaning behind the myths? If any teacher who was wiser on the subject did try to give meaningful exegesis, I suspect they would face some kind of repercussions.
Hellenism is not missing as many engage with it on an academic level. Those who do not participate in the academic level still experience it through various ways. Many engage in personal study, have pride in their local ancient sites/local stories, work at museums or as tour guides. Driving to Delphi with my younger cousins, their father looked at them from the rearview mirror and asked them, “do you know where we are going? We’re going to the center of the world!” However, out of those who are engaged with Hellenism; how many activate it by offering libations to the Gods or put into practice the ethics/philosophy? Activating Hellenism means disseminating knowledge to the broader population, making it accessible, desirable, and viable as a living tradition again. This will encourage people to take the leap and put into practice the whole of the tradition. Hellenism can recapture people’s heart completely once more. I would love to see more theatrical performances such as this the Abduction of Dionysus by the Tyrrhenian Pirates. How can this not stir the soul to activation? I will never forget my experience of watching a play in the Roman era theatre of my city as a child, Hellenism captivates easily.
With the likelihood of a constitutional change to establish religious neutrality, Hellenism can be brought back as the central fixture of Greek society. It all begins with educating the next generation to love Hellenism enough to activate it themselves. Secularism, I think, will actually open the door for Hellenism on its own without anyone needing to push it. It will naturally rise again to blossom like a flower pushing up through the earth to see the light of day.
As for the Greeks of the diaspora, I think there are challenges but potential nonetheless. I live in New York, first generation on my father’s side. I have always been detached from the Church, my heart was never into it. I have cousins here who are also detached from the Church. My aunt came into town recently and we talked about religion and history. She is active in the church but thinks most of the religion feels irrelevant today; she gets what she can out of it. I said that maybe it feels irrelevant because it’s showing signs of inauthenticity. I explained that while Orthodoxy does have Greek elements, many in fact, it is laid over with Jewish theology that has been syncretized with some Greek philosophy. The meaning behind the Greek elements are not properly taught because of the change in theology, which makes it unrelatable in my opinion. The Greeks are walking around with a fake Prada bag thinking it’s the real deal (in terms of Orthodoxy being “Greek religion”) I told her. She understood my position and did not protest it.
Our conversation got me thinking that Hellenism may have more potential in the diaspora than I originally thought. People like me who are somewhat removed – a generation or two could become interested in Hellenism. There are plenty of Greeks in the diaspora like my aunt (getting little out of the church) and cousins (not involved with the church) who might want Hellenism if they knew it was a valid option today. For those who do not know that Hellenism is viable, end up staying in the Church out of habit/social needs/family pressure or they reject it; becoming atheists.
Identity ultimately keeps most Greeks affiliated with Orthodoxy. A recent Pew Research poll revealed that in Greece three-quarters of Greeks agree that being Orthodox is “at least somewhat important to being truly Greek.” The same may be loosely said of the diaspora. However, in the diaspora, there’s a tendency for Greeks to be more strict concerning religion. Greeks have always defined themselves through their religion. A conservative position on religion within the diaspora serves to reinforce Greek identity as to not lose the culture. The identification between Orthodoxy and Greek identity because of this may actually be higher in the diaspora. Within my family, my uncle (born in Greece) cannot think about Greek identity without Orthodoxy, my mother (second generation American) on the other hand can comprehend the separation between religion and identity.
Additionally, the poll revealed “[n]ine-in-ten Greeks (92%) believe in God – including 59% who say they believe with absolute certainty.” Greece has always been a very religious country wither it be polytheistic or monotheistic. Because of the high belief in God, I think the adoption of the Greek religion is possible with the right education and time to undo the damage done by the Church. Because of the Church’s influences of education, knowledge on ancient Greek religion is limited, some even not knowing it existed. Greeks in the diaspora also tend to have high rates of belief in God as I gather from my experience. The biggest advantage of being in the diaspora is religious freedom, legal protection, and easy access to information which makes it easier to question and challenge the status quo. Persecution at work and social ostracism are two reasons why many avoid openly activating Hellenism in Greece, while in the diaspora openly practicing Hellenism can cause friction within the family.
Normalizing Hellenism will aid to remedy any problems. Already in Greece after decades of legal fighting on the part of the Supreme Council of Ethnic Hellenes (YSEE), the Hellenic religion received legal status as a “known religion” in 2017. Religious neutrality via constitutional amendment will only further normalization.
Time is our friend, it only took 60 years for Christianity to dominate the Roman empire; supplanting polytheism and philosophy. I am hopeful that the tide will turn once again and Hellenism will take back its rightful place in Greek society as the standard.