Moving from traditional religion to atheism in Greek society: ‘Like a ship distancing from the coast…’

April 10, 2017

Atheism is still taboo within Greek society, which until very recently was considered a homogeneous one in terms of religion but also one of the less studied subjects among social scientists.

How people move away from their family religious tradition is an interesting issue especially when it comes to a society as solid in terms of religion as the Greek one seems to be. This blog deals with atheists in Greek society, the way they moved away from the Orthodox religion and the formation of their atheist identity.

The Orthodox tradition: The dominant paradigm

The Orthodox Church of Greece was and still is a powerful religious and social institution, with a historical influence on Greek society and politics, which in many aspects acts as the country’s main cultural backdrop and reservoir. After the formation of the Greek state in 1830 the Orthodox Church became a national Church (1833) and was transformed into the state’s ideological apparatus reproducing the national ideology.

Photo: Alexandros Sakellariou

The Church has supported the ethno-religious understanding of national identity while highlighting its “historical” contribution as the nation’s protector during centuries of Ottoman rule. Furthermore, the Church backed the national narrative that the Greek nation is “blessed by God” through a long history that spans ancient Greece and modern times via the Byzantine Empire. The Greek state, for its part, has often given legitimacy to such historical claims – the very first constitutions (1822, 1823 and 1827) adopted after the revolution of 1821 defined the Greek citizen as an inhabitant who lives within the Greek territory and believes in Christ, thus laying the basis of religious connotation to Greek identity. The legal status of the Orthodox Church of Greece is that of a state Church, which defines the relations between the two institutions.

On the societal level, the dominant perception until very recently was that more than 95 per cent of the Greek population is Orthodox Christian, though according to a last opinion poll (2015) this percentage was 81.4 per cent and the percentage of atheists 14.7 per cent. Apart from these sporadic opinion polls about religious beliefs and affiliation, no quantitative or qualitative studies have been conducted in order to examine on a deeper level religiosity and atheism in Greek society. In general, there is only scarce data to specify the Orthodox population in contemporary Greek society and of course the population of atheists, agnostics and non-religious. However, the fact is that the vast majority of the Greek society identifies itself with the Orthodox religion and tradition even if the numbers are declining. The Orthodox religion in Greece is public, which either means dominant in the public sphere and in society or trying to play a national and political role on various issues (e.g. regarding the school curriculum, gay rights, civil marriage, immigration, etc.) 

Are there atheists in Greece?

The short description above raises the following questions: Is Greek society as solid in terms of religion as it looks like on the surface? Are there any atheists in Greek society? If so, who are they? What they “believe” in? My involvement with the study of religion made me wonder about these questions and started a research in 2012 on the forms of atheism in Greek society through semi-structured interviews and participant observation.

Greek copy of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006). Photo: Alexandros Sakellariou

The revival of atheism during the last years on a global level, especially what has been called “new atheism” has arrived in Greek society as well. This presence has taken the form of Greek translations of all the major works of the protagonists of the international movement (e.g. R. Dawkins, K. Hitchens, S. Harris) but also of the translations of other books in favor or against atheism. Apart from books, articles about atheism have been published in mainstream media and news reports have taken place in prime time television broadcasting. In addition, during the last years many websites, forums and blogs that support and disseminate atheist ideas have been created. A crucial point was the official establishment of the Atheist Union of Greece in 2012, an organisation originally founded in 2010.

Religion as a chain of memory

Memory plays a crucial role in the formation and transmission of the dominant religious paradigm. On the one hand, memory is extremely important when it comes to the reproduction of religious faith among families and societies. This chain of religious memory, described above, is basically reproduced through the family channels. However, sometimes this chain breaks up and interruptions in the religious continuity are observed, when the younger members of the family stop to follow their parents’ religious convictions and either convert to other religions or are totally disengaged from religious beliefs and become atheists or ‘nones’, as in religiously indifferent. Family, as a consequence, reproduces the memory of the religious group and passes it on to the younger members contributing this way to the formation and construction of their religious identity. This procedural memory is a central point in the narration of the contemporary atheists, non-religionists, etc. who have been asked about their family background and the transition from belief to unbelief. One of the purposes of my research was to examine if this changeover from Orthodox religion to atheism is a kind of rupture in this religious chain and the dominant paradigm, which their parents have tried to bestow. In other words, my intention was to examine if atheists have become the missing link of this chain of religious memory.

The first outcome of my research is that atheists are first and foremost Christian atheists, because what they mainly reject is Christian God and more particularly the Orthodox dogma and tradition, and then if so all the other gods and religions. The fact is that the vast majority of them – unless they grew up already in atheist or secular environments – are actually describing a break of the chain of religious memory. As one of my interviewees put it when describing his gradual distancing from religion: “It is like a ship moving away from the coast…” This proves that this disruption in the religious chain didn’t have the form of an automatic transformation. For the majority of the interviewees this process took some time, before coming to the conclusion that they don’t believe anymore.

The second outcome is that this change takes place on two levels. The first one is with their families, primarily for those who grew up in Orthodox families, and the second with the society in general, which is dominated by the Orthodox religion and where the Church plays a very important role. The general outcome is that apart from those who were brought up in a secular or atheist family, all the others started to ask questions at a very early age. These questions were actually never really answered but were the first spark that made them ask more questions in the years to follow and want to search more about God and religion. For those who went to university, their studies were a crucial parameter, because they organised their thinking and through their studies (e.g. biology, sociology, physics, etc.) realised that what religion presents has fatal errors and could be rejected. Reading of literature, philosophy, science and atheist writers (F. Nietzsche, I. Asimov, S. Harris, R. Dawkins, etc.) played another important role, as well as music, basically rock and metal. Finally, personal experiences (health issues, unanswered prayers, etc.) and evidence from everyday life were crucial to start questioning God, the church and religion, before taking the next step towards atheism. A common topic mentioned by some interviewees was the attitude of the church and religion in general towards women. They argued that religion is sexist and misogynic and that women play a secondary role being treated as dirty. This shows that the way atheists reached the decision to move away from the dominant religious paradigm included a dynamic procedure, a lot of questioning, reading and observation.

But what can one tell about the atheist practices and identity? The third outcome is related to their practices which could be divided in two different kinds. The first one includes their willingness to discuss their views and ideas, to promote atheism and even to become more active. According to some studies about atheists in other countries, atheists unlike other minority groups studied by sociologists do not tend even nominally to join specifically atheistic organisations and this means that atheists, especially the young ones, could be described as disbelieving without belonging. However, in the Greek case this outcome is not completely confirmed because many of them either are members of the Atheist Union of Greece, even not necessarily very active ones, or they have expressed their desire to become members and more active in the future. Regarding religion, it is very interesting that some of the interviewees still going to the Church during Easter or in other occasions for social and cultural reasons and this leads to the conclusion that religion probably functions as social and cultural capital and as a customary memory which is reproduced through family channels. The key to understand such practices is the strong family bonds in Greece and the loss of religious meaning. Finally, when it comes to their beliefs they are extremely opposite to the idea that religion is necessarily connected to morality, they ask for a secular state and society where religion will be a private issue and they also support for the diffusion of scientific knowledge and reason among people.

Key-words: Greek society, Orthodox religion, religious memory, atheism