“Through a complicated process of superimposed exposures taken in different parts of the house, he was sure that sooner or later he would get a daguerrotype of God, if he existed, or put an and once and for all to the supposition of his existence.” Gabriel García Márquez.
Have you ever heard the one about the dyslexic agnostic? He sat up all night in bed wondering whether there truly is a dog. What about the one about the Greek agnostic who had to resign because he had an opinion? Over the years, one of the most striking parallels to be found between letter writers in the Greek section of Neos Kosmos (who invariably belong to the first generation) and letter writers in NKEE who are comprised mainly of second generation Greek Australians with an admixture of a few articulate first generationers seeking to preach to the latter generations thrown in for good measure, is their concern for religion and in particular, its place within Greek society.
Regular, veteran perusers of this august publication would recall that this was no more so evident than when Dr Kostas Vitkos graced its pages with his philosophical discourses. All of a sudden, the letters page was filled with enraged or inspired readers, hurling fire and brimstone at each other, as they attempted to convert each other to their points of view with a zeal that a Jesuit would envy. Even Russian priests felt compelled to weigh into the debate and week after week the same themes would be returned to, rehashed and regurgitated: Does God exist? Is not Christianity detrimental to the progress of Hellenism? Should we view our Christian tradition as simply tradition? What should we believe? Most importantly of all: Is not everyone who does not agree with us a heretic or an imbecile? As recently as a few weeks ago, Jeanna Vithoulkas provided us with her own fascinating insight into this age old celestial angst, through the telling story of her son and his foray of discovery into the world of Greek religion, which is quite distinct from her own experience.
My own experience has been slightly more extreme. Fascinated as a five year old by the pomp and pageantry of the church, as well as karate and folktales, I remember donning a blue Chinese dressing gown with a dragon embroidered on the back (this was my karate robe, though I was infinitely jealous of my cousin, who had the same robe in black, for as he explained, black belt is better than blue belt), passing a gold cross around my neck and sitting very quietly at the kitchen table with a book of Persian folktales. When my surprised father walked into the room and asked me what I was doing, I replied that I was a Persian priest. I think he must have related the incident to my grandmother, for upon my next visit to her, she took me aside and advised me that if I wanted to become a priest, I would have to have my genitals removed. Come to think of it, for all her devotion to the Church, my grandmother must have been a heretical Manichaean. Though she devoutly followed all the forms, rubrics and traditions, she was possessed of strange ideas. For example, when I happened to mention the final resurrection of the dead one day, she remarked: “That’s rubbish. These are the things that Jehovah’s witnesses say to lead people astray. Once you’re gone, that’s it.”
Then there was the time that I mentioned to my fearsome Orthodox fundamentalist great-aunt that Christ was Jewish. “Whhaaaat?” she screamed, opening her mouth to emit a brilliant flash of the most expensive golden prosthetics ever to have illuminated the cosmos. When I then proceeded to furnish her with the requisite proofs from the bible in her living room, she snatched it from me, spitting: “That bible must have been written by Communists. Christ was not Jewish. He was Greek.” Thus, while I can truly admit in the manner of the Old Testament that I believe in the God of my forefathers, I definitely do not believe in that of my grandmothers, for this would lead to a labyrinth of infinite Gnostic frustrations.
It would appear strange from the outset, for a nation whose literature, sayings, popular culture, traditions and lifestyle seems to revolve, in their vast majority around the Greek Orthodox Church, to be so obsessed with questioning the validity of that which forms a very large and important part of its identity. Yet such a questioning about things celestial is not only replete with historical precedent, it forms the foundation of who we are.
First of all, it is not without coincidence that the very word atheist, is a Greek one, meaning “without god.” The word began to indicate more-intentional, active godlessness in the 5th century BC, acquiring definitions of “severing relations with the gods” or “denying the gods” instead of the earlier meaning of ασεβής, or “impious". As an abstract noun, there was also the word «αθεότης» “atheism”. Around the same time that Euripides was writing the Bacchae as a cautionary tale against disbelieving in the gods and Hesiod was establishing in his Theogony, some sort of Greek religious and mythological canon, whereby: “"upon the earth are thrice ten thousand immortals of the host of Zeus, guardians of mortal man. They watch both justice and injustice, robed in mist, roaming abroad upon the earth,” other thinkers were moving in a completely opposite direction.
Indeed, it could be said that western atheism has its roots in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. The fifth century BC philosopher Diagoras, who strongly criticized religion and mysticism, is often considered as the first atheist. Critias tended to view religion as a human invention used to frighten people into following moral order. In a revolution of thought, atomists such as Democritus attempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Other pre-Socratic philosophers who probably had atheistic views included Prodicus and Protagoras. In the third century BC, the Greek philosophers Theodoros and Stratos of Lampsacus also did not believe gods exist.
As a corollary, it is in ancient Greece that we first have atheism being seen as am issue with political and social, rather than intelletual implications. The great Socrates was accused of being an atheist on the basis that his teaching inspired questioning of the state gods. Although he disputed the accusation that he was a complete athiest, he was ultimately sentenced to death. Interesting too, from an archaeological and anthropological view are the views of Ephemerus, around 240 BC. He believed that the gods were only the deified rulers, conquerors and founders of the past, and that their cults and religions were in essence the continuation of vanished kingdoms and earlier political structures. As such, he was later criticized by some of the more pious of his contemporaries, for having “spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods.”
The list of Greek thinkers who doubted the gods is thus a lengthy one. Atomic materialist Epicurus disputed many religious doctrines, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity and instread considered the soul to be purely material and mortal. While Epicureanism did not rule out the existence of gods, Epicurus believed that if they did exist, they were unconcerned with humanity.
These thinkers can be contrasted with others such as Pythagoras whose religious ideas ranged from the mathematical (“number is the ruler of forms and ideas and the cause of gods and demons,”) to the fantastic, given that he believed in the reincarnation of the soul again and again into the bodies of humans, animals, or vegetables until it became moral. As such, he claimed to have lived four lives that he could remember in detail, and heard the cry of his dead friend in the bark of a dog. If you believe other philosophers, he was a bit of a god himself. Aristotle described Pythagoras as wonder-worker and somewhat of a supernatural figure, attributing to him such aspects as a golden thigh, which was a sign of divinity. According to Aristotle, it was commonly believed that he had the ability, much like Doctor Who, to travel through space and time, and to communicate with animals and plants. That, coupled with the ancient Greeks covering their landscape with tenples to the gods, and indulging in their devotion to an immense number of cults and you get a generally intensely religious people, desperately wanting to believe in something, coupled with an opposing healthy dose of scepticism.
Is it then coincidence that Christianity spread so rapidly around the Greek world? Is it coincidence that the same people who were willing to condemn Socrates for impiety were also fired with a similar zeal to destroy the temples of their forefathers? Probably not. While it is true that the Greeks transformed the Eastern Roman Empire into an entity that was supposed to mirror the Heavenly Court and the Kingdom of God, (Leo III considered himself to be both emperor and priest,) it is as equally true that the major schisms and religious controversies that wracked that Empire and eventually contributed to its downfall, were introduced by Greek scholars and clerics who would not take no for an answer and were eager to defend and debate their point of view to the last. History, but not the diptychs, are littered with their names: Nestorius, Severus of Antioch and Varlaam of Calabria to name but a few. A whole political movement, that of Iconoclasm was created out of a religious controversy over icons and their use and arguably, its adoption by the military classes, saved the Empire from being overrun by the Arabs.
Since that time, and especially after the Western-imposed neo-classical movement compelled us to think of our ancient ancestors as wholly wise, rational, balanced and logical, (something that the ancients themselves, believing in the balance of all things would have balked at) and to feel bad about the irrational, supernatural and endearingly human side of our tradition, we have struggled to reconstitute our identity and to indentify desirable and undesirable elements whose addition and/or removal will assist us to recommence treading the path of historical greatness. This malady is but another manifestation of the enquiring mind that has formed part of our psyche for millenia. It is but a small element in our eternal philosophical quest: What should we believe?
At the end of the day, none of us can abrogate to ourselves the role of the sole arbiter of things Hellenic. That being said, it is worthwhile attempting to fully understand that which we purport to accept and/or reject. The way we dissect, question and deconstruct ourselves and the world around us, is perhaps our most endearing quality. For my part, these lines from Cavafy sum up my attitude towards a significant part of my own tradition, and I revel, as I am sure that great Alexandrine did, in the intactness of my nether regions:
“I love the church, its hexapteriga,/ the silver of its sacred vessels, its candlesticks,/ the lights,/ its icons, its pulpit./ When I enter a church of the Greeks,/ with its fresh incense,/ with its voices and liturgical choirs,/ the stately presence of the priests/ and the solemn rhythm of each of their movements-/ most resplendent in the adornment of their vestments/ my mind goes to the high honors of our race,/ to the glory of our Byzantine tradition.”