State of the Church:

Greek Orthodoxy is losing its grip on the next generation

A Greek flag hangs from the roof of a small church overlooking Athens. (Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons)

ATHENS — Though it has long been known as Europe’s most religious country, Greece is changing.  

“Most of the people my age you’ll talk to aren’t religious,” said George Katsaounis, a 23-year-old Athenian native. “Our parents’ generation is so religious that we were kind of put off by it.”

He was so put off by it that even the time-honored traditions of his childhood are hard for him to uphold. Katsaounis recounted how he condensed the Miracle of the Holy Fire — Greece’s elaborate Easter celebration during which a supernatural flame is transported from the tomb of Jesus into the homes of the faithful — into a 10-minute exercise.

The tradition holds that the flame, which is transported from Jerusalem to Greek Orthodox parishes worldwide by plane, boat and car, stays lit miraculously. Parishioners bring the flame into their homes by receiving the light from their local church.

It’s supposed to be a holy, revered tradition.

“We use a lighter,” Katsaounis said when revealing how to keep the flame lit.

His story is emblematic of an attitude common among the young. Not so long ago, religion was key to Greece’s nation-building. Now, as a result of several factors, the hold of the Orthodox Church is loosening. The growing secularization of Greece’s youth is one reason, yet it’s not the only element at play. That phenomenon has been coupled with a secular leftist government — unusual in a country where the church and state are not separated. And the ripple effect of the nation’s economic crisis, which has left many citizens questioning the church’s finances, has added to this.

Greek youth gather outside a church in Athens. Secularization has caused more youth to spend their time outside the walls of the churches — despite religion playing a key factor in Greece's history and nationalism. (Jolene Latimer/GroundTruth)

Greek youth gather outside a church in Athens. Secularization has caused more youth to spend their time outside the walls of the churches — despite religion playing a key factor in Greece’s history and nationalism. (Photo by Jolene Latimer/GroundTruth)

In the land where Christianity experienced its first exponential growth, religious devotion has turned into cultural observance.

“Religion probably functions as a social and cultural capital and as a customary memory,” said Alexandros Sakellariou of the University of Athens in his article about the growing influence of atheism in Greece.

Sakellariou’s assertions are backed up by statistics. In 2001 only 13.9 percent of Greeks polled by Greek research institute KapaVima said they weren’t religious — but the newest stats, from 2015, put that number at 45.9 percent. That’s more than a threefold increase in less than 15 years.

It wasn’t always this way. The missionary work of Paul, an apostle of Jesus, won many Greeks to Christianity and their homeland became the center for explosive growth in the days of the early church. Later, under Ottoman rule, Greeks fiercely protected their religion against their Muslim overlords.

“During the Ottoman Empire, the main line between Greeks and Turks was religion,” said George Kalantzis, the general secretary of religious affairs at the Ministry of Education.

This is when Greekness and the Greek Orthodox Church became intertwined. The Church worked to preserve the Greek language and religion gave Greeks a way to define themselves against the Muslim Turks.

Practicing Greek Orthodoxy became critical to being Greek.

A Generational Gap

Today’s figures echo that definition of what it means to be Greek: More than half say that religion is essential to their national identity. That’s 20 percentage points higher than any other European country, according to a February 2017 poll by the nonpartisan fact tank Pew Research Center.

But there’s a major generational gap. While 65 percent of those 50 years old and older agree that “being a Christian is very important for being truly Greek,” only 39 percent of those aged 18 through 24 agreed. The gap between the generations was the largest in Europe.

Even for those who feel a strong tie between religion and national identity, what is meant by “religion” has changed in recent years.

Fr. Nikolaos, a priest at the Metropolitan Church in Thessaloniki, admitted that “people come to Church, but they don’t know why. Maybe mostly from tradition, from habit, or because it’s what their parents did.”

“People want to participate in religion; it is not so much that people need to know what they believe. The important thing is to participate in the rituals,” said Gerasimos Makris, a professor of social anthropology at Panteion University in Athens.

But statistics suggest that Greeks may not be going to Church too often. A recent Gallup poll estimates church attendance at 27 percent–just half of those who said being Christian is very important to their national identity.

Greek Orthodox clergy walk through the streets of Athens. (Photo byJolene Latimer/GroundTruth)

Greek Orthodox clergy walk through the streets of Athens. (Photo byJolene Latimer/GroundTruth)

Makris says that a major problem, especially for younger Greeks, is that the Church’s theological teachings feel antiquated.

“For many people, theologically the Orthodox Church has not evolved. For many people it is problematic because it doesn’t manage to engage with modernity,” he said.

As church attendance wanes, Greek traditions begin to fall by the wayside.

“Up until recently there were only a few exceptions of Greek children who hadn’t become baptized, but this is increasingly becoming a trend as secularist individuals begin to break away from the Church,” said Margarita Markoviti, a religion and national identity researcher based in Athens with GRASSROOTSMOBILISE.

Baptism isn’t the only tradition that’s waning in popularity. In KapaVima’s 2015 poll, 51 percent of Greeks said the way they celebrate Easter has changed since their childhood. While the primary reason cited was financial turmoil, 16 percent said they celebrate differently because their faith has diminished over the years.

These shifts are part of a worldwide trend away from organized religion, according to Richard Flory, a sociologist at University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

“People are moving away from institutionalized religion and, on average, are completely indifferent to it,” he said. “I wouldn’t say people are anti-largescale institutions, they just don’t care about them.”

This trend of distancing, combined with an apathetic perspective, is evident among Greek youth.

Molly, a 22-year-old Greek native studying pharmaceuticals at an Athenian university, said “I don’t feel I need to go to Church. I think it’s a part of the cultural history more than what people actually do.”

You see priests driving around in expensive cars. They take the money for themselves and don’t help anyone.

Molly, a 22-year-old Greek student

She and her friend Estrella declined to give their last names because like many Greeks, they still feel uncomfortable speaking publicly against the Church.

Estrella, a 21-year-old also studying pharmaceuticals in Athens, expressed a sentiment echoed by other Greeks, and not just youth: that the Church is wealthy and could do more to help those struggling during the economic crisis. After the country’s economy collapsed, Greece’s creditors imposed austerity measures that included pension and wage cuts as well as numerous tax hikes.

“I don’t like priests. They’re not devoted to what they do, and they’re mostly interested in money,” she said. “You see priests driving around in expensive cars. They take the money for themselves and don’t help anyone.”

There’s a sense that the Church, as the country’s second largest landowner, could have sold some of its property to bail out citizens who had their salaries cut and taxes raised.

Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki dutifully recited the Church’s official position: that the Church ceded most of its land to the Greek government after the Second World War. He says that today, the Church “owns land, but not as much as people think. It’s a myth that we have so much property.”

“For the remaining property the Church does own, which is half of Greece, it doesn’t pay any property tax,” she explained. Disillusionment among the Greek population has increased during the crisis, she says, because austerity measures have driven property taxes even higher.

“Whereas the Greek people are forced to pay a lot of money for the property they own, the Church does not. That’s definitely something that upsets a lot of people,” she said.

Changes at the Top

Meanwhile, for nearly two decades, the Greek government has been inching away from its close ties to the Church. In 2000, shortly after joining the European Union, Greek leaders passed a law that removed religious affiliation from national ID cards.

“That was a huge, huge step,” said Markoviti.

The Church fought back, with the reigning archbishop threatening to take the Greek prime minister to the European Court of Human Rights. Some Greek citizens joined the Church’s protest, chanting “Greece is Orthodoxy” and blaming globalization for the change. But the measure passed and became a historical footnote for most Greeks.

Secularization within the government has taken on a life of its own since the ID card debacle. The current prime minister Alexis Tsipras is a member of the radical leftist group Syriza and a self-proclaimed atheist. In addition to being unmarried, which is atypical for Greek leaders, he took a civil oath to office, rather than one conferred by the Orthodox archbishop.

People stroll inside the Agia Irini Church in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis/GroundTruth)

People stroll inside the Agia Irini Church in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis/GroundTruth)

“Taking a civil oath to office is almost unheard of in Greece,” said Markoviti. “This has been hugely symbolic for the country’s atheist and secularist movements.”

Public school religious education has also surfaced as a potential area for secularization. Up until now, the classes have been “almost entirely indoctrinating,” according to Markoviti. The Greek constitution states that the objective of education is to “help students develop their religious conscience,” by which it means Orthodoxy.

But the current administration hopes to take a new direction. Kalantzis, the general secretary of religious affairs, has advocated vocally for a shift toward a more open-minded religious studies program.

“In a democracy, it is wrong for any government to decide [about religious education] without consulting the people and the religious communities. Not just the Church, but Jews, Muslims and the Catholic Church of Greece. Because we are talking about public schools and public education. It is totally unacceptable to proselytize,” Kalantzis said.

The result is that “almost a civil war has broken out,” said Markoviti, with traditionalist members of the Church, along with theologians who currently teach the classes, speaking vocally against the measure.

Changing demographics in Greece suggest the time may be ripe for a new perspective on religious education. Aggeliki Trivyzadaki, a professor of theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, recently told Markoviti about the challenge of teaching religious studies to a group of high school students at the Multicultural School of Thessaloniki.

Trivyzadaki found herself facing a room full of Muslim refugees, none of whom spoke Greek, with the task of teaching the official Greek curriculum—essentially indoctrinating them into Orthodoxy.

“She was horrified, and she had no idea how to handle it,” said Markoviti. “Overall, the debate around religious education captures the essence of this tension between the Church and the modern Greek population.”

New Faces of Greece

This modern Greek population does indeed include a growing Muslim population, which Greeks are learning how to integrate.

“Greece has a strong European identity and a recognition that part of that identity is tolerance of diversity,” said Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. Ambassador to Greece.

People shop on a busy street with Athen's 11th-century Byzantine Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea behind them. (Photo by Ananabanana/Flickr User)

People shop on a busy street with Athen’s 11th-century Byzantine Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea behind them. (Photo by Ananabanana/Flickr User)

In an attempt to embrace this diversity, the government recently earmarked funds to build the first official mosque in Athens. Before now, Muslims have been worshipping underground in the capital city.

For us, it is the first time in our history to have so many Muslims in Athens,” said Kalantzis, who has been involved in the plans for the mosque.

Go to every souvlaki shop [during Lent] and see how many Greeks there are. They don’t fast. They don’t practice their religion. I don’t like it.

Anna Stamou

Greek Orthodox convert to Islam

Anna Stamou, a Greek Orthodox convert to Islam and a native Athenian, has her own way of integrating the two cultures.

Citing Greeks’ lack of religiosity as one reason for her conversion to Islam, she says, “Go to every souvlaki shop [during Lent] and see how many Greeks there are. They don’t fast. They don’t practice their religion. I don’t like it.”

But her family is still Greek Orthodox and during Easter she likes her children to celebrate with them. “We’ll do a kosher Easter,” she said. It’s her way of embracing diversity while still holding onto the memory of her past.

In some ways it’s a sign of how Easter, and the religious practices of the nation, are morphing. While 85.5 percent of Greeks polled by KapaVima think Easter is important to the preservation of Greek culture, half the population says that religion is not important to their daily life and 47 percent say the role of the Church in Greek society has weakened over the years.

Religion is slowly becoming a custom, rather than a sincere belief to many Greeks. The changing sentiments of the youth coupled with the agenda of a leftist government and the demands of globalization are turning what was once Europe’s most fiercely religious country into something that only the future has the power to define.

Additional reporting by Juliet Muir.

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