Thursday, 12 November 2009

Reason versus the nation

Reason and the scientific method have taken a beating in recent years. George W Bush was famously against both, but at the grassroots level, too, on both sides of the Atlantic, there seems to be a groundswell towards mysticism, religion and nationalism, and away from the Enlightenment.

Institutions are left to fight for the values on which both the US and the EU were founded. On November 4 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes had to be banned from Italian classrooms. The Vatican said it would fight the ruling.

Here is a debate that has troubled Greece again and again. On the one hand rationalism cannot be taken for granted - it has no church to represent and reinforce it. On the other, there are non-rational things which contribute to a people's sense of identity. Italy is not the only case of a European Union member with a default religious identity. Here in Greece it would be considered a form of national betrayal for the government to enforce a similar court ruling. The Orthodox church is still enshrined as the official faith in articles 1-3 of the constitution, and forms an inseparable part of the Greek sense of nationhood.

This is clearly incompatible with European values, however history may justify it here. Greece was under Ottoman occupation during the Age of Reason, and its very sequestered world of ideas remained untouched by French philosophy and science. It was the Greek diaspora, which was in currency with European thought, that triggered the revolution under the inspiration of the French example. The church identified with Greece's struggle for independence in 1821 - hence the strongly nationalistic flavour to our church (the Serbian and Bulgarian national churches hold similar status as components of nation building). And of course a Greek emperor made Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire.

There have been many instances of the church's self-assertion in Greek public life. The late archbishop Christodoulos famously fought the removal of all mention of faith from state identity cards in 2001. And the church has openly fought European regulations on matters of abortion and separation of church and state.

How does one prise a people from such a powerful association? In my view, one doesn't except through an act of extreme intellectual force that doesn't arise from courts and governments (look at Kemal Ataturk's only half-successful secularisation of Turkey). It has to come from the grassroots.


  1. With all due respect the juxtaposition simply is false, and puerile. This reductionist approach, which denies the divine aspect in all humans and the limits of "reason," has been at the heart of the most vicious and malevolent tyrannies, i.e. jacobinism and its children, fascism and communism, each of which themselves are the product of the "Enlightenment." The reference to Kemal's "half-succesful secularization" [read fascist regime], is telling.

  2. To Philoboulos: Fascism and communism, and totalitarianism in general are negations of Enlighntment. Read the sources, not the "popularizations" by the half-learned.
    To John: the birth of Greece in the 19th century was a compromize between the Greek Enlightment of the Diaspora (see Korais) who saw in modern Greece the rebirth of Ancient Greece - and therefore disliked the Church, and the Conservatives who saw teh new state as a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire. The end result was the current cultural chimera we are so accustomed today. By the way, no "Greek" emperor made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire; if you are referring to Theodosius, he was from Spain.

  3. The film The Contender tackled this challenge - suggesting that the secularist can 'attend the chapel of democracy': Here a political contender for the vice-presidency who is an atheist speaks to a Congressional Committee on where she stands:


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