Interview with Napoleon Papistas from Atheist Union of Greece

Mr Papistas, secretary of Atheist Union of Greece, chats to Conatus News about his story, the work of his union and its achievements and challenges.

Mr. Papistas, to begin, please tell us a few things about the Atheist Union of Greece. 

Around 2008, some Greek atheist bloggers decided to create a collaborative atheist blog and a discussion forum, hoping to bring together the online Greek atheist community. In these discussions, the need to take legal action towards the separation of Church and State became obvious, so we decided to create a Union to facilitate legal action. In May 2010 the Atheist Union of Greece was founded, first as a body of persons, and since May 2012 as an association, after its statute was approved by the Greek courts.

At the moment, the Union has 2000 members and about 700 supporters – people who approve and support our actions but do not wish to become full members for their own personal reasons.

How difficult is it to lead the major atheist organisation in a country which has one of the biggest percentages of religious believers in the European Union?

Greece may have one of the biggest percentages of believers in the EU, but that’s just in theory. In reality, the majority of the population is indifferent towards religion, or as we call them “Christians of Tradition”, who just identify as Christian Orthodox without really following the religious doctrine. The real fanatic religious people are a minority, consisting mainly of far-right supporters and of elderly people in rural areas.

We as a Union, have not had any serious issues though. We get a lot of hateful comments on our social media pages, our emails and our telephone. We even get some threats, usually during the week leading up to Easter, when we organise a “Last Supper” parody event in order to show that not everybody in the country is mourning and fasting during that time. Last year, even a high-ranking bishop showed us his “Christian love”, wishing for our “stomachs to rot” and for the food we eat during the fast to “become rock and poison”. We also had a person trying to sue us for blasphemy about some things written by strangers in our online forum, but the case was dismissed before it even reached a court.

I am aware that the Orthodox Church in Greece has a major say in social and political life, as well as in education. To what extend would you say that Greece is a theocratic state?

Greece may not be a theocracy like the Islamic states of the Middle East, but I fear we are getting there fast. Just last week, the Orthodox Church decided what will and what will not be included in the teaching material for Religious Education classes in public schools, notably removing songs by famous artists, both foreign (Rihanna) and Greek (Savvopoulos, Asimos), and minimising content about other religions. I doubt there is another EU member state in which religious organisations decide what will be taught to students in public, state-funded schools, and the Government just accepts it without any protest.

Mount Athos. What exactly is Mount Athos in your view and what do you think that people need to know about it?

Mount Athos, or the “Holy Mountain” as it is called in Greece, is a peninsula in northern Greece which is considered an “autonomous monastic state”. On the peninsula there are about 20 orthodox monasteries and it is governed by an assembly of monks representing these monasteries. Since 1046 CE, no woman is allowed to enter Mount Athos, so as not to distract the monks from their “spiritual quest and completion”. This also is a unique practice in all EU member states (maybe globally too); for half the population to be excluded from entering a part of the country.

Clearly, this is a blatant violation of gender equality and human rights, and while the EU and the European Parliament have called multiple times for the revocation of the ban on women, the Greek state has done absolutely nothing about it.

How about yourself? Were you always religious and did you have to ‘become’ an atheist?

I was raised as an Orthodox Christian, but without any real connection to the church or the religion itself, a “Christian of Tradition” as I mentioned before. During my teen years I started having doubts, first about organised religion and after that about the existence of a god or a higher power. For many years I identified as an agnostic and later an “apatheist”, until I realised that I was practically an atheist and I started calling myself that.

Which are the main goals of the Atheist Union of Greece and what does it want to achieve?

The main goal of the Atheist Union of Greece is the promotion of the secularisation of the State, of religious freedom, humanism, scepticism, rationalism, critical thinking and the atheist viewpoint in general. More specifically, we demand the religious neutralisation of public services and the state in general, and equal treatment for all citizens regardless of their religious or philosophical beliefs.

We also try to strengthen the atheist community in Greece, we organise various events for atheists to participate in and try to inform the public about their rights with regard to religion. For example, many still believe that if someone is not baptised then he/she cannot get accepted into schools/the army/the police/public offices.

What is, in your opinion, the greatest achievement of the Atheist Union of Greece so far?

Regarding the secularisation of the State, I would say that our greatest victory was in 2013, when after a lot of pressure from us, the Minister of Education and Religious Affairs – another unique concept, Education and Religion together – issued a decree stating that all students could be exempt from religious classes regardless of their religion. Sadly, this was overturned by the next Minister in 2015 and is still in effect today, so that only non-orthodox students can be exempt and furthermore they must provide documentation that they do not belong to the Christian orthodox faith.

We also consider it a major achievement that in 2015 we co-organised and hosted two events with two world-famous atheist philosophers, Richard Dawkins and Michael Schmidt-Salomon.

Do you think that Greece has many ‘closet atheists’? How challenging is it to be an atheist in today’s Greece?

There are many “closet” atheists in Greece, and it’s understandable as the Greek society is still conservative, especially in smaller, rural areas. The Atheist Union of Greece has received emails and phone calls from people afraid to “come out” as atheists, fearing they might lose their customers or their jobs, or even that their friends and family will disavow them. The term “atheist” is still somewhat of a taboo in Greek, used to imply that someone is immoral, selfish or even “not fully Greek”. Surely it is much easier for someone to identify publicly as an atheist that it was 20-30 years ago, even more so in big cities and academic settings, but we still have a long way to go for it to become fully acceptable by the whole society.

In my opinion though, the greatest problem is not the closeted atheists but those who do not care, the ones who are not afraid to publicly declare their (lack of) beliefs, but find no reason to do so. This allows the church to claim that it represents the majority of the population and to keep asking for state funding, which it naturally receives, since no Greek government chooses to oppose them. Those who choose to hide their atheistic beliefs apparently do not care that the orthodox priests are paid for with the money of all the taxpayers (not just the Christian ones), that all the children (not just the Christian ones) are indoctrinated into Christianity for 9 years in public schools, that the state not only funds the transport of the so-called “Holy Fire” and various religious relics but welcomes them with the same honours and protocol as the Heads of foreign States.

What is the current status of blasphemy laws in Greece?

Blasphemy laws still exist in Greece and are applied quite regularly. The law allows for a sentence up to two years in prison for everybody who commits blasphemy against Orthodox Christianity or any other “known religion”. In reality, the laws are rarely used for acts against any religion other than Orthodox Christianity.

In the most notable case of the last years, the owner of the satirical Facebook page “Elder Pastitsios” was arrested, prosecuted and convicted to a 10-month suspended prison sentence on blasphemy and religion-bashing charges.

Lastly, where can one find out more information about the Atheist Union of Greece?

One can find information about the Atheist Union of Greece on our site (currently available in Greek only). We plan to launch an English version of the site in the following months, until then one can reach us on our Facebook page, on our forum, or by e-mail at We also host regular meet-and-greet events, mainly in Athens and Thessaloniki, details of which are posted both on the site and on Facebook.

Angelos is a Philosophy (MA) student at the University of Durham, UK. He writes on philosophy, religion, politics, and science.

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