Re-Hellenization — Ethnic-Religious Identity Reconsidered

The contemporary Pagan faces numerous challenges in society. One challenge, a challenge shared among alternative religious movements, is legitimacy. Accusers claim that Pagans do not hold sincere beliefs. Instead of possessing true piety, Pagans are accused of “live-action role-playing” (Larping), a term referring to role-playing games in which individuals dress up in costumes and act out their characters. Pagans are seen by some as role-playing, reliving, or acting out their fantasies about ancient civilizations. Greeks identifying as religiously ‘ethnic’ (polytheism) also face this same hurdle from onlookers who disregard their sincerity as reenactments at one end or harmful conspiracy of some sort on the other.

It is my goal here, to evaluate the phenomena of re-Hellenization, in the Greek diaspora of the New York metro area. Why are Greeks collectively and individually structuring their lives and identity around Hellenism? The answer to this question will, in the end, refute the lay skeptic and provide a unique case study of ethnic-religious self-determination. Combining participant observation and informal interviews with ethnic Greeks; experiences were evaluated and compared with the literature of Pagan Studies and Religious Studies.

Ethnic Greeks are understood to be a subsect of a larger Greek community comprised of an Orthodox Christian majority. Because of this context, one minor objective throughout the participant observation and informal interviews was to evaluate the sincerity of those who identify as ethnics. Meaning, do these individuals display observable changes to their identity and behavior that would set them apart from the Orthodox majority.

Sincerity will be defined as the truthful association of an individual with Hellenism without deceit, i.e., these individuals have a deep emotional and intellectual investment in Hellenism and do not participate and identify with Orthodoxy Christianity. Religious beliefs will not figure in this study; praxis will take precedent over personal beliefs. Individuals were not asked, “do you believe in Zeus.” Instead, questions were left open-ended. For example, “why do you attend Hellenic polytheistic festivals?” or “Why Hellenism and not Orthodoxy?” are the kinds of questions that would have been asked. This framework conforms to perspectives within religious studies, namely how to define religion. Is religion simply a belief system or something more complex where “[b]elief doesn’t quite explain what religious people do or even why they do what they do. It cannot encapsulate the messy richness of religious practice.” Re-Hellenization is deeply complex, examining beliefs alone will not be enough to measure sincerity. Anyone can claim to believe something, but for this study, actions are more significant due to the stigma attached to religious non-conformity in the Greek community.

To relate and compare the Greek-American experience with the experiences of Pagans found in the literature of Pagan Studies, the main point of reference will be with Síân Reid’s “A Religion Without Converts” Revisited: Individuals, Identity and Community in Contemporary Paganism. Pagan and Greek experiences will be compared and contrasted to determine similarities and differences and how these differences may be properly addressed and understood.

By the end, the evidence presented will demonstrate the reason Greeks have chosen to worship the Greek Gods, espouse principles from Greek philosophy, practice household religion, and gather for public rituals is out of a genuine identification with Hellenism. The reasons how this identification is acquired will be examined. While the individual’s journey is unique, common to all is the conclusion that Orthodox Christianity is antithetical to both their Greek identity and ideas concerning how to flourish as a human.

Additionally, the data from this study will provide new problems for the language of religious conversion and how re-Hellenization requires alternative terminology to categorize it and a context comparison to other religious/ethnic groups. Re-Hellenization within the Greek-American diaspora is a fascinating case study that leads us to understand how a subsect ethnic group forms from a larger ethnic group. Both historical self-awareness and identity construction have a crucial bearing on how to view re-Hellenization through the language of religious conversion and authenticity of individual and collective identity.

On Authenticity of Identity

Re-Hellenization exists because individuals decided to revive Hellenism in a collective manner. How a Greek made the choice to re-Hellenize is the subject of this section. After interviewing several ethnic Greeks in the New York area a pattern emerged. In general, there are four stages an individual goes through that bring them to Hellenism.

Photo by Simone Pellegrini on Unsplash

· Curiosity/Rejection: Between childhood and early adulthood, many of the people interviewed shared that they had a curiosity about religion and or history in general. Some had experiences with other individuals either a peer or an elder which caused them to question their identity as a Greek. This curiosity grew and developed producing questions and doubts about Orthodoxy, their birth religion. Some outright rejected Orthodoxy from youth and began a personal quest.

· Investigation/research: Doubt and or questions led these individuals to research and investigate history and religion. They might have read the bible themselves and or studied Greek history in detail. They uncovered history which was never taught to them, which contradicted their education that they received from their parents, school, and or Church. From their research, they conclude that Christianity and Hellenism are juxtaposed.

· Identity Crisis: The conclusion that Orthodoxy and Hellenism are incompatible produces an identity crisis. What is an ‘authentic’ Greek identity? Is it Orthodoxy as they were raised to believe, or is it Hellenism?

· Identity Reorientation: Orthodoxy is concluded to not be a holistic expression of Greek identity, the individual returns to Hellenism to resolve the identity crisis. It must be noted that the individuals interviewed did not express the belief that Greeks of other religions are not “real Greeks.” This observation aligns with Reid’s interviews that pagans maintained a “reflexive sense of relativism about their own religious identity.”

On Conversion

Did the Greek who rejected Orthodoxy for Hellenism experience a conversion? Do individuals choosing Paganism experience a conversion? Reid disagrees with Adler’s assertion from Drawing Down the Moon, that people do not convert to contemporary paganism to be problematic because it is clear that most people do not begin their lives as pagans.” Likewise, the majority of Greeks are not raised to worship the Olympians.

Though this may be the case, the experiences reported from within the Greek diaspora align with Adler’s rejection of the language of religious conversion. Interviewees rejected the notion that re-Hellenization is a conversion. Reid points out that ‘conversion’ is a “loaded and pejorative term among contemporary pagans and not one they use to describe their own experiences.” For Greeks, however, ‘conversion’ is not seen as pejorative, it simply does not accurately describe the phenomenon of re-Hellenization.

Under the “old conversion paradigm,” most psychologists define conversion as “a radical transformation of self.” This paradigm presupposes a “passive self” in which ‘conversion’ “is essentially something that happens ‘to’ someone, that is orchestrated from outside and involves both elements of threat and duress.” The conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus is the prototype of the old conversion paradigm, it is also known as the “Pauline Experience.” Some main features of this paradigm are:

1. The process is more emotional than rational.

2. The convert is a passive agent acted upon by external forces.

3. The conversion entails a dramatic transformation of self.

4. Conversion occurs suddenly.

Alternative to the classical paradigm, researchers of the social sciences have classified a contemporary paradigm to describe the process defined as “spiritual transformation.” Spiritual transformation is normally associated with new religious movements as well as deconversion from mainstream religious traditions. Characteristics of spiritual transformations include:

1. A gradual change.

2. Is rational rather than emotional.

3. The transformed person is an active, seeking agent.

4. Self-realization in the humanistic tradition.

Accepting these two paradigms as the standard for evaluating the phenomenon of Re-Hellenization; are we looking at conversion, spiritual transformation, or something else?

The classical paradigm does not suffice to describe Re-Hellenization accurately as several of the characteristics are not applicable. All individuals interviewed expressed their free agency when describing their affirmation and association with Hellenism, evidence of an “active self.” The choice to reject a status quo religious identity (Orthodoxy) for a minority religious identity (Hellenic Ethnic Religion) would require an “active self” and be “self-reflective” as this choice demonstrates the existence of intrinsic rewards that offset any external consequences from mainstream Greek society.

Focusing only on the idea of “radical transformation of self” it will be made clear that this definition does not describe re-Hellenization. Radical transformation is understood to be a complete change from an old self to a new self via an alien medium, like that of the Pauline experience. That is not the case with re-Hellenization as it is based on the familiar. A common sentiment heard by some in the community was how Hellenism is natural and logical for a Greek. Out of these people interviewed they reported limited or no socialization into Orthodoxy. As such, they had acquired early in life a reputation for being ‘different’ in their community. For these individuals, re-Hellenization did not derail their lives, it gave them a healthy environment to express and cultivate their Greekness without Christian interference.

It became clear early on during my evaluation that ethnicity would present itself as a challenge to this study. What is the proper way to categorize an individual’s religious reidentification informed by their ethnic identity? This element requires close attention, it is the major point of divergence from cases found in Pagan Studies. Within the interviews conducted by Reid, ethnicity played no significant role in an individual’s choice of religion. Because of this, there is a difference in the ‘master role’ in each group. In general, ethnicity operates as the ‘master role’ for Greeks, which informs them on how they understand the world via their ethos. Religion, not ethnicity, is a Pagan’s master role; their other identities are interpreted through their identity of ‘religious practitioner.’

Ethnicity does complicate the discussion of ‘master role.’ Within religious studies, Greeks in the United States are understood to be an ‘ethnoreligious’ group. Meaning, Greeks consider common religion to be a core element that defines their ethnicity. To clarify things, the Greek ‘master role’ existence on an ethnoreligious spectrum. Ethnic Greeks simply disagree on what religion properly defines Greek ethnicity. Ethnics reject Orthodoxy, claiming it to be antithetical to all things Greek.

Because Greeks are normatively ethnoreligious, an ethnic polytheistic Greek community is operating within the same relationship structure between ethnicity and religion as Orthodox Christian Greeks. This factor highlights how re-Hellenization in the Greek diaspora parallels other diaspora groups such as the African diaspora. Individuals in the African diaspora, like the Greek diaspora, have determined that Christianity is antithetical to their identity. Both diaspora communities are expressing self-determination by diverging away from what is religiously normative in their community to redefine themselves based on what each community understands as their ‘roots.’

In sum, the concept of a “radical transformation of self” of conversion fails to describe re-Hellenization. The contemporary Greek identity contains both Hellenic and Christian elements. In general, Hellenism occupies a secular and cultural sphere of Greek identity, while Orthodoxy occupies the religious sphere. Re-Hellenization is better understood as a ‘reorientation’ of identity, where the individual chooses one element over the other. For Greeks, this ‘reorientation’ turns the individual's focus solely to Hellenism, expanding and restoring it back to the religious position out from the secular. To goal of this ‘reorientation’ is to cultivate a holistic Hellenic identity.

The Contemporary Paradigm

The contemporary paradigm which explains the process of spiritual transformation aligns closer with this process of ‘reorientation.’ Based on the interviews within the ethnic Greek diaspora, the reorientation from Orthodoxy to Hellenism is a gradual process. While the self-identification with Hellenism can be immediate, the cultivation of a uniquely Hellenic identity can require gradual cultivation. This cultivation includes personal study, formal education, religious initiation, and communal interaction to cultivate both individual and collective identity.

Because of theological disagreements and overall displeasure with Orthodoxy, this community is attractive to those who were not able to self-actualize in mainstream Greek society. Many report negative experiences interacting with the Church, clergy, and simply other Orthodox Greeks. For those left frustrated by Orthodoxy, Hellenism offered both a compassionate theology and humanistic values for those seeking meaning and purpose.

The importance of community cannot be overlooked when examining re-Hellenization. It is understood by the community to be a collective movement and can’t exist as a solitary practice. This is in stark contrast to the abstract notion of community featured in the interviews conducted by Reid. She points out that the “contemporary pagan community is created neither by participation in an organizing structure nor by geographical proximity and face to face interaction…The fact that the presence of physical others who share a religious identity with the participant was not seen as important…their paganism points to the operation of a more diffuse, abstract notion of community.” When asked, “can you imagine living Hellenism without this community” a married father of two children said it is hard to imagine not having the community since it had become part of his “core.”

This response is not surprising since Greeks in the diaspora are known to organize themselves into various ‘societies’, “clubs’, and ‘associations.’ In this context, ethnic Greeks gathering together to socialize and conduct religious rites is normative behavior.

The contemporary paradigm characterizes religious transformation as intellectual/rational while the classical paradigm is characterized as emotional and suggestive. The religious reorientation of re-Hellenization aligns with the former. Speaking with the same father, he described his journey, sharing how he read the Bible, Quran, and Bhagavad Gita. He studied and came to his own conclusions, an intellectual process. His experience was fairly common with others.

In sum, re-Hellenization closely aligns with the contemporary paradigm as many of its characteristics apply to the individual’s personal stories reported during our interactions.

In conclusion, re-Hellenization brings unique challenges into the discussion of religious conversion and identity. The contemporary paradigm matches up to personal experiences, but the position in which ethnicity heavily features requires additional categorization. ‘Religious reorientation’ offers a helpful category. It describes the process in which an individual of an ethnoreligious group rejects the current ethnic-religious pairing for an older pairing that has not lost familiarity.

Author, Ancient Historian, Theolatric Thoughts www.AngeloNasios.com

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