A liberal religion

In the third and fourth blogs devoted to the religion of ancient Greece, Nikolaos Markoulakis takes

The whole my life I've been a Greek polytheist, Hellenes, and supporter of the liberal political thought.

Nowadays, it is difficult to conceptualize that a religious faith can be described as liberal in notion.

We understand religion today as a structural organization with sacred books and a professional priesthood.

Liberalism requires a society driven by freedom of thought, there must be limits on power - especially that wielded by governmental and religious institutions.

How can I be both a liberal and a follower of a revived ancient religion? And can we really say that a religion which has derived from such an ancient culture and civilization could be liberal in modern terms? In my view this can be indeed the case when it concerns Greek polytheism.

The modern democracy has a structure which underlines the importance of the individual as part of a greater political organization, the state. Individual rights, as well as responsibilities, make up the political being.

Our contemporary democratic notion incorporates separation of state from religion because otherwise the individual freedoms could easily be suppressed by the most powerful religious group. A secular state is the only solution in a multi-cultural and diverse world to preserve political and individual rights and freedoms. Our free world today, which is liberal in notion derives from a school of thought dating back to the Enlightenment era. It is known that this initial liberal contemplation was ignited by the writings of Ancient Greece.

That world produced such marvellous spiritual works: philosophy and science, political constitution and deliberation, civil law and individualism, art and drama, literature and poetry as we known them today. The ancient Greek nation was tolerant towards new thought and diversity, because it was diverse and liberal at its core, and that core was its religion.

So, Greek thought is in fact a product of the ancient Greek religion. What makes Greek polytheism unique in producing such liberal societal structures? Some would argue that a set of foreign influences draw the minds of Greeks into a high level of contemplation. Indeed, this is partly right, but it is not the whole picture. A society (nation) has to be free of taboos and moral restrictions if it is to be able to easily absorb foreign thought as its own. Greek polytheism had an element so powerful and closely connected with the customs and ethics of men, yet all the while its directives were open to alterations and criticism.

Greek polytheism by its nature generates a variety of religious praxis. This multiplicity was reflected in the communities, the polis (city states), the nation as well as in the minds of men leaving in them. It was a religion for the state, not a religion of the state. The law of men was above the divine. Humility does not appear in Greek Polytheistic worship because the first principle of the Greek religion is the dignity of the individual.

In Greek religion there are no signs of zealotry, because it is part of the natural world, too much a part of the man’s nature. The religion and the gods are accepted as part of Nature’s body and the state’s constitution. Greeks recognized their divinities and religious practises as essential and important, turning to them whenever they felt the need. Greek polytheistic notion was a matter of joy and gladness, leaving no space for absorbed thoughts, empowerment and / or mystic devotion. Liberal thought, therefore, was in fact an element present in Greek polytheistic religiosity.

Nikolaos Markoulakis holds degrees in Social sciences and Social research. He is the director of the Markoulakis Publications, editor-in-chief at the scholarly based, peer-reviewed Journal of Hellenic Religion and the educational periodical Sparta.
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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