Penitents Compete and the Future of Turkish Secularism

Turkey is an interesting country -- religiously. It is a secular Muslim country. Religion is tightly controlled by the state. There have been rumbles lately, in part from those who not only want the controls to be loosened, but who want Islam to have a greater role in society. At the very least there are those who wish to have the freedom to wear religiously defined clothing/accessories. The Eastern Orthodox Church, would like some freedom to train priests, etc.

Into this mix comes a new reality show, the title roughly translated as Penitents Compete, on one of the nation's TV stations that invites representatives of 4 religions to try to convert an atheist. Although controversial and highly criticized, Joseph Laycock offers a different perspective in today's edition of Sightings. Martin Marty is traveling, so his usual spot is being covered by other people. It's an interesting piece -- so offer your thoughts.


Sightings 11/16/09

Penitents Compete and the Future of Turkish Secularism

-- Joseph Laycock

Recently Turkish television station Kanal T announced a new game show in which representatives from four different world religions will try to convert atheists. The show’s title Tövbekarlar Yarisiyor translates roughly as Penitents Compete. Each episode features ten atheists who have been screened to ensure they are not secretly faithful. Audiences can then watch a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi, a Greek Orthodox priest, and a Buddhist monk attempt to bring them into the respective fold. Any atheist who experiences a conversion wins an all-expense-paid pilgrimage to a holy site of the new found faith: Mecca, Jerusalem, or Tibet. (Producers follow new converts to ensure the pilgrimage does not become a free holiday.) Penitents Compete is the brainchild of Seyhan Soylu, a transsexual pop figure who goes by the nickname "Sisi.” Soylu has said of the show, “We are giving the biggest prize in the world, the gift of belief in God.” Needless to say, Penitents Compete has aroused ire as well as curiosity from both atheists and believers around the world. Many see the show as disrespectful to religion while others see it as an indictment of atheism. However, the motivation for Penitents Compete may simply be a curiosity about religion, conversion, and pluralism.

While ninety-nine percent of Turkey’s population identifies as Muslim, the government is highly secular. Religion is carefully regulated by the state: Religious affiliation must be listed on national identity cards and places of worship are designated by the state. For over fifty years there has been a ban on religious head coverings in universities or by civil servants in public buildings. Religious proselytizing in particular is regarded with suspicion. Police frequently charge proselytizers with disturbing the peace or similar charges that are eventually dismissed in court. However, some Turks believe that proselytizing itself is illegal.

If not illegal, many Turks regard the show as inappropriate. Hamza Aktan, the chairman of Turkey's High Board of Religious Affairs, has called the show a ratings ploy that is disrespectful to all religions. He added, “Religion should not be a subject for entertainment programs.” But in a society where so much of religious life is at the discretion of the state, is it reasonable to expect a popular consensus about what constitutes a “respectful” attitude towards religion?

Critics in the West have raised a different concern about Penitents Compete: While the premise of the show seems to embrace religious pluralism, it frames atheism as an unacceptable, even a tragic, philosophy. Although producers recognize that many atheists will not convert, there is no prize offered for retaining one’s philosophical convictions. Politically, the show frames four religious traditions as a “belief constituency” in opposition to atheism. This discourse ties into an ongoing culture war in Turkey that parallels battles in the United States and other Western nations. In 2006, copies of a book entitled Atlas of Creation by Harun Yahya were sent unsolicited to schools throughout Turkey. Yahya’s book claimed that “The root of the terrorism that plagues our planet is not any of the divine religions, but atheism, and the expression of atheism in our times (is) Darwinism and materialism.” While Soylu is far less polemical, she commented, “We don't approve of anyone being an atheist. God is great and it doesn't matter which religion you believe in. The important thing is to believe.”

Nilüfer Narlı, a sociologist from Istanbul Bahçesehir University, commented that Turkey has experienced rising “curiosity” about religion for the last ten years. While Penitents Compete may strike some as gauche, it appears to be an honest exploration, if perhaps a naïve one, of topics that have traditionally been mysterious and taboo. And in a culture where religion has been a controversial subject, Penitents Compete may be the beginning of an important public conversation about pluralism. The format of an unscripted reality show has the potential to challenge assumptions about other religions. For example, the producers do not seem to have considered that Buddhism may be far more palatable to atheists than the Abrahamic religions. Similarly, by putting a human face on Turkey’s atheists, Penitents Compete may ultimately lead towards extending tolerance to non-religious philosophies. If the open discussion of religion remains civil (unlike most American reality shows), the show could even tip the scales in Turkey’s ongoing political battles over head coverings and other forms of religious expression.


“Salvation at the end of a television show,” Asli Saglam, Hurriyet Daily, 16 July 2009. <>.

“Turks: Atheism is the root of terrorism,” Reuters, 22 November, 2006.


Religious Freedom in the Near East, North Africa, and the Former Soviet States. Edward P. Lipton, ed. (Nova Science Publishers, 2002).

Joseph Laycock is a PhD student in religion and society at Boston University, and the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires (Praeger Publishers, 2009).


In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School explores recent work by three major thinkers who both find inspiration in the pragmatic tradition and take religion seriously in their investigations of democracy—Jeffrey Stout, Roberto Unger, and Cornel West. He seeks to develop a conceptual grounding for his own move toward a pragmatism, rooted in social practice, which also bears a theological sensibility suitable for addressing those contingencies that are, in fact, the existential consequences of political realities. With invited responses from Eddie Glaude (Princeton University), Corey D. B. Walker (Brown University), and others.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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