Over the summer, a Turkish television station announced its plan for a new game show in which leaders from four world religions vie to convert atheists. Roughly translated as Penitents Compete, the show awards successful converts an all-expense-paid pilgrimage to a holy site of their new faith. At Sightings, Joseph Laycock considers what it might mean for the conversation about religion in Turkey:

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?


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.

Read the entire piece here.