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Atheists, you’re about to get a lot more attention.  In Turkey, a new game-show will soon pit clergy from various faith traditions against each other by letting them have a go at trying to coax “sworn” atheists into their respective folds. 

The show, called “Penitents Compete,” will give an imam, a Buddhist monk, a rabbi, and a priest a chance to hone their persuasive powers on ten atheists.  The pay-off for the contestants?  Besides “serenity” and the ultimate prize of all—belief in God, the converted atheists will also be rewarded with the immediate and material pleasure of an all-expenses paid trip (ummm, pilgrimage) to the holiest site of their new religion—Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Christians and Jews, and Tibet for Buddhists.  To prevent deceitful believers from posing as atheists just to win a vacation, eight theologians will question prospective contestants to make sure their views are in line with orthodox atheism.  To make doubly sure, contestants who, thanks to the show, decide to embrace one of the represented religions will be monitored to make sure their conversions are genuine.

The pay-off for the religious leaders?  A chance to argue the superiority of their faith traditions in front of a large TV audience.  And who knows, maybe some of the atheists sitting at home, rooting for their fellow non-believers, will end up converting too.  The show aims not just to rescue a few atheists from the ranks of the penitents (assuming that “Competing Penitents” refers to the contestants and not to the religious leaders who, in their own way, are themselves competing).  The show is also intended to give Turkish viewers, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, a chance to learn more about other religions.

Some early-complainers are worried that the show will trivialize faith and God, but if it gives viewers a delightful way to learn about other faith traditions, why not?  Most intriguing, though, are two facets that may not have occurred to the producers.  Viewers will be exposed to charismatic spokespeople who might very well make their respective faith-traditions seem equally plausible and equally appealing.  Could this give rise to a certain, well, skepticism, among heretofore comfortably-believing believers?  If several of the faith traditions seem equally plausible and appealing, the people sitting at home, watching, may end up wondering where truth is to be found.  Where they had had no doubts, they could find themselves asking about the kind of justification given for each of the religion’s beliefs.  How does one test the truth (or lack thereof) of a particular belief?  Can truth be found in more than one religion?  In all?  In none.  Where?  How can a person tell?

Of interest too is how the show will explore methods of evangelizing.  Is it really possible to persuade someone to change his or her mind about his or her religious views through the use of rational arguments?  The common opinion among scholars is that such arguments usually fail to persuade.  The producers are cleared-eyed on this point; they anticipate that, at most, one atheist out of ten will convert during any given show.

The imams on “Penitents Compete” will clearly have a competitive edge over the other religious leaders.  The atheists chosen to compete will be Turks who have rejected their birthright religion and bucked the mainstream (99.8% of Turks are Muslim).  Will they have done so in the privacy of their own thoughts?  If they have, then, to participate in the show, they’ll have to come out of the closet and identify themselves as infidels to a TV audience that will include friends, family and neighbors.  In the end, peer pressure and family disapproval may operate as the biggest motivators to convert from atheism—back to Islam.  So, all ye fancy hotels in Mecca, get a few rooms ready for some new Turkish believers!

HNFFT:  If you have converted to a different faith tradition, why did you do so?  Did rational arguments work with you?  What is your test for truth?

Reference:  Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1979); http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/5729452/Turkish-gameshow-attempts-to-convert-atheists.html