Religion Today

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Penitents Compete and the Future of Turkish Secularism

[This week's column is written by a guest author, Joseph Laycock. The column appears courtesy of Sightings at the University of Chicago.]

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 10 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 newfound 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 99 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 more than 50 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 titled "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 Narli, a sociologist from Istanbul Bahçesehir University, commented that Turkey has experienced rising "curiosity" about religion for the last 10 years. While Penitents Compete may strike some as gauche, it appears to be an honest exploration, if perhaps a naive 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.
Laycock is a PhD student in religion and society at Boston University and is the author of "Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires." 

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

George Tiller's Murder and the Question of Certainty

In just 37 minutes of deliberation on Jan. 29, a Kansas jury convicted Scott Roeder of first-degree murder for his public, point-blank killing of George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who performed abortions. Roeder's legal team argued that his crime belonged under Kansas' voluntary manslaughter law and thus was not murder per se. Manslaughter usually turns on the question of pre-meditation; if the perpetrator has time to premeditate the crime, then it is murder. But the Kansas law allows premeditation in manslaughter "upon an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force."

In the end, the judge ruled that the voluntary manslaughter statute did not apply, holding that the crime did not fit its defined circumstances. This disappointed many radical anti-abortion advocates who thought Roeder's "unreasonable but honest belief" should have been seen as a mitigating circumstance and gained him some leniency.

But what is an "honest belief"? In this kind of situation, it refers to a strongly held thought which a person believes to be correct-indeed they are certain it is correct. The thought in question is often a moral one; it is not just correct but ethically "right." The certainty of that thought's rightness motivates action(s).

How do people attain certainty of an idea's or ethical belief's correctness? Perhaps the certainty comes from external sources. A person may be convinced by someone they respect as authoritative in these matters, like a minister or a doctor, or by someone they wish to please, such as a spouse or friend. In some cases, they may have been persuaded by a debate or rational argument, or even worked out a case through their own analysis and thought.

Dr. Robert A. Burton holds that a factor internal to each person must be considered as well -- it trumps external factors. His neurological analysis of certainty, which he calls the "feeling of knowing," indicates that this feeling constitutes an emotion. It is a primal emotion, or sensation as Burton prefers to call it, such as states of anger or hatred. It arises inside human beings involuntarily, with or without rational motivation or supporting evidence.

Certainty often motivates people to action or influences their decisions. This guidance may be rather innocuous, as Burton indicates in his 2008 book "On Being Certain," like the "gut feeling" that a gambler follows when he puts his money on a particular horse to win the big race. Certainty can also become a driving force, and impel a person into an obsession leading to carrying out a particular act.
It is here where Burton's study provides some insight into the case of Scott Roeder the murderer. Roeder's feeling of certainty that abortion constituted murder led him to shoot Tiller. In a statement filled with anti-abortion rhetoric, he said, "If I didn't do it, the babies were going to die the next day."

The problem with certainty, Burton points out, is not only that it can be wrong, but that in fact it often is.

It turns out that the feeling of certainty actually has no bearing on whether a thought or belief is actually correct. It is not only independent of accuracy, but often can come before a thought is formulated. It is an emotional response rather than one produced by rational consideration. Indeed, rational consideration, even correct rational consideration, often fails to produce a feeling of certainty.

The idea that the primal emotion of certainty, the Kansas law's "honest belief," should be a factor in a criminal trial is a frightening thing. Like other foundational emotions, this feeling should not be an acceptable mitigating factor in murder or any other crime. It is not an acceptable defense to argue, "I was angry, so I shot him." So why should it be O.K. to say, "I was certain (he was wrong), so I shot him?"

The characterization of certainty in this article is drawn from the work of the neurologist Robert A. Burton, "On being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not," New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2008.