Friday, 3 July 2009

Any God Will Do?

Fed up with all those conventional game shows, with their wearily predictable prizes - a new car, a dream holiday for two, a million dollars? Fancy a chance to come away with something really worthwhile - such as the prospect of eternal bliss?

According to a report in today's Guardian, Turkish TV is planning a new game show which will offer precisely that:

Contestants will ponder whether to believe or not to believe when they pit their godless convictions against the possibilities of a new relationship with the almighty on Penitents Compete (Tovbekarlar Yarisiyor in Turkish), to be broadcast by the Kanal T station. Four spiritual guides from the different religions will seek to convert at least one of the 10 atheists in each programme to their faith.

Those persuaded will be rewarded with a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their newly chosen creed – Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Christians and Jews, and Tibet for Buddhists.

The programme's makers say they want to promote religious belief while educating Turkey's overwhelmingly Muslim population about other faiths.

"The project aims to turn disbelievers on to God," the station's deputy director, Ahmet Ozdemir, told the Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review.

That mission is attested to in the programme's advertising slogans, which include "We give you the biggest prize ever: we represent the belief in God" and "You will find serenity in this competition".

Apparently 'only true non-believers need apply'. But how will they tell? It seems a commission of theologians will test the 'atheist credentials' of potential contestants. And at the other end of the process, the new converts will be 'monitored to ensure their religious transformation is genuine and not simply a ruse to gain a foreign trip.'

The story raises some fascinating theological and philosophical questions. What criteria will this team of TV theologians use to assess the belief, or non-belief, of contestants? If they adhere to the conventional view that faith is a mysterious inner state, then how will they measure it? Will they assume that individuals' words are an accurate representation of their mental states, and simply take contestants' word for it? And if they adopt a more constructionist view of the relationship between speech and thought processes, how will they be sure that contestants are not 'producing' a state of faith (or lack of it) in the act of speaking? Or will the panel take a more Wittgensteinian view of religious faith as enacted in practices rather than statements, and if so, will they need to monitor contestants' behaviour for a period before the show for evidence of atheism, and for some time afterwards for proof of new-found faith? Come to think of it, the author of the the Philosophical Investigations, who viewed religion as one among many language-games, would probably have loved the whole idea of faith as a game show...

On another level, the programme throws into fascinating relief the religious and secular context of modern Turkey, dramatising the tension between state-decreed secularism and the pervasiveness of Islam. In this context, the new game show can be seen as a welcome burst of multi-faith tolerance in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, as a worrying sign of the blurring of the boundary between religion and the secular, or as a symptom of rising anxiety about the spread of atheism - or as all of the above.

In a wider context, it's interesting that the programme makers don't seem to mind which of the four religions contestants decide to convert to. In this, they are reflecting the multi-faithism that is becoming increasingly widespread elsewhere, in which believers no longer seek to persuade people of the veracity of their particular dogma, but rather to convince them of the value of 'religion', as some vital ingredient missing from modern life.

Lastly: caveat emptor. Contestants who opt to convert to Islam should be warned that the usual returns policy doesn't apply to this prize. The penalty for changing your mind is final.


Martin Meenagh said...

hahahaha! What a great post--many thanks

Martin said...

Glad you liked it. And in doing so showed that some believers can take a joke without being 'offended'.

Brigada Flores Magon said...

As to testing credentials, surely the old standby of four Dominicans and a rack is all that will be needed....

Anonymous said...

Say what you will, but it's certainly more thought-provoking than what we're stuck with here in the states!

Jeff said...

Perhaps they should test not the contestants, but the religious representatives, to see if THEY are telling the truth.

Martin said...

Yes, it makes you wonder how many 'ordinary' believers (including theologians) would survive this kind of rigorous examination of their faith.