ISTANBUL — First came "Big Brother," about which many here had their doubts.
Then came "The Big Donor Show," a highly questionable Dutch brainchild in which candidates — not contestants — competed to donate their kidney to a terminally ill patient.
But just when you thought television shows could not get any more outrageous, those wacky Turks launch "Penitents Compete."
The premise of this TV reality show sounds like an old joke: “What do you get when you put a rabbi, a Buddist monk, a Greek Orthodox priest and a Muslim imam in the room with 10 atheists?”
It brings together local leaders of four religions who then try to convert a group of 10 atheists to their respective faiths on live television.
"Penitents Compete" ("Tovbekarlar Yarısıyor" in Turkish) will air on Turkish television channel Kanal T this September.
And the prize for those who find a new relationship with the almighty? An all-expenses paid pilgrimage to a holy site of their newly chosen religion — Mecca for Muslims, the Vatican for Christians, Jerusalem for Jews and Tibet for Buddhists.
Only true non-believers need apply. A commission of eight theologians will assess the atheist credentials of would-be contestants before deciding whom to accept on the show.
Let’s begin with the objections to this merger of faith and entertainment, from those who accuse it of syndicating salvation. Turkey’s state-run Religious Affairs Directorate has so far refused to provide an imam for the show, arguing that the show’s format trivializes what is meant to be a deeply personal decision.
“Doing something like this for the sake of ratings is disrespectful to all religions. Religion should not be a subject for entertainment programs,” the chairman of the High Board of Religious Affairs, Hamza Aktan, told state news agency Anatolian after news of the planned program emerged.
Besides which, religion is a sensitive subject in predominantly Muslim Turkey because of the country’s strictly secular constitution, which outlaws most displays of faith in public life.
Still others see the show as fueling a widespread intolerance of atheism.
“The point of the show is to convert atheists, as if there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed,” argued Selma Ergec, a dancer, sitting in a cafe off of Istanbul’s crowded Istiklal Street. “Yes, I am a Muslim. But no one should be manipulated into changing their beliefs by a game show.”
The makers of the show insist that "Penitents Compete" is meant to spread awareness of other religious faiths, not mock them.
“The project aims to turn disbelievers on to God,” the station’s deputy director, Ahmet Ozdemir, told the Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review.
The program’s slogans are testament to these goals. Advertisements range somewhere between fortune cookie-like messages (“You will find serenity in this competition”) and the motto for a religious retreat (“We give you the biggest prize ever: we represent the belief in God”).
“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,” said Seyhan Soylu, Kanal T’s chief executive.
Then there is the problem of those contestants who, tempted by the thought of a free holiday, may just claim to have seen the light. The show promises that the converted will face rigorous scrutiny to guarantee the legitimacy of their salvation.
“They can’t see this trip as a getaway, but as a religious experience,” Ozdemir said. How this determination will actually be made, however, remains vague.
Sociologist Nilufer Narl from Istanbul Bahcesehir University argues that the project focuses attention on the issue of religious identity in Turkey, where rights groups have raised concerns over freedom of religion for non-Muslims.
"It is the reflection of rising curiosity toward religion," said Narl, adding that for the past 10 years there has been an increase in people’s interest in topics such as religion.
It appears that there are already a number of atheists looking for either salvation or vacation. Already there are more than 200 atheist applicants eager to ponder whether to believe or not to believe, 10 of whom will be selected for the show’s premiere.
Which leaves us with only one more question: “What do the atheists win if they get one of the clerics to abandon his faith?” asked Ergec with a smile.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Turkey:
Saving Istanbul's skid row
Healing a populist rift with Turkey
Young Turks: a question of identity
Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa