Two debates are currently dominating Turkey’s media landscape. One is the killing of a female student, sparking a discussion about gender-related violence. A discussion which is necessary, yet, with calls for tougher prosecution, often superficial. I already wrote a lot about sexuality and Turkey two posts ago, and see myself sadly confirmed.
The other topic, most recent reason to protest in Istanbul and to facepalm in Brussels, are compulsory religion classes. Two rather distinguished issues, you might think, but think again! Already before leaders began to slam female activists for being “unislamic” in their protest (as if that mattered), there was a connection between teaching faith and raping girls. Maintaining power through identity, that is.
The problem is as follows: Basically, if you’re neither Jewish nor Christian, you’re required to go to Islamic religion classes, which are again fashioned after the Sunni conviction. Ultimately, if you belong to Turkey’s 15-20% Alevis, you will be regarded as a Sunni Muslim by the administration and thus be obligated to attend the according classes. Same goes for other minorities – and also for non-believers, who’re uncharted in Turkey.
Last year, a friend of mine tried to organise a human library. That means, she’d invite representatives of fringe groups to some place in her uni, and then the students could go around and talk, for example, to a feminist for the first time in their life. The idea is to get rid of stereotypes and prejudice, which regularly occurs when hateful people are confronted with actual people of the group they think they hate. Perceived 99% of those talking about feminism have no idea what feminism is, so that would make sense. Anyways, my friend also wanted to invite an atheist or an agnostic.
The borders between atheism, agnosticism and those simply not bothering are shifting and vague. To be honest, to me personally it doesn’t even make a difference at all. Either you live your life under the assumption that there are entities beyond our understanding, and hence take decisions accordingly, or you don’t. Alternatively, either you base knowledge upon non-falsifiable assumptions, or you don’t.
I could go into the looming discussion more deeply, but to me, it’s both never-ending and also completely pointless. To make it quick: Yes, the border between disbelief*, belief and superstition can be shifting – perhaps the more the less a given individual reflected on these issues – but no, I don’t think this can be generalised without intense research.
The human library was interesting though. I know heaps of atheists in Turkey, why invite one (a foreign one!) for such an event? Slowly I discovered that non-religious people are actually a marginalised and little understood group in Turkey.
The amount of people identifying themselves as non-religious is a dark digit, partially due to stigmata. Most people are born into a religion. Later in life, openly confessing to nothing might be offensive to your family and friends, if not illegal to your respective government. In fact, I have some Iranian friends who certainly are listed as Muslims in the World Religion Database, but are in fact pure atheists to the heart. I personally go as a Protestant simply because I never saw the need to officially drop out of church, but in reality, I could regard myself as the reincarnation of a Babylonian-Jewish Blood God called Hrungor, who is an entity I just invented, but could easily be my true conviction. Don’t even get me started on his Noodliness the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the idea that it’s perfectly possible to live an entire atheist life without ever mentioning that you’re an atheist.
But not only are atheists, agnostics as well as people without any confession blanked out by the Turkish government, they also face scorn and irrational hatred. Every once in a while, you can hear a religious/political leader’s astonishingly unworldly remark about atheist. Atheists would actually believe in God, atheists would be void of moral, atheists would be terrorists, etc. On a more personal basis, a friend of mine has made repulsive experiences telling strangers that she is atheists upon being asked for her religious believe. If there was an international symbol of atheism, you should abstain from wearing it in public just like Jews in Turkey are advised to not show their Magen David necklace openly (another terrible thing to admit, likely connected).
There are even atheist lobby and support groups in Turkey. Coming from a society in which religion is regarded as a private matter, with the last predominantly religious conflict being almost 400 years in the past, this sounded absurd to me. Why on earth would atheists need support groups? It’s not as if atheists try to harm people or were interfering with other people’s lives on a regular basis. You don’t see people standing in the street with big “There is no god!”-signs, calling on people to convert to nothing. Nonreligious people, at least the majority of them, just sit there. Support groups for atheists to me seemed as necessary as football fanclubs for people who don’t watch football.
Yet, a surprisingly aggressive stance towards the nonreligious can be seen in other countries, too. In Egypt, recently senior government clerics claimed there were exactly 866 atheists in all of Egypt. Now, even though it is in itself not a threat to pretend a social group wouldn’t exist, it is to note that fear usually comes in the flavours “ignorance” and “molotov cocktail”. Meanwhile in the US, republican politicians like to refer to a “war on religion” frequently to unite their fellow majority Americans behind them. Not only the “war on”-rhetoric being stupid and belittling actual war alone, it’s also an obnoxious attempt to present oneself as a victim, shamefully successful as it seems with American conservatives. According to a survey, more than two-thirds of American atheists are afraid of the public response if they were open about their not existing relationship with gods. It’s also apparently illegal for them to hold office in seven states.
Talking about actual threats that non-religious people pose; atheists, as fanatic as they can be, rarely kill people for their non-believes. In the US, a “radical atheist” recently shot three Muslims in a country of 0,6% Muslim population, the same country in which Christian groups are immensely powerful and abortion clinics are attacked on a regular basis. It seems to me as if this “atheist” offense, though gruesome, was a spontaneous act of Islamophobia rather than a thought-through terror attack, which usually have some kind of articulated agenda.
Other than that, non-religious people do commit immoral deeds, but not more or less than religious people – additional to this being common sense in my opinion, I can also back it up with science. Our morality derives from our socialization. Certainly, religion and culture are interacting, but if religion played the key role when it comes to ethics, how did moral values in Europe change so much in the past 200 years? The Catholic church barely developed, but I know many European believers (both Christian and Muslim) at home who live the liberal life of the 21st century. Belief changes when society does.
So, if atheists don’t pose a physical danger, where’s the problem? First of all, we can establish that hatred against non-believers, probably hatred in general, isn’t specifically reality bound. It doesn’t matter if atheists and agnostics are just as likely to kill you as believers (maybe even less, since religious motifs completely drop out) as long as you think they eat children.
Even beyond that, atheists are also perceived as being not part of the social group by people who define their social group via religion – or want to have their social group to be defined via religion. For leaders drawing on the connecting (and distinguishing) power of religion to stay in charge, non-believers are not controllable by the associated means.
It’s basically impossible to account for how many people lose their faith in any religion annually. Despite having no trustworthy numbers at all, I still assume that in western and westernizing countries, abstaining from religion altogether is far more wide-spread than converting from one religion to another. There are many Alevis in Turkey who are born Alevi, but how many grown-up Sunnis convert to Aleviism? On the other hand, how many grown-ups, especially among educated social groups, turn away from religious belief and practice?
Turkey is traditionally secular. In fact, state founder Atatürk might have himself been an atheist (though some people would hang me for having said that). However, there is a struggle between the camp which defines Turkey through nationalism and ethnicity, and the camp which defines Turkey through a shared religion. In this context, the growing number of non-believers among young people is an actual threat to the power base of a good amount of people in charge right now.
To me, this example is symptomatic of a broader problem. All societies are heterogenous, but for simplicity politicians and associated media will usually try to find one common aspect, one idea to construct group identity around – ultimately creating misfits, imbalance and hence turmoil out of nothing.
* I’m obviously talking about religious belief here. “That’s a nice pancake, I believe” isn’t the same usage of the word “believe” as “I believe in the guiding hand of Christ”, hence atheists don’t “believe” (religious connotation) in anything, but still “believe” that nine comes after eight. Easy linguistics.