What happened to Atheism in Turkey?

Atheism was very active in Turkey for a while. Especially between 2008 and 2016. It was pretty much only active online, but it was active. There were many online message boards, discussion forums, facebook pages, short youtube videos, even some ebooks on the topic.

We even founded an Atheist Association in Turkey in 2014 (two associations initially, then they combined into one). The Association is still around, and it would require another article to cover them properly, in terms of what they have been up to, and the issues they encountered, etc.

But the main point I would like to make in this article is that the atheist activism in Turkey seems to have cooled down a little in the last several years, and entered a period of stagnation and inactivity. At least this is my impression.

I am basing this on my observation that most of those online environments have become inactive in the recent years, some of them completely shutting down, and the others simply becoming a lot less active, in terms of the number of people visiting them, or the amount of participation, communication and the new content generation in those platforms.

This has been most obvious for me with Ateistforum, the online discussion forums platform that I have been closely involved in, since I am one of the founders of this website, and have been one of the administrators since its establishment in 2001. Ateistforum was one of the first online atheist platforms for Turkish speaking internet community, and along with its portal site Ateizm.org, it has been the flagship for most of the other online atheist activism for Turkish atheists. Some other similar platforms joined Ateizm.org/Ateistforum in online activism around the same time (such as Turan Dursun Sitesi and Ateistplatform), and it grew from there. Many blogs had started to pop up, mostly created by the followers of these platforms, and then facebook pages, youtube channels, etc. Especially Ateistforum was the main breeding ground for online atheist activists.

Then in the recent years, the popularity of these platforms went down gradually. There has’t been a lot of difference in the number of silent visitors of Ateistforum in the recent years, the users who visit the website and read the discussions or search the archives, but there has been a significant drop in the number of active participants, who join the discussions and create new content. And Ateistforum is not alone in this. Most other online platforms have been experiencing something similar. The active visitors of other discussion forums also went down just like Ateistforum’s, and some others shut down, and many blogs and youtube channels with atheistic content either shut down, or very little, if any new content has been seen on them for years.

We have been discussing the reason for this in those platforms, a number of potential explanations have been offered.

One factor may have been the social media. With the availability of large social media platforms such as facebook, instagram, discord, google hangouts and many others, people have many other means of getting together and communicating online. The online forum concept is becoming a lot less relevant in connecting people nowadays. Forums are still important and useful in specialized discussions, but they are no longer environments for people to meet other like minded individuals and to “hang out” with them online.

And the number of blogs, youtube channels and other content on the internet in general has increased exponentially in the recent years, regardless of what they are about, leaving a lot of the small ones irrelevant and unpopular. Nowadays, only the most popular of blogs in any field have significant following in general, simply because there are just too many of them out there. Same goes for youtube channels.

But this doesn’t explain why the amount of atheist content didn’t improve significantly, since by the same reasoning of what happened to blogs, etc in other fields, at least some of the atheist environments or blogs or youtube channels, etc, should have become the largest and the most popular ones, attracting the most visitors, while the others die out.

This brings us to a group of other factors that was brought up during our discussions to explain this observation, and those are:

  • Atheist content has become less interesting to follow over time, since most of what needs to be said about the theistic religions, and the arguments for and against a theistic god have already been said, and the discussions on these topics have started to become repetitive in the recent years. All that content is still available online, and when people have specific questions or concerns, or if they simply want to research the subject, they can find more than enough content online already, anything new doesn’t make any qualitative difference anymore.
  • Generating and sharing non-theistic content for Turkish audience online have always been risky due to possible prosecution by the government, or the risk of becoming a target for islamist fundamentalist groups, and at the very least, due to digital attacks of islamist hacker groups and possible website closures and other censorship activities from the government, initiated and overseen by islamist groups that have ties to government organizations and the courts. So, being an online atheist activist was already a big headache, and it was only worth doing it when it was new, and you felt like you wanted to be heard despite the risks, since people weren’t aware of what you had to say as an atheist activist, and your views and ideas were unknown, or hard to reach. Now that others said it already, people are less willing to take similar risks anymore.
  • Government has consistently cracked down on atheist activism in Turkey, discouraging it, and making it risky for most people. A lot of atheist activists faced prosecution, years long court battles, public shaming, censorship and website closures by the government, digital attacks from hackers, monetary fines (usually based on libel lawsuits), and even prison sentences over the years (ostensibly related to other actions that can be prosecuted more easily, since online atheist activism is hard to prosecute due to freedom of speech protection in the laws). The main method to go after atheist activists in Turkey has been based on the article 216 of the criminal code*, which is about provoking hatred or hostility in one section of the public against another section based on social class, race, religion, sect, etc. And it carries a prison sentence of 1 to 3 years. I am not aware of any atheist activist who is actually imprisoned using this article, but so many of them were prosecuted and sued using it, and were harassed for many years with the required court appearances and the financial and emotional cost that comes with it. (Some people were also convicted of charges based on article 216, but the prison sentences are typically suspended, and I am not aware of an actual case where the person served in prison based on this article. If anyone is aware of such a case, please notify me, and I will make corrections in the content on this blog).
  • Due to the political climate in Turkey, and the erosion of democracy and the rule of law in the hands of the governing party AKP and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the recent years, the intellectuals and the educated segment of the population are more concerned about those threats to Turkey and to its democracy, than to worry about the rights of atheists. Most people who would also be active in the promotion of atheism are more concerned about Turkey’s recent trend to become pretty much a dictatorship, and they are preoccupied with concerns over the future of the country and its democracy to worry about promoting atheism, which they would consider more of an intellectual pastime and a hobby. Related to this is also a sense of defeat by this conservative government that the secular community feels in Turkey, in their effort to educate the public and raise their awareness in democracy, tolerance and respecting other belief systems, etc. Many of them started to feel like it was all for nothing, and that the public doesn’t deserve it, that they prefer to be crushed and treated like sheep at the hands of this autocratic government. They feel it may have been a luxury to be able to think and worry about the promotion of atheistic and secularist views and ideas when it was possible to do so, and when it still seemed like Erdogan may be close to losing his power, and the country may return to normalcy. They lost their motivation when Erdogan tightened his grip on power even more in the recent years.

Due to all this, atheist activism has been in decline in the recent years in Turkey, but this didn’t change the fact that it was successful and influential when it was active. All the recent statistical research confirms that in Turkey, especially the new generation is a lot less religious, and atheism, deism and agnosticism are becoming very popular among the young population. This is also observed and acknowledged by the conservatives and the government in Turkey in the recent years, and they have been voicing their concerns about the young population distancing themselves from religion.

Atheist and other non-theist online content is still around, and more easily accessible than ever, despite all the earlier censorship attempts by the conservatives, since it is very difficult for something to disappear from the web once it becomes available online. A lot of online content will just get copied and keep multiplying instead of disappearing. This is true for non-theist content too. Besides, many other factors and all the other information available online also opens the new generation’s eyes, not just the non-theistic content.

It is also possible that the atheist movement will make a comeback in Turkey, once the political climate changes, since nobody expects AKP and Erdogan to be in power forever. AKP is already weak in public support, and may lose the next election with or without Erdogan’s support. And if Erdogan is not around, it is even more likely for AKP to lose its power completely. Of course Erdogan is not going anywhere anytime soon, but nobody lives forever, and he is already old. Besides, he may even lose power before the end of his life, although he would do his best to prevent this of course, no matter what it takes, just like many other dictators in the history. Once a leader passes a threshold in being autocratic, agreeing to relinquish power is not an option for them anymore, and many people believe Erdogan is already at that stage, and he cannot afford to lose power.

Aydin Turk


* Article 216 of the Turkish Criminal code states the following: “A person who publicly provokes hatred or hostility in one section of the public against another section which has a different characteristic based on social class, race, religion, sect or regional difference, which creates an explicit and imminent danger to public security shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of one to three years”.

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