There is a new phenomenon in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In a part of the world where religion traditionally shapes every area of life, there is a growth in religious doubt and questioning. Increasing numbers now call themselves atheists.
Accurate figures are impossible to obtain in a region where non-belief could land you in jail. But one Cairo newspaper claimed three million Egyptians were atheists. Another quoted a survey of 6,000 youth by the country’s Al-Azhar university which found 12.5% did not believe1. In Iraq, a Baghdad pastor in 2014 expressed his dismay to a visiting SAT-7 team about a report saying 32% of Iraqis were rejecting God..
Far from dismissing people’s doubts and questions, SAT-7 recognises that behind them there is often a serious cry for truth – about God and reality. SAT-7 is answering this cry by providing increased apologetics2 programming. Gifted “defenders of the faith” are tackling people’s objections alongside the more traditional criticisms of Christian belief that are frequently made by Christians’ Muslim neighbours.
In offering rational reasons for faith and accurately explaining what it is Christians believe and why, SAT-7 gives sceptics a reason to believe and boosts the confidence of Middle East believers in their witness.
Shocked into questioning
Multiple factors lie behind the growth in religious doubt. Many members of the majority faith have been shocked into questioning their beliefs by indiscriminate violence done by extremists in their religion’s name. Christians, too, have been shaken by these attacks and wondered why God has allowed so many to be driven from their homelands. Intellectuals are influenced by the writings of “the new atheists” familiar to us in the West. And in a region which saw a series of “Arab Spring” uprisings and where half the population is under 25, many young people are no longer willing to accept automatically the teachings and rules given by their religious leaders.
I believe that freedom of thought will lead many people to salvation.”
While some are worried by this, not all see it as a bad thing. Revd Dr Sameh Maurice, leader of Kasr El Dobara Evangelical Church (KDEC), which has hundreds of young members, views the trend of critical thinking as a positive thing. He said that after the 2011 Egypt revolution, “people started to be free, and I believe that freedom of thought will lead many people to salvation.” In 2014, the Count it Right festival in Egypt, organised by his church and broadcast by SAT-7, dedicated one venue to issues of faith and unbelief for the first time.
Dr Maher Samuel, a regular preacher at KDEC and at the Freedom Meeting (whose services are both broadcast on SAT-7) is a leading apologist. His last SAT-7 series, 360 Degrees, had the strapline “helping believers to think and thinkers to believe”. The series presented arguments for faith and countered the view that religion and science are enemies.
It clearly scratched where people itched. One viewer wrote: “The idea of the programme is amazing; we need such answers on many questions that cross our minds.” Another enthused: “This is a wonderful programme; it talks to the mind. After watching the episode I want to watch it more and more because it is rich with information.”
I Think, Maher Samuel’s latest series on SAT-7, is aimed at a younger, teenage audience. With discussion and humorous drama sketches, he invites young viewers to seek the truth by having an open mind and a willingness to listen to ideas and analyse them critically.
Like Pastor Maurice, Dr Samuel is encouraged by this new spirit of enquiry. As people across the Middle East and North Africa question openly what they should believe, the Church – and SAT-7 – has a new opportunity to present the faith clearly.
One of the trends driving atheism is the rigid intolerance and sectarianism of some religious teachers. Extremist preachers are “frightening people away from any heavenly religion”, said one Egyptian newspaper3. SAT-7 is working to tackle this sectarianism, too, by inviting viewers to put aside their prejudices and understand what it is that Christians actually believe.
A new series called The Accuser (“El Mikfarati”) is named after a term used for someone who dismisses others as “unbelievers”. This series confronts head on the questions and concerns levelled by those from the majority faith who are widely taught that Christians worship three gods, have a corrupted Bible, and commit sin in worshipping Jesus as the Son of God.
The Accuser considers these criticisms in the respectful way that SAT-7 always relates to other faiths. The programme set is designed to create a relaxed, traditional Eastern atmosphere where people of different backgrounds can comfortably meet and talk together. A Christian poet, known for promoting listening before judging others, acts as one of the hosts.
Another new series takes a similar approach – but in short mini-programmes in between others in the schedule. Dr Louis Abdallah, a surgeon and church elder, presents Two-and-a-Half Words. In each episode Dr Abdallah, seen in a traditional Middle Eastern home, leans forward in his armchair and answers one argument used by religious Middle Easterners to dismiss Christian belief.
In one, for example, he looks at Jesus’ statement that “The Father is greater than I”, which non-Christians sometimes use to “prove” that Jesus cannot be divine. In conversational Arab style, Dr Abdallah explains the context and why the argument has no legs.
The aim is to give Christians a more robust faith that can be confident in the face of criticism and can respond with a wise answer. And if non-Christians are watching, they have received their answer already.
In a recent episode of talk show Forbidden, SAT-7 founder and CEO Dr Terence Ascott encouraged viewers of all backgrounds to be open to learning from one another, saying, “The truth is your friend”. While the surface turmoil of a region affected by wars and mass migration is plain to all, there is also a hidden spiritual turmoil of questioning and searching. It is here that SAT-7’s varied apologetics programmes play a vital role.
1Al-Sabah quoted by BBC news site, 19 November 2013 and Al-Ahram news site, 14 Jan 2015
2Apologetics is the practise of providing a reasoned defence of one’s faith
3 Al-Sabah. BBC news site, 19 November 2013.