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Thursday, 22 January 2009

Nonbelievers need not apply

Mark Damazer, the controller of BBC Radio 4, has had a go at answering what I assume were hundreds of emails sent earlier this month on the perennial question of opening up Thought for the Day to nonbelievers.

For the benefit of non-UK readers, TFTD is a slot that allows only people who believe in invisible beings to talk for about three minutes about matters of the moment as viewed from their religious perspective. It is right in the middle of a flagship, three-hour news programme, but some befrocked geezer is allowed to sit there and pontificate without any challenge whatsoever.

Nonbelievers need not apply.

A concerted email campaign was organised, beginning last year with making contact with a number of people – me included – who would pledge to send an email or letter to the BBC. I don’t know how many did so, but I suspect it was quite a lot.

I didn’t expect we’d change the BBC’s mind, but here, in its entirety, is Damazer’s response (which I suspect is the same as has gone to the rest of the campaigners):

I regard this as a genuinely difficult question. There may be a case for widening the pool of contributors on Thought for the Day by having someone with an avowedly non-religious perspective. However on balance the BBC’s position is that it is reasonable to sustain the slot with believers. Let me now set out the reasoning.

Thought for the Day is a unique slot in which speakers from a wide range of religious faiths reflect on an issue of the day from their faith perspective. In the midst of the three[-]hour Today programme devoted to overwhelmingly secular concerns – national and international news and features, searching interviews etc. – the slot offers a brief, uninterrupted interlude of spiritual reflection. We believe that broadening the brief would detract from the distinctiveness of the slot.

Within Thought for the Day a careful balance is maintained of voices from different Christian denominations and other religions with significant membership in the UK. We are broadcasting to the general Radio 4 audience which regularly engages with the comments and ideas expressed by our contributors from the world’s major faiths – whether they are believers or not.

Outside Thought for the Day the BBC’s religious output contains both religious and non-religious voices in programmes such as Sunday, Beyond Belief, Moral Maze. In these programmes atheists, humanists and secularists are regularly heard, the religious world is scrutinised, its leaders and proponents are questioned, and the harm done in the name of religion is explored.

Non-religious voices are also heard extensively across the general output in news, current affairs, documentaries, talks, science, history. These programmes approach the world from perspectives which are not religious. As, of course, do the other 2 hours 57 minutes of Today.

Yes, atheists are heard in other programming. So are religionists. Since neither side has to put its cards on the table if it’s talking of, say, diet, trombones or whippet fancying, it’s not relevant. It’s relevant only if someone is on there as a nonbeliever, an agnostic, a sceptic, a whatever.

Note that he says there may be a case for having nonbelievers, then says that “on balance” they won’t. What sort of “balance” is he “on”? Either there may be a case or not. If there may – i.e. it is likely, it is possible – then why not introduce it? It would certainly liven up the slot, if only because it would get the religionists twitching and having to come up with better arguments than they put forward in what are, for some (not all), rather wishy-washy, insipid little homilies that are immediately forgettable.

And this word spiritual. Nonbelievers can be “spiritual”, too, but to say “the slot offers a brief, uninterrupted interlude of spiritual reflection” suggests not. It depends on how you interpret spiritual, of course, but many of us use the word to convey the idea of stuff that transcends the physical, yes, but not in the way of sky fairies: merely in the way of an experience and appreciation of beauty, of meaning, of inner peace, of abstract contemplation and no doubt you could come up with a number of other things.

As for the rest, well, make your own mind up – and leave a comment.

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