Thought for the Day debate

Ariane Sherine and I spoke in a debate yesterday on whether humanists should be allowed on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, against Giles Fraser, a priest and broadcaster, and Nick Baines, the Bishop of Croydon.

You can see a report of the debate on the Telegraph site (but I don’t remember the hecklers quite in the terms that Jonathan writes about them) and a notice of the debate before it happened in The Guardian. I found the opposition quite intemperate and aggressive (at one point comparing allowing those who didn’t believe in gods into TftD as being the same as allowing Abu Hamza on – not an image that occurs to me when I look in the mirror or at Ariane). They also seemed unable to conceive of a humanist being able to offer ethical or philosophical reflections of any sort other than religion-bashing, which is just so bizarre and offensive it is difficult to believe that they meant it rather than were just saying it to win the vote (which was a perfectly balanced draw in the end in any case). Among other arguments Giles Fraser made – and one that did seem convincing to many of the audience – was that the BBC should keep TftD as it is because it is ‘distinctive’. It strikes me that arguments for distinctiveness are often a fig-leaf for exclusiveness in practice, as this one was.

I didn’t speak from a script but what I basically said (drawn from the longstanding arguments of the BHA!) was that there were four dimensions that we could view the question through:

Legal and policy context: For the last six years the Communications Act 2003 has been in force which, at section 264(6)(f) defines public service broadcasting as requiring ‘a suitable quantity and range of programmes dealing with each of the following, science, religion and other beliefs…’ During the passage of the Act, the responsible minister (Lord McIntosh) made it clear that ‘other beliefs’ included Humanism. The BBC is also mandated by its Agreement with the Secretary of State to reflect ‘religion and other beliefs’, which includes Humanism. That TftD is, at present, reserved solely for religion clearly goes against both the spirit of the BBC Charter and also contemporary legislation.

Linked to this, a question of the balance that should be expected from a public service broadcaster: One of the key rules governing TftD is that contributors are not allowed to attack other religions. They do, however, not infrequently attack non-religious beliefs. Allowing only religious speakers to contribute, with unquestioned statements and positions, some of which stray very closely to the line of political opinions, surely contravenes the BBC’s guidelines for impartiality.

Failure to fully meet the needs of an audience which is very diverse in belief terms and many of whom are non-religious in their worldview: The Office for National Statistics’ Social Trends in 2006, found similar proportions of people (about half the population) considered themselves not religious as those belonging to a Christian denomination. The figures for young people are even higher – 65% do not belong to any religion, according to a DfES survey in 2004. Non-religious people, who make up at least a large minority of the population, simply do not have their views and ethics represented by the reflective slot in the Today programme as religious listeners do.

The signal about humanists that their exclusion sends out: By including only religious contributors, the BBC clearly implies that humanists cannot offer a significant thought and that religious people, through no other virtue than claiming a religious faith or affiliation, have a monopoly on morality and ethics. This baseless and offensive implication ignores the fact that Western Europe has a tradition of non-religious ethical thinking that can be traced back some 2,500 years in both West and East. This way of understanding the world, of finding meaning in life, and of grounding moral thinking can also be found in China and India as well as Europe mllennia ago. The consequence of its exclusion is an impoverished TftD.

Finally, a refutation of the idea that the slot provides a religious counterweight to a predominantly secular output, with the implication that we should be happy as humanists with the balance provided by the fact that most of the BBC’s output is not thought for the day: An argument that the BBC makes against inclusion of humanist contributors is that the rest of the Today programme is (like most of what is broadcast by the BBC) “devoted to overwhelmingly secular concerns – national and international news and features, interviews and debate on issues of public policy” (BBC, 2009) and so it is “appropriate to offer a brief, uninterrupted interlude of spiritual reflection, founded on religious belief” (ibid). In this context, the term ‘secular’ is being misused to suggest that a humanist thought would be properly categorised as analogous to the news, sport and weather rather than suited to TftD. The word can indeed be used to denote that which simply is not religious, and therefore literally anything in the world that is not religious (not just on the Today programme) would be described as secular. However, this meaning originates in the contrast between the eternal concerns of religion and the merely temporal (secular) ones of everyday life. In that sense humanist thought is not ephemeral. Moreover, it is ignominious to imply that the beliefs, morals, ethics and views, of non-religious people are best characterised simply as not religious, as opposed reflecting and drawing on the rich and varied non-religious traditions which continue to develop from millennia of human thought, evolution and society.

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