Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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God's Morning Monopoly

Is it time to open up Thought For The Day to non-believers?

Liverpool Cathedral
Liverpool Cathedral. Photograph: Getty Images

This morning the Rt Rev James Jones, Anglican bishop of Liverpool was in benign form on Radio 4, congratulating modern Britain for its finely-tuned moral sense.  Sexual mores might have changed over the past few decades, he noted, but these days "people are much more morally aware of injustice, bullying, racism, exploitation, the environment, poverty and corruption."  And it would be "unthinkable" for a public inquiry held in the wake of a public disaster only to take evidence from posh people, as the Titanic inquiry did a century ago.

A secularist might have wondered if the decline in active religiosity since the Titanic sank, most of its third-class passengers with it, to the strains of the doomed orchestra playing Nearer My God To Thee, was in any way connected with the moral progress the bishop had identified.  But by immemorial tradition non-religious voices are banned from that daily oasis of contemplation that is Thought For The Day.  So we'll just have to take his word for it that early 21st century society represented a state of affairs "nearer the Kingdom of God" than its God-fearing but class- and gender-divided Edwardian predecessor in which bankers gave their money to endow hospitals and women and children were first into the lifeboats.

One thing I think we can be fairly sure of, and that is that had Thought For The Day existed in 1912 there would be rather less controversy about its overtly religious nature.  

Yesterday regular Today presenter Evan Davis told the Independent that he didn't think that the slot's contributors need be limited to "people of the cloth".  He hinted that he would also like to see "serious and spiritually minded secularists" offering their reflections.  In the past he has been rather more outspoken, accusing the BBC of "discriminating against the non-religious".  But even yesterday's fairly tentative comments have been welcomed by the British Humanist Association's Pavan Dhaliwal, who complains that the Beeb's "egregious and unfathomable insistence that only religious views on moral issues of the day are valid persists."

The BHA and other secularist organisations have been trying without success to persuade the BBC to admit humanists to the coveted "God slot" for more than ten years.  In July 2009, change seemed to be in the air when the then Controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer, said that it was a "finely balanced argument" and that "there may well be quite a strong argument for including secularists and humanists."  But even this suggestion provoked intense opposition.  Canon Giles Fraser was quoted in the Mail as calling the idea "madness" and comparing it to "secularists doing Songs of Praise."  Allowing an occasional non-believer to speak would be a way of "destroying it through the back door, through political correctness."  A Conservative MP who was also quoted said much the same thing, though a little less stridently.

Fraser needn't have worried.  Later that year, the BBC Trust ruled that the believers-only rule did not breach impartiality guidelines.  They concluded, essentially (and with almost theological sophistry) that although it sat within the Today programme, Thought For the Day was a "stand-alone slot", and therefore "did not require the more rigorous approach to impartiality expected of news and current affairs."  Any change would be up to the programme's editors.  They for their part seem to have concluded that the positive benefit of any such change -- a wider diversity of voices and perspectives  -- wasn't worth antagonising religious lobby groups.  And so it remains, like the bishops' benches in the House of Lords, a bastion of religious privilege in an otherwise secular society.  

As several of the complaints considered by the BBC Trust pointed out, the very title "Thought For the Day" is problematic.  It implies that there is something inherently thoughtful about religioius perspectives, more thoughtful at any rate than secular ones.  The slot is also anomalous in that the thoughts being expressed are unchallenged by the presenters or by other guests.  

As anyone who listens regularly will know, the quality of the contributors varies wildly.   It's hard to see how having speakers who came from a wider assortment of perspectives would adversely affect the quality of the thoughts being expressed or indeed the reflective nature of the slot.  There's no shortage of articulate and thoughtful people who could offer a philosophical take on the day's news without turning Thought For The Day into a pulpit for "militant atheism", which is perhaps what the producers are afraid of.

Non-belief is not, in itself, a faith position.  Nor is there such a thing as a single non-faith perspective, just as there is no single religious (or Christian, or Anglican) perspective.  But then "Faith" is not the same as religious faith, however much the widespread use of "faith" as a synonym  for "religion" by politicians and the media tends to obscure this.  A religious faith is one sort of faith, but many people take their values from secular faiths -- environmentalism, feminism, socialism, libertarianism -- instead of or alongside religious ones.   And "true believers" in all these creeds do not fit easily into the mainstream (and incredibly narrow) political debate that makes up the rest of the daily diet on Today.  An expanded Thought For The Day might just help to revitalize not just the "God slot" but the wider public debate in this country.  

Having said that, judging by his offering this morning the current Bishop of Liverpool probably shares more moral assumptions in common with the head of the British Humanist Association than with his predecessor of a hundred years ago.  That's my thought for the day.