I have just seen the press notice for some new paper by ‘the religion and society think-tank’ Ekklesia on the BBC Thought for the Day debate. Basically it calls for ‘fairness’ in allocating slots to humanists and indeterminate ‘others’ on the grounds that “it would be entirely appropriate in a mixed-belief society to hear the values, beliefs and moral convictions of humanists and others – including the many who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’.” It goes on to assert that “both religious and non-religious listeners” are urging the BBC to change its ways, noting along the way that “Anglicans or those with direct links to Anglicanism still overwhelmingly dominate amongst those who contribute to TFTD.”
Ekklesia (which – unless I am mistaken – is basically Jonathan Bartley and Simon Barrow) then asserts:
Religion does itself no favours by seeking maintain a privileged place in broadcasting. For many religions advantaging yourself against others goes against core teachings, which call for fairness and equality. There would be outrage if a BBC sports slot omitted to include coverage of several significant sports because they didn’t consider them ‘sporty’ enough. It is absurd that the exclusion of minor religions, humanists and others has continued unchallenged for so long.
It is difficult to know where to start with this – especially as the argument looks to have an element of personal pique to it: Jonathan Bartley was dropped from the Thought for the Day list and is clearly (and understandably) miffed. But let’s take it point by point:
1. As we pointed out in a debate last month, the argument is not about inclusiveness or ‘fairness’, but about distinctiveness. Appeals for fairness are usually empty and echo the cry of children in the school playground. TftD is a distinctive slot with presenters not doing yet another ‘opinion/comment’ piece, but interpreting the world from within their particular religious tradition. This is the only slot of its type through which this perspective might be gained.
2. I wholeheartedly agree that it is “entirely appropriate in a mixed-belief society to hear the values, beliefs and moral convictions of humanists and others – including the many who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’.” But we do hear these (particularly of humanists) in just about every other programme which assumes that humanism is the obviously and self-evidently ‘true’ world view. Should Christians (or religious people) be arguing for at least a single religious voice in every edition of In our Time, Start the Week, etc.? The question is not about the validity of such voices being heard; rather, it is whether those voices are to be heard in a distinctive slot such as TftD.
3. Who are the other ‘religious listeners’ backing Ekklesia’s view? I know of Ekklesia, but not any other grouping. I’d be interested to know.
4. Ekklesia obviously has a problem with Anglicanism generally. But they fial to recognise the distinctive rationale of the Church of England which is not congregational and which is organised to serve everybody in every parish regardless of their faith (even humanists), creed and state. The churches might fail a million times in this vocation, but it is a unique vocation and does mean that bishops and clergy are seriously well connected to grassroots communities all over the country. So, maybe the Anglican contribution should be welcomed and not discarded so easily. (More could be said, but…)
5. The weird argument about sport would suggest that Ekklesia thinks Match of the Day should have cricket and rounders in it too. After all, that is about ‘fairness and equality’. And, anyway, when did it become assumed that every religion calls for ‘fairness and equality’? Christianity calls for lots of things (including self-sacrifice and not misrepresenting your neighbour’s case), but ‘fairness and equality’?! The elder brother of the Prodigal Son will have his ears pricked up here!
This is superficial nonsense. I used to hold to a similar view to Ekklesia until I started to think about it and debate it. If TftD is to be broadened, it will need better arguments than these. Especially as – as was pointed out by Giles Fraser in our recent debate – there are humanists represented already: such as the Christians like Giles who contribute. How absurd it was (during that debate) to hear Erasmus cited as an example of the secular humanist tradition when he was, in fact, a Christian!