Two stories grab the eye today: (a) the rejection by the BBC Trust of a series of complaints about the lack of non-religious contributors to the Radio 4 Today programme’s Thought for the Day and (b) the launch of the new atheist poster campaign.

The BBC Trust said of the former that only allowing religious contributors on the slot did not breach editorial guidelines on impartiality. It did, however, state that the slot must comply with requirements of “due impartiality” and that any future complaints on broadcasts during the slot would be judged on a “case-by-case basis”. This follows 11 complaints about TFTD and a single complaint about BBC editorial policy on non-religious programming. The Trust added that it was a matter for the BBC executive board as to whether the remit of Thought for the Day should remain the same or be changed in the future.

It was the response by Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, that was odd. He said the NSS was “very disappointed” by the decision and would continue to campaign to “open it up” to other groups – understandable and fair enough. But then he stated:

Every edition of Thought for the Day is a rebuke to those many people in our society who do not have religious beliefs. It says to them that their ‘thoughts’ are not worth hearing and that somehow religious opinions are more worthy of a special, unchallengeable platform. This is so blatant an abuse of religious privilege that we cannot simply let it pass. We will be looking at other ways of challenging this unjustifiable slot.

Er… so is it the ‘slot’ that is unjustifiable or its unique character? Make up your mind.

I can think of several reasons for some people not liking TFTD, but to see this ruling as a ‘rebuke’ and to speak of ‘abuse’ is just weird. The NSS will continue to huff and puff, but their case might hold more weight if it were presented in a more rational way.

You can’t accuse Ariane Sherine & co of poor presentation. Their new poster campaign continues where the imaginative ‘atheist bus’ adverts left off. The bus campaign was wonderful in that it kept people talking about the probability of God and was at least a funny, clever and engaging way to have a go at religious advertising. The new campaign poster looks like this:

It looks nice and simple, doesn’t it? It sounds perfectly reasonable, too. “Let’s not indoctrinate our children into any particular worldview, but let’s let them grow up to make up their own mind.”

Er… how? On what basis? With what information and experience? Even the statement is based on the assumption that the tabula rasa assumption about the human mind and character is universally and self-evidently ‘true’. Now, that is weird.

If the poster was asking us to bring up our children to be able to think intelligently about human meaning, experience, morality, etc., then I am all for it. But to suggest that you can bring children up with no philosophical input, no pointers, no assumptions about reality, no priorities, no account for the values, beliefs and experiences of their parents and others is just irrational.

Or, to repeat the obvious: to not tell a child that there is a God is not to leave that child philosophically neutral, but to positively indoctinate the child into the assumption that there is no God. Why is that more rational or less bad?

Anyway, I welcome this new poster campaign and hope it will get people talking in the same way as the bus poster. Whatever conclusions we come to.

Last night I took part in a debate on the admission of humanist contributors to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. Organised by the Churches Media Council, it was enjoyable, but also a little odd. I have to admit to having gone into the debate batting firmly on one side, but willing to be persuaded to the other. It was on the basis of sheer free-thinking rationality that I became more convinced of the wisdom and importance of opposing the motion.

Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Telegraph was there and has reported on his blog.

Dr Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, proposed the motion in a generous, persuasive and articulate speech, but one that was based strongly on an appeal for ‘fairness and balance’. Ariane Sherine, comedienne and journalist (and the inspiration behind the brilliant agnostibus adverts), seconded the motion, but made the mistake of reading the humanist Thought for the Day she presented on Radio 4’s ipm some months ago.

Giles FraserGiles Fraser and I opposed the motion – Giles in his usual forceful style, distinguishing between the argument for ‘inclusion’ and that for ‘distinctiveness’ in respect of the TFTD slot. I just got heckled from the irrationalists at the back who didn’t help the proposers’ cause.

It was an interesting debate, but frustrating for two reasons. First, we couldn’t really engage in a proper discussion with each other about the arguments put (leaving either side open to misunderstanding). Secondly, the degree of sentimentality behind the proposers’ presentations made me (and, I think, Giles) feel that we couldn’t be too hard or robust in our engagement with them. Then, one contributor from the floor even cited Erasmus as a giant in the great tradition of European humanism without seeming to realise that he was a Christian – or that the original humanists were theists.

Ariane SherineThe point that I feel really lost it, however, was the language that assumed (a) that humanists are free thinkers (and, therefore, theists are not), (b) that Christians believe themselves to be more moral than atheists (a caricature based on a prejudice that does not stand up to scrutiny), and (c) that statistics can be used when convenient but are being misinterpreted when inconvenient.

Sherine bookMy regret following last night was only that the four of us couldn’t have had an intelligent conversation together about the matters raised. But it was a useful reminder that rationalists must be prepared for more rational debate on the basis of rational argument (and not sentiment) and Christians must check their own assumptions about where atheists/humanists are coming from.

WWYAMC book coverAnd I still think the agnostibus adverts were brilliant. And I have still commended Ariane Sherine’s new book for Christmas in my new book about Christmas (details to follow soon).