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:

bbc-logo1. 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!

MicrophoneThis 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!

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).