Thought for the Day has had its day

I see the utterly tedious topic of the religious Thought for the Day slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has been back in the headlines lately after Radio 4 Controller, Mark Damazer, said the BBC Trust is considering complaints made by hundreds of disgruntled atheists. It’s very nice, I’m sure, of the BBC to finally consider the complaints when everyone I know who has ever complained received a standard rejection letter from Damazer taking the same daft ‘secularists get a big enough slice of the pie already’ line as many religionists do.

Take Michael White, for example, in yesterday’s Guardian:  “Secularists dominate the airwaves for the other 23 hours and 57 minutes of the day,” he tells us, “so why not keep three minutes for the faiths?” Or as Free Presbyterian Minister, David Robertson, whines in the Sunday Herald, “The BBC’s default world view and operating principle is secularist…We will be more than happy to give up the tiny slot that is reserved for “religion” in the BBC…provided that the 99% of the BBC that is exclusively run from secularist presuppositions is opened to the majority of the population who have some form of religious belief.”

Well, blow me! It never occurred to me that religious listeners might resent the fact that the rest of the BBC output is presented from a neutral perspective and that they’d rather have a religious slant on everything. Perhaps they’d like to hear an archbishop or rabbi present the news from their religious “presuppositions” as well as produce dramas, documentaries and music programmes?

Sorry, but that argument is hogwash. Unless a programme is specifically religious, everyone can enjoy it, regardless of their world view. There is a place for religious thoughts and I don’t mean they should stay in the heads of religious people. I’ve no objection to a few clearly flagged religious programmes. After all, religion is a special interest still held by many and those of us who are bored or offended by it can listen to something else.

The problem with Thought for the Day is that it interrupts a purportedly serious daily news magazine with what is, for many of us, a highly irritating three-minute religious platitude. I always found TFTD objectionable when I was a regular listener to the Today programme. One day in 1981 my irritation boiled over and I switched channels permanently. I’ve never listened to the programme since but recently I’ve looked at some transcripts of contributions to the slot on the programme’s website and I found no improvement to speak of. Most of them are, in my view, trite, tired and unoriginal.

The second problem with Thought for the Day is its very title, which suggests the thought being expressed is profound and meaningful. Excluding non-religious contributers implies that only religious people can have profound, meaningful thoughts. Thus non-religious listeners are irritated even more.

On the plus side, a three-minute daily platitude would seem to be low-hanging fruit, as far as secularists are concerned: the campaign against it gets the secular humanist organisations some publicity during the silly season. If you do nothing else for the campaign against religious privilege, drop a line of complaint or just sign a petition against TFTD’s exclusively religious character and pat yourself on the back for doing something worthy.

I’m inclined to agree with A C Grayling’s view, quoted in The Telegraph:

At the moment the slot is discriminatory. A lot of people are irritated by it being on a main news programme. They should really abolish it but at the very least they should have alternative views.

Yes, they should but personally I wouldn’t lift a finger in furtherance of that particular cause. I loathe TFTD with a passion and I wouldn’t expect to like it any better just because it included an occasional secular platitude. Because, let’s face it, not every secularist is a Grayling or a Baggini. We shouldn’t flatter ourselves that the quality of the slot is necessarily going to be improved by the inclusion of secular contributors. The bar isn’t exactly set high.

Opposing David Robertson in the Sunday Herald, Tim Maguire of the Humanist Society of Scotland, says,

If the UN Special Rapporteur on Religion and Belief is to be believed, two-thirds of the UK population have no religious belief. Why should they look to religious leaders for moral guidance? On the other hand, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, there’s a huge moral vacuum in our society. For once I agree with the Daily Mail, but let’s fill that vacuum with philosophers, thinkers and comedians whose conclusions are reached by reason and compassion rather than divine revelation.

Hang on a minute, where’ve I read that before? Strangely, the same four sentences — identical right down to the use of the first person — appear in a piece written for The Guardian back in February by Juliet Wilson, also of the Humanist Society of Scotland. (And there was I mocking the Muslim speakers Adam Deen and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, recently, for being unoriginal thinkers with a set script!)

Anyway, Juliet was promoting what she describes as a “secular alternative in podcast form called Thought for the World” and I resisted the temptation to scoff at the idea that a three-minute slot on highbrow radio could impinge on any moral vacuum because my hopes were raised by the mention of philsophers, comedians and thinkers.

Alas, the first of this year’s series of thought for the world podcasts was by Muriel Gray, who is neither philosopher nor comedian nor, it would seem, much of a thinker. Her contribution on voluntary euthanasia, which I railed about in a previous post because it’s a subject close to my heart, was not only devoid of both reason and compassion, it also conflicted sharply with the view held by the majority of freethinkers — and many religious believers too — that people who are suffering unbearably should have the right to end their own life if they choose to. As I said in the earlier post,

To be fair, Muriel wasn’t really trying to make an argument. She was simply using an opportunity handed to her on a plate to speak uninterrupted and unchallenged about what she wants or, rather, what she thinks she would want if she were dying a slow painful death. The arguments in favour of a change of law, the sufferings of the likes of Diane Petty, Nigel Pratten, Sue Lawson or countless others could be safely ignored. And they were.

It struck me as a tad ironic that this project of providing a secular alternative to religious TFTD should give a voice and a potential audience of millions to someone who opposes another long-standing humanist campaign and one that is far more important, in my opinion, than getting secular viewpoints on TFTD because it is a campaign that is concerned with real human suffering.

I wouldn’t deny people the right to say whatever they like; what I object to is giving people a soapbox which, once they’ve had their say, they can kick aside and go home without any requirement that they listen to an opposing view. The notion of providing platforms for platitudes where there is no opportunity to engage with the speaker and explore their ideas in more depth — or disagree with them altogether — doesn’t sit well with my understanding of humanism as a positive and democratic philosophy.

All over the web I see thoughts being expressed by ordinary people with more wit, wisdom and perspicacity than most of the contributors to either TFTD or its secular alternative can manage. Better still, I see those thoughts being challenged and developed through discussion and debate from people all over the world (something that humanists in Scotland don’t seem very interested in, judging by the tumbleweed on their internet forum).

For all the noise that (some) secularists make over our exclusion from TFTD, I know there are plenty who, like me, don’t give a flying toss about it and aren’t really interested in hearing atheists sounding off with no come-back. An attempt to raise funds for the Thought for the World project launched in February this year has raised a pitiful £211.11 so far and, as the extraordinary success of the atheist bus appeal demonstrates, it’s not because we’re stingy.

No. While the idea of pissing off the likes of the Revd. David Robertson is appealing, it wouldn’t compensate for the tedium of hearing atheists use the slot to promote their favourite cause or whinge about their personal bugbears without fear of being challenged.

I’d rather scrap it altogether, thanks all the same.

Edited to add: Oops – if I’d seen this article in the Independent before posting, I would’ve chosen a different title. I recommend the article in spite of the title.

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