Photo of BBC Broadcasting House

Should Thought for the Day lose its religion?

Posted in Comment


Once again, the BBC has been called on to allow the non-religious to ‘think for the day’ on Radio 4’s Today programme. In a letter to the Guardian, such notables as Sandi Toksvig, Julian Baggini, Ed Byrne, Alice Roberts and Peter Tatchell have urged it ‘to open its flagship reflective slot to humanists’.

It would be cheap to ask how much ethical clarity we might expect from people who muddle their metaphors so badly. And, indeed, at first sight their request looks reasonable. TFTD is meant to offer a faith-based perspective on current affairs, and declaring that there is no God and Man is the measure of all things is as much a statement of faith as any religious creed.

Perhaps nihilists should get a look in as well – and Jedis, too, if the BBC is truly to honour ‘its remit to reflect the diversity of beliefs of its audience and wider population, and its legal duty to treat non-religious and religious beliefs equally.’

I don’t know how the Beeb itself justifies allowing only religious reflection. I suspect that TFTD, like the national anthem and the annual prayers at the Cenotaph, is simply part of our heritage, a relic of a past that at least paid lip service to religion, and that it would be more trouble than it’s worth at the moment to adjust it to our more overtly faith-free age.

My own take would be that the purpose of TFTD should be purely educational – not to proselytise, certainly, nor even to try to challenge or inspire, but simply to explain how something in the news looks to people who (rightly or wrongly) see a bigger picture than the material world and our temporal existence.

The fact is that, increasingly, events worldwide are shaped by religious ideas and attitudes. You can’t make sense of Daesh, for example, if you have no understanding of its theology, and of the bearing theology can have on our actions.

Most of the presenters on Today and the ‘movers and shakers’ they interview seem to have less and less insight into religious belief, and often seem to regard it as no more than a kind of affectation. John Humphrys has said he finds it ‘boring’. Last year, he declared it ‘inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion, given that rather more than half our population have no religion at all’.

Well, OK. But then the rest of the programme looks at the news exclusively from a non-religious point of view which is either amoral or broadly humanist. The audience doesn’t need a specific slot – reflective or otherwise – to learn how we can respond to events without any regard or reference to a higher power or a higher law.

The less religious the population is, in a world that is increasingly shaped by religion, the more important it is that Today provides some kind of insight into the religious mindset. Two minutes and 45 seconds is not a lot to ask.

Photo: acb under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Huw Spanner

Huw Spanner

Huw Spanner is a freelance writer and editor. He was managing editor of Third Way for six years, and now publishes in-depth, unspun interviews of public figures on the website High Profiles. From 1999 to 2003, he thought for the day many times on Radio 4.

© Ship of Fools