The Today programme’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 is a deep-rooted broadcasting tradition. But criticising Thought for the Day for unjustly privileging religious voices is also a venerable tradition of its own. The most recent appearance of the latter emerged from inside the Today programme itself, with presenter John Humphrys complaining that Thought for the Day is: “Deeply, deeply boring” – adding that:
It is inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion, given that rather more than half our population have no religion at all.
Both of these traditions – Thought for the Day and its criticism by secular thinkers – need to be challenged. As an academic who writes about religion I am frustrated by both Thought for the Day’s obvious shortcomings, but also the ways in which periodic debate about its value slips into tired and predictable arguments about religion’s place in society.
We’ve been here before
Attacks on Thought for the Day are a recurring event. In 2002, a joint letter from various secularist organisations complained that the BBC is “discriminating against the non-religious” by not allowing non-belief to be represented in its content. And in 2013, renewed debate was caused when the atheist Andy Pakula was controversially invited onto the programme only to be blocked from contributing by BBC management.
The conspicuously strange nature of Thought for the Day only helps to make it an appealing target. Set in the midst of three hours of famously fierce (albeit not unproblematic) debate, this three-minute interruption consisting of slow, tranquil and – crucially – unchallenged musing sticks out like a sore thumb. Contributors set their tone of voice firmly to “profound” and patient listeners are then confronted with a mixture of gentle reflection on current events and resolutely unobjectionable reference to religious tradition.
Humphrys’ characterisation of the slot as: “Jesus was really nice, and the world could be a better place if we all … You know …” is perhaps mean-spirited, but essentially accurate.
Of course not everyone appreciated Humphrys’ assessment. Regular Thought for the Day contributor and Guardian columnist Reverend Dr Giles Fraser complained that “I don’t see the problem with having a slot ringfenced for a particular subject such as religion” and saw this attack as evidence of the BBC’s secularising bias.
But Fraser was playing into a recurring religion vs secularism debate and ignored Humphrys’ conflation of two distinct things: first, that Thought for the Day is boring and, second, that growing self-identification as “non-religious” in Britain means that “it is inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion.” Only one of these is true.
Thought for the Day is boring, particularly when positioned in such glaring contrast to the rest of the Today programme. But the idea that religion no longer deserves to be addressed in mainstream media is much more problematic.
Religion’s continuing relevance
Viewed globally, the “secularisation thesis” that once dominated the sociology of religion is now largely considered dead. The world is not becoming less religious and, for better or worse, major developments continue to be driven by the views and actions of faith communities. Even in Britain, there is ample evidence that a reduction in the number of people formally adhering to religious tradition has not remotely led to a decline in its importance as a key dynamic shaping discourse in the public sphere.
If anything, the reverse may be the case, with there being more media discussion of religion than in the past. Religion, put simply, is important and needs to be addressed.
It is this that makes Thought for the Day so exasperating. It should be abolished, not because it panders to faith communities, but because it treats a vitally important subject area in a manner that is artificially safe, condescending and dull. It places religion into a strangely uncritical bubble right in the middle of a high-profile news programme – and locks a subject area that I know to be immensely influential, controversial, and challenging into a beige padded cell.
Considered as a whole, its sheer oddness is such that it actually ends up looking like a short-term asset to some secularists. The highly visible unfairness of its selection policy regarding contributors may be an annoyance, but its ongoing existence offers an easy and habitually appealing target.
Academic scholars of religion of all hues should be at the forefront of those calling for the abolition of Thought of the Day. From my own perspective – as someone both fascinated by religion and concerned to communicate this fascination to others – listening to Thought for the Day is genuinely painful. It is the spectacle of seeing a Marmite-like, love-it-or-hate-it dimension of humanity first transformed into something resolutely bland and then solemnly paraded out as the midway course during a frenetic multi-course banquet.
But opposition should also come from a range of other directions. This includes faith communities who don’t want to see their traditions reduced to segregated, woolly curiosities and secularists who want to confront religious worldviews in a manner that moves beyond pyrrhic victories in which their opponents are reduced to watered-down imitations of themselves.