Monday 9 April 2012

A Thought for the Day — any day soon, please?

Evan Davis, one of the hosts of Radio 4's morning news radio show, The Today Programme, shared his views about Thought for the Day in a brief profile article in the Independent recently, subsequently picked up by the British Humanist Association, which has long been campaigning for the daily four-minute slot to be opened up to non-religious speakers:

Today programme host: ‘Thought for the Day’ should have secular voices

This is so obvious it should have been done years ago, but the BBC have a blind spot about their religious programming. They even claim that the "faith" content of TftD is balanced by the "non-faith" of the rest of the Today Programme. It's just part of an insidious insistence that morality is the exclusive preserve of religion, which is not only false but profoundly so. An excellent case can be made that religious considerations of moral questions are inherently lacking in morality, and that the only truly "moral" approach to such questions is a secular humanist one.

Nelson Jones (aka "The Heresiarch") took up the matter in New Statesman:
New Statesman - God's Morning Monopoly a comprehensive overview and a reasoned argument that, today, thoughts don't have to be religious.

New Humanist chimed in with the following:
New Humanist Blog: Time for atheists on Thought for the Day?
Not just time. It's long overdue.

Guy Stagg
So far, so unanimous. But then Guy Stagg penned this staggering drivel in the Telegraph:
Secularists on Thought for the Day will expose the loneliness of atheism – Telegraph Blogs
(Via HumanistLife.) 

There’s so much wrong with Guy Stagg’s article one hardly knows where to start. We'll try the beginning:
Evan Davis has called for Thought for the Day to be opened up to secular contributions. The Today programme presenter thinks that the show is discriminating against the non-religious. Davis probably thinks this would strengthen the role of secularism in society, but in fact the opposite is true.
Naked assertions do not an argument make.
Thought for the Day is one of the better things about the Today programme. In comparison with some of the indulgent and irrelevant slots that fill up the three hours, Thought for the Day is consistently focused and intelligent.
Stagg obviously misses the ones I hear, which are mostly woolly and platitudinous.
What is more, as most atheists recognise, faith has plenty of lessons for religious and non-religious alike.
Secularism has plenty of lessons for people of faith (and no faith), so let's hear some of those too.
Finally, Radio 4 gives lots of space to secular contributions – a few minutes of God in the middle of the morning is hardly a victory against the Enlightenment.
But this is exactly the point — where else in the Today Programme's three hours can we hear secular views on ethics and how-we-should-live? Restricting TftD to only God-based views is clearly discrimination.
There are also practical problems with Evan Davis’s idea. Who would be invited onto the new Thought for the Day? Davis suggests “spiritually minded secularists”. I guess that would include philosophers and academics, but presumably poets and lifestyle coaches as well. The question is: who does it exclude?
Why should it exclude anyone?
There is something a bit immature about the idea, like a schoolboy trying to get off chapel. It belongs to the same category of silly proposal as Alain de Botton’s secular temples, or Dawkins's rebranding of atheists as “brights”. It shows that, although secularists have realised that they cannot simply be defined by opposition to religion, nevertheless they have little to offer in its place. Crucially the secular tradition has no successful institutions to preserve and spread its principles.
Stagg hasn't done his homework. "Brights" did not come from Richard Dawkins, though he and Dan Dennett have promoted the soubriquet, which hasn't found much favour among secularists. Secularists, however, have plenty to offer the Today Programme's listeners, if given the chance. As for replacing religion, if one has a cancerous tumour surgically removed, one does not seek to insert something in the body to replace it. And what does Stagg mean by "the secular tradition", if he's claiming secularists have no successful institutions? Is he not aware of the well-established British Humanist Association? The National Secular Society?
This is something that few secularists admit: atheism is quite lonely. Not just existentially, but socially as well. Secularism does not offer the sense of fellowship you find in religion. Watching old Christopher Hitchens debates on YouTube with a like-minded sceptic is entertaining, but I doubt it's as nourishing as Sunday Mass.
There's a reason secularists don't admit that atheism is lonely, at least not in Britain today. Because it isn't, neither existentially or socially. (On the global scale, is Stagg unaware of the Reason Rally? If so, he seems quite unqualified to write this article.) And I've no idea why Stagg thinks a secularist would find Sunday Mass in any sense "nourishing".
This doesn't make the claims of religion true.
He gets that bit right, at least.
For what it’s worth, I doubt them as much as Evan Davis. But I recognise that atheism has a long way to go to provide a complete and compelling alternative to religion. And it will take a lot more than inviting some yoga teachers onto the Today programme.
There's no reason why atheism ("lack of belief in a god or gods") should be an alternative to anything other than god-belief. Secular humanism, however, holds that it is possible to lead an ethical, fulfilling and meaningful life (the only life we have) without religion. I am without religion, and I see no need for anything in its place. And it may well take more than yoga teachers on TftD to convince people of that fact. So let's do it.

As mentioned above, the BHA has an ongoing campaign about Thought for the Day, and they are once again urging secularists, humanists and others to write to the BBC trustees. Here's my effort, sent on 2 April:
BBC Trust Unit
180 Great Portland Street

Dear Sirs,

In today's Independent, Evan Davies, one of the presenters of Radio 4's Today Programme, is quoted thus:

Davis, an atheist, feels strongly about Today's "Thought for the Day" slot. A decade ago he complained that it was "discriminating against the non-religious". Now he says: "I think there's a very serious debate about whether the spot – which I would keep – might give space to what one might call 'serious and spiritually minded secularists'. I don't think "Thought for the Day" has to only be people of the cloth."

The BBC has over the years received many calls to restore balance to this slot but has not done so. The calls keep coming.

As a listener to the Today Programme for several decades I would like to add my own strong feelings that "Thought for the Day" should include secular views. The consideration of ethical questions is not the sole purview of the religious, and given that the slot is not called "Religious Thought for the Day" its content remains unbalanced. I urge the trustees to rectify this as soon as possible, in line with what is likely to be the majority view of the programme's audience.

Yours faithfully,

Paul S. Jenkins

I sent this via email, to
(...and only now, on pasting this in, do I realise I spelled Evan Davis' name incorrectly.)