Lord Reith 1, Atheists 0…

Long term TFTD contributor Rabbi Lionel Blue

Each weekday millions of people in Britain reach for their radio and tune to BBC radio 4’s Today programme. It has been my primary window on world news and events for 40 years. In a world of sound bites and looped infotainment it’s continued popularity is remarkable. Thoughtful extended reflections on real issues? Serious journalistic inquiry that makes politicians tremble in their Gucci’s? It will never catch on surely?

Today programme listeners tend to be very protective of their habitual morning listening. We do not like things to change. We do not like things to be trivialised or tarted up. John Humphrey’s can often irritate and annoy with his savant-pedanticism- but he does this as one of ours. Like an older brother at Christmas.

At 7.45 each morning, we are offered a Spiritual slot, called Thought for the Day. A selected bunch of folk from different faith backgrounds are given 120 seconds to reflect on a current issue. It is often bland and esoteric. Sometimes it is beautiful and moving. It is one of those rare ‘pause, breathe in and think’ moments. Or at very least a moment to switch the kettle on.

Step forward the Militant Atheists. They object strongly to their morning listening being corrupted by religion. Particularly when Atheists and humanists are not invited to speak. This from the National Secular Society

“Every edition of Thought for the Day is a rebuke to those many people in our society who do not have religious beliefs…This is so blatant an abuse of religious privilege that we cannot simply let it pass. Our evidence shows that five out of six of the public are heavily on our side. We will be looking at other ways of challenging this unjustifiable slot.”

And so complaints were sent (7 in total) and much huffing and puffing was made in many quarters. The BBC trust sat in leather chairs for quite some time- then rejected the complaint.

The ghost of Lord Reith, Presbytarian forefather of the BBC- rested again in peace…

Of course, we may yet Atheist voices Thought for the day. But I find myself in agreement with The Guardian’s John Plunket who said this-

Introducing secular voices to Thought for the Day wouldn’t just have changed the slot, it would have killed it. As one of its former editors John Newbury said, there is no need for a non-theological Thought-style reflection at 7.50am – there is plenty of that elsewhere on Today and across the Radio 4 schedule.

Evangelical muscular atheism seems to me as anachronistic in these pluralistic times as the street corner preacher in his sandwich board proclaiming the nigh-ness of the end.

And whilst I have no desire to get into pointless arguments with people who have claim to know what can never be known (who remembers last year’s bus campaign?) I must confess to a feeling of more than a little smug satisfaction at the rejection of their complaint…

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