Not a complaint, a cry for reason!

SELHuG began its campaign to get humanists included on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day in June 2018. The BBC continues to ‘not engage’ by batting all our appeals to their complaints department, who continue to issue fatuous arguments. What are they afraid of?

One of our campaigners, Trevor Moore, took the arrival of new Director-General Tim Davie as an opportunity to raise the matter again. See the correspondence below:

Timothy Davie CBE
Director-General, BBC
Dear Mr. Davie,

Since June 2018 – temporarily postponed due to Covid-19 – South East London Humanist Group (SELHuG) representatives such as I have demonstrated monthly outside the BBC headquarters in London. Our campaign calls on the BBC to include humanists and other non-religious thinkers on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

The ‘interfaith’ or ‘dialogue’ approach to understanding others’ beliefs – of all faiths and none – is growing apace. By excluding humanists and those with other non-religious world views, Thought for the Day is not only discriminatory, but also out of kilter with what is happening in the real world i.e. a willingness to listen to others, matched with inclusiveness.

The most recent BBC report on Religion and Ethics contains the following (my bold):

“Thought for the Day and Pause for Thought will continue as religious slots in primetime radio, with speakers from a wide range of faiths reflecting on an issue of the day. It is important that these slots are grounded in different lived experiences of faith and philosophical underpinning aimed at resonating with the whole audience, so that the item is not just a reflection on current events, but also a chance to learn more about other religious beliefs.”

May I suggest that it is not possible to resonate ‘with the whole audience’, if around 50% are not religious and feel aggrieved because their voice is never heard? And in saying it’s ‘a chance to learn more about other religious beliefs’, the report presupposes that the listener already has a religion; whereas she or he may welcome hearing other meaningful, non-religious perspectives. 

These days we regularly hear the words ‘those of all faiths and none’, to reflect the need for inclusion. It is high time Thought for the Day reflected this too, which is why South East London Humanists launched their campaign and persist with it.

I urge you to look into this anachronistic anomaly and to give the humanist world view airtime on Thought for the Day.

Yours sincerely,
Trevor Moore
Member of South East London Humanist Group

Dear Mr Moore,

Thank you for contacting us about ‘Thought for the day’.

First and foremost, “Thought for the Day” is a unique slot on the BBC in which speakers from a wide range of religious faiths reflect on an issue of the day from their faith perspective. 

In the midst of the three-hour “Today” programme devoted to overwhelmingly secular concerns – national and international news and features, searching interviews and sometimes heated debate on issues of public policy – the BBC judges it appropriate to offer a brief, uninterrupted interlude of spiritual reflection, at a point in the morning when most of the audience are embarking on their day. 

At its best the short talk plants a seed of thought, a spark of spiritual insight that stays with listeners during the day. At times of national event or crisis it also has the capacity to catch the mood of the nation and speak to it.

Although the number of UK church-goers has dwindled in recent decades, the policy remains in place because a significant section of the UK population, including increasing numbers from non-Christian faiths, claim a belief in God or describe themselves as “spiritual”. Also, the level of attendance in religious activities among the Radio 4 audience is higher than the national average.

Broadening the brief would detract from the distinctiveness of the slot.

“Thought for the Day” has been a regular feature on BBC Radio for around 40 years and therefore the programme’s remit and approach is very well known by listeners and we therefore feel the programme’s title is appropriate and should remain.

The BBC believes that all licence fee payers have the right to hear their reasonable views and beliefs reflected on its output. Within “Thought for the Day” a careful balance is maintained of voices from different Christian denominations and other religions with significant membership in the UK. Speakers are expected to make brief references to their faith and its scriptures, but are not permitted to proselytise on behalf of their religion or to disparage other religions.

“Thought for the Day” speakers are not questioned or interrupted on air, but their choice of subject and the content of their scripts are subject to careful scrutiny and frequent re-drafting in collaboration with an experienced producer working to strict BBC guidelines on impartiality.

In addition, the mix of regular contributors to the slot represents a wide range of theological, social and political views to ensure further balance across a period of time.

Non-religious voices are also heard extensively across the general output. Occasional programmes give voice to atheist and humanist viewpoints. The vast swathe of general programmes makes little reference to religion, but approach the world from an overwhelmingly secular perspective: news, current affairs, documentaries, talks, science, history; which includes, of course, the other 2 hours 57 minutes of the “Today” programme.

Outside “Thought for the Day”, the BBC’s Religion & Ethics output maintains a balance of religious and non-religious voices, through programmes such as “Sunday”, “Something Understood”, “Beyond Belief” and “The Moral Maze”. In these programmes, atheists, humanists and secularists are regularly heard, the religious world is scrutinised, its leaders and proponents are questioned, and the harm done in the name of religion is explored.

We do not suggest that the only people with anything worthwhile to say about morals or ethics are religious people but that does not mean that the “Thought for the Day” brief is not a legitimate one for listeners of all faiths and those of none. Some of the programme’s strongest support and most positive feedback comes from people who begin, “I am not a religious person but I do enjoy “Thought for the Day”.

Thank you again for contacting us.

Kind regards,
Gareth Murray
BBC Complaints Team 

Dear Mr Murray,

Thanks for your email. Regrettably you make the hackneyed miscategorisation of humanism in equating it with secularism, as if anything that doesn’t have religious content ‘counts’ as reflecting it. 

Quite distinct from secularism, humanism is an ethical approach to life with a linked philosophy that pre-dates mainstream religion, back to the ancient Greeks. It may not be ‘spiritual’ in the religious sense, but it is a profound perspective on finding meaning in life that I am sure Today listeners of all faiths and none would find rewarding to hear. 

As I have said before, the BBC is way out of step in not embracing the ‘interfaith’ approach of many organisations who welcome insights from humanists alongside the religious, for the very reasons outlined above.

In light of your unwillingness, if not inability, to see this, our group will of course continue its campaign.

Best regards,
Trevor Moore