Thursday, 26 December 2013

The BBC's divisive belief test

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web and a Unitarian Universalist) invited me to present the Thought for the Day, on the BBC's Today Programme for Boxing Day 2013. The BBC overruled Sir Tim's invitation and selected an avowedly theist Unitarian minister instead.

Why was I prevented from presenting?

The BBC cited its editorial policy as the basis of this decision: 
"First and foremost, Thought for the Day (TFTD) 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."
Apparently, I do not have a "faith perspective."

Although the BBC has determined that Unitarianism is an acceptable faith (as evidenced by their invitation of another Unitarian minister), and although I am a fully-qualified minister of that faith with a thriving congregation, the BBC concluded that I do not "have faith" because I say that I do not believe in a god. 

This is not entirely a new dispute. In fact, last year, the BBC's Head of Religion and Ethics Aaqil Ahmed reportedly reviewed Thought for the Day in response to complaints but concluded that it should not be opened up to people of no faith.

So, what is going on here?

The BBC is intent on keeping Thought for the Day as a haven for the traditionally religious and, in order to do so, has established its religion department as the arbiter of who is and who is not a legitimate "person of faith."

One of the most beautiful things about Unitarianism is that it refused to establish any belief test for members - it is and always has been a non-creedal faith. How ironic that the BBC - a tax-funded corporation dedicated to serving all the public - has established just such a belief test for participation in TFTD.

Aside from my own situation and the absurdity of a qualified minister of religion being ruled as not a person of faith, the BBC's conservative stance is a dangerous and divisive one for our tax-funded, public media corporation to take.

In a changing world, words like faith, religion, and god have come to have very diverse meanings and there is little agreement about them. Am I a person of faith because I am a fully qualified minister of religion in a venerable religious tradition, or am outside that category because I say I do not believe in God? If one were to interrogate so-called theist ministers of most liberal Christian faiths, one would find that their beliefs do not fit within the commonplace understandings of God as omnipotent, omniscient and active in the world. 

The view that we either have faith or not is a false dichotomy and an exclusionary position to take in a society where many, if not most, people now seek inspiration and guidance from non-traditional sources. 

In a 2005 Eurobarometer poll, only 37% of UK citizens said that they believe in God. 33% believe in “some sort of spirit or life force.” Which group qualifies as "people of faith"? At a time when millions seek inspiration from TED talks, other web sites, lectures, books, and non-traditional religious community, for the BBC to consider only traditional faith to be legitimate appears increasingly out of step with reality.

The BBC's insistence that the inspirational message in its flagship morning radio programme can only be delivered by the traditionally religious fails to serve the majority of the British audience. It is incumbent upon the BBC to find ways to offer inspiration and guidance that will reach the people who need it.

Why an atheist celebrates Christmas

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web and a Unitarian Universalist) invited me to present the Thought for the Day, on the BBC's Today Programme for Boxing Day 2013. The BBC overruled Sir Tim's invitation and selected an avowedly theist Unitarian minister instead. The following is the "alternative Thought for the Day" that BBC permitted me to present.

Like millions of others, here and elsewhere, my family and I celebrated Christmas yesterday. We exchanged gifts around a Christmas tree and later enjoyed a traditional feast. On Tuesday, I led a Christmas Eve service at my chapel in north London. We sang Christmas carols and we spoke of love, peace, justice, and hope.

For many listeners, my rather traditional sounding Christmas will come as something of a surprise. After all, I describe myself as an atheist, a label that disqualified me from presenting Thought for the Day.

To me though, there is no inconsistency in being an atheist and celebrating Christmas. While I don’t literally believe the stories underlying Christmas, I do very much believe in its most important messages. Christmas reminds us that hope can come at the darkest times. It reminds us of the sacredness and innocence and possibility of children - that any child - however humble their circumstances - could change the world for the better.

Christmas reminds us of the guidance of Jesus of Nazareth - who taught about accepting and loving one another despite our differences and who offered a vision of a world of economic and social justice. These are lessons that people needed to hear 2000 years ago. They are lessons we still need to hear today.

No tradition has all the answers or has a monopoly on truth and wisdom. I celebrated Christmas, and a few days ago, I looked to the winter solstice and Yule for its wisdom about connection with the natural world and its cycles. Just a few days before that, I turned to Hanukkah to raise up the lesson that oppression can be overthrown and that all people everywhere should have the chance to live in freedom.

As an atheist, I don’t believe that there is a omnipotent other who will intervene in earthly life to save us from natural dangers or to save us from our own worst impulses. It is thus because I am an atheist that I firmly believe we all need to learn and be reminded of lessons like those that come with Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Lent, Diwali, and many religious and nonreligious occasions. Without divine assistance, it is we who are tasked with creating an earthly paradise ourselves. Bearing such great responsibility, we need these teachings all the more.

And so, today, as many of us admire our gifts, and bask in the warmth of yesterday’s celebrations, I hope that whatever our beliefs or perspectives, we will all hear and incorporate the best of Christmas: Let us learn to love others more fully and more deeply. Let us learn to include the excluded and expand our circles of love to include them as well. And let us begin the true work of Christmas - to create a world of love, of justice and of peace for everyone.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Theism required for inspiration?

I will be on the BBC Radio 4's The Today Programme this Boxing Day at 6:50 am GMT.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and a committed Unitarian, is guest editor on Boxing Day. Sir Tim invited me to present Thought for the Day, a segment that has never (AFAIK) been presented by a Unitarian.

The BBC, unfortunately, denied Sir Tim's invitation because they concluded that it would be too upsetting for listeners to have Thought for the Day delivered by someone - even a fully-fledged minister of religion - who does not believe in God.

Instead, the BBC arranged for a theistic Unitarian minister to present Thought for the Day for Boxing Day.

At Sir Tim’s request, I will present an "Alternative Thought for the Day." Following this, I will be interviewed about the state of theism in the UK and elsewhere and about the potential implication of the BBC's position that non-theists can not offer a “thought” that can inspire.

I'm excited about this opportunity to offer a helpful message and to spread the news that you don't have to be a traditional believer to have values worth sharing and worth living.