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.


  1. Dear Andy

    Your Alternative Thought for the Day woke me up this morning - I was half-asleep when I heard that it was being given by an atheist & the BBC wouldn't allow it in the usual slot. I braced myself for the usual Dawkins-esque diatribe, but found myself becoming more & more bemused as to why you'd been banned from the main TFTD.

    I'm so glad they did allow you to speak, because I had no idea that such a thing as New Unity existed. Like you, I don't believe in God - I would place myself in the 33% who believe in 'some sort of spirit or force' if anywhere. Ironically, I used to live very near Islington Green but am now nearly 200 miles away in Devon so I won't be joining your congregation any time soon, more's the pity. But it's good to know that there are places where people who slip between the cracks between mainstream faith & militant atheism can meet like-minded souls.

    I emailed the Today programme earlier on to point out how absurd their position was, given that they have a Buddhist contributor to TFTD on regularly & Buddhism has no Supreme Deity, & also the recent Supreme Court ruling that Scientology is a religion more or less blows their argument out of the water. I am minded to take this up with the BBC rather than just the programme, because their position makes no sense in the twenty-first century.

    Anyway - congratulations! I really enjoyed your talk.

  2. Great piece of writing, Andy. Hallelujah! Amen!

  3. A remarkably restrained response to the BBC's ill-informed and inappropriate decision. I only wish it had come as 'The Real Thought for the Day' and not the silly 'alternate thought.' Truth is that an overwhelming number of North Americans as well as Brits, cannot even begin to understand how anyone with a rational capacity can countenance a supernatural being of any kind. And if they can, why not any number of spirits, little people and whatnot.

    The Unitarians have an indeed noble heritage of religious persuasions that require no creedal allegiance and certainly do not require a person to check his brains at the door to enter 'church.' May your tribe increase.

    Ronald Payne
    North American United Methodist retired Elder (clergy)
    a non-theist and I am not just 'practicing' but am accomplished at it