NEW POLL: should Radio 4’s Thought for the Day be opened up to secularists and humanists?

by Stephen Tall on July 14, 2009

Okay, so there are more important issues of the day to discuss, even in the quietest and slowest of July days – but, somehow, the totemic importance of the three-minute slot at 7.50 am on BBC Radio 4’s The Today Programme never fails to spark a heated debate.

For those of you who don’t tune in, this is the slot dedicated to religious messages: it’s mainly Christian speakers, but representatives from all faiths get their chance.

Radio 4’s controller Mark Damazar has set the cat among the pigeons by speculating there “may well be quite a strong argument for including secularists and humanists”. He said the matter was being actively considered by the BBC Trust.

Almost seven years ago – yes, this debate has been knocking around a long time – Professor Richard Dawkins was given a one-off slot to argue that science gives a better explanation of life than religion. This followed a protest letter to the BBC, drawn up by the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Press Association, and signed by 102 public figures, which stated:

By resolutely retaining the ban, the BBC is discriminating against the non-religious, and thus giving the impression of promoting religion as the one source of ethics.”

In contrast, The Guardian’s Michael White today makes a plea for retaining the exclusively religious Thought for the Day:

Live and let live, I say. Secularists dominate the airwaves for the other 23 hours and 57 minutes of the day, so why not keep three minutes for the faiths? … religion is pretty marginalised in modern Europe.

Over to you, LDV’s readers, to have your say. Here’s the question: do you think Radio 4’s Thought for the Day should be opened up to secularists and humanists?

And here are your options:

  • Yes, open it up
  • No, keep it for religion
  • Just scrap Thought for the Day
  • As ever, please us the comments thread to put forward the case for your vote…

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    Yes – open it up.


    Thought for the day works best when it isn’t talking directly about religion, but taking a different angle on a current story or a topic of interest.

    So, a TFTD with Dawkins banging on about the evils of religion would be tedious to say the least; but a humanist thinker discussing a moral question or news issue from a specifically humanist moral framework could be interesting.

    by Costigan Quist on July 14, 2009 at 8:24 pm. Reply #

    It’s best when the thoughts are constructive; a didactic secularist would be as out of place as a didactic believer.

    by Forlornehope on July 14, 2009 at 8:58 pm. Reply #

    Scrap it. Something that is even-handedly dreadful is still dreadfull.

    by Iainm on July 14, 2009 at 9:11 pm. Reply #

    Haven’t we already got a slot for a secular thought for a day with ‘A point of view’ on Sunday mornings? And with 15 minutes to play with, a much more developed thought can be delivered.

    Agree with Costigan Quist that a good TTFD needs to be topical, and oriented to the audience rather than the author’s only topic of conversation. Anne Atkins should never have been allowed to broadcast because she is simply so vacuous and bigoted – but not everyone with a faith is as pointless as her.

    by Gordon on July 14, 2009 at 9:29 pm. Reply #

    I thought Dawkins’ one-off was pretty dull, much like Anne Atkins usually is, much for the sort of reason Costigan gives.

    Someone like AC Grayling OTOH would probably be good value.

    by Joe Otten on July 14, 2009 at 9:29 pm. Reply #

    Or just scrap God?

    by Martin Land on July 14, 2009 at 10:03 pm. Reply #

    With its neutral title for a prejudiced programme, Thought for the Day is dishonest pro-religious propaganda. It takes the doubtful (to say the least) existence of a god – or gods – as given in a prominent slot just before the weather forecast and the – hopefully – objective news.

    I used to write to the BBC but eventually gave up in the face of obdurate resistance. While waiting for others to succeed where I have failed, I now listen to the progamme with interest but switch off when a god is mentioned. I hope someone in the BBC reads this and also that they record digital listening volumes!

    Let us have some ethics and honesty from the misnamed BBC Department of Religion and Ethics (why not Ethics and Religion – alphabetically – amd morality before dogma?). Either open up Thought for the Day to secularist and humanist speakers or at the very least change the programme’s name to Religious Thought for the Day.

    by Dane Clouston on July 14, 2009 at 11:25 pm. Reply #

    Agree with Costigan. Better to promote humanism by showing it in action, rather than simply showing it as anti-religion. There is a time to cheer Dawkins, but TTFD is not it.

    by Terry Gilbert on July 15, 2009 at 1:45 am. Reply #

    Let them have their 3 minutes, I thought we were a tolerant party.

    by Kevin on July 15, 2009 at 8:29 am. Reply #

    I’m wondering if this is really worth worrying about. Don’t we have better things to be doing with our time?

    by Neil McGovern on July 15, 2009 at 9:22 am. Reply #

    TTFD is a historical survival from the days when it could still be assumed most people had some sort of religious attachment. If it didn’t exist, one wouldn’t introduce it now.

    The debate about it has been knocking around for a lot longer than seven years. I’m pretty sure you could find it being argued about in similar terms 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.

    It seems to me to be mostly harmless. I agree with the point that 3 minutes given to someone speaking from a religious perspective is hardly oppressive to those who dislike religion. I dislike sport, and think the idea that it is supremely important that one group of men has pushed a ball in one direction more often than another group of men has pushed the ball in the opposite direction to be absurd. But that doesn’t mean I scream abuse at the sports news and call for it to be removed because I find it offensive. I just ignore it.

    The place of religion in our society has now largely been taken by the celebrity culture. This is now where people get their dreams and myths and where they look to for moral guidance, far more so than religion. Far more time is taken in the media to promoting it and accepting the dubious values and assumptions behind much of it. It is obviously far more cynically manufactured than religion. I don’t myself care what some pop singer or actor thinks, I don’t think they have anything more interesting or useful to say than a bus driver or a nurse or anyone else. Yet I find long articles and interviews with these people, treating them as minor gods or godesses, even in reasonably quality publications, and there seems to be a huge market of devotional literature given over just to their worship.

    Now really, it would seem to me that kicking 3 minutes given over to the older form of religion which few care for any more, but ignoring the hugely greater amount of time given over to this modern religion is a bit strange.

    by Matthew Huntbach on July 15, 2009 at 9:28 am. Reply #

    I was about to tick option 3, just scrap it, when I realised it did serve a useful personal service for me as a puctuation mark in the relentless running order of the Today programme.

    Starting at 6am and going non-stop till 9 there has to be a point at which you disengage to get on with your own life.

    Fortunately the patronising tones of Thought have always acted as a switch for me. Whereas an atheist, philosopher, or an Alternative Thought for Today, might keep my hand off the switch.

    by Elizabeth on July 15, 2009 at 9:38 am. Reply #

    I’m quite happy for thought for the day to continue. A small dose of Anne Atkins every once in a while reinforces atheism far better than an hour of Richard Dawkins.

    Wouldn’t it work better if various Gods were ask to contribute direct rather than go through someone else ?

    by Mouse on July 15, 2009 at 9:55 am. Reply #

    I tend to use “Sermon for the Day” as I use any other ad-break-for-something-I-have-no-intention-of-ever-buying; I go to the loo.

    The implication though of not having secular/humanist/other commentators in that slot is the bigoted view that only religious people are allowed/able to have poignant or meaningful thoughts and reflections on the days events.

    As the NSS has said:

    This exclusion prevents the audience, whether religious or not, from being exposed to the unchallenged thoughts of the non-religious, in direct contravention of the BBC’s formal obligation to Reflect the different religious and other beliefs in the UK. Not only does it represent a lack of balance – which is against the BBC Charter – but it also discriminates against the non-religious audience in the sense that they cannot hear their own views reflected.

    Either open it up to the whole population, or scrap it.

    by Martin on July 15, 2009 at 12:07 pm. Reply #

    Patronising claptrap genrally delivered in condescending tones. Get rid of it – but keep Lionel – he could read the weather. 🙂

    by Louise on July 15, 2009 at 2:11 pm. Reply #

    The insidious ‘Thought for the Day’ slot is totally inappropriate embedded within what is supposed to be a news and current affairs programme. The Today programme should stick to reporting facts, not provide a platform for religious propagandists to present their irrational opinions unchallenged.

    by Terry on July 15, 2009 at 2:27 pm. Reply #

    The programme’s title is “Thought for Today”, not Religious Thought for the Day”. It surely therefore follows that any “Thought” should not be limited to a small number of faith groups.

    Ethics and morality are not owned by religious people but common to us all, who try in the best way we can to live our lives in an increasingly fractured world. Those of us who are atheists and agnostics are able to recognise beauty in the natural world and in the works of musicians and artists and feel in awe at the mystery of it all.

    Our thoughts have validity too.

    Incidentally a Humanist celebrant is regularly invited onto the West Country radio version without the braodcasting studio being struck by lightning!

    by Hazel on July 15, 2009 at 2:33 pm. Reply #

    I think that from 6 am to 9 am the Today team should have full control. I do not think they would have any problem in replacing a 3 minute slot which promotes religion.

    by Des Moore on July 15, 2009 at 3:05 pm. Reply #

    Can you imagine the complaints there’d be if the BBC allocated a slot from which Christians, or Muslims, etc, were banned from contributing?

    by Alun on July 15, 2009 at 3:13 pm. Reply #

    I am a regular listener to today and I enjoy the programme including thought for the day. When the contributors bring an insight from their faith perspective it is often interesting and helpful. Polemical comments from faith groups or atheist contributors are unwelcome and I believe most of the contributions I have heard over the years have been good. Thought for the day provides a short opportunity for reflection on events and everyday life that is a counterbalance to the rush of often sad news and the language of politics, I feel the Today programme woud be poorer without it. The fact that different faith traditions are given an equal voice is also a positive contribution that the BBC makes to enable greater understanding for people listening.

    by David Anderson on July 15, 2009 at 3:24 pm. Reply #

    Like many others, I switch off R4 when TFtD comes on, unless Lionel Blue (who is good value) or Anne Atkins (who is usually a hoot) is speaking. Given a reasonable proportion of slots allocated to Humanist speakers – perhaps once a week – I would feel obligated to listen to all the other speakers. Who knows, that might even increase the audience for the religionists.

    The option not mentioned is to give this slot an honest name – Religious Thought for the Day.

    by John Coss on July 15, 2009 at 3:43 pm. Reply #

    I vote YES, give humanists a slot on TFTD.

    AC Grayling made a strong case for a regular non-religious contribution to TFTD. Humanists have a 2,500-year tradition of seeking answers to the great ethical and moral issues, from the ancient Greeks through the Enlightenment to modern-day humanism. The humanist perspective is at least as valid and insightful as anything that any of the world’s religions can offer, and it deserves to be heard.

    by David Harper on July 15, 2009 at 4:09 pm. Reply #

    Why does 3 minutes of thought based on the ideas of different faiths cause so much animosity from non-believers. As a Christian I have to put up with hours and hours of radio and TV which makes fun of people with any sort of faith. Is 3 minutes really too much for them to bear? Please keep TFTD as it is the humanists have a lot more air time than that every day.

    by Judith Stelfox on July 15, 2009 at 4:32 pm. Reply #

    The unacceptable part of TFTD which most commentators have overlooked is unlike the rest of Today the talks are not followed up by any kind of discussion, debate or questioning. Speakers can get away with triteness, illogicality and plain dullness without ever being subjected to a razor-sharp demolition job by Humphreys. Consequently, the slot perpetuates the idea that the ‘thoughts’ of religious people no matter how vacuous are worthy of attention and beyond criticism simply because they are religious.

    In her discussion with AC Grayling Christina Rees harped on about ‘spirituality’, an over-used and abused word which she used as an euphemism for supernaturalism. She was really saying that people who do not believe in the existence of the supernatural (for which there has never been the slightest bit of evidence) are somehow inferior to those who do. Totally illogical, but there’s religion for you.

    by Dinah on July 15, 2009 at 4:42 pm. Reply #

    Surely the sensible thing would be to allow speakers on the basis of the quality of their contect rather than their background? To any dispassionate observer it seems very unfair to exclude non believers. I was also rather alarmed by the lady interviewed this morning who said that non believers ‘are not spiritual’. What does she mean? I think it would be a good idea to open things up so that relations between religious and non-religious groups are improved. At the moment the programme seems to be rather devisive in contributing to a gulf in understanding between those who believe and those who do not.

    by Naomi on July 15, 2009 at 4:54 pm. Reply #

    The comments here overwhelmingly make it clear that TFTD is an anachronism which has no place in a current affairs programme. Maybe, just maybe the BBC hierarchy will now pay attention to what some of us have been pointing out for decades. That it is offensive to imply that moral thoughts can only spring from religious minds. There are 3 options: call it ‘Religious Thought For the Day’ ; include non-religious contributors for balance; or possibly better still: abolish it altogether. The option to leave things as they are is no longer tenable.

    by Tony on July 15, 2009 at 5:56 pm. Reply #

    There is a case for abolishing “Thought for the day” altogether and a case for making it an open platform. There is no case at all for keeping it as a closed platform for a narrow minded minority. Why can’t the BBC see this??????

    by DILWYN EDWARDS on July 15, 2009 at 6:14 pm. Reply #

    I should be delighted to see TfTD opened to non-religious views. AC Grayling’s considered comments this morning highlight exactly how the slot would be enriched by the ethical and thoughtful voices of humanists. Humanists see beauty in the world without needing a ‘spirit’ or other supernatural inspiration. They are highly ethical and democratic, discriminating against no one. Unlike many religions, who campaign for the right to discriminate against some members of society, humanists think there is a place for everyone. Your religious correspondent demonstrated this beautifully – she wanted to keep TfTD for the religious only. AC Grayling wanted it open to all viewpoints.
    (Incidentally, I don’t think the use of the word ‘secularist’ is necessary at all. Secularists merely want to keep state and religion separate, with no religious privileges. There are many religious secularists who hold this view and believe one’s faith is a personal philosophy which shouldn’t grant one any privileges within the law.)

    by Sue Leyland on July 15, 2009 at 8:39 pm. Reply #

    Scrap it entirely, or change the format.

    There’s nothing wrong with discussing religion on the BBC, but TFTD is basically a sermon.

    We wouldn’t tolerate a sermon on any other topic, so why religion?

    Regarding Michael White’s comment that “secularists dominate the airwaves for the other 23 hours and 57 minutes of the day, so why not keep three minutes for the faiths?”

    I think that’s a huge misrepresentation. Non-religious topics on the TV do not imply rule by secularists. There’s just a lot going on that doesn’t have or need a religious angle. Even the most pious people spend the majority of their day on non-religious activities.

    by Felix Mitchell on July 15, 2009 at 9:34 pm. Reply #

    The interesting thing about TFtD is that it’s *not* a “sermon on religion”; it’s a talk from a religious perspective on ethical/moral issues, from the very particular to the very wide (at its best, on both).
    But: I still think it should be opened up to humanist and other non-religious philosophies as well. Just keep Dawkins away from it this time. His predictable attack last time effectively killed off the idea for seven years.

    by Malcolm Todd on July 15, 2009 at 9:48 pm. Reply #

    This rather picky website told me that
    simply writing “Scrap it” was too short. Here is my padded out version to beat the word count commissar:

    Scrap it.
    It interupts the flow of a news program. The current contributors are boring.
    An opened up TFTD would be fine but move it to somewhere else.
    I suggest to the middle of the Archers’ omnibus on Sunday morning.

    by HarryR on July 16, 2009 at 8:23 am. Reply #

    Yes, please open it up to all non-religious people too. But make sure it is a thought to stimulate and not a bigoted opinion, we have enough of those throughout the day.


    by Jenny barber on July 24, 2009 at 1:53 pm. Reply #

    After my husband died three years ago Thought for the Day provided a fixed point of light in the gloom-something worth thinking about. In particular I remember a Rabbi describing a musician whose instrument had lost some of its strings but who continued to play, saying “we must make music with what we have left”. This gave me inspiration to carry on with what was left to me.
    Don’t stop Thought for the day. People with any faith or none can provide something of value for others to choose to pick up or to leave.

    by Sheila Wardell on August 7, 2009 at 9:30 pm. Reply #

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