How many people would complain if Radio Four’s Today programme allowed an atheist to present Thought For the Day?
My guess is probably not that many. First, because not that many people are actively religious any more. Secondly, because Thought For the Day is more often than not a moral message prompted by current affairs the ability to comment on which is not the sole preserve of religious leaders. Thirdly, while all the presenters of this slot are religious leaders, that is their only similarity and it could be argued that, for example, Catholicism has as much in common with atheism as it does with Buddhism so, really, would anyone notice or care or be shocked by a contribution from someone who does not believe in any God? Again, probably not.
Yet Radio 4 continues to reserve their three-minute slot at 7:45am solely for religious contributors. There have been challenges to this longstanding position and, in 2002, scientist Richard Dawkins was permitted to presented a secular Thought For the Day, but it was aired at a different time and Thought For the Day continued in its usual slot.
Then last week, while Today was being guest-edited by worldwide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, he took the opportunity to raise the issue again. Berners-Lee, a member of the Unitarian church, suggested that the minister, Andrew Pakula, who describes himself as a non-theist, should present the slot. The BBC’s response was similar to that given over a decade ago: an alternative message, yes, but at an alternative time.
The UK is widely recognised as a multi-faith country but, according to the 2011 census, 25 per cent of the British population has no religion. If a quarter of us have no religion, surely the BBC, as our public sector broadcaster, has a duty to include, or at least not knowingly and stubbornly exclude, us. As Berners-Lee said in his BBC interview about his experience of editing Today: “It was worth trying to point out that somebody who doesn’t believe in God can still think.”
As with many debates like this, there are practicalities. Atheists are not a homogenous bunch. They are defined by their absence of a belief in God, not united by it. So who would represent them on Thought For the Day? There are also realities. Given that so many contributions are comments on current news or trends, would anyone really notice? And then there is the group of Radio 4 listeners who use these three minutes every morning to feed the dog or put on the kettle, because they don’t like being preached to before breakfast.
This is all semantics, however. The point is not that it would be difficult to organise or that the messages would be all that different or that people don’t listen anyway; the point is, it is the right thing to do and people who don’t believe in God can not only think, they also might just have something interesting to say.