Saturday 26 May 2012

Thought for the Day

Evan Davis, the skilful communicator on economic affairs for the BBC, is an atheist. For ten years at least he has been saying that the Thought for the Day slot on the Today progragmme just after a quarter to eight “discriminates against the non-religious”. Since he became an anchorman on Today four years ago, he has continued to express this view. Journalists and presenters on the BBC are supposed to interrogate opinion and actions, not to pursue their own agenda, political or otherwise. Yet, despite a conflict of interest, Evan Davis agitates for change in overall editorial policy to conform to his religious worldview. He believes Thought for the Day should be kept, he believes, but instead of being “monopolised… by people of the cloth” it should “give space to serious and spiritually minded secularists”. In a free country he is entitled to his point of view. But surely it is a conflict of interests to press for such a significant change in overall BBC principles - in the programme you work on - when you are deploying your popularity and expertise to gain the BBC's conformity to your personal religious standpoint.

Thought for the Day is not supposed to be a merely “religious” slot. It is supposed to provide a reflection on the affairs and assumptions of the day, from out of the principles and values of the religious and spiritual tradition that formed our civilisation and in which it continues to share. In other words, while we become wrapped up in domestic politics and Westminster gossip, or absorbed with international crises, as well as human interest stories and great intellectual debates, space for the other dimension in our universe is salutary. To leave out the spiritual and religious means we are omitting to address our world and its problems in an holistic way.

What dismays me about his well intentioned campaign is not how misguided it is, but how unbalanced it is. I cannot imagine what a “spiritually minded secularist” is, unless it is someone of personal depth and reflection, who has examined himself and the people around him, mindful of one or other of the great traditions of moral philosophy that have characterised our various civilisations over the last three millennia. To say the least, however, these traditions are not distinctively secular. And, paradoxically, Christian ascetic wisdom agrees with what might be called a “spiritually minded secularist” that God is no mere projection “out there”, for really the “desert lies within”. But I do not understand what value such contemplation without God has, that is not already encompassed in the non-religious opinion, reflection, discourse, theories and debates that constitute all but two or three minutes of the three-hour programme that is the daily national news flagship. To examine ourselves as people and as a society we need to be holistic, and that means we have to make sense of ourselves in terms of all parts of us, including faith and the dimension of us that is in the realm of the Spirit, as much as by other criteria.

The imbalance is that the “space” for secularists that Evan Davis wants on Thought for the Day is begrudged elsewhere on TV and Radio. Occasionally on religious and current affairs programming, you will find articulate star atheists pitched against people of faith, who either do not match their skills at lively disputation and Christian apologetics; or they are so extreme and unrepresentative as to make for “good TV”, but bad examples of what mainstream religious adherence actually is. But the space where religion, especially the Church, is prohibited with Marxist-Leninist ferocity is radio and television comedy. Stephen Fry uses QI to mock the articles of religious faith and promotes atheism without challenge. Russell Howard turns his observational stand-up routines on his Good News to character assassination of Catholicism and its priests. Satire is devastating when it turns fact and experience on those who deserve to be deflated. But Howard is not troubled with accuracy, as all that is needed is caricature to please his crowd. Marcus Brigstocke, who features on The Now Show, one of whose presenters is Hugh Dennis, the son of an Anglican bishop, conveys his personal antipathy towards the Christian faith in his wry comic monologues with a force that is almost visceral. Each of these programmes has been produced at the expense of licence fee-payers by the BBC. Yet there is no challenge, or right of reply; and there is no like investment of public money in routine satire of atheism, such as handsomely rewards those who use the BBC to promote their personal, secularist religious standpoint.

St Gregory Nazianzus rightly counselled against point-scoring debates, because people will recognise Christ best in what we have come to be, not the words we say. St Francis de Sales reconverted much of his Geneva diocese from Calvin, believing that “the bee achieves more by its honey than by its sting”. Nonetheless, there are too many presenters who use Thought for the Day for a short homily, “preaching to the choir”. I am with Evan Davis, if he finds this dull and self-serving. What we need are wise, even witty, mirrors from the water in the well of life that, in the words of Pope Benedict on his visit to these shores, alone answer humanity’s deepest questions, and encourage the dialogue between religious faith and virtue in public life at every level of society.

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