Sunday, 6 December 2009

Here's a thought - Humanists should be welcome on Thought for the Day – if they would only admit their own fundamental irrationality, Wednesday 18 November 2009
by Nick Spencer

When, nearly five years ago, thousands of Christians got excited about the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer – The Opera, some joker made the point that they shouldn't be blaming the BBC but rather the person in Dixons who sold them a TV set with only one channel and no off switch. Much the same could be said about the campaign to open up Thought for the Day to non-religious contributors.

The slot takes 150 seconds out of a programme that lasts three hours. It is carefully and, for the most part, successfully edited so as to prevent it from "stepping out of the pulpit and on to a soapbox." And it is intentionally religious.

Many of those who object to it would happily see all religion driven out of the public square and confined to the private realm. However, contemporary Britain is an increasingly plural democracy, in which we all live alongside people whose worldviews we may dislike and whose opinions we may abhor. Religious people exist. Religious views are real. To limit them to some invisible and entirely personal domain is neither attractive nor helpful.

The immediate response – that we don't want to abolish religious views, merely open up this "God-slot" to other, non-religious views – misses the point entirely. On the same count, if Tom objects to Woman's Hour (too female), Dick to You and Yours (too consumerist), and Harry to Match of the Day (too football obsessed), we should open each up so it is more inclusive.

But Match of the Day is about football. Opening it up to features on boxing or modern art would stop it from being about football. I may not especially like football but that does not mean that the programme will never entertain or even educate me. And if I am convinced it is a complete waste of time and an abuse of my license fee I can always switch over and watch The Culture Show.

Those who have been campaigning so long and so hard to open up Thought for the Day to non-religious items have vowed to carry on. We have not heard the end of this story. There is, however, a way through the impasse.

Humanism, the non-religious body that has made the most convincing case for a slot on the programme, insists with some vigour that it is not a religion. In one respect that is right. Religions are (in part) about people being "bound together" around a common vision of the good. Humanists may agree about what they do not believe, but it is hard to see what substantive vision they share. Talk of "shared human values" merely begs the question.

In another way, however, humanism is deeply religious. It may not rely on revelation or the supernatural but, like any serious worldview, it does depend on beliefs and moral convictions that cannot be proved. Humanists tend to be a little shy of admitting this, preferring to pretend that their belief system is "scientific", "rational" or "neutral". But the fact remains that if you have an opinion on the merits of assisted dying, or whether the Scottish government was right to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, or indeed why it is worth getting out of bed in the morning, you will be drawing on a worldview that is not demonstrably rational or neutral.

And that is the sticking point. As long as humanism hides under these fig leaves of science, rationality and neutrality, and insists it is not a religion, it is hard to see how it can legitimately demand a slice of the religious cake. If, however, those who hold such views are willing to abandon their fig leaves and embrace the vulnerability that goes with any religious faith position then there might be a role for them on this most contentious 2½ minutes of broadcasting.

* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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