Thought for the Day will not be opened to atheists, says BBC religion chief
The BBC will resist calls to include atheists on Thought for the Day, the corporation’s head of religion has said.
Aaqil Ahmed disclosed he has reviewed Radio Four’s 'God slot’ in response to complaints that it was “too religious”.
However, the daily homily on the Today programme is intended to provide a “religious” perspective on the news and should not be opened up to people of no faith, Mr Ahmed has concluded.
“We should always analyse whether we should continue with something and in the last year or two we’ve had some very detailed thoughts about this and we’ve decided to continue as was,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph ahead of a major conference this week on religion in Britain hosted by the BBC.
He added: “People have complained, as they have the right to, and I have taken a view that at this moment in time as far as I’m concerned we stay as we do.
“It is a specific slot within the Today programme which is a reflection from a religious perspective on stories of importance in the news.”
At the conference, Re:think, the BBC will also unveil new figures showing that the number of people in Britain who affiliate with a religion has dropped from 68 per cent in 1983 to 53 per cent last year.
The figures also show a significant gap between younger and older members of society, with 77 per cent of people over 66 saying they are religious compared to 35 per cent of people aged between 18 and 25.
Mr Ahmed’s ruling on Thought for the Day is likely to anger secularist campaigners, including the National Secular Society (NSS), who have repeatedly called for an overhaul of the programme, which features a religious leader speaking each morning between Monday and Saturday.
The NSS has stated that contributors often make “contentious remarks and claims” and use the platform to “lobby” for the passage of particular legislation.
“Only on this programme are such controversial views allowed to pass unchallenged,” its website says. “We argue that this contradicts everything that the BBC is supposed the stand for: fairness, balance, a voice for everyone in the country and for a wide range of views to be made available to all.”
Recent contributors to Thought for the Day have included the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, discussing the Prime Minister’s ministerial reshuffle.
In Tuesday’s programme Bishop James observed that just as Church ministers kneel when they are ordained, new members of the Government will kneel as they are appointed to the Privy Council.
“You don’t feel very powerful when you’re on your knees,” he said. “I’m glad this tradition continues in government, especially when service and power have become so connected.”
Last week the slot was also occupied by religious leaders including the Rev Giles Fraser, the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Akhandadhi Das, a Hindu theologian, and Prof Mona Siddiqui, a Muslim academic.
As Thought for the Day is classed as a religious feature, it falls within Mr Ahmed’s remit even though it is part of the Today programme.
Mr Ahmed, the BBC’s first Muslim head of religion, said it was natural that Christians should make up the majority of speakers on Thought for the Day.
He said: “The state religion is still Christianity and the vast majority of people in this country come from a Christian background.
"I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that in percentage terms you are probably going to have more Christians than you’re going to have Jews or Hindus. I think that makes a lot of sense.”
At this week’s event, which is the BBC’s inaugural religion and ethics conference, Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, will take part in a debate with Prof Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, on the relationship between religion and science.
On Wednesday Mr Ahmed, who was appointed to run the BBC’s religion and ethics department three years ago having been religion commissioner at Channel 4, will take part in a discussion with other television executives called 'Rethinking the God slot’.
He will make it clear that he wants the corporation’s religious programmes to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, including atheists.
While he will retain traditional religious programmes such as Songs of Praise, he will increasingly commission shows that deal with faith in broader contexts, such as Dead Good Job, an observational series starting this week about the work of undertakers across different religious communities and people no faith.
He said: “When we say 'rethinking the God slot’, it is to say there’s probably a lot more religion on television than people realise, it’s just not classed in the old-fashioned sense as, 'it is at this time, therefore it’s a God slot kind of programme’.
“The old fashioned concept of, 'it’s Sunday, it’s this time of day, every channel has got some kind of programme about Christianity’...those days are gone.
“People are fascinated by religion and you don’t have to know that you’re watching a specific programme about religion.”
Mr Ahmed, whose appointment in 2009 was criticised by some commentators because he is a Muslim - and even prompted complaints to the BBC - pledged earlier this year that Songs of Praise would remain a Christian programme and would not become multifaith.
In 2010 he accused members of the Church of England of “living in the past” by comparing the number of hours currently given to religious broadcasting to equivalent figures from the 1980s.