BBC urged by Lords to take humanism and non-belief seriously

By staff writers
November 5, 2009

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has echoed the Government’s response to a debate in the House of Lords last night on the BBC, Humanism, and broadcasting, saying that it "hopes the BBC has been listening".

The debate, called by Lord Harrison, in which a number of peers declared their interest as ‘Happy Humanists’, took place on the eve of the BBC Trust’s deliberations on whether to allow non-religious contributors to the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme’s Thought for the Day slot.

Both religious and non-religious voices have spoken out in favour of a more inclusive Thought for the Day, which started out as exclusively Christian and mainly Anglican, but has broadened to involve other religions.

Those favouring further change say that the three minute daily feature could create a positive public conversation about values, morals, life-stances and spirituality, involving people of non-religious as well as religious persuasions.

But BBC Religion and Ethics has resisted repeated calls for the renewal of the slot and Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, was removed from it when he said he spoke out in favour of change.

Andrew Copson, the British Humanist Association's Director of Education and Public Affairs, said today: "In a welcome break with past policy, Humanists are now represented alongside religions in the new body liaising with the BBC on matters of common concern – the Standing Conference on Religion and Belief."

He went on: "While this change is significant in principle, in practice the BBC continues to discriminate against Humanists and Humanism in its broadcasting. In speeches in last night’s debate, the extent to which Humanism is ignored by the BBC was laid out – not one programme by Humanists for Humanists, not a single Humanist contributor to Thought for the Day."

Mr Copson continued: "As the BBC Trustees deliberate on these matters, I hope they have been listening, not only to the serious arguments put forward in the debate, but also to the thousands of people who have contacted them calling for inclusion of Humanists and Humanism in BBC broadcasting."

Opening last night’s debate, Lord Harrison argued "that the BBC has failed the Humanist community in Britain both in the spirit and in the letter of the Communications Act 2003, which requires the BBC to schedule programmes on religion and other beliefs, including Humanism...The truth is that religious public broadcasting is growing while Anglicanism contracts."

Lord Birt, former Director-General of the BBC, spoke from his personal experiences with Thought for the Day at the BBC, saying: "The BBC must one day soon loosen the stranglehold of the established religious organisations and more fully embrace the Humanist movement."

He described the Humanist tradition as "a loose network of individuals broadly exercised by questions of the spirit, concerned to optimise the sum total of human happiness here on earth; individuals naturally respectful of others, wedded to rationalism and to scientific rigour, revering all life, unafraid to proclaim and to celebrate the joy of existence and the richness of human expression."

The former Health Minister, Lord Warner, commented: "I think it is important that public service broadcasters such as the BBC provide a proper opportunity for the alternative to the faith-based viewpoint to be heard regularly. That is the importance of the 2006 agreement. This alternative viewpoint also needs to be heard regularly on prime time and prestige programmes, not just Thought for the Day but also TV programmes such as “Question Time” or “Newsnight”."

A former Cabinet Minister and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, spoke as "a non-believer who was responsible as executive producer for factual programming, including religious output, at both Granada and Scottish Television."

Macdonald welcomed the BBC Trust Chair, Sir Michael Lyon’s commitment to look at the way in which the BBC serves the interests of citizens who are Humanists and hoped that ‘seven years on from the Communications Act, we can now anticipate that proper coverage of those 'other beliefs' will be consolidated on BBC screens in 2010."

Baroness Massey of Darwen added: "Humanism is growing in strength. It has growing public recognition in non-religious ceremonies such as marriages, funerals and baptisms. This has made significant contributions to public policy. The moral values held by Humanists are weighed and considered. Humanism is a philosophy in its own right and is not a negative response to religion. The BBC needs in its programmes to give a perspective from the non-religious viewpoint."

Modern secular Humanism differs from both ancient philosophical traditions and from the later religious Humanism which also used that label. But the BHA stresses that it seeks a positive dialogue and engagement with believers, while also pushing for fairer representation for the non-religious and an end to special privileges for faith bodies.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.