The daily BBC ‘Thought for the Day’ radio slot could be developed as a space for conversation, dialogue and healing between people with “different takes on life, both religious and non-religious”.
That was the view of Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, speaking this morning on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme – following Lord Harrison’s questioning of the slot’s exclusion of non-believers yesterday (19 April 2007).
The three-minute 7.50am ‘Thought for the Day’ (TFTD), to which Bartley is a contributor, has moved from being more-or-less exclusively Christian to including representatives of other faith communities in recent years.
But its producers have resisted the idea of non-religious contributors, apparently fearing that it could become too confrontational - and believing that its defining characteristic is as a "God slot".
Others have criticised it for allowing over-partisan religiously based opinions. Yesterday a TFTD by columnist Anne Atkins on abortion produced a storm of protest.
And a secularist has launched a website called ‘Platitude of the Day’ which cites and satirises each TFTD, encouraging its readers to rate them on a purely negative scale.
The BBC also received complaints when scientist and vociferous atheist Professor Dawkins became the first (and only) non-religious person to give a ‘Thought for the Day’, using it as an opportunity to launch what was widely seen as an attack on religion, since extended in his book The God Delusion
But Jonathan Bartley suggested this was not representative. He believes humanists, secularists, atheists, agnostics and those who draw on faith but choose not to be defined by it have many positive things to say and should not just be pigeon-holed according to what they are against.
He pointed out that humanism has long moral and intellectual traditions going back to Socrates – and that the British Humanist Association and Scottish Humanists have produced some constructive ‘alternative’ TFTD material.
After the interview, the Ekklesia co-director explained: “The BBC's ‘Thought for the Day’ slot is a vital space to reflect on, and challenge about, the meaning, direction and wholeness of our lives.
"The slot would be even richer if it was also accessible to those who do not subscribe to religious doctrines.
"Is it not only the religious who should be allowed to reflect on the meaning, direction, and wholeness of our lives. Others from outside the main world religions have life stances, deeply held beliefs, ethical positions and spiritualities.
"We may not agree with one another, and each life-stance makes claims about truth that the other would dispute, but this is nothing new to Thought for the Day. Indeed, one of the strengths of the slot is to enable those with different convictions to bring contrasting perspectives and make others think.
"At a time when there is a growing stand-off between ‘religionists’ and ‘secularists’, [this slot], with sensitive and reflective contributions, could play an important part in healing the damaging rifts and encouraging people to emerge from their deeply entrenched positions and listen to one another. We won't all agree, but we might all be enriched by the diversity of others thoughts."
Ekklesia argues that when churches and Christian spokespeople seek to defend special privileges for themselves, they harm the message of the Gospel - which is about love and justice, not positional advantage.
The think-tank says that the demise of the 'Christendom' collusion of Christianity and the domainant social order provides a positive opportunity for faith to assume a creative role in civic life, and for people of different convictions to engage on a level playing field.
Jonathan Bartley's broadcasts may be found here (sound and text files).