Here in Britain we have been reading of the annual culture wars in the United States this time of year, which, we hear, for some is known as “Christmas” but for others “the holidays.” Cheery salutations, we learned, reflect where you stand on this particular issue and may therefore contain a measure of insincerity or, at least, a certain edge.
But we on the other side of the Atlantic must admit to having nothing to feel superior about, at least in this regard. More and more, we are doing battle on this front too. And now the venerable BBC has pulled a Christmas cracker of its own, sending secularists into an almighty flap over whether and how much of its programming should be about the Almighty.
Our comparable combats are, of course, being British rather more understated. The frontline, for several years, has been the morning “Thought for the Day” slot on national radio’s “Today,” an influential and often agenda-setting, three-hour news and current affairs program. Think NPR’s “Morning Edition” without the little signature tune but with somewhat plummier accents. “T.F.T.D.,” as it is always abbreviated, goes out around 7:43 a.m. each morning, lasting about two minutes and 45 seconds. Its presenters are predominantly Christian.
Just before Christmas, the announcement came that religious output on the BBC is to increase, not vanish, in 2018.
Secularists and militant atheists, of whom there are not really that many, would like it abolished. They get cross about the very existence of what little other religious programming we get too, but it is T.F.T.D. that usually draws their fire. So far, the Beeb has dug its defensive trenches. But just before Christmas, the announcement came, as if from Santa down the chimneys of the slot’s faithful followers, that religious output on the BBC is to increase, not vanish, in 2018.
A detailed review concluded that the corporation’s religious affairs output was not representative of contemporary multicultural Britain nor the role that faith, or faiths, play in everyday life. The announcement noted that all faiths, not just Christianity, were “often absent, poorly presented or satirised” in BBC programming.
In a statement released to London’s The Times daily, the BBC’s director-general said that these new plans “will ensure the BBC better reflects the UK, the world and the role that religion plays in everyday life. They will also raise understanding of the impact religion has on decisions made at home and abroad.” The report points out that, globally, over 84 percent of people identify with a religion, a figure set to rise to 90 percent in the next decade.
Globally, over 84 percent of people identify with a religion, a figure set to rise to 90 percent in the next decade.
The new plans for 2018 and beyond do not just mean a few more specialist programs. There will be more religious themes, both on radio and TV, in the broadcaster’s serious and popular drama productions. There is a promise to commission more documentaries covering religious and ethical issues, including a large-scale project planned for 2019, “A Year of Faiths.”
Talk shows will acknowledge and feature major religious festivals such as Diwali and Ramadan. The report claimed that audiences of all faiths and none have said they want to learn more about those topics. Structurally, there is to be a significant staffing enhancement as the head of religious and ethical broadcasting receives a promotion, leading a bigger global religious affairs department.
The contentious morning radio slot will remain.
Secularist opposition risks conflating religious broadcasting with propaganda or even proselytizing.
This announcement comes not long after an autumn report showed that for the first time over 50 percent of Brits self-described as having “no religious affiliation,” which was widely and inaccurately repeated in most media as having “no religion.” But they are not the same thing.
The National Secular Society used this report as warrant for a fresh debate on the place of religion in British society—by which they probably mean organized religion and that it should have no place at all. That the arithmetic shows that slightly under 50 percent do have some kind of affiliation seems not to matter.
The country is pluralist and has been for some time. Religious observance demonstrably differs from that of previous generations, as does the diversity of religious affiliation. Secularist opposition risks conflating religious broadcasting with propaganda or even proselytizing. The national broadcaster’s report caught this point, citing evidence from over 150 leaders and experts who were consulted, that current output fails to reflect the “everyday role of faith or [the] diversity of communities in mainstream drama and comedy.”
Curiously, the BBC news website carried this news not on its front page but buried deep in its “Arts and Entertainment” section, just beneath a splash item about a ceasefire in another long-running war, the feud between the Gallagher brothers from Oasis. The BBC’s report included a commitment to better staff training to preempt ignorance of religious traditions and beliefs as well as unconscious bias. Generosity of spirit being appropriate for the Christmas (or Holiday) season, one may assume this positioning was an oversight rather than a sign of embarrassment.