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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. It needs to embrace debate on morality and ethics as expressed by humanists as well as by religious faiths, otherwise it is being unequal and one-sided. I think that the last programmes on humanism on broadcast media were in 1965, yet the Human Rights Act 1998 and European equality and anti-discrimination law give religious and non-religious beliefs such as humanism equivalent status in law.
The BBC is ignoring the fact that the British Social Attitudes Survey has found that over two-thirds of people-69 per cent-either did not claim membership of a religious organisation or said that they had never attended a religious service. Many only attend religious ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and baptisms. Some 70 per cent of people believe that the Church and the state should be kept separate in modern Europe. More dramatically, 44 per cent say that faith is one of the world's greatest evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but more difficult to eradicate. Even I would not go as far as that.
Why is the BBC ignoring this diversity of expression and feeling? Is it trying to convert people to religion or to reflect specific moral viewpoints? If so, it should include humanism. The BBC has an important role to play in this. The British Humanist Association evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee on the duty of public service broadcasting stated that,
Clearly, "Thought for the Day" is an ideal place to allow members of society to experience different moral and ethical standpoints. Humanists, after all, have thoughts. The BBC is being too defensive, is ignoring evidence of society's diversity and is denying access to a wider range of debate.
Baroness Young of Hornsey: I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate, which gives us an opportunity to reflect on a number of issues concerning religion, diversity, humanism and public service broadcasting. I also declare an interest as a happy humanist, as the British Humanist Association would have it. It is worth pointing out that this subject
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I want to raise just three main points. First, I suggest that we are rather vague and inconsistent when we are discussing humanism and religion. Just as atheism and agnosticism are often confused, so the terms atheism and humanism seem to be used interchangeably. As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said, "secular" seems to have accumulated such a general meaning that the BBC, anxious to defend the paucity of humanist or non-religious programming, puts sport, weather and news in that category. This bundle of disparate concepts is then set up as being inherently, irrevocably and sometimes violently in opposition to religion. I do not see that as a helpful or a productive view.
I wonder whether fear discourages the BBC from doing more to serve the needs of humanists and the wider public who might like to know more about humanism. I really cannot see why that should be the case unless there is a religious lobby in the UK as hypersensitive and anti-intellectual as in the US, where one programme provoked an avalanche of vitriol simply because it discussed atheism. Although some high profile commentators such as Richard Dawkins have attacked religion in all its guises, not all atheists or humanists take such assaults to be the foundation of humanist thoughts and values. Where exactly are our voices explicitly heard?
My second point concerns what we are looking for. I would not want humanism to be exclusively confined in a category "religion", a genre of programmes with declining audiences and unimaginative approaches to questions of morality and ethics. Thinking about this issue within the framework of diversity makes me think that although it may be a tactical coup for humanism to be included on "Thought for the Day", it does not amount to a strategic win. We should continue to look at bolder, more innovative ways of disseminating ideas and generating debate. With all the different modes of technology-based communication available to us, noting how many communities are deserting the main television channels and recognising that conventional modes of viewing on television at fixed times, et cetera, are rapidly being supplanted, we could do more to be much more innovative ourselves in reaching a wider audience. Humanists need to engage with young people and groups with similar values- for example, the British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which is made up of Muslim democrats from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds and supports a clear separation between religion and the state.
Thirdly, from a reading of Mark Thompson's speech last year, "Faith and the Media", which was given at the Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor lecture series, a number of points seemed to be quite contradictory. I guess that I would sum it up by saying that, although his examples of exemplary programming came from the religious and ethics department, almost every example
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Lord Griffiths of Burry Port: My Lords, I am grateful as a happy Christian to be given this opportunity to find myself surrounded by so many happy humanists and I hope that happiness will prevail. I have three minutes, which is about the time a "Thought for the Day" script takes to read, so I shall limit myself to saying that I am a Christian, will speak as a Christian and will speak about "Thought for the Day". First, I need to say that I simply do not understand my religious faith as being determined by dogma and indoctrination. I do not understand my religion to be rigid and I do not understand Richard Dawkins to be possessed of particularly great courage, since as the professor for the public understanding of science, he has resorted again and again to so much evidence of lack of the use of scientific method in the way that he has pilloried-yes, pilloried-religion.
I want to make one point on "Thought for the Day". As a contributor to "Thought for the Day" for 17 years, I honestly believe that I could deposit the 198 scripts which I have written for the programme in front of everyone in this Grand Committee and that noble Lords would not find one single occasion when I took a swipe at anyone who did not believe. If I could have the same assurance that British humanists using the same slot would not take a swipe at people who did believe-there has been a little bit of evidence of that in the contributions made thus far-then it would seem to me that their place in the slot would be perfectly justified and justifiable.
I wish to see people live good lives whether or not they have religious beliefs. I wish to see a world without discrimination and I want to encourage people of varying beliefs, whether in the transcendental or
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It was the late Gerald Priestland, the former religious affairs correspondent of the BBC, who, some 25 years ago, was asked why the BBC had religious viewpoints only on "Thought for the Day", and why the BBC did not provide atheists and humanists with their own slot. Priestland, in his own inimitable way, replied: "Actually we do. We call them news bulletins". I guess one had to be there to know whether that was humorous or not. I have had the privilege of debating with Richard Dawkins on television and hearing him say on the same programme, "But I'm a cultural Anglican". So there is an interesting observation to be made here.
Today, I speak as someone who has not been asked to contribute to "Thought for the Day", unlike my illustrious predecessor, the late Jim Thompson, whose contributions to the programme were perhaps most notably marked by his "Thought for the Day" following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Neither do I speak as someone who needs to defend the programme from humanist or secular thought. That is a little like St. Irenaeus who, when asked whether he would defend the Bible, replied, "Defend the Bible. I would rather defend a lion".
Paradoxically perhaps, I welcome debate and critique of faith, particularly my own, in order that it may be lived more appropriately to the precepts of its founder. I agree with much of what humanists have to say about the worth and dignity of human life and with Andrew Copson's article in last Saturday's Guardian on John Stuart Mill in which he enunciated those very values of,
I believe that there are places where the humanist secular voice can be heard in programmes made by the religion and ethics department, and I offer the "Moral Maze" and the Sunday programme as examples. Like the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, I would welcome the opportunity for something more imaginative in general debate between religious people and people who do not base their faith in humanity on a religious tradition. The difficulty about "Thought for the Day" is that it is defined by the BBC as providing,
That is the nub of it: it is a distinctive slot where faith perspectives can be given on the day's news. Once that
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A recent BBC survey-we are all citing figures-by MORI indicated that 85 per cent of 2,200 people polled identified themselves as having a faith-62 per cent Christian. We can all throw figures at each other. Despite the fact that, as I have said, I would like be there to be wider programmes, I believe that "Thought for the Day" should continue to be as it is defined.
Lord Birt: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, not only on provoking this extremely interesting debate but on the skill of its timing. Soon after arriving at the BBC, I shared my convictions about "Thought for the Day", with a wise old BBC stager-and there were a lot of them. I suggested to her that the programme was anomalous for two reasons. First, from a purely broadcasting perspective, it was an earnest sermonette placed bang-slap in the middle of the liveliest and most engaging political bazaar anywhere-the "Today" programme. The transition from one to the other always jarred, and still does. Secondly, the whole notion of imposing established religion in the heart of radio peak time seemed to me out of tune with the growing emergence of a predominately secular society. The wise old stager patiently admonished me. "You have many battles to fight", she said. "Fight the ones that you can win. This isn't one of them. You will never prevail against the embedded power of the established churches". I confess that I accepted her counsel, for she was certainly right at the time. Perhaps one day she will no longer be.
As others have said, of course the BBC must respect, reflect and meet the needs of people of religious conviction and belief, but organised religion does not have a monopoly of the spirit, nor of perspectives on morality and ethics. The BBC must one day soon loosen the stranglehold of the established religious organisations and more fully embrace the humanist movement.
Humanism does not deliver stern principles carved in tablets of stone, nor does it create institutions whose rules must be obeyed. Rather, it is a tradition, 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. I have no doubt that that movement, the humanist movement, is burgeoning.
The BBC has a long history of path-finding-of, for the most part, being ahead of the curve in most realms of human endeavour. It is time for the BBC to sniff the air in matters spiritual and to move ahead of the curve here, too.
Lord Warner: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate. I speak from the perspective of a humanist, happy or otherwise, who has never had any faith-based beliefs. I am a lifelong supporter of a licence-funded BBC, but increasingly a critical friend.
For much of my life I have not been too fussed about people banging on about their religious beliefs, provided I am not expected to listen to them and they are not trying to convert me. However, over the past decade or so, I have detected a greater assertiveness and stridency by the faith-based communities. When there are issues of ethical complexity, I pick up a tone of ethical superiority from their spokespersons. Some of the faiths become campaigning organisations through the media when they detect a threat to their interests. A good example of this was the Catholic Church's campaign against the Assisted Dying Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. Of course, the churches are entitled to put their views on these controversial issues, but so are we humanists, and we want our voices to be heard much more. This is particularly so as we live in a largely secular society where the overwhelming majority of people do not worship regularly and many who describe themselves as C of E on a form have weakly-held or no religious views. I consider my views, and those of my fellow humanists, to have the ethical equivalence to those of any bishop, priest or mullah, but they are often given air time to express their views while my fellow humanists are not. That is why 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". If a political hooligan like Nick Griffin can be given time, then I think that some of the rest of us should be given equivalent time. I would like to see more monitoring of the BBC's performance in this regard and the provision of much more data on it in the public arena.
"A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations".
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on initiating this overdue debate about the BBC's duty under the Communications Act 2003 to make programmes about religion and "other beliefs". I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, which, as we have heard, is increasingly frustrated
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I also thank the BBC for setting up a standing conference on religion and belief, on which a humanist now sits alongside a dozen or so other representatives of major religions. The Director-General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, will be an ex officio member of the conference. The other ex officio member will be the new head of BBC religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, and I welcome him to his new post. Mr Ahmed has an impressive record from his years as commissioner for religion and head of multicultural programming at Channel 4. It was therefore disappointing to read that Protestants in Ulster, and even the Church of England, had expressed concerns about the appointment of Mr Ahmed, a Muslim, to his BBC post. I assure those critics that, in my experience, television executives in such roles are professionals who understand concepts of fairness and impartiality and who will spend much of their working lives communicating ideas and information with which they might not agree if that is what public service broadcasting requires. I speak as a non-believer who was responsible as executive producer for factual programming, including religious output, at both Granada and Scottish Television. My humanist friend, the noble Lord, Lord Birt, will no doubt have had the same experience at London Weekend Television and the BBC.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Birt, would also agree that the clerics who sat on our formal ITV religious advisory committees were tolerant, wise and broad-minded in the support that they gave us for producing our religious programmes, which were often rather good. My confession is that we godless producers helped to fill the pews with our electronic proselytising-more than can be said, I suspect, for "Thought for the Day". With all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, I caution my fellow humanists not to strive too officiously for slots on "Thought for the Day" unless they are convinced that banality is not contagious.
It is worth noting in closing that the BBC's review of its current religious and ethical output, circulated to noble Lords to inform this debate, suggests that more attention is already being given to other beliefs. I look forward to auditing the BBC's output in the year ahead and revisiting this important issue with noble Lords in a future debate.
Lord Joffe: My Lords, I have always been struck by the incongruity of "Thought for the Day", which offers the religious an unopposed platform, being inserted into the middle of a flagship current affairs
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A letter dated 21 June 2009 from BBC complaints states that there are about 30 contributors to the 360 thoughts each year. Presumably each contributor gets many opportunities to express their views, but not a single one of these regular contributors appears to be a humanist. We are not even given a ration of one single thought. According to the same letter, these short talks plant a seed of thought and a spark of spiritual insight that stay with listeners during the day. Having heard Bishop Tom Butler's polemic earlier this year on the assisted dying amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and having read the thought of the Chief Rabbi on 12 October 2005 expressing his opposition to assisted dying just before debates in this House on the matter, the seeds of doubt planted in my mind were not exactly spiritual. I wondered how the BBC could allow "Thought for the Day" to become a political platform for a self-proclaimed campaign by the churches to oppose any legislation on assisted dying, without allowing at least one slot on "Thought for the Day" for proponents of such legislation. If there is to be a "Thought for the Day", it would be better sited in one of the BBC's religious programmes, of which there are an abundance, where it would doubtless be of great interest to what is probably a relatively small and declining percentage of listeners, particularly compared to the audience of the excellent "Today".
I do not for a moment accuse the BBC of being deliberately partial. The issues to which I have referred are probably the result of 40 years of "Thought for the Day". The BBC may have lost sight of the world having changed. In conclusion, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, that I am a great admirer of most of the work of the church and would respectfully suggest a more open-minded and less rigid approach to some of the controversial issues of the day, such as homosexuality, women's rights and assisted dying.
Lord Taverne: If we must have "Thought for the Day", it should not necessarily be any old thought. Perhaps a good slot would be a discussion of one of the moral issues of the day. In its present form, it seems to be assumed by the BBC that it must be a god slot, reflecting what many churchmen tell us on "Thought for the Day", that only belief in God provides a basis for morality. This argument does not stand up.
Different gods promote very different moral values. The Greek gods were not exactly moral role models, but on the other hand they were interesting and sometimes fun, and did not encourage or command their worshippers to proselytise. The Old Testament Jehovah is a very unpleasant, tyrannical and cruel god. Judeo-Christian and Muslim gods have at different times commanded their followers to massacre Midianites and abduct their women, stone prostitutes and adulteresses, and slay heretics and infidels. At other times they have
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