Atheists Want Time On BBC Religious Program

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

London ( - More than 100 British politicians, academics and artists have sent a letter of protest to the BBC, alleging discrimination because of the broadcaster's decision to keep atheists out of its "Thought for the Day" radio slot.

According to its website, the BBC describes Thought for the Day, a daily feature on its flagship Today program, as "a slot for reflections on topical matters from the perspective of a religious faith."

The slot, which runs just under three minutes on the three-hour Today show, includes on a rotating basis contributions from the world's major religions - but no atheists or agnostics.

Supporters of a campaign started by the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association have written to the BBC's Board of Governors in an attempt to get that policy changed.

"The fact is, secularists have thoughts on ethical issues that are appropriate for this slot," said Terry Sanderson, a spokesman for the protesters. "There's a lot of support for our stance."

He said the objections raised over Thought for the Day were part of a larger effort by secularists to persuade the BBC to reduce its religious output.

"While the influence of religion is waning in this country, the influence of religion over broadcasting is increasing," he said.

Sanderson said there are an "awful lot" of religious spokespeople quoted on the morning Today program and accused the BBC of being swayed by the established Church of England.

"No way could you argue that the rest of the program (besides Thought for the Day) is secular," he said.

Representatives of the BBC and the Church of England denied the claims, however.

"It's widely known that scheduling decisions made by broadcasters are jealously guarded," a Church spokesman said. "They're not broadly open to the influence of outsiders."

The Church of England supports the BBC's policy of keeping Thought for the Day's religious orientation, the spokesman said, and also supports keeping it open to a variety of religions.

"Given that roughly 70 percent of the country profess some sort of belief, we think it's fair that there is an item such as this during a daily news program," the spokesman said. "The coverage of spirituality and religion is an important aspect of broadcasting."

Although the BBC is currently considering revamping the slot, which has run since 1970, a spokeswoman for the broadcaster said there are no plans to include non-believing contributors.

"We won't be opening it up to non-religious speakers," said Claire Rainford. "It's a distinctive, long-running slot on a mainly secular news program."

Rainford said the BBC broadcasts 110 hours of religious programming on television and 500 hours on domestic radio each year, and that there were no plans to either increase or decrease religious-themed broadcasting.

"We think we've got the balance just about right," she said. "These are on a broad range of subjects, and you don't necessarily have to have particular religious beliefs to be interested in many of the programs."

The BBC, Britain's main public broadcasting organization, is supported mainly by fees paid by British television viewers.

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