How much longer can "Thought for the Day" continue on Radio 4's Today programme? That little slot of sanctimony before the 8am news bulletin - only two minutes and 45 second in duration but always seeming so very much longer - is again being targeted by secularists, who politely suggest it should either widen its remit to include non-religious contributors, or shut up shop altogether.
What, no more hushed bulletins from our lady of social conservatism, Anne Atkins? No more painful rhetorical contortions as ancient mysticism is given a topical twist? No more chin-scratching from Rabbi Lionel Blue?
Actually I like Rabbi Blue's contributions, and the contemplative pace of the spot is often a welcome counterpoint to the adversarial, sometimes gladiatorial, tone of the rest of the programme. But it is increasingly unacceptable to disallow humanist and secularist thinking from this slot. This week, as the atheist buses trundled out round London, there was a Radio 4 first - Ariane Sherine, founder of the bus campaign, gave a humanist "Thought for the Afternoon" on PM.
The studio was not smote by lightning. The meditative, ethical function of the slot remained just as strong. Stronger, in fact. Atheist thinkers chosen to broadcast in the slot would likely be selected more for the quality of their material, rather than for their position within a religious hierarchy.
When I was a child getting ready for school, "Thought for the Day" coincided with my Ready Brek. While I munched, I listened if not with awe then certainly with attentiveness: the way it was presented, all pious hushed voice, made it sound important. The BBC is not giving children the whole picture - or anything like it - about morality and belief in this country if they do not include the non-religious point of view.
To keep the slot exclusively religious is to deny that humanism exists as a counter-argument: a ridiculous act of censorship. If we heard a bit more about how to be a good, scrupulous, thoughtful atheist it might save us from the other things that fill the post- religious vacuum: the apathy, credulousness, the cynicism. Besides, there is already "Prayer for the Day" at 5.45am, to which early- rising believers are very welcome.
In the face of 1,500 complaints lodged with the BBC in late December, Mark Damazer, the Radio 4 controller, pictured below, announced his commitment to keeping the slot as it is. I read his open letter on the BBC website, but to be honest it was so bland it is not worth repeating, like quoting semolina. On the other hand, the atheist appeal for support was couched in entertainingly right- on terms. An email from The Brights (a California-based organisation supporting those with a "naturalistic worldview") pinged into my inbox, inviting me "as an individual, to take a timely action" but then reassuring me that there was, like, no pressure: "Whether to act ... (and if so how) is something each Bright decides on his/her own ..."
You've got to love it: the free-thinker's antipathy to being organised into a movement, struggling against the desire to effect change for the better. Here's hoping the BBC will respond and widen the remit of this unpopular slot (even John Humphrys has written against it). …