RADIO / Faith, hope and parity: Robert Hanks on downbeat religion and upbeat Radio 3

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST thing that occurred listening to God's Assassins (Radio 4, Thursday) was that atheism is in trouble - it may be true that fewer people go to church these days, but fewer still will admit to believing nothing whatsoever. The certainties of unbelief, which at least meant you knew where you were, seem to have been largely displaced by ambiguous, quasi- mystical ideas about a God who sort of exists, but inside you, or who is in some way identified with the universe.

God's Assassins was a misleadingly dramatic title for Melanie Phillips's documentary on belief (although it began with a whole- heartedly melodramatic reading from Thus Spake Zarathustra, ending with the announcement that 'God is deeeeeeaaaaaaaad'). Phillips managed to get hold of one red-blooded atheist, Richard Dawkins, who, you felt, certainly would have assassinated God if he thought he could get away with it. But, while the programme pursued the idea of God with persistence, and remained thoroughly entertaining, you felt by the end that you'd found out very little.

The most disturbing thing about the programme was the way that God, in any definite form, seemed to elude everybody; the assembled theologians, philosophers and scientists settled for a God so devoid of identity that his assassination would have been a victimless crime. Father Herbert McCabe, for instance, suggested that 'We certainly do not know what God is, but we do know what God couldn't be: he couldn't be a tepid cup of tea, let's say.'

The chief offender was Don Cupitt, who once raised such a scandal with his television programme The Sea of Faith. He was said to have a 'porous belief system' that embraces Christianity, Buddhism and atheism. There's something irritating about this. Surely there are two basic positions on God: faith and denial; it's perfectly acceptable to qualify your position, or to change your mind about where you stand, or to take refuge in decent, sceptical agnosticism. But to lay claim to both at once - that's just greedy.

Cupitt ended by saying that he foresees a new religion in which people say, 'Well, I'm not sure of lots of facts about a supernatural god, but I have a religious practice which leads to an interior experience of bliss and compassion and wisdom.' This sounds less like the Sea of Faith than the Jacuzzi of Spirituality.

Like the Church, over the years Radio 3 has suffered from a crisis of identity and a lack of popular support, problems that Nicholas Kenyon's appointment as controller of the station was designed to change. His quest for 'accessibility' started in earnest yesterday morning with On Air, a new programme occupying the 'drivetime' slot between 7am and 9am.

Yesterday's edition began disappointingly when it turned out that the presenter, Piers Burton- Page, hadn't changed his name to DJ P-Uz or Pierski. Still, the shift in style from the old Morning Concert was perceptible. For one thing, the mood was relentlessly upbeat - after the opening record, Rossini's overture to The Silken Ladder, Burton-Page added that as far as Radio 3 was concerned, the only way to go was up the ladder. He sounded a little strained and unhappy about saying this, which may be a fault as a broadcaster but is probably to his credit as a human being.

The tone of uneasiness stuck for most of the two hours. This was partly, no doubt, a matter of practice; but there are also problems with the new format. One difficulty is the new emphasis on arts news, which so far involves sticking gobbets from the daily papers in between the records. Burton-Page was left struggling with links and pay-offs - one review of the National Theatre's mudbath Midsummer Night's Dream had said it was 'weird and wonderful and occasionally frustrating' - 'Sounds just like the real world', quipped Burton-Page. And he picked up a 'nugget' from this morning's Times: the Post Office is to issue a set of Gilbert and Sullivan stamps - 'And looking at the pictures, one is a drawing of The Pirates of Penzance.' Fascinating stuff.

What's worrying is the music, though. Nothing from Monday morning's programme - Rossini, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Rossini again, Johann Strauss the Younger and more Bach - would have been out of place on an old-style Morning Concert. But they are all conspicuously from what you might call the core curriculum of classical music. This flagship programme suggests, not a shift downmarket, but a narrowing of range: and if Radio 3 is going to stop broadening the listener's mind, the question is: why is it there at all?