Joan Smith: Thank heavens for the agnostic at the BBC

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The Independent Online

It's the kind of story you find in company newsletters: "Bill Bloggs, 45, has been appointed head of stationery administration at Filthy Lucre plc. Although he has not previously been involved in paperclip management, Mr Bloggs says he is looking forward to the challenge offered by his new position, etc".

But there it was, on the front page of The Daily Telegraph on Thursday, complete with references to the lucky applicant's upbringing and his parents' religious beliefs. The appointment was also reported on radio and TV news bulletins, with the poor man sounding surprised by all the attention and defensive about his credentials for the job.

It was not entirely his fault, even if he made the mistake of describing his new post as a spiritual journey. (Going where, exactly? Let's hope his model isn't Railtrack.) You have to feel a bit sorry for Alan Bookbinder, catapulted from the relative obscurity of a job as executive producer in the BBC science department to a starring role in the nation's public conversation, all because he has been appointed to the sensitive role of head of religious broadcasting at the corporation. Mr Bookbinder suddenly found himself expected to answer searching questions, attracting rather more attention than a newly appointed government minister. And he wasn't being asked to list his favourite hymns.

The reason for the fuss is not that Mr Bookbinder is an inexperienced broadcaster or that he was preferred to a more suitable candidate. It is the revelation – cue stunned expressions at the Telegraph offices in Canary Wharf – that he is not, like every single one of his predecessors, a practising Christian. At least I think that's what he was saying, although his assertion that he has not had "personal experience of God, of an absolute or a sublime being" was hardly a ringing declaration of atheism. It led The Guardian to describe him, quaintly, as a "self-confessed agnostic" – not as bad as being a self-confessed shoplifter, I assume, but hardly a neutral formulation either.

Why is Mr Bookbinder so coy about his beliefs? Millions of us have not had personal encounters with God and would be rather surprised to do so; in a multicultural society, it is no more shaming to be an atheist or an agnostic than to be a Christian, a Scientologist or a Rastafarian. The Rev Joel Edwards, director of the Evangelical Alliance, complained that, in spite of Mr Bookbinder's outstanding record as a broadcaster, "the fact is that he is not an active member of a faith community".

Yet it is surely a breathtaking piece of arrogance for any church to assume that the BBC's head of religious broadcasting should be a paid-up member of its party, so to speak. We don't expect BBC political editors to be card-carrying Labourites or Conservatives or Lib Dems; on the contrary, too obvious a party allegiance is seen as a disqualification for the job, and I can't see why the same principle shouldn't apply in this case. Many viewers who pay the BBC licence fee are Muslims, Hindus, observant Jews or individuals – I include atheists and agnostics here – whose interest in religion is much wider than a narrow Christian agenda.

There is no good reason why their money should be spent on programmes promoting the Church of England, as it has been in the past, when it could be used to make intelligent series about a whole range of religions. That should include programmes from a critical point of view, for the time when churches could demand deference as of right is long past. That is why the BBC's decision to give Mr Bookbinder's de-partment a new name, Religion and Ethics, is welcome, for it represents a timely recognition of the fact that you do not have to believe in God to concern yourself with social justice and human rights.

It is hard to see how Mr Bookbinder can avoid the logical next step of throwing open "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4's Today programme to non-believers. The Evangelical Alliance wouldn't like it, but they're unhappy with his appointment anyway. And he would win the grateful thanks of millions of listeners who are infuriated by the slot's daily outpouring of banal religious anecdotes and smug platitudes.

Perhaps Camilla has better ideas

Does Camilla Parker Bowles intend to marry again? I think we should be told. To date she has said nothing about the subject, although that may be because no one has bothered to ask her. Royal reporters tend to be a bit behind the rest of us when it comes to sexual politics; the Prince of Wales has only to make a cryptic remark to prompt pages of pompous analysis of his intentions, yet it doesn't seem to have occurred to them that his lover might be perfectly happy with her current status. As a divorced woman with grown-up children, she can do what she likes with her time and is spared all those ghastly discussions, which seem to start earlier each year, about whose relatives to spend Christmas with. I mean, would you want the Queen as your mother-in-law? Could you bear to spend Boxing Day playing parlour games with the Duke of Edinburgh?

For the moment, Mrs Parker Bowles is able to appear with Prince Charles from time to time without having to turn up for royal events that involve standing on balconies in ridiculous hats or accepting wilting bunches of freesias from winsome children. It's not as if the record of royal marriages among the Prince's siblings is exactly encouraging: Prince Andrew is divorced, Princess Anne's second marriage is in trouble and Prince Edward's wife is a laughing stock after her encounter with a bogus sheikh. And that's without taking into account Charles's own disastrous marital history. Next time royal hacks are about to deconstruct the Prince's gnomic utterances on remarriage – the equivalent, surely, of poking about in chicken entrails to tell the future – they might spare a moment to consider an alternative explanation for his reluctance to give a straight answer. Perhaps Mrs Parker Bowles doesn't actually want to trip down the aisle with him.

Itâ¿™s the beginning of the end for men

It's not just princes who might soon be redundant. Australian doctors announced last week that they've found a way to fertilise eggs with cells from any part of the human body, female or male. This seems to me very bad news, and not just because it embodies one of men's most primeval fears. I sometimes think they colonised art and culture, and started innumerable wars, to compensate for their really rather minor role in propagating the species. Vagina envy, I believe it's called.

There's something satisfying about knowing you need to have sex to conceive. (I've always been irritated by women who claim they "fell pregnant", as though it came as the most enormous surprise.) By removing the need for sperm, this new development threatens to bring true all those myths about getting pregnant that used to scare teenage girls. Don't shake hands with strange men. Or strange women. Just think of all the extra precautions we shall have to take.

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