At around 7.45am, a sizeable proportion of the several million listeners who tune in each day to Today on Radio 4 go back for a snooze for about two minutes and 45 seconds, this being the allotted time for Thought for the Day. Other listeners stay alert throughout this time precisely because they want to take a break from hard news items and engage in a little elevating reverie, inspired by whichever cleric has been selected for the homily.
Disputes over these few minutes have been raging for years. In 2002, more than 100 well-known figures signed a petition urging the BBC to open the slot up to non-religious thinkers. The BBC declined to do so, and the slot remains an atheist-free zone. According to the Corporation, it is not meant for any old common or garden reflection, but for reflection “from the perspective of a religious faith”. In other words, secular thinkers such as Richard Dawkins or A C Grayling should get their tanks off Thought for the Day’s lawn.
The point is a reasonable one, and the BBC no doubt fears being accused of abetting the marginalisation of Christianity, and of other faiths in Britain, were it to allow atheists to breach the ramparts of Thought for the Day.
Nevertheless, the argument in favour of keeping non-believers from airing their own thought is weakening. According to the 2011 census, 25 per cent of the British population has no religion, while the percentage of Christians has dropped to under 60 per cent, well down from over 70 per cent a decade earlier.
Some Christians fear that by 2030, professed atheists – however contradictory that term sounds – will outnumber them. They may be exaggerating their plight. But there is no question that Britain is now not only a multi-faith society but one in which a growing number of people have no faith. That makes the rules governing Thought for the Day look increasingly anachronistic. No one is suggesting that atheists should take over Thought for the Day, merely that they have a share. Perhaps they could alternate, with Mondays for atheists, and so on. To borrow a religious term, it could be the salvation of a national treasure.