Give us hellfire, not opiate, in the God slot

Out there in the real world, religion is ferocious, extreme and savage. Ask the people in Northern Ireland and Jerusalem
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The Independent Online
The Church of England director of communications, Rev Eric Shegog, has made a formal complaint to the BBC over last week's controversial "Thought For The Day". The BBC has promised that he will receive an official response today.

For those of you who reach for the off switch as soon as that item begins on Radio 4 at 7.50 each morning, this was a hell-fire sermon by an evangelical C of E writer and vicar's wife, Anne Atkins. She castigated the church for planning a celebration on the 20th anniversary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, because the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin. The delightfully named Rev Shegog (any relation of Gog and Magog?) protests that the C of E was given no right to reply.

Right to reply? On "Thought for the Day"? Since when? Which atheist has ever had a right to reply? Last year the BBC conducted a thorough review of "Thought For The Day" which, unsurprisingly, decided to leave things as they were. It would continue to admit no other thinkers than the purely irrational. No philosophers, ethicists or poets unless they are drawn from a narrow band of OK religions. Not Richard Dawkins or Steve Jones, not Bernard Williams or Ronald Dworkin, all of whose thoughts on moral matters and the meaning of life might manage to match the depth and gravitas of Rabbi Lionel or Sister Lavinia.

Since non-believers have never had a right to reply on "Thought", the Rev Shegog's protest is a bit rich. His Christian soldiers have their say most of the time. The C of E ensures that a cabal of like-minded ecumenical moderates in other faiths, safe and anodyne, conspire to keep everyone else out. Determined to offend no one, they exclude the authentic tones of most religions which are by nature divisive and offensive.

So they exclude the Rev Ian Paisley: why don't we hear him proclaiming anathema on the anti-Christ in Rome? Why don't we hear a papist fulminating on the subject of contraception and abortion? Why not Anne Widdecombe on her curious explanation of the Christian nature of capitalism? Where are the mad mullahs, pagans, astrologers, Mormons and any others whose more extreme beliefs might expose the notion of religion to healthy ridicule?

Anne Atkins's rant was rather refreshing. A good blast of full-blown homophobia tells us a great deal about the C of E, which is divided between the closet (or vestry) gays and the homophobes. Why don't we get the full flavour of some wild Imam proclaiming war on the infidels? Out there in the real world, religion is ferocious, extreme and savage. Ask the people of Northern Ireland or Jerusalem. Ask the women of Kabul.

No, instead we get a warm soup of unctuous "Thoughts", that jar oddly with the brisk tones of the Today programme. You know something is wrong from the moment they start to speak. Sometimes they are perky and facetious, sometimes they ooze with improper social concern for the Bosnians or the homeless. Even when it is a Sikh, you do not get the authentic tones of the rebels besieged in the Golden Temple, the fanatics who shot Indira Gandhi. You get a soft-voiced gentle soul who may carry a dirk in his turban, but sounds as if he, too, has been through a C of E theological college. This is a conspiracy of the religions to present themselves as agreeable, reasonable people, despite the mayhem religion causes wherever in the world people actually believe in it.

More than half the population say vaguely that they believe in "something" larger than them, though only 35 per cent say they definitely believe in a God - about the same number who proclaim themselves complete non- believers. Only 7 per cent of the population is non-Christian and only half of them actually practice their religions. This is a pretty flimsy basis on which to inflict religious broadcasting in prime-time slots, because there is nothing in the BBC charter that compels it.

Lewis Wolpert, scientist, thinker and atheist, said last week that the religious impulse has been programmed into human beings by natural selection. When humans became conscious they confronted the dreadful knowledge of their own inevitable death. These thoughts were so frightening that in order to protect themselves, some developed religious belief in an after- life. That made it easier for them to live with their new-found consciousness and therefore more able to survive, making irrational belief a part of our nature. It does not, however, make any of it true.

The BBC Religious Broadcasting Department is a curious animal, headed as it is by a priest and staffed by religious folk. "But surely you wouldn't have a science department run by non-scientists?" is the odd explanation. Then should we put politicians in charge of politics, doctors in charge of health coverage?

When I called the religious department to discuss the latest row over "Thought", there was a distinctly unholy expletive, followed by a rather more Christian sigh of resignation. My heart goes out to them, because I know what it is like in the BBC to be on the receiving end of public trouble. However good their case, BBC staff can only reply to outside critics with a sock in their mouth and both hands tied behind their back.

The BBC is the nation's punch bag because it is all we have to symbolise and codify our increasingly fissiparous, pluralistic society. The BBC's guidelines have become a kind of national bible in which we express our identity, our standards of fairness and morality, taste and decency. .

But for this reason, the status of religion within the BBC is worth challenging. "Thought for the Day" may only be a short slot on the top radio show of the day, but it symbolises a respect for religion which does not reflect the national state of mind.

Worse, it peddles a phoney religiosity which prettifies religion.

Religion only speaks in softly moderate tones in a country that no longer believes in it. True believers in Jerusalem and elsewhere kill each other. So if "Thought" must continue, and if it refuses to admit rationalist thinkers, at least let us hear some of the trumpeting of unbridled true religion - including the Anne Atkinses.