Thought for the Day
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Thought for the Day is a short radio speech on a religious subject broadcast daily on BBC Radio 4 around 7:45 am, six days a week, as part of the Today programme, a daily news and discussion broadcast. It lasts 2 minutes 45 seconds (although it can feel much longer), and is spoken by one of a roster of different speakers who are mostly Christian (and white and male) but sometimes of other faiths. It is one of the most prominent religious radio programs in the UK because at that time the radio has many listeners from commuters and people eating breakfast. It is also one of the most controversial things on the radio, because secularists question its presence in the middle of a primetime news program, and Christians feel it is constantly under threat, being belittled and trivialised.
Its content has been described (by Today presenter John Humphrys) as "'we’re now going to hear somebody tell us that Jesus was really nice, and the world could be a better place if we all...' You know ... Oh God."
While most of the content is anodyne platitudes such as you'd get in a lowest-common-denominator church service, it is occasionally more controversial. It has the distinction that the Church of England formally complained about one 1996 broadcast - because the presenter Anne Atkins was so homophobic.
Take it off
Many people question why the BBC devote a slice of radio at the time when audiences are highest to a religious message. As Today presenter John Humphrys said, "It seems to me inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion, given that rather more than half our population have no religion at all."
There have been campaigns for it to be open to secular speakers, including humanists and atheists. The National Secular Society (NSS) has been prominent in campaigning against this discrimination against atheists. They say "there is no right to reply when the slot is used for political or religious proselytizing" (contrary to the BBC's rules on impartiality), and want to see it open to contributions on religious and ethical topics regardless of the contributor's religion. In 2018 they commissioned a poll that found "fewer than one in five British people think BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day should always feature religious content".
A broadcast by prominent Sikh leader Indarjit Singh was subject of a complaint to regulators by the National Secular Society in 2012, when Singh spoke against a lawsuit seeking to stop the practice of daily prayers in local council meetings. The NSS said he was given a platform to speak without opposition on a controversial issue and this broke the BBC's requirements for impartiality. The BBC Trust rejected the complaint saying the BBC had an atheist on discussing an entirely different topic, and this was sufficient to avoid bias.
Occasionally, atheists or non-theists have been allowed to deliver a rebuttal to Thought for the Day on Radio 4. In 2002, following protests by secularists, Richard Dawkins gave an atheistic counterpoint after the main religious message was broadcast. A similar thing happened in 2013, when Tim Berners-Lee was guest editor: he wanted an atheistic Thought for the Day message, but had to be content with Andrew Pakula, an atheist Unitarian minister, delivering a message later in the program after the usual god-botherer on Thought for the Day.
Defenders say that it's only fair to have a religious voice when so much of the radio doesn't mention religion, but the channel gives no guaranteed space to atheists or humanists. And there isn't guaranteed airtime given at peak listening times to other popular interests like angling, philately, cat ownership, or racism. (In fairness, they do broadcast a lot about that other obscure British interest, the weather.)
It is however enjoyed by many people (probably) (I don't actually have a citation for this) (but surely Radio 4 doesn't deliberately broadcast programs that everybody hates). Anglican priest and regular contributor Giles Fraser defends it on the basis that 31% of the world's population is Christian, and the vast majority of people believe in some kind of God; in the UK half the population sort of believes in some kind of God. More relevantly for a news program, he suggests, "you cannot understand the world unless you understand something about the way that faith functions in the lives of its adherents." However that's not really the function of Thought for the Day, which is largely preaching to the converted rather than offering information.
Criticism on aesthetic merits
It is widely mocked by the unreligious, even by people from the Today program. Presenter John Humphrys called it "Deeply, deeply boring, often. Sometimes not. Sometimes it's good and the guy or woman is delivering an interesting thought in a provocative way. Usually not."
The program has a roster of regular contributors, although also some one-off guests. Most of the current cast are members of the Church of England, and a surprising number also sit in the House of Lords. A lot of them have rather conservative and anti-gay views, and penises. Past or present speakers include:
- Anne Atkins an evangelical Christian (but still Church of England) writer and controversialist notable for her regular homophobic statements, including her attack on the church's commemoration of 20 years of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in 1996, which drew a complaint from the Church of England. She has also been offensive elsewhere, as when remarks about homosexuals in The Sun resulted in the press regulator upholding a complaint over her claim that gay men are mostly paedophiles and are all going to die young of AIDS. It's unfortunate that one of the very few female contributors is a batshit-crazy fundie.
- Nick Baines, an Anglican and former spy (specifically a Russian language expert at GCHQ).
- Michael Banner, an Anglican.
- Benedict XVI, former Pope, broadcast a Christmas message in the slot on 24 December 2010.
- Lionel Blue, a British Reform rabbi known for his colourful personality and sense of humour. He died in 2016.
- Rhidian Brook, a fiction writer from Wales.
- Tom Butler, an Anglican ex-bishop.
- Akhandadhi Das, a Vaishnava Hindu theologian, originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland.
- Giles Fraser, controversial media Anglican priest, but as of 2019 no longer listed as a regular contributor.
- Richard Harries, an Anglican Lord.
- Graham James, another Anglican.
- James Jones, Anglican bishop of Liverpool and a prominent campaigner for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
- Hardeep Singh Kohli, a Scottish Sikh comedian, restauranteur, property magnate, and TV presenter. He has attracted controversy as a landlord for the low standard of his properties. He has also been in trouble for "inappropriate behaviour" towards a female colleague at the BBC. But none of that disqualified him from offering religious or moral guidance to the nation in 2012.
- Chine McDonald, who works in the Christian charitable sector at WorldVision and Christian Aid.
- Ephraim Mirvis, an Orthodox rabbi who opposes woman rabbis and gay rights.
- Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, a now-deceased Roman Catholic Cardinal, who like most of his contemporaries was less than brilliant at combatting sexual abuse, and had reactionary opinions on homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, embryo research, etc.
- Jonathan Sacks, a British Orthodox rabbi and formerly Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He is a member of the House of Lords.
- Mona Siddiqui, a woman and a Muslim! (Although born in Pakistan and raised in Huddersfield, England, her current position as Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh makes her as close as the BBC gets to a regular Scottish contributor.)
- Indarjit Singh, a Sikh and member of the House of Lords.
- Vishvapani, an actual Buddhist.
- Sam Wells, another Anglican.
Despite the vast preponderance of Church of England speakers in the show's list of regulars, particularly among the Christians, it's worth noting that in England there are nearly as many Roman Catholic churchgoers as Anglican (608k vs 660k).
- See the Wikipedia article on Thought for the Day.
- John Humphrys says Thought for the Day message 'deeply boring', Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, 30 Oct 2017
- Church rounds on BBC over anti-gay 'Thought for the Day', Andrew Brown, The Independent, 11 Oct 1996
- Reform Thought for the Day, National Secular Society, accessed 6 Mar 2019
- BBC Trust rejects Thought for the Day bias complaint, National Secular Society, 2 Oct 2013
- Atheist gives Thought for the Day, BBC, 14 Aug 2002
- Here’s my Thought for the Day: stop sneering and keep the faith, BBC, Giles Fraser, 31 Oct 2017
- Thought for the Day: Regular contributors, BBC website, accessed 6 March 2019
- See the Wikipedia article on Anne Atkins.
- Thought for the Day 24/08/2013, BBC
- Comedian Singh Kohli's rented Glasgow flats 'grubby and dirty', The Herald (Glasgow, UK), 5 June 2008
- Hardeep Singh Kohli: The BBC hung me out to dry, Evening Standard, 24 Apr 2012
- See the Wikipedia article on Ephraim Mirvis.
- See the Wikipedia article on Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.
- Church Attendance in Britain, 1980-2015, British Religion in Numbers, British Academy, accessed 6 March 2019