The BBC's religion blind spot
By RUPERT SHORTT
Written nearly forty years ago, The Half-Shut Eye by the late John Whale is an elegant broadside with a twofold argument. First, that much television output holds up a distorted mirror to the world; but second, that this doesn’t matter because the medium itself is of little importance. Though a former ITN Washington correspondent, Whale was happier as one of Harold Evans’s chief lieutenants on the Sunday Times. Aware that his highbrow stance could constitute a blind spot of his own, he later acknowledged that only the first of his theses held water.
Faith is one of the subjects which has not been well served by television. This blog is a cautionary tale about the start – and likely end – of my career as a small screen pundit last Sunday. I’ve lately published a tract of my own, God Is No Thing, which doubles up as a reply to the New Atheists and a defence of Christian belief. Frustrated both by New Atheist stridency and a more general air of condescension among secularists, I set myself the task of explaining in a hundred pages how you can be philosophically and scientifically literate, yet still go to church without leaving your brain in the porch. That, presumably, was why I was invited to appear on The Big Questions, the discussion programme hosted by Nicky Campbell that follows Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning interview on BBC1. A small studio audience sits behind ten or so guests who debate the issue of the week. Last Sunday’s pre-recorded item was entitled “Did man create God?”
Though promised “an in-depth encounter with more time than usual” by a Corporation researcher, I was largely relegated to the role of spectator. Apart from bowling me a googly (“Aren’t religions by definition exclusionary?” – a question almost impossible to answer in a nutshell), Campbell gave me no opportunity to speak at all. Instead, the baton was passed again and again to the shouters and mud-slingers, especially on the atheist side. One of the more constructive non-believers was kind enough to note the oddness of all this in a message to me afterwards. “Nicky is very uneven-handed in terms of the people he turns to”, this person wrote.
So what points would I have made, given the chance? Here are a few. Yes, of course man has created God to a significant degree. Get over the binary alternatives! It ought to go without saying that much theological speculation and religious practice involves projecting fantasies and guilt feelings into the sky. But that hardly discredits religion as such. What the philosopher Mary Midgley terms “nothing buttery” (“We’re nothing but atoms and molecules”; “We’re nothing but our genes”) is itself highly questionable. Meaning is no less real for not being physical; you don’t shed any light on a poem by examining the chemistry of the ink on the page. And talking of poetry, poets themselves don’t merely draw on their inner resources: they interact with their surroundings. In short, they discover as well as invent. Allied to this stands an awareness at the core of a Jewish or Christian or Muslim world view – that since we’re not self-created, we’re answerable to a truth we don’t create.
Not self-created. Though books have appeared with hubristic titles, including Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing, it is not possible, in the terms philosophical naturalism allows, to say how anything can exist at all. X is potentially y because x already exists: as Aristotle saw, potentiality is always a function of actuality. No surprise, then, that when Krauss employs the term “nothing”, it is always productive in some sense. A quantum vacuum is not nothing: it is a relatively empty entity within a structured cosmos. That is why the question whether the universe was created differs radically from musings about fairies at the bottom of the garden. If asked to construct a theological framework from the data of experience, I’d point to three elements: first, an awareness of ourselves as embodied beings with the capacity to grasp meaning and truth; second, the process of seeing our status as a gift prompting awe, gratitude and a heightened sense of ethical awareness; and third, an acknowledgement of that gift as grounded in a reality that freely bestows itself to us.
Some readers might be wondering whether all this amounts to anything more than a solitary gripe. I wish it were only that. The problem is that Nicky Campbell’s lack of balance is equally evident across the BBC. Take a flagship radio programme like Start the Week, which has allowed one atheist commentator after another – not just Richard Dawkins, but A. C. Grayling, Steve Jones, Sam Harris, Brian Cox and Quentin Skinner among others – to parachute into theological territory without map or compass. I would level the same charge against Andrew Marr, who is also Start the Week’s main presenter, and know that my view is shared within the BBC’s Religion and Ethics department. While not censored entirely, faith-based perspectives tend to be confined to special zones such as Songs of Praise and “Thought for the Day”.
The unacknowledged assumption here is plain: atheism is the default neutral stance for grown-ups; religious voices, even highly self-critical ones, are biased. (This must be why another major programme, The Moral Maze, contains only one non-atheist on the resident team of inquisitors.) In other words, my experience was symptomatic. The Big Questions: Did man create God? airs on May 29 at 10 a.m., but I fear I can’t recommend it. Television matters hugely. That’s but one reason why it needs to do better with matters of faith.