A Mixed Response to the BBC’s Religion Move

The decision by the BBC to “raise its game” on religion by increasing its output in mainstream shows has received a mixed reception.

Responses to the move can perhaps be placed in three categories: the welcoming, the lukewarm and the dismissive.

The Welcoming

Those who have welcomed the BBC’s announcement corner include Peter Ormerod in The Guardian who described it as “genuinely good news for all”.

“Whether you’re as pious as Dot Cotton or find the whole thing as boring as John Humphrys does, he wrote, “we should all benefit from our national broadcaster taking it upon itself to address something of a crisis in Britain: a burgeoning ignorance of religion. And at this particular point in history, it can offer no more important service to the public.”

Too many people in Britain are proud of their ignorance of religion, Ormerod writes, a trend he describes as “the acceptable face of philistinism”.

“Rejecting religion in its myriad manifestations is one thing, but rejecting the opportunity to learn more about it is intellectual incuriosity at its worst,” he writes.

“We owe it to ourselves at least to make an effort to explore this phenomenon that, for better or worse, has been integral to human civilisation for millennia.”

Songs of praise is a bedrock of the BBC’s religious output“

Ormerod argues that ignorance of matters religious has tangible effects, including the demonisation of Muslims and the rise of antisemitism. It has, he argues, fostered “all manner of bigotry and prejudice” including the kind of fanaticism that has enabled Islamic State to prosper.

“It is an ignorance that is as prevalent among believers as it is among atheists; it lies at the heart of sectarianism. There is surely nothing to be lost and much to gain by educating ourselves.”

The Lukewarm

If clumsily undertaken the initiative could backfire, writes Theo Hobson in The Spectator, “and deepen the liberal elite’s disdain for religion”.


“Imagine if Thought for the Day was doubled in length, or if Songs of Praise was aired twice a week,” he writes.

“The challenge is to find new forms of religious broadcasting that unsettle assumptions. I can only think of one example of this in the last decade: Rev, the sitcom that combined affection for the C of E with satire. Because it was irreverent, it could also be profoundly sympathetic – it even showed a man praying, with engaging honesty and wit.”

Hobson argues that there should be a religious discussion programme in which believers can be “relaxed, honest – and maybe have some fun”.

“There’s one or two science discussion shows like this,” he argues, “and lots of arts ones. There is no point in the BBC increasing its religious output, unless it invites a new tone on to the airwaves, a tone of affectionate irreverence.”

The Dismissive

Given that for the first time since the Black Death a majority of Britons are not actually religious, the new BBC emphasis on religion seems perverse, argues David Aaronvitch in The Times (paywall).

“There is very little about the BBC’s coverage of religion that I like,” he writes, “and yet the report [outlining the expansion proposals] cites several programmes as templates for what it wants to achieve.”

Aaronovitch argues that neither Mary Berry’s Easter Feast nor Fern Britton’s Holy Land Journey deserve to be included in the BBC’s “must emulate” list and the thought of more of these kinds of programmes – and others of their ilk – fills him with trepidation.

“For most of my life Thought for the Day has specialised in scolding me about how there is more to life than shopping, eating and mobile phones,” he writes, and it seems as if the plan is for more of the same.

“More interviews with religious leaders, perhaps? Last week one of the BBC’s most incisive journalists conducted a one-on-one with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Within minutes it had ascended almost to the level of ‘would you care to reflect upon the state of things, Your Holiness?’

“This week it was the turn of the new Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, now the most senior female Anglican cleric. Bishop Mullally’s answers to questions about church problems were so coded and evasive that it was almost painful. If she’d been a politician she’d have been flayed alive.”