Monday 9 February 2009

On our own terms

Listening to Tony Blair's speech to last week's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington was not for the squeamishly secular. Sure, he began by charming the audience with one or two good jokes, like the old pro that he is. But then, no longer constrained by advisers telling him 'we don't do God', Tony went into full-on sermonising mode. Making highly selective use of quotes from various holy books, he suggested that all religious faiths are really about love and peace, and needed to band together to roll back the tides of 'an increasingly aggressive secularism', which he argued was the mirror image of extreme belief (no examples or evidence given, of course). Blair was careful not to 'decry the work of humanists', but this felt like something of an after-thought, as though humanists and secularists were being graciously conceded a place at the table by believers - but it was emphatically the believers' table, and we were there on their terms.

I had a similar feeling when I read Giles Fraser's piece arguing that there's no place for atheists on Thought for the Day. Fraser claims that atheism is 'defined by what it's against', and this 'againstness' is contrary to the programme's character. But as Norm comments, atheists are just as capable as believers of expressing their beliefs without attacking others, and simply by articulating their faith religious commentators could themselves be construed as attacking non-believers. 

The real problem is that, just like the multi-faith big tent that Tony Blair wants to construct, Thought for the Day is set up on believers' terms - it's their game, and others have to fit in with it, under sufferance. When, once in a blue moon, non-believers are given a 'guest' slot on the programme, they feel a need to define themselves - negatively - in terms of its faith-bound perameters, rather than positively articulating an alternative. 

I've long felt that the format of the slot, with its roots in the breezy wordiness of Anglican protestantism, is awkward and ill-fitting for speakers from other faiths, let alone for secularists. The whole notion of a slick, three-minute 'comment' on the day's news is grounded in a cosy established-churchiness at which the C of E excels (think Alan Bennett's vicar in Beyond the Fringe, or Spike Milligan's 'Epilogue' on the football results), but which is alien to many other traditions.

As I've mentioned before, Lisa Jardine's Sunday morning Point of View pieces on Radio 4 have demonstrated that it's possible to produce brief but intelligent commentary on current affairs without ever mentioning the f-word (faith, I mean) - or atheism, for that matter. And with David Attenborough set to take over Alistair Cooke's old slot, we might be in for more of the same. If secularists and humanists are to get a fair hearing in the media, this has to be the way forward - doing it on their own terms, and not getting caught up in the sterile old belief versus unbelief debate.

Finally - I'm not a great Steve Bell fan, but I quite liked his cartoon of the prayer breakfast, inspired by da Vinci's 'Last Supper'. I may be mistaken - but isn't that a pictorial representation of a certain unrepresentable religious figure in the left-hand corner (the animal is saying, 'Don't have a cow, Mo')? Has the Guardian, usually nervous about offending the faithful, become uncharacteristically emboldened, or is this a sub-editorial oversight?

Another response to Giles Fraser from Tim Stephenson here. I still think it's a waste of time arguing for greater humanist representation on a slot that's designed for quick, bland sermonising. Better to abolish it and start over.

1 comment:

kellie said...

Good to see Mo, and even better to see Arthur.