A bloke in a pointy hat and posh frock thinks there should be more religion on television and radio. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, says that religion merits as much air time as politics, sport and drama.
The Archbish makes it sound like there’s nothing at all on TV and radio already about religion. In fact, in the last few months in the UK we’ve had a full schedule of Easter programmes; Simon Reeves’ The Ganges on BBC2 (looking at India’s religious heritage); Channel 4’s Unreported World and Dispatches, which regularly consider religious issues; Clare Balding’s trite Good Morning Sunday on Radio 2; the weekly broadcast of church services and daily Thought For the Day on Radio 4; the weekly dollop of worship on Songs of Praise on BBC1 and the 24-hour Christian ‘ministry’ of Trinity Broadcast Network and other God channels for those who just can’t get enough mumbo-jumbo.
Maybe that’s not as much as sport, but then there’s hardly anything on TV that has as much coverage as sport. (Bad news too for those of us with little interest in watching others running, jumping and hitting things; there’s even more to come in the shape of Wimbledon, Euro 2106 and the Olympics.)
Do we really want religion to have the same level of coverage? Are people really as interested in belief systems as they are in sport? Or music? Or art? Or comic book franchises? Even if there are, why is it up to television – the Archbish singles out the BBC as the broadcaster he thinks should indulge his fantasies – to provide it? Isn’t it, rather, up to churches, mosques, temples and other centres of superstition to promote their own particular brand of nonsense?
Make no mistake about it, this is what Justers is proposing; the promotion of religion – ‘religious literacy’ he calls it. He is not, we can be fairly sure, looking for programmes that are critical of religion (unless it’s other people’s). He wants, he says, to see more programmes that give us a better understanding of religious belief. What he means by this are proselytising programmes that create greater empathy for those who subscribe to delusion.
He isn’t advocating, for example, documentaries that explore the irrationality of faith, or ones that show the slap-dash, deceptive ways in which holy books came to be compiled or ones that demonstrate how most adherents to faith fail to live out its exacting demands. Nor is he suggesting programmes that focus on the appalling misery religion brings to some, or shows that give a sympathetic hearing to cults, sects and extremists. I would have no objection to programmes like these (except those that are sympathetic to extremists) because the ugly underbelly of religion deserves to be exposed, like Channel 4’s The Untold History of Islam of a few years ago, taken off air after its presenter was threatened with violence by those who didn’t like its critical perspective.
But these are not the kind of programmes the Archbishop is proposing. The religious literacy he wants us to have is of the cuddly side of faith, the supposed deep spirituality of the obsessive and what he regards as the positive contribution religion makes to the world; a one-sided picture already more than adequately covered by the nation’s broadcasters.
Thankfully, despite the recent political interference in the BBC, the Corporation is still required to present balanced and impartial views of its subject matter. If the Archbishop, who sits in the House of Lords and so is not without influence, is successful in forcing the BBC and other broadcasters to increase their coverage of his obsession, then we should also be able to look forward to programmes that are critical of religion too.
No broadcaster is obliged to promote religion nor to proselytise on its adherents’ behalf. Shame on the Archbishop, with his smiles and pointy hats, for suggesting they are.