Higher Thoughts

What’s happened to Radio 4's Thought for the Day? An erstwhile spiritual haven has made way for a platform for please-all secularist banalities

Robert Low

For many years, secularists and humanists have campaigned for the abolition of Thought for the Day, the daily homily broadcast at about 7.45am every weekday on Radio 4’s Today programme. Their reasoning was that religion had no place in a current affairs programme; the slot’s defenders  claimed it provided a welcome spiritual haven amid the torrent of news, mostly bad. Until recently I counted myself among its defenders, but I’ve reluctantly concluded that it has run its course — not because it contains too much religion but because it contains virtually none. And the Christian element that used to dominate has diminished to virtual invisibility.

The format of the slot has become all too predictable. The speaker invariably leads off with a reference to whatever story is dominating the headlines, whether the Philippines typhoon, the latest child-abuse scandal or the banking crisis. It is agreed that it is a very bad thing, and the supposed causes are discussed: if it’s a natural disaster, a reference to climate change is almost mandatory, while if it’s an economic story a greater commitment to equality and social justice is urged. 

It becomes something of a game to wonder if the speaker is going to get round to God, the Bible or any other sort of holy writ before the two and a half minutes are up. A recent item by an East End vicar made a case for press regulation that could not have been improved on by Ed Miliband and left God out of the argument entirely (and perhaps mercifully, in this particular case). 

It is left largely to the non-Christian presenters to wave the flag for higher things. The recently retired Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, was a model speaker, cogent, mellifluous and often moving. Another frequent presenter is Abdal Hakim Murad, a Cambridge lecturer on Islamic Studies and convert to Islam (his original name was Timothy Winters), whose musings on God and infinity — “God is outside Time and hence every instant in history is His present moment” — bore an uncanny resemblance to thoughts uttered by the great C.S. Lewis to the BBC half a century ago and re-broadcast on Radio 4 only the previous day. But such moments are few and far between. Let the secularists have their way. God is indeed dead on Thought for the Day.

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