Thought for the day: does Giles Fraser have a point?

The Vicar of Putney writes:

The problem is that atheism is defined by what it’s against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of “againstness” would fundamentally alter TftD’s character.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins was offered a slot to experiment with a secular TftD. He told us religious explanations were “childish and self-indulgent”, “infantile regression” and “lazy”. The whole thing was one long assault.

Of course, lots of people will agree with Dawkins. And they absolutely must have equal access to the BBC’s airwaves. But this sort of denunciation is not what TftD is about.

On one level, I have to agree with him. “Atheism” is indeed defined by what it is against. Dawkins’ foray into the Today programme was indeed an attack on religion rather than a positive contribution. If the only thing non-believers could contribute to the slot was “againstness” then I wouldn’t want them doing it either.

With that said, you can veritably feel the tremble in Fraser’s writing; the hatred; the bile. It isn’t enough for atheists to define themselves as not believing in God, but then most – including Dawkins – don’t. Fraser might be able to cite a single essay penned for Radio Four, but anyone who has ever read Dawkins can testify that 90% of his writing is overwhelmingly positive and in awe of the world. Atheism may by definition be negative but you can’t apply the same argument to humanism, rationalism, pantheism or even (despite its inherent silliness) Brightism. By contrast, the same argument does apply to a monotheist (“our god is the one true god”). According to Fraser’s argument then we should restrict Thought for the Day to Hindus and the odd witch.

Is it really true that Thought for the Day contributors don’t denounce? Only yesterday, Richard Harries was tut-tutting the Atheist Bus Campaign (and its religious imitators) for telling people to not worry. At it’s best, Thought for the Day is often about denunciation – I always liked Antonia Swinson’s uncomfortable truths about the excesses of capitalism (perhaps that’s why she was only allowed to record three editions). At its worst, it is often about denunciation as well – I am surely not the only person in the world who has found himself leaping out of bed and shouting at the radio because the TftD presenter has just casually just damned half the population (in their usual polite, measured tones). As much as Giles Fraser might like to think otherwise, you cannot argue for something without implicitly opposing – and thus denouncing – something. This is what happens on Thought for the Day, day after day. Hasn’t he been listening?

It is a shame that Fraser doesn’t even try responding to Sue Blackmore’s points about TftD last month, also published on Comment is Free. The best he can do is denounce Dawkins for being denunciatory and to tell us all to “get a life.” All in all, it is a little lame and condescending.


  1. “anyone who has ever read Dawkins can testify that 90% of his writing is overwhelmingly positive and in awe of the world”

    I have his entire biography & couldn’t agree more. But most of those who hate him haven’t deigned to read his work, they just go by what they imagine he is like. I can understand his anger faced with the same dishonest rubbish, which Giles Fraser exemplifies, every day. But being a passionate advocate is not the same as being a dogmatist who believes irrationally in something for which there is no shard of evidence, is it?

    The naturalistic worldview is, as you say, positive. I am awed & humbled by the wonders of the universe & could spend thousands of lifetimes marvelling at it & wouldn’t have scratched the surface of its secrets. But I can’t imagine Giles Fraser understanding that.

  2. You make some very good points in this piece. The new Thought for the World” campaign of alternative secular podcasts that can also be found for the next fortnight on The Guardian’s Comment is Free web site should go a long way to answering Giles Fraser’s concerns.

    As I’ve been involved in organising them on behalf of the Humanist Society of Scotland, I can say that the one thing that they won’t be is either anti-religious or anti-BBC. What they will be is thought provoking and topical and I hope they will show that secular thinkers have something to offer in the context of TFTD.

    What may surprise Giles Fraser more than a little is that not all of the contributors are atheist or agnostic. One will be Jonathan Bartley of the religious think tank Ekklesia, while another is the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Dr Richard Holloway, both of whom we’re delighted to have as contributors.

  3. I am a theist but I’m inclined to think that the best was to find out if atheist slots of Thought for the Day is to let atheists have some slots and see whether they are a success or not.

    I am inclined to think they would be good. I once went through a phase of reading a section of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations most mornings. They have no great religious aspect but would make perfect Thought for the Day on Radio 4. If a dead Roman Emperor can do it I am sure there are people alive today who can.

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