No One Should Care That the BBC’s Head of Religious Programming is an Atheist

James Purnell became the BBC’s Director of Radio and Education last month, which also put him in charge of the network’s religious programming. Earlier today, there was something of an uproar when he admitted in an interview that he was an atheist.

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Host Nick Robinson asked Purnell: ‘Are you a religious man?’, to Purnell replied: ‘I’m not.

Robinson grilled his guest, asking: ‘Is that not a problem though? You are head of the BBC’s religious programming, you got the job because the BBC decided to abolish the post of head of religious programming as a separate post usually held by a Christian, recently held by a Muslim. ‘You’re now doing it as part of a very busy job and you don’t even believe.’

This is what anti-atheist prejudice looks like.

It’s absurd to argue Purnell shouldn’t be running religious programming for the BBC because he’s not a believer himself. His job isn’t to advocate for one particular belief. It’s to offer a variety of programs that will get people thinking and talking. If anything, it’s better to have an atheist in charge since we tend to know more about various religions than people who belong to particular faith groups.

By Robinson’s own logic, a Christian shouldn’t be in that position either, since that person couldn’t possibly give equal weight to Islam or Hinduism or Humanism. If you have an opinion about religion, it seems, you’re disqualified from the job.

The truth is you could easily have a Christian or Muslim or atheist in that position as long as they’re committed to putting out quality programs that speak to everyone’s beliefs.

And that’s precisely what Purnell was getting at with his response:

‘Actually the people who work at the BBC have a wide range of views. Our core thing is to make great programmes, to reflect what the audience wants us to do, and to make programmes that do serve that.

‘We all have different views, we leave them at the door to make great programmes.’

Some listeners, however, didn’t care for that message since they were too busy complaining about how reality would interfere with their preferred form of indoctrination.

Some listeners were outraged by Purnell’s beliefs, with Joan Winter, 50, of Warwick, saying: ‘My cornflakes almost landed on the floor when I heard the head of religious programmes was openly boasting about being an atheist.

‘How on earth can he devote any care or attention to religious content if he thinks it’s all nonsense? It’s the equivalent of putting an anarchist in charge of a prison.

Cornflakes on the floor. That’s the most British form of outrage I’ve ever heard.

Look: I have no problem with an anarchist in charge of a prison if he can do the job well. It’s not like he would have been hired to set everyone free. That ability to do the job is ultimately what all of this is about, not whether someone’s beliefs are perfectly in sync with the people he serves. (Actually, given how more than half the UK has no religion anymore, there’s an argument to be made that an atheist in this position makes more sense.)

You don’t need to be a Christian to teach what’s in the Bible. You don’t need to be Muslim to be an Islamic scholar. And you don’t need to believe in God to produce religion-related programming for people of all beliefs. It’s not complicated when you realize the job description doesn’t include cheerleading for a particular delusion.

By the way, the BBC also announced today that they would be expanding their religion and ethics coverage. So much for the atheist getting in the way of all that.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

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