Excluding non-believers: veteran UK atheist takes on the BBC – again!

Excluding non-believers: veteran UK atheist takes on the BBC – again! November 10, 2018

If there’s a battle to be fought for non-religious voices to be heard in social and political spheres, you can bet your bottom dollar that Barbara Smoker will be among those leading the charge for inclusion.

Barbara Smoker pictured in 2017. Photo Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This veteran 94-year-old British activist and writer has again targeted the BBC, which for years has resisted calls to allow non-religious voices on a morning slot called Thought for the Day.

Smoker, President of the South East London Humanists Group (SELHUG), last month attended the latest in a series of demonstrations held outside the BBC’s headquarters in London. She handed over  a letter to the corporation, accusing it of “gross impertinence”.

If the name of the slot was ‘Prayer for the Day’ we would not want to take part in it, but it is gross impertinence to deny us ‘Thought’. We urge you to take our message seriously and end the discrimination against humanism and other non-religious worldviews.

SELHUG Protesters pictured at a recent demonstration outside the BBC

Smoker, a former President of the National Secular Society (NSS), led an important chapter in the Thought for the Day campaign – back in 2002. She and the NSS threatened legal action against the BBC, asserting that the ban on non-religious contributors was a breach of her human rights.

The case was widely reported, and supported by playwright Harold Pinter, Richard Dawkins and former Labour Party leader Michael Foot. They were among over a hundred others who wrote to BBC governors asking for atheist and secular thinkers to be included.

In the letter she handed in to the BBC last week, Smoker said:

This year my local group, South East London Humanists, has taken up the protest once more on behalf of all those, non-religious and religious, who recognise that an interest in life’s big questions, social welfare and current affairs is a human trait and not exclusive to religion.

Smoker, in her youth, toyed with the idea of becoming a Catholic nun, but in 1949 she renounced Christianity and joined the secular humanist movement.

As President of the National Secular Society from 1971 to 1996, she represented the atheist viewpoint in print, on lecture platforms and soap-boxes, in speaking tours, in debates, and on radio and TV, and in 1981 gave spoken and written evidence on religious education to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education and Science.

She also officiated at non-religious funerals, wedding ceremonies, gay and lesbian commitments and baby-namings, and trained other secular humanists to do so.

Next demonstration

The next demonstration is on Tuesday, November 13  from 8am to 10am outside Broadcasting House, when an open letter to BBC Director-General Tony Hall signed by over 30 Humanists UK patrons will be handed over.

Campaign organisers say:

Please come along to be part of this little piece of history – another blow for the right of the British public to know about humanism and the non-religious ethical tradition.

A statement on SELHUG’s website says:

Religion doesn’t hold a monopoly on ethical worldviews. There is another mainstream tradition as old as religion, called humanism.

Humanism is a positive, everyday philosophy which encourages us to value ourselves and recognise that other people are as valuable as we are. That has deep implications for the way we treat each other and our environment.

The BBC is failing in its legal duty to treat non-religious beliefs equally with religious beliefs, ‘belief’ being defined as “a collective belief in, or other adherence to, a systemised set of ethical or philosophical principles or of mystical or transcendental doctrines” (Communications Act 2003).

The BBC is also failing its remit to reflect the diversity of beliefs of its audience and the wider population. Over half the British population do not belong to any religion1 and around half of those have a humanist worldview2.

In Scotland where Humanist weddings are legal, more people choose them than ceremonies conducted by the Church of Scotland or any other denomination or faith. Amongst under-30 year olds in the UK, 70% have no faith3.

To argue, as James Purnell (Director, Radio and Education, BBC) does, that non-religious views are sufficiently represented across ‘the whole of the BBC’s output’ is to miss the point – that humanism is an equal partner in the ‘belief’ category.

We call on the BBC to address this injustice and include humanists, and holders of other non-religious beliefs, on Thought for the Day.

Editor’s note: In 2016/17 The Freethinker published two Kindle versions of Barbara Smoker’s Humanism: for inquiring minds and Freethoughts: Atheism, Secularism, Humanism – Selected Egotistically from The Freethinker.

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  • epeeist

    “Thought for the Day” should really ben called “Platitude for the Day”.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    I’m a yankee so don’t listen to BBC radio (altough I DO watch Doctor Who online) so am not familiar with ‘Thought for the day’. Here in the US media is completely run by inclusive secular corporations, not some theocratic government. HA HA HA HA I slay myself with lines like that.

  • Jennny

    I listen to BBC Radio4’s flagship morning news programme every day, so hear TFTD most days. It’s now 3mins, it used to be 5 I think..and be it Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Catholic or Protestant, it’s pretty rubbish. Can’t forgive a prominent CofE cleric who said she was frightened of plants as Fritillary, which I have swathes of and love, might come tapping on her window like Triffids….cos jesus? or something? IDK. I hope Humanists get a slot, they might raise the standard, it’s pretty low at present.

  • Broga

    I don’t listen any more. That listeners can be treated with contemptuous indifference is an outrage. Who, specifically, is insisting on TFTD censoring secular opinions? How much do the contributors get paid? How much of the BBC budget is used to air TFTD. One of the most smug, repellently confident and frequent purveyors of ancient tribal superstitions as facts occasionally dropped the information that she was a vicar’s wife. She immediately excludes herself from being regarded as other than a mouthpiece for her church.

    TFTD is a charade, an offence against rational thinking and the hidden influence that has corroded BBC decisions on religion must be exposed and the propagandists removed. Do they still give airtime to RC priests who are members of an outfit which is infested with paedophiles. The C.of E. is also now stained by the same criminality. Yet no secular speakers. Has parliament no interest in this?

  • Broga

    Jennny: I live a couple of miles from Buddhists and I have visited them. As I live in a fairly remote area, amongst spread out farms, and where we often have reasons to help each other. The Buddhists I know are impressive people, they never mention their beliefs, they don’t attend social occasions but are the first to help if they can. I think they are Zen Buddhists and that does not involve belief in a god. Having read up on Zen I think that is the nearest I will come to spirituality.

  • Kanawah

    Do not back down. Keep pounding the BBC until all points of view are represented.

  • Jim Jones

    Very handy for motorcycle repair I hear.

  • Kanawah

    If religion is there, the standard is VERY low.

  • Götterdämmerung

    If only others followed Barbara Smoker’s example and stood up for “what we don’t believe in”, just think what a force we would be.

  • Brian Westley

    They missed a chance for a sign reading:
    Free “Thought For The Day”

  • Broga

    The BBC has run out of money. The younger audience prefers Netflix. And yet the BBC persists in irritating the large secular audience with TFTD. They could save money by getting rid of all these crap religious programmes. And all the overpaid celebs.

  • Phil

    Well I call it “Bollocks for the day”

  • Broga

    I tried it but had difficulty relating it to my technical problems. Was that “Zen and the art of motor cycle maintainance.” I gave up on motor cycles after my brother came close to killing himself on his by smacking a wall and with no crash helmet.

  • Broga

    They depend on the pressure fading. The UN rep on poverty was appalled at the poverty in the UK and described a cynical, detached, indifference ignorant of the realities by the government. Hard to deny with Moggy of the six sprogs and global warming denier, and happily saying he has never changed a nappy as that is the maid’s job.

  • Jim Jones


    The real problem with motorbikes is that car drivers can’t see them – they claim.