AS TCW has reported, the BBC has appointed Aleem Maqbool, a Muslim, as its new Religion Editor. In the interests of accuracy, his post should really be described as Religions Editor. Perhaps I might be allowed a little reminiscence, by way of background, before I make a couple of suggestions?
For four years in the 1970s I was head of RE at a state comprehensive school in Bolton. Those were the days when the BBC harboured remnants of decency, and I was invited to the Manchester Oxford Road studio to record episodes of both Thought for the Day and Prayer for the Day. The BBC wouldn’t let me within a sabbath day’s journey of a microphone now. But that was then, and I was welcome to assume over the airwaves that Christianity is true.
Back at school, I discovered that the RE syllabus was so antiquated it might have been composed by Methuselah. Our headteacher ‘Billy’ Barnes was very relaxed. In fact, I think I saw him awake only once. He permitted me to devise a new RE syllabus. Under the terms of the Butler Education Act of 1944, it was taken for granted that RE meant Christianity. It was specified that one must not teach any denominational version of the faith, but simply basic Christianity.
But even as long ago as 1975, the old order was beginning to pass away, to be replaced by something new and of course exciting – as all new things are alleged to be. The coming enthusiasm was for comparative religion. There was something called the British Association for Multicultural Education (BAME). This was being proselytised by all the go-ahead schools’ inspectors and educational advisers fresh from their polytechnic courses on such luminaries as Gramsci, Althusser and Lukacs. The epicentre of this new gaiety was the BBC Schools Broadcasting Council. They had me bang to rights as an RE teacher who had done a bit of broadcasting and published two books for schools, Beginning Philosophy and Thinking About Religion, and so joined me up to BAME.
That’s the background, and now to return to the present. Just before he left Channel 4 to become Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson said: ‘It’s true that there is an enormous prevailing prejudice inside broadcasting about religion. It’s not really based on hatred of religion – but I know that exists to some degree as well – but there’s a presumption that religion is boring.’
One wheeze for brightening it up was via multi-culture to multi-faith and that’s why I found myself at Broadcasting House W1A 1AA in all those tedious Council meetings. Now look, I might have got this all wrong, but I have always thought that the point of meetings to change and develop policy was that participants should take an analytical, forensic, critical – though tolerant and charitable – approach: let’s weigh the damned thing in the balance and see what the losses, as well as the gains, might be. This was when I realised I was not one of the in-crowd. I ventured to write an item for the minutes:
‘The new policy for RE is not to treat Christianity as something that is true but instead to teach about Christianity – and indeed about the other religions too. I’m not necessarily against this, but I should just like to point out that this changes everything at the most fundamental level: For the only way one can teach about religions is from a secular perspective. Thus it follows that secularism contains the criteria for truth. In a word, secularism is now to be accepted as the truth. In fact, at the risk of being paradoxical, secularism is the new religion.’
Well, as Lance-Corporal Jones used to say, ‘They don’t like it up ’em!’
And I just about escaped my lynching.
Half a century later that secular perspective has become embedded and anyone who, in the name of religious faith – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or whatever – dares question the sovereignty of this secular dogma is regarded as a hopeless reactionary backwoodsman – or worse.
Whether you think the new way is better than what preceded it is a question we can leave on the table. But something more sinister has been happening over all these decades. I can summarise it by adapting a sentence from Animal Farm: ‘All religions are equal, but some religions are more equal than others.’
If Christianity held something of a privileged status in the past, it certainly doesn’t today. The religion of preference in our secular society is Islam. And here is a practical touchstone to illustrate that fact: while there is something wicked called Islamophobia, there is no such crime as Christianophobia. Christianity is everywhere criticised, mocked and sneered at, not least in the BBC. Try speaking about Islam in the same way and see what happens. Many who have done this have been dismissed from their employment and even accused of criminal offence.
Is it too much to hope that when Aleem Maqbool takes his editor’s chair he will, to coin a phrase, do a bit of levelling-up, correct this unjust imbalance and introduce a little more even-handedness into religious broadcasting?