Religious Programming, Secularism and Bad Arguments

The National Secular Society put out an alarming press release last week insisting that the “BBC must not become an evangelical wing of the Church of England“. Leaving aside whether the C of E now has wings, how great is this risk and how do the NSS’s arguments stack up?

Let’s look at some figures of our own first. According to last year’s Ofcom report, “[s]pend on Religion and Arts programmes has reduced by 34% and 33% respectively” since 2004. Since then, the number of broadcast hours per year dedicated to programmes classified as “religious” has fallen from 375 to 285: that’s a drop of 24%. Each of us watches an average of 2.7 hours of these programmes per year, down from 3.5 in 2004 (a 23% drop, probably not coincidentally), and “[i]ndividuals aged 65+ are much more likely to spend time viewing this genre than are younger individuals”. These are all of the statistics on religious programming in the report.

So I think it’s fair to say that in the last five years religious programming by public service broadcasters has dropped significantly, whether you look at spend, broadcast hours or viewing figures. The NSS press release ends with this paragraph:

[NSS President] Mr Sanderson said that while he accepted that the BBC had a public service remit to serve the whole community and that some religion on TV was legitimate; it should be kept in proportion. “Very few people go to church and religion is now very much a minority interest. Its presence on TV should reflect that. The BBC pours far too much of its resources into satisfying these religious demands,” he commented.

The key point here, then, is that religious programming on the BBC should be proportionate to the number of people in the UK professing a religious belief, which according to the 2001 census (the most recent data we have, AFAIK) is 76.8%. The five PSB channels brodcast around 43,800 hours of television per year: Terry Sanderson thinks 0.6% of this being used for religious programming is disproportionate, given that only three quarters of the country profess a religious belief. I grant that 2001 is a while ago now, but it’s hard to believe it’s dropped off a cliff in the last decade simply because of The God Delusion.

The problem here, of course, is that working out what’s proportionate isn’t straightforward. Clearly using 71.6% (the percentage identifying as Christian) of airtime for Songs of Praise wouldn’t be right — religious believers, like everyone else, want to watch a variety of different kinds of programme. Furthermore, the press release points out that church attendance has dropped off, although the figures are complicated, and not going to church regularly doesn’t necessarily imply not wanting to see religious programmes. The missing premise here is that if people don’t go to church they don’t deserve to get programmes made for them, just like you can’t have a BBC4 doc about Monet if you haven’t visited the Nat this year. Religion, contrary to what people like the NSS seem to think, is not just a commitment to a few well-defined metaphysical truth-claims: it’s an ethnic and cultural identity, too.

There’s really no well-established rule for what the percentage should be, although the NSS might start by using up-to-date data (not the 2005 Ofcom report), citing its sources and, most importantly, telling us what proportion it thinks is reasonable and why.

What’s odder is that their arguments are completely unrelated, so far as I can see, to their conclusion. The arguments they offer are nothing to do with this proportionality claim they’re driving towards but to do with popularity. The fact that religious programmes get few viewers is used as a reason why we should get rid of them. This rather defeats the headline claim that we should be frightened by their evangelical powers, and it doesn’t support the conclusion either. The only kind of show with poorer reach than religious programmes is the genre called “education”, and presumably Mr Sanderson thinks those shows should be canned, too.

This argument is so exceptionally poorly-constructed that I’d use it as a counterexample in a critical thinking class, were I teaching one at the moment. The whole thing is a complete non sequitur: no attempt seems to have been made to connect introduction, argument and conclusion. For an organisation that supposedly defends “scientific rationalism” this is pretty embarrassing stuff. But it does push some hot buttons for the regular readers of the NSS’s web site, and lets them know Mr Sanderson is still bravely fighting off the Sky Fairy Visigoths on their behalf.