It was revealed last week in an interview that the man responsible for the BBC’s religious content is an atheist. Many religious people, unsurprisingly, expressed outrage.
Last week while speaking on Radio 4’s Today program, James Purnell, the BBC’s Director of Radio and Education, was discussing his role as the person responsible for religious programming on the BBC. He spoke about the BBC’s plans to include more religious programming for faiths outside of Christianity and to expand religious representation. During the interview presenter Nick Robinson asked Purnell about his own religious views and Purnell admitted that he is an atheist.
Following Purnell’s admission, Robinson proceeded to grill him for a couple minutes on whether it was appropriate for Purnell to be in a position to determine religious programming if he had no religious faith whatsoever. Purnell said, “I’m an atheist but I think the issues around belief are incredibly important to how we live.”
In response to further probing by Robinson, Purnell also replied, “Actually, the people who work at the BBC have a wide range of views. We all have different views, we leave them at the door to make great programs.”
Radio 4 currently has the episode available for listening here. The interview begins at the 1:21:30 mark, and ends at 1:28:08. Purnell and Robinson’s dialogue about Purnell’s atheism begins at 1:24:55.
In response to Purnell’s admission of his atheist beliefs, many religious listeners called for Purnell’s resignation. Joan Winter, 50, of Warwick, said: “How on earth can he devote any care or attention to religious content if he thinks it’s all nonsense? If Mr. Purnell had an ounce of integrity he would resign and let someone more suited to the role take over.”
People like Ms. Winter fail to realize that Purnell’s atheism actually makes him more suited to oversee religious content, not less. When the Pew Research Center surveyed just over 3,400 American adults and asked them 32 religious knowledge questions related to various faiths, atheists and agnostics scored the highest, narrowly outperforming Jews and Mormons, the next most knowledgeable groups.
If the BBC’s aim is to cover all religions equally, then Purnell’s atheism means that he is a better fit for the job because he will avoid letting his own personal beliefs influence him to give preference to any one faith. Also, as I covered at the beginning of this year, religious faith in the UK continues to drop, providing another reason to have an atheist in this position.
I certainly hope the anger over this will be short-lived. It would be unfortunate if a vocal, angry minority complained loudly enough to get either Purnell or the BBC to remove him from the position.