Must we have a god? The Beeb says yes

November 15, 2017 • 11:30 am

I guess I’ve known for a while about the BBC’s softness on religion, seen most obviously in its daily moment of faith (I can’t remember the name of that segment or find it on the Internet, but I’ve heard it many times), and the fact that the moment of faith never includes any secularists. (I believe Dawkins did it once—and that was the end of that.)  But now, according to the Economist (click on screenshot below), the BBC is broadcasting a bunch of new radio talks about religion and “religious culture” by Neil MacGregor, former head of the National Gallery and the British Museum. And those talks seem to be very very soft on faith, to the point that they apparently assert that humans need religion, for that society falls apart without it.


After doing a successful BBC series of twenty talks on “A history of the world in 100 objects”, MacGregor is about to do 30 new 15 minute BBC shows on “Living with gods,” based on the new eponymous exhibit at the British Museum.  Thirty!

I haven’t heard this show (there’s no way I know of to listen to the BBC from America), but here’s what the Economist says, and it doesn’t sound all that encouraging (emphases are mine):

It takes a deft communicator to pull off such verbal pirouettes. What holds the material together, though, is Mr MacGregor’s interest in the role of religion and ritual in human society. He speaks compellingly of the human mind’s need to find patterns in the universe and to situate itself within those giant matrices.

Jill Cook, who curated an important show at the British Museum in 2013 that explained how the Ice Age made the modern mind, is also the curator of this new exhibition. She shares Mr MacGregor’s desire to present religion as a social phenomenon that has been present in every age of history, cementing and expressing social bonds, and also violently dividing people. By including exhibits related to the communist cult of atheism, she shows that attempts to squeeze religion out of society have sometimes dramatically misfired: anti-religion can easily become a cult.

The “communist cult of atheism”? What about the Scandinavian PRACTICE of atheism, which is neither Communist nor a cult? Are Denmark and Sweden dysfunctional? If not, will MacGregor and Cook tell us? I don’t think so. Yes, there’s an admission that religion can divide people, but when coupled with the claim that without religion you get Godless Communism, the lesson is clear. And then there’s this (from the Economist):

Mr MacGregor is a social anthropologist on a vast plane, whereas Ms Cook leans more to the neuroscience of religion. By including sounds, such as softly heard bells and flutes, she draws attention to the aural stimuli that can arouse people’s spiritual antennae.

However, they have a common purpose: to bring home the ubiquity, and the social character, of religion to a mainly secular public. To the modern mind, speculating about moral and philosophical questions is something people engage in individually. In most eras of history, and in many parts of the world today, such freedom would be inconceivable. [JAC: But isn’t this a criticism of religion?]

As the exhibition and the radio series both proclaim, religion has generally been an activity, not a set of true-or-false propositions, and above all a collective activity in which the tribe or nation finds meaning.

Well, this “proclamation” is dead wrong. Religion of course is more than a set of true-or-false propositions, but virtually all religions are founded on such propositions and lose force and meaning unless one assents to them. What is Christianity without a divine and resurrected Christ? Or Islam without Allah dictating to Muhammed through an angel? I deal with the issue of religious truth claims in Faith Versus Fact, giving quote after quote from religious people who are honest enough to admit that religion is based on assertions of how the world is.  Here are four quotes from five believers:

Richard Swinburne:

For the practices of the Christian religion (and of any other theistic religion) only have a point if there is a God—there is no point in worshipping a non-existent creator or asking him to do something on earth or take us to heaven if he does not exist; or trying to live our lives in accord with his will, if he has no will. If someone is trying to be rational in practicing the Christian (or Islamic or Jewish) religion, she needs to believe (to some degree) the creedal claims that underlie the practice.

John Polkinghorne:

The question of truth is as central to [religion’s] concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy.

Ian Barbour:

A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.

Karl Giberson and Francis Collins (writing together):

Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about “the way things are.”

By claiming that religion is not at all about truth claims, but only a form of refined social glue, both the British Museum and the BBC are not only adhering to Gould’s false “Non-overlapping Magisteria” dichotomy, but lying to the public.

64 thoughts on “Must we have a god? The Beeb says yes

  1. Are they lacking for other content? Or is this really what they think people want? I say more nature documentaries, less religion spots!

  2. The ‘daily moment’ – is called ‘Thought for the day’.

    Or perhaps, more accurately – ‘Lack of thinking for the day’?

  3. Your daily programme is ‘thought for the day’. I’ve noticed it getting much more muddy towards religious belief in recent years, perhaps trying to meet the criticism that it never entertains secular thoughts, but most of its presenters are in the swamp up to their armpits.

  4. The Radio 4 faith slot (in the middle of the 3-hour news programme, Today) is called “Thought for the Day”, Jerry. Certain large religions are privileged: no philosophers, humanists etc. are allowed. I know because I asked them.

    Rev, Giles Fraser recently complained that the outspoken and, if memory serves, atheist news presenter John Humphreys called the slot “boring”. The Grauniad gave Fraser the platform to do so. Briefly, Fraser went full Christians-are-ridiculed-and-oppressed mode. This is a man whom the BBC regularly hands over the 2 minute 40 second TFTD slot to, as well as providing him with a weekly slot on the 45-minute long Moral Maze programme (a mix of religious and non-religious commentators on the moral implications of a topical item). Oh, that I was similarly oppressed.

    Radio 4 reserves 200 hours annually for religious content. That’s about 5% of total output.

  5. Well, I’m glad they said “sometimes” in “attempts to squeeze religion out of society have sometimes dramatically misfired”.

    But you know, sometimes attempts to glue society together by religion misfire as well, quite badly.

    When I took sociology of religion as an undergraduate, some sociologists distinguished between “dogmatic” and “ethical” religion. Today, some psychologists distinguish between “dogmatic” and “spiritual”.
    But the these distinctions are not clear-cut. Lots of religiosity consists of elements of both. A church with a minimalist creed still has a creed.

  6. BBC Radio Four can be listened to via the internet at:

    I don’t know if there’s a live stream there; it looks like you select a show and click on it.

    I never miss _In Our Time_, though I get it as a podcast. Very good stuff, even when it’s something I don’t care about.

  7. Why does the thought of atheism send christians straight to communism. Is that the only way they can connect with the idea of atheist? Atheism has nothing to do with communism and last I checked communism was more a form of economic government. If they want a connection with the idea of communism join the military. You will not find a better economic example of communism at work than the military. I discovered this many years ago while in the military. You look around at all the other comrades like yourself with three stripes as an example. These people with three stripes do all kinds of different jobs and different specialties. But they all make the same money. So a guy carrying a gun and guarding airplanes with his three stripes makes the same money as the other guy with three stripes who works on that airplane and went to many weeks of school to learn things about the airplane. Another guy with three stripes sits at a desk and types forms all day. He makes the same money as the guy out there who is a crew chief on an airplane that costs millions of dollars. Now that is communism.

    1. Any person who says that atheism is a communistic cult has to be an ignoramus, a moron, or a liar. I suspect that some of the regular commenters at this site are having a fit of apoplexy.

  8. Religion used to be preached with credible threats of harm to anyone who doubted its literal claims. Now it comes to us (mostly) as a soft-pedaled ingratiating abstraction about social glue. This _is_ progress, of sorts.

  9. Over all a typical pack of nonsense from god-botherers.

    It is worth noting that the premise is not far off though. I think it is in some sense true that our species has “needed” religion in some form – evidenced by the fact that religion has played a role in every human society known. It follows then that there is lot of intellectual ground to cover in exploring that “need”. It doesn’t mean any of the various religions we’ve devised are true in any real sense, but the Beebers do have a point about the social and community roles that religions have and that these roles have been principle players in the history human societies.

    That they are lying about it and using intellectually dishonest rhetoric (“…communist cult of atheism..”, wrote an asshat) is really nothing more than a reflection of modern public discourse.

    1. ” I think it is in some sense true that our species has “needed” religion in some form – evidenced by the fact that religion has played a role in every human society known.”

      As have murder, rape, child molestation and pretty much every crime you can think of – we ‘need’ them just as much as we ‘need’ religion.

      1. I put “need” in quotes precisely to avoid value judgements like yours. Unlike your examples which are uniformly bad, however, the value to society by the “need” of religion is a continuum.

  10. Depressingly, none of the commentators at The Economist called them out for their ridiculous “communist cult of atheism” phrase.

    However, I’ve been listening to some of these talks. They’re quite good – I learned some anthropology that was new to me – and anyone who listens to many of them will have to recognize that there are many religions, and they can’t all be true.

  11. I sometimes listen to BBC radio 4 while driving and happened to catch the “Living with the Gods” item on “The making of meaning” this morning, 15th November. I thought it could be helpful to society as encouragement to study comparative religion.
    By comparison, the bog standard Sunday morning Christian services I’ve witnessed had very little attempt at comparative religion, weren’t interested in even knowing the basics of what other religions are saying or even about the history of Christian factions / denominations. In my experience most ministers are content to perform the Punch and Judy show each Sunday :- at the name of Jesus customers will pay & I can keep on going, in my cosy way (manse + pension)

    If such shows were too boldy acidic toward religion then faithheads would probably just switch over.

  12. I’ve listened to several episodes of “Living with the Gods”, and I think the concern here is a bit misplaced. The theme is very much about comparative religion and how various practices (e.g. sacrifice, purity, pilgrimage) have featured in different ways across the spectrum of religions, taking examples from Middle Eastern Monotheism to the Aztecs, Taoism, African tribal cults, you name it.

    From the episodes I’ve heard there is absolutely no proselytising going on and I wouldn’t describe it as being “soft on faith”, just exploring how ideas and practices representing universal human needs/fears/desires have cropped up in different forms across geography and time. Whatever we may all think of religion, there’s no denying its importance in human culture and history.I loved “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, also by Neil McGregor, and I think anyone who liked that series would also appreciate this one.

    1. Agreed, and any survey that hovers above the various manifestations of religion over the centuries is going to expose religion as a human activity. Neil Macgregor should do a fine job, based on “100 Objects”

  13. Excuse me? What is wrong with the phrase ‘the communist cult of atheism’? Anyone who doubts that state-communism in Russia, China and Cambodia was a cult/religion had better check out North Korea, and lay those doubts to rest.

    Dogma, heresy, sainthood, all there. Visit the mausoleum of the Dear Leader if you still doubt.

    1. That’s a cult of communism, of more accurately, of Soviet-style state communism. Atheism, in the sense of denial of traditional religion, was an element within that cult.

      The most generous reading I can give is that they meant a “cult of atheism within communism” where “cult of atheism” means some over-zealous commitment to non-belief manifested in religious persecution. But, that’s not really a cult, and it’s not really “of atheism”. As usual, atheism itself doesn’t have the beliefs to sustain crazy actions.

  14. All religions are social tools designed to control the behavior of the masses for the elites. This has been stated in print by the religious and secular elites themselves.

    Part of the efficacy of such a tool is that it is self-sustaining. The “converts” operate a propaganda campaign for the elites so they don’t have to lift a finger. These elites, sneer at social programs as “social engineering” whilst running the biggest one on the planet by supporting their local religion.

    Read the tend Commandments. at the top of the list is “Worship/obey me, properly, or else.” The word “Islam” means “submit.” Could it not be more obvious that in religion, the slaves are begging for the chains?

    1. “All religions are social tools designed to control the behavior of the masses for the elites.”

      That is only one role for religion, though a damning one.

  15. The glue is starting to crack, what to do? filler is applied, which in turn will shrink under the heat. Apply more filler!
    This is what this is, a filler, a repair job, to which i have no doubt will work, that is,
    till more heat is applied. we are the exothermic reaction aka,”the heat”
    Well this got me started…
    Atheist as a emulsifier.
    It is an emulsifier, breaking fats down (RELIGIONIST) into small separate particles, (INDIVIDUALS) keeping blood cholesterol (REASON) emulsified to prevent arterial deposits (BLIND FAITH)
    and therefore a “glue” not based on a lie.

  16. I suppose it’s possible that there can be a religion that functions like, say, the Elks Club, and provides social glue, with such minimal propositional content — there’s something greater than we understand behind all of this, and whatever it is wants us to be nice — as to be practically unobjectionable even to those of us who think there is no good reason to believe it. It wouldn’t surprise me if many people who think they are adherents of some religion that, in its official theology, makes more ambitious truth claims, were really just minimalists following the customs of the group they were raised in without being seriously committed, if they even know about, those more ambitious truth claims.

  17. The BBC isn’t soft on religion. They have to cover religious topics, it’s part of their charter. As the British taxpayers pay for the BBC, and a good portion of those taxpayers are religious, it’s not surprising that it broadcasts such content. Maybe at some time in the future, when religions are a thing of the past, the BBC’s charter will be changed to reflect that.

    1. Similarly, state education in the UK is required to have time devoted to religious instruction – with no prescribed curriculum or indeed a specified religion. but also no time when the requirement lapses. So, in theory, all school pupils get that brainwashing until the end of their time in infant, junior and secondary education. It’s probably not required for tertiary education, but I’m not sure about that. Despite which, for the thick end of a half a century, almost no schools have enforced that requirement up to the end of secondary education. (There are, of course, elective classes available in some schools ; I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about the statutory classes.) In one school you might get a class in comparative religion whether you want it or not ; at the next school across town you could spent an hour a week memorising the Koran, and at a third school be washed in the spittle of a rabid hellfire-&-brimstone preacher. But that religious instruction is a legal requirement. (At least, it was when I was in school in England ; I haven’t heard of it being taken off the Rolls, though less than half of schools actually follow the law to any degree and I’ve never heard of any state school that continued to timetable the RI requirement into the external-exam years.)
      It’s a stupid system in it’s specifications, but it’s by no means fully adhered to, reducing the effects of the stupid design. At least it means that we do have speech radio and don’t have advertising all the time.

      1. The school system remains much as you describe. It also appears to remain a highly effective system at reducing religion in UK society so I’d be loathe to risk adopting the US system of constitutional banning of the teaching of religion in schools. Look how that’s working. Similarly, the BBC has religious programming at its core but in practice it concentrates the religious stuff on old people programming while the younger audience is very often overtly or implicitly given an atheist message. The UK is far from perfect but it does often get things right almost in spite of the system.

  18. The Beeb’s “Thought for the Day” is much mocked and parodied: see, for instance, “Platitude of the Day”, curated for over 20 years by the wonderful Rev Dr Peter Hearty, to which I have the honour to contribute from time to time:

    Day upon day, this nails the absurdities and obscenities that we are exposed to in the name of religion.

    As for McGregor’s series, I think we should give it a little more time. He is a curator, not a preacher: his aim (I think) is to show us what is and has been, not necessarily what might or should be.

      1. Louis CK

        I’d never heard of him before his sepukku. Did he actually do anything worth seeing before he danced the “Norwegian Blue”?

        1. Dunno much about him, just seen him discussing comedy. Gervais rates him so I imagine he’s worth watching. Mind you, RG rates Jerry Seinfeld as well and I’ve never laughed once at him, even when I was blootered, piling back from the pub. Still, hey ho, de gustibus and all that…

            1. I give Gervais a lot of credit from when I was watching the very first untrumpeted, unannounced episode of The Office. It took me about 10 minutes to get that it was a spoof. I thought that was a great idea.

              1. Still never seen an episode of The Office. Not even sure if I’ve seen part of an episode. [Checks] It started when I didn’t have a TV, or interest in one.

    1. Oh yes, Louis CK reminding the God-botherer of the link between stand-up comedy and St. Paul! That was a particularly imaginative leap of froth.

      A Roman, a Corinthian and a Hebrew go into a bar. Barman says, “What an excellent example of inter-faith dialogue.”

  19. “By claiming that religion is not at all about truth claims, but only a form of refined social glue, both the British Museum and the BBC are not only adhering to Gould’s false “Non-overlapping Magisteria” dichotomy, but lying to the public.”

    I disagree. Religions can be either, or both. Certainly many manifestations of the Church of England are more about tradition than theology.

    The series is apparently looking at religion from a sociologist’s viewpoint (in which the validity of any religious truth claims is irrelevant) rather than the theologians or the atheist’s.


    1. And the headline is very click-baity. “Must we have a god?” – nobody even mentioned God. Religion(s), as a social activity – the series apparently suggests ‘yes’. But the object of belief is not specified.


    2. Agreed. And before Christianity came along, most religions were focused on acts, not beliefs. It didn’t matter if you believed in Zeus, or Moloch. It was only important that you made the customary sacrifices.

      “Religion has generally been an activity, not a set of true-or-false propositions,” is dead right.

  20. As lots of other people have said, it is “Thought for the Day”. Richard Dawkins has never done Thought for the Day, they created a one time extra slot for him to do his thought.

    I listened to one of Neil MacGregor’s new programmes today and it was actually quite good. It wasn’t about preaching, it was a factual programme about the beliefs of some ancient culture based around their religious art.

    The History of the World in 100 Objects was monumentally brilliant IMO. He explored World history using g a different object from the British Museum as a focus for each episode (of which there were 100 x 15 minutes, not 20 episodes). He has done a similar series about the World of Shakespeare using the same format.

    I’ve only listened to one of the new programmes, but they are likely to focus more on history of religion than preaching.

    1. It’s just occurred to me that the figure of 20 shows refers to the omnibus edition. The shows were broadcast as 15 minute segments each weekday with a longer version at the weekend consisting of all five weekday segments in one show, possibly with edits to get it down to an hour.

  21. Perhaps we should invent a rationalist New Religion, involving a charismatic founder who dies and then the New Religion could be taken over by PR men and accountants?

    It’s not like it has ever been done before, has it?


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