An atheist group which is to begin advising the BBC on religious programmes such as Thought for the Day is heralding the change as a “great step”.
Prominent atheists such as A C Grayling and Phillip Pullman have also welcomed the move to allow ‘non-religious’ groups to influence religious programming.
However, the move is likely to exacerbate concerns that the BBC is increasingly neglecting its Christian audience.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) includes in its list of aims “an end to the privileged position of religion” in areas of the public sphere including broadcasting.
The BBC will take advice on its religious programming from the new Standing Conference on Religion and Belief, an independent committee replacing the old Central Religious Advisory Committee.
Andrew Copson of the BHA will sit on the new committee. He is expected to push for an increased contribution from humanists on Radio 4’s religious slot, Thought for the Day.
Mr Pullman, a well-known atheist author, said he was “delighted” by the news of Mr Copson’s appointment.
Professor Grayling said: “At long last, here is one token of acceptance that the traditional way of thinking about matters of the spirit and matters of the mind needs to be rethought.”
However, Mike Judge of The Christian Institute warned that the move would simply lead to a further sidelining of Christians.
“The BBC’s decision to take advice on religious programming from a group that defines itself as anti-religious is astonishing.
“This is like asking Jeremy Clarkson to sit on a committee responsible for making programmes about the environment.”
The BBC has repeatedly come under fire for its treatment of religious issues. Last year, Director General Mark Thompson admitted that he felt Christianity should be treated with less sensitivity than other religions.
There has been speculation that the BBC is planning to replace its head of religious programming, a Methodist lay preacher, with a Muslim. Aaqil Ahmed has attracted criticism during his time at Channel 4 for producing programmes with a bias towards Islam.
Last month the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was reported to have met with BBC Director General Mark Thompson to express his concern that the corporation is ignoring its Christian audience.