The BBC Trust is considering opening Radio 4’s Thought for the Day feature to secular and humanist views.
The announcement, made by Radio 4’s controller Mark Damazer on a listeners’ forum programme, sparked criticism of the BBC’s attitude to religious broadcasting.
Mr Damazer said: “There may well be quite a strong argument for including secularists and humanists” but, he added, “it’s absolutely not a cut and dried issue”.
He said the BBC Trust “is currently considering this question and they will come to some kind of conclusion later on this year”.
Thought for the Day is a regular three minute religious slot on Radio 4’s Today Programme. Contributors represent a wide spectrum of faiths.
Steve Clifford, General Director of the Evangelical Alliance said: “It strikes me that the secularists predominate in the other 2 hours and 55 minutes [of the Today Programme], so is it really asking too much for religion to just have a small chunk of dedicated time?”
The Trust agreed to review the status of Thought for the Day after receiving representations from listeners and secular organisations. Humanist groups have long campaigned for the slot to be opened to non-religious views.
In 2002 Radio 4 allowed atheist Professor Richard Dawkins to present an unofficial Thought slot after the main broadcast, and in January this year a non-religious “Thought for the Afternoon” was included on a Saturday afternoon programme.
Responding to Mr Damazer’s announcement, Prof Dawkins said: “This has been a long running issue. I did a spoof a few years ago as a kind of stunt but I hope that this does happen because religious people do not have the monopoly on morality and ethics.”
Hanne Stinson of the British Humanist Association said: “If it’s right to have a slot within the programme for people to have an ethical perspective on issues, then it should be open to all kinds of people.”
However, others have accused the BBC of caving in to lobbying from secular groups.
Revd Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and a regular Thought for the Day contributor, said: “What is at threat here is whether this is a distinctive slot.
“Would you have secularists doing Songs of Praise? It just seems madness. This could be a way of destroying it through the back door, through political correctness.
“I think it is very easy for people to read the BBC as backing away from religious broadcasting.
“One of the main rules about the Thought for the Day slot is that contributors are not allowed to attack other faiths. If we had Richard Dawkins attacking and rubbishing religion, it would change the fundamental nature of it.”
A Church of England spokesman said: “We would strongly resist moves to add non-religious voices to one of the few protected spots in the schedule where religious views on issues of the day can be expressed openly. Thought for the Day is highly valued by people of all faiths and none.”
Leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, said: “All faiths have been sidelined. Thought for the Day is practically the only place where you can hear religious thoughts and it is sad if this important outlet becomes marginalised.
“There is a market for faith and the BBC needs to learn that this is a respected institution which should not be diluted.”
A spokesman for the BBC Trust said that its General Appeals Panel expects to publish a decision on Thought for the Day in the Autumn.