In his new book God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, Rupert Shortt notes that religion is in some ways taken more seriously now than a decade or two ago. But huge habits of ignorance and condescension remain: ‘When secular humanists attack Christianity, they often fail to realise that it is the gospels which provide unseen elements in their own outlook.’ He rightly draws attention to the ‘tension between the enormous cultural footprint of Christianity on the one hand, and its concealment in a secular multicultural society such as Britain on the other.’ And he tentatively criticises the subtle marginalisation of Christianity from public discourse.
This is a difficult thing to talk about, without sounding like a chippy reactionary, calling for a return to clericalism. But we must point out that there is a strong secularist bias in our culture. It’s an institutional bias that media folk, especially those at the BBC, aren’t really aware of having: they think they’re being neutral when they marginalise the ‘divisive’ topic of religion, and decide to commission yet another radio series about feminism or science or classics or whatever. They don’t notice that they are subtly consigning Christian voices to the margins.
The exclusion works like this. Everything non-religious is seen as a harmlessly neutral topic. It might or might not be your thing, but it’s a valid part of our culture that deserves airtime. Religion, on the other hand, is seen as problematically contentious. It can only be talked about in a sombre anxious way. If Christianity has to be talked about, there must be great awareness that atheists and those of other faiths are likely to be a bit miffed. And so it’s safer to avoid it, whenever possible, and stick to what is inoffensively neutral.
For example, there is a Radio 4 series called the Infinite Monkey Cage in which nerdy science-folk discuss their stuff in a confident, jokey, semi-evangelical way, and of course there are many such arts programmes – and there is one every weekday morning about feminism. Imagine one in which a panel of Christians was given such space, such permission to be themselves, to air their subculture. (This does not occur on the religion programmes Beyond Belief and Sunday, which are both nervously multi-faith, meaning that they impose a neutral secular framework on the discussions.)
In fact you don’t have to imagine a broadcast in which a group of Christians discuss things in an intelligent, accessible way. I recently came across a YouTube series, in which four quite young, quite hip vicars do exactly this. It’s rather charming: they convey their love for the culture they serve, which is a source not just of wisdom but of fun. To rectify things, Radio 4 should sign them up. But don’t hold your breath.