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BBC’s head of religion an atheist

James Purnell says that ’...the issues around belief are incredibly important to how we live.’ (Photo:

(Staff)  THE BBC’s new director of religious programming has disclosed that he is an atheist. James Purnell was speaking on Radio 4’s Today program to promote the BBC’s commitment to setting up a new unit for improving religious coverage.

But the ex-Labour MP stunned many in his audience on Dec. 20th when he admitted having no religious beliefs.

Program host Nick Robinson asked him, “Are you a religious man?” to which a flustered Mr. Purnell replied: “I’m not. I’m an atheist but I think the issues around belief are incredibly important to how we live.”

Robinson probed further: “Is that not a problem though? You are head of the BBC’s religious programming; you got the job because the BBC decided to abolish the post of head of religious programming as a separate post usually held by a Christian, recently held by a Muslim.”

An increasingly irritated Mr. Purnell, 47, replied: “The vast majority of people in this country have a range of views – some people have very strong religious views, some people have strong atheistic views.

“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 programmes.”

He combines the new job with his role as BBC’s head of radio and education.

Some listeners were so outraged, they called for Purnell to resign from his role of scheduling religious output.

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.”

The interview came as the BBC pledged to “raise our game” by increasing portrayal of all religions in mainstream shows. The corporation plans to increase prime-time coverage of non-Christian festivals such as Eid, celebrated by Muslims, Passover celebrated by Jews and Diwali celebrated by Hindus. Religious themes will feature more heavily in drama and comedy, and the newsroom’s global religious affairs team will be expanded.

Religious programming during WWII

Some of the finest Christian broadcasting produced on the BBC occurred during the Second World War. From 1941 to 1943 Christian apologist C.S. Lewis spoke on religious programs broadcast by the BBC from London while the city was under periodic air raids. These radio broadcasts were appreciated by civilians and servicemen alike. Air Chief Marshal Sir Donald Hardman wrote:  “The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless. We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that.” Later the broadcasts were anthologised in Mere Christianity

Also during the Second World War BBC radio produced and directed Dorothy Sayers’s The Man Born to be King, a 12-part play cycle based on the life of Jesus. The first part was aired in December, 1941, with new episodes broadcast at 4-week intervals, ending in October 1942.  Four other full versions were made by the BBC, the last airing in 1975.      TAP    –Various sources

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