Remembering Rabbi Lionel Blue

It was with great sadness that the Sandford St Martin Trustees learned of the death of Rabbi Lionel Blue in December last year. Over the last three decades, Lionel had secured a place in the hearts and minds of many people but particularly Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme audience. His contributions to Thought For the Day were warm, thoughtful, thought-provoking and often guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
We’re now deep in the throes of planning the 2017 Sandford St Martin Awards – judges are carefully sifting through the entries, guest lists are being updated, trophies and certificates being ordered to celebrate some of the best religious broadcasting there’s been over the last year. Broadcasters like Lionel who in 2010 was given a Sandford St Martin Personal Award for his unique contribution to the genre. You can watch a video of Lionel speaking about the Award below.

Our condolences to his many friends and family. He will be missed.

 

 

 

How To Judge a Sandford Award Winner

Sandford St Martin Award shortlisters and judges are chosen for their wide experience of both religion and the media. They include experienced producers, programme-makers, directors, journalists and critics from a variety of faith backgrounds. In 2016 the comedian and Radio TV critic, Penelope Solomon, was one of the those who was given the daunting task of shortlisting our radio entries. Over the past few years, radio has been the Awards most competitive category. This year more than 90 radio programmes were in the running for prizes. In her blog, Penelope reveals more about the process and some of the highlights for her.

penelope on air

I WAS A SANFORD ST MARTIN AWARD SHORTLISTER

As a television critic, I like to select and compare programmes across different genres covering a range of topics. This helps to keep the viewing varied and interesting both for me and, hopefully, for my audience when I come to discuss the programmes live on air. For example I might watch a stand-up show like ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ and then contrast this with a documentary programme such as ‘Bedlam’ about mental illness in a psychiatric hospital in South London. (Some might argue that these two programmes are very closely linked, but that’s a subject for another blog!)

When I was invited to be on the shortlisting panel for the Sandford St Martin Awards, I was slightly daunted at first by the fact that I would be required to listen to a fair share of the almost eighty different radio programmes entered in the category and united by a common theme: religion, ethics and spirituality. Whilst I am interested in programmes which have a religious content, I thought the process might be a bit repetitive and dull. In truth, I didn’t really know what to expect. How delightfully surprised I was by the sheer range on offer from drama to documentary to live performances and church services. There was even a small selection of live Nativities!

Such was the diversity of voices, that contributions ranged from young Muslim women from Birmingham talking about wearing the hijab and fashion, to Jewish people ‘making Aliyah’ (i.e. emigrating to live in Israel) to an analysis of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s turbulent childhood. Questions around identity were a common theme in many programmes with different religious practices presented and issues affecting people from all walks of life, some who had faith and some with no faith. Some of the stories told were so gripping and evocative they brought tears to the eyes.

When a programme really works you can’t or indeed don’t want to stop listening. Strong resonant voices draw you into a carefully crafted story and somehow a connection is made which makes you want to keep on listening. During my listening I’d often find myself drawn in by programmes about topics I knew nothing about. When these stories were told well – through engaging contributors, a fresh approach and seamless editing – the result was extremely effective. I gained knowledge about different cultures and different ways of life and felt enriched and broadened by this new learning experience.

Music was a powerful and effective device used creatively in many of the programmes. Sometimes it was woven into the piece to break up or punctuate the narrative. At other times it was used to enhance meaning and emphasis within a story, to build up suspense and increase the tension. Stirring soundscapes were used to accompany chilling and harrowing stories. Occasionally music was over-used and became intrusive and distracted from the rest of the content, but this was rare. In some programmes the music and songs were so bold and stirring that I wanted to go out and buy the CD – if there had been one!) And then, there were other programmes which did not have any accompanying sound-track at all. It was interesting to note that some of these were equally as effective if not even more effective in engaging the listener. In these programmes it was the solitary voice and the spoken word which resonated and created an impact.

Several of the programmes explored current issues and contemporary themes such as same-sex marriages, religious fundamentalism, the radicalisation of young Muslims, freedom of speech or interfaith marriages and the fusion of eclectic family traditions. And the more I listened to these, the more I was surprised by how they stimulated my desire to discover more about other cultures, communities and religions and by how fascinating this learning was. I came away from the experience with a sense that I had touched upon some of the key issues that affect the lives of others and how important it is that this knowledge and information is shared.

In the end, my fellow shortlisters and I ended up with a long-list of fourteen excellent programmes which we then had to narrow down too a short-list of eight. We all had our favourites but after much analysis and discussion managed to agree in the end.

What strikes me on reflection is that there were hardly any comedy entries. Why is that? Is religion not funny? Are writers, producers or commissioners afraid to make jokes about Faith? Perhaps this is something for programme-makers and potential entrants to think about for next year.

 

You can read a full list of the programmes shortlisted for a 2016 Sandford St Martin Radio Award here.

Penelope is a Comedian and TV Critic for BBC Radio 4 (‘World Tonight’, ‘Today Programme’) and BBC Radio London.

As a performer credits include ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (BBC), ‘Fist of Fun’ (BBC), Sony Nominated ‘King of the Road’ (BBC Radio 2) and ‘Redeeming Brian’ by legendary sitcom writer David Nobbs (BBC Radio 2). She created and co-wrote ‘Tower of Bagel’ (Soho Theatre, Royal Festival Hall). Penelope has also performed live at: Theatre Royal Winchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, Salisbury Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic and The Hackney Empire.

Penelope will preview her new live solo show at LEICESTER SQUARE THEATRE
on Saturday 16 July at 20.30

before heading to THE STAND COMEDY CLUB part of the EDINBURGH FRINGE 2016

You can find out more about Penelope and her work on her website: www.penelopesolomon.com

or by following her on Twitter: @aHackneyMum

More TV Vicar? – well yes, as it happens!

In October 2015 Bryony Taylor, a curate from Durham and self-confessed TV addict, participated in a panel discussion produced by the Trust for the annual Church and Media Conference.  The session was called “More TV Vicar?” …  Um, yes: we did shamelessly pilfer the title of Bryony’s excellent book exploring television depictions of Christians in all their – not always so obvious – glory.  And now we’ve twisted her arm and gotten her to write a blog for our website too.  Thank you Bryony!

Earlier this year DLT published my book entitled More TV Vicar? which charts the portrayal of Christians (and especially vicars) on British television for the past 30 years. I was delighted to be invited to be part of a discussion panel at the Church and Media Conference 2015 with James Cary, comedy writer (who I interviewed in my book), Daisy Coulam (writer for ITV’s Grantchester) and very excitingly, Frank Williams – the vicar from Dad’s Army!

We had a wide ranging discussion including some TV clips with famous vicar characters. One theme we discussed was authenticity – having two screenwriters on the panel helped us to note that character and plot are essential – these things come first, not what religion the character is supposed to be. This is something I explore in my book – many Christians expect too much of ‘Christian’ characters on television – they are not there as a great advertisement for the faith – they are characters in a story and they are there as part of an entertainment strategy, not a mission strategy! Daisy spoke of the importance of showing the human side to the Rev’d Sidney Chambers in Grantchester – that he has feelings too – he is a fully rounded character. This was the same with the Padre Mary character from James Cary’s Bluestone 42, she is depicted as flawed and weak, but is not a caricature. We are beginning to see on our televisions more rounded portrayals of vicar characters.

Frank Williams spoke about his own character, Rev’d Timothy Farthing, and that even though his character was depicting a cleric from the 1940s it was not a particularly sensitive portrayal. Rev’d Timothy is not particularly nice – which is part of the humour that comes across in Dad’s Army. Having said that his vicar character was very much ‘of its time’ and therefore familiar to people. Being a church goer himself (and a member of General Synod) meant that he could lend the character an air of authenticity. Frank went on to say that the feeling now is that people simply aren’t interested in faith or religion. The days of people being able to ‘get’ the ‘blessed are the cheesemakers’ joke from Monty Python’s Life of Brian are long gone. Dad’s Army, broadcast in the 70s and 80s was put out at a time when people knew what to expect of a vicar character – they all knew one in their own town or village. This societal shift could be perceived as being a bit depressing but I would challenge that.

People who know me well know that I am the eternal optimist – my husband says that my glass isn’t half full, I just think ‘ooh, I’ve got a glass!’ And so when my book came out I said in a number of interviews that I thought that we would see more ‘vicar’ characters on our televisions over the next few years. Little did I realise that this would come true very quickly – Grantchester is currently filming its second series, ITV just showed a flagship 3-part drama, Midwinter of the Spirit with a woman priest in the starring role and Sky 1 brought out comedy drama You, me and the apocalypse featuring Rob Lowe playing a swearing, smoking priest in the Vatican alongside an Italian nun. This is all in the 6 months since the book was published (maybe I need to get started on volume 2?) Why all this sudden interest?

Let’s take the character of the curate from ITV’s award winning crime drama Broadchurch. There is a scene at the end of the drama in which the curate (who is a suspect in the murder case at one point) organises a powerful act of remembrance on the beach for the murdered child. This is the climax of the series and illustrates the truth that:

‘The church is still a place where people put the emotions that won’t go anywhere else.’ – Rowan Williams quoting a former student[i].

Williams goes on to say, in the same speech:

“I believe we are living in a society which is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn’t quite know what to do with it, and I believe we are living in a society which is religiously plural and confused but not therefore necessarily hostile.”[ii]

The memory of religion lingers in British society. Occasionally the remembered faith re-enters the public sphere – notably on Remembrance Sunday but also events such as the Queen’s Jubilee and the Royal Wedding or whenever a crisis hits a town. Slowly the church seems to be regaining its permission to be there, legitimately to have something to say.

This idea of religion (for that, read Church of England in this instance) ‘haunting’ comes across in a curious comment in a recent report on the religious output of the BBC:

“Though both Songs of Praise on BBC One and Sunday Worship on Radio 4 have been a feature of the schedules for quite literally a lifetime, it always seems slightly surprising when the pattern of family viewing on TV, and news and magazine programmes on radio, are interrupted by a religious service. It feels at the same time to be slightly anachronistic, and yet strangely reassuring.” – Stuart Prebble (my emphasis)[iii]

It is not altogether different from the way people feel about the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4:

“The Shipping Forecast remained on air for no reason other than it is still wanted by many thousands of people who had no logical purpose in listening to it – other than the most basic purpose of all, of course, which was to make life a little bit richer in some intangible way.”[iv]

The same could perhaps be said of the church – and especially the Church of England. People still want it, they still want to see it on their televisions, they just don’t quite know why.

Christendom has lost its place and the church (especially the Established Church) is losing its footing but this could be an opportunity for creativity. Pope Benedict said that in our current times Christians need to be living as a ‘creative minority’. Green and Robinson develop this idea in their book Metavista:

“In times of liminality, such as the one that the West is presently passing through, it is more important to live as creative minorities than to live either as coercive minorities or as ineffective majorities.”[v]

We are still seeing Christian characters on our televisions and indeed the more recent of these have been well-rounded and realistic rather than stereotypes or caricatures. I think we will only see more portrayals of Christians on television, not less. People are curious again about what drives people of faith: it seems that television producers are picking up on this. That can only be a good thing.

 

[i] Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the public square’, Lecture at Leicester Cathedral, 22 March 2009

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Stuart Prebble, ‘A BBC Trust Review of the Breadth of Opinion Reflected in the BBC’s Output’, BBC Trust, July 2013

[iv] David Hendy, Life on air: a history of Radio Four (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

[v] Greene, C. & Robinson, M., Metavista: Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2008), p214.

 

Find out more about Bryony and her book here.

And there’s more about the Church and Media Network who hosted the “More TV Vicar?” session here.

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?

Lucy Wilson is a journalism student at Sheffield Hallam University.  She attended the 2015 Sheffield International Documentary Festival and was part of the audience attending the Trust’s “Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?” session.  In this special guest blog she considers the role of religious documentaries today and gives her response to what she heard.

If you happened to be in the city of Sheffield between 5 and 10 June, one thing is certain: you were aware that DocFest, the UK’s largest festivity of documentary filmmaking, was in full swing.

As a student journalist, I was privileged to attend the Sandford St. Martins Trust’s sponsored session, ‘Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?’ For me, I’m not a particularly religious person, so I was keen to understand: why do we need religious documentaries? What do religious documentaries achieve? Probably not unusually for my generation of upcoming journalists and programme-makers, I had presumed that religious documentaries were dying out; to me, the genre evokes memories of my Grandmother perched on her sofa in her slippers singing along to Songs of Praise on a Sunday afternoon.

In the glorious ITV town hall reception rooms, I was stunned to see an audience of around 50 turn up to hear the debate about religious documentaries.

The panel consisted of the BBC’s Commissioning Editor for Specialist Factual TV Martin Davidson, Chief Executive for CTVC Peter Weil, the Insight Film Festival Director Abdul – Rehman Malik, and, trustee of The Sandford St. Martin Trust Roger Bolton. Kicking things off, Roger Bolton said, “By doing sessions like this, we hope to enthuse you.” I couldn’t help but to ask myself how difficult that would be.

Earlier during the week I had undertaken recording vox pop interviews with people at the festival for the Trust and discovered I wasn’t the only person struggling to answer the question of ‘What are your opinions of religious documentaries?’  Until recently, if you’d asked me I’d have said I don’t think I’ve watched any documentaries of the religious genre.  I have seen classical blockbusters like “Sister Act” and “The Passion of Christ,” but I guess they don’t really count.

So where is the opportunity to experiment and develop outside what most people expect to see periodically which is histories of the faith? The panelists agreed there is plenty of scope. “Out of all the specialist genres I am looking at, religion and ethics are by far the broadest and by far the stickiest,” said Martin Davidson, “You can step outside of faith community entirely and look at aspects of the world where religion can bare people on a personal level, a spiritual level but also culturally and politically.”

And here, I could undeniably see his point. Everyone knows that religion is a taboo subject in certain situations. Whenever you bring it up, and whomever you bring it up with, you know that it can turn into a 3-hour debate. Everyone has his or her own opinion.

We heard that the fundamentals of a good religious documentary are the same as those in any genre and go along the lines of ‘Are you doing this in an interesting way?’ ‘Will you bring an audience to it?’ ‘What does it deliver to the audience individual?’

One of the films showing as part of the festival was Parvez Sharma’s ‘A Sinner in Mecca.’ The film shows Parvez, a homosexual filmmaker making the pilgrimage to Mecca as part of an attempt to reconnect with his Muslim faith. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by death and, as a viewer, the film was striking and had me on the edge of my seat. At any time, Parvez could have be caught and executed. This film gave me an insight into religion that I had never seen before. Afterwards a female Muslim member of the audience couldn’t hold back her tears. She said: “The world needs to see this.”

If more people are going to see films like ‘A Sinner in Mecca’ then we need the world of religious documentaries to evolve. So is there a potential for religious documentaries to go online? Yes! Nothing is off limits in the broadcasting world. There’s no getting away from the fact that more and more people are accessing programming through the net.

From an international perspective, Director of Insight Film Festival Abdul-Rehman said: “Over an 8 month period we receive 180 submissions, out of which 90 are pretty good and 60 we’re looking at programming. In a non-dogmatic way the stuff coming from Iran is amazingly good.” Abdul-Rehman is sure that on an international scale, there is space and a demand for these faith documentaries.

We were told that Channel 4’s religious programming practically disappeared in 2013 – with a dedicated spend on religion of £40 million in 2008 being drastically reduced to £2 million in 2013. In 2004 the network committed to 104 hours of religion; in 2005 it decreased to 52 hours and in 2014 only 2 hours of self-identified religious programming was broadcast on the channel. It is clear to see that there is a statistical problem when it comes to religious programming. The optimism of the panel was inspiring, but can religious broadcasting raise its audience figures?

“I think that religious and ethical programming is there for everybody,” said Peter. For instance, Muslims form 4.44% of the population. If half of this population watched religious documentaries, this would create a substantial audience.

After the panel had the discussion, they took questions from the floor.  The first question was for the BBC’s Martin Davidson: “What are you actually doing to engage with my religion (Sikh) and other minority religions?”

Davidson answered that the programme-maker had to ask whether or not a documentary about the Sikh religion could do enough to reach a mass audience. The audience member was clearly not impressed with the answer to his question calling it a “cheap response,” and I have to say, I agree with him. For me, religious documentaries should be representing all religious groups.

Perhaps that’s what is going wrong with religious programming? It is pessimistic to assume, for example, that a Sikh documentary would only attract Sikhs who make up just 1% of the UK population. For me, religious documentaries, like all documentaries need to represent society in its widest sense – representing diverse religious groups. Perhaps this is what’s needed – a variety of religious documentaries in order to reach a mass audience. The world needs to be more knowledgeable and exposed to a wider range of faiths. In this way, it could remove the taboo of the subject and make people less ignorant towards minority groups.

Our thanks to Lucy for writing this blog and for her invaluable contribution towards publicising the Trust’s Sheff Doc/Fest session on social media.  As well as recording the vox pop with delegates, Lucy live-tweeted the session.  If you’d like to tell us what you think of religious documentaries you can comment here, tweet us @sandfordawards or visit our Facebook page.

A full audio recording of the Trust’s Sheffield Doc/Fest session can be heard here

Hurrah for Children’s Religious Programmes!

This year the Sandford St Martin Trust launched a new award for Children’s broadcasting.  Sharmini Selvarajah, formerly with the Sutton Trust and a freelance broadcaster and journalist, was one of those media professionals invited to help hone a shortlist from the many excellent entries.  She writes here about the experience.

As a child I thought about religion more than average. My family included Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics, Anglicans and Buddhists, and, thanks to this, I had direct experience of different customs and festivals. But growing up in 1980s Britain, I’m not sure if the same could be said of many of my contemporaries.

Religious Education – or RE – consisted of learning scriptures off by heart or illustrating Bible stories. And although I was interested in religion throughout my childhood and teenage years, I don’t remember ever being engaged with religious ideas at school, or through the mainstream media.

Shortlisting entries for the new Sandford St Martin Children’s Prize has shown me how much things have changed though. The experience opened my eyes to the diversity and quality of children’s broadcasting on religious issues. Unlike the worthy, and usually boring, videos we were shown at school, these entries spoke directly to young people, informing them without being patronising.

I was particularly impressed with the high production values of many of the submissions. It’s true that some came from big production companies, but many of the specialist films aimed at schools were beautifully made with limited resources.

There was also a welcome diversity within the programmes, with subjects including Hanukkah, Bible stories, Humanism and even an exploration of Ji’had. In addition to explicitly religious themes, there were also entries which dealt less directly with ethical issues. These programmes were particularly interesting, though often hard to judge. Not all met the criteria of the Award, to include a “strong religious or spiritual element”, but those which did were inspiring. They demonstrated that religious themes can be effectively included in mainstream programming for young people.

I watched and listened to many of the entries with my three children, and took on board their comments when making decisions. Seeing their enjoyment and engagement with the process convinced me that the days of poorly produced, unimaginative, religious programming for children are long gone.

Sounds Jewish, Sounds Religious?

Over the past decade Poland has been experiencing what many people are calling a “Jewish revival” – fuelled in large part by a growing number of young people who are discovering their religious roots.  In 2014 Denise Grollmus and Sarah Peters won a Sandford St Martin Award for their moving and inventive podcast based on Denise’s own exploraton of her Polish-Jewish identity.  Here Denise reflects on the experience and her reaction when she found out her podcast had been nominated for a religious broadcasting award.

When Sarah Peters, the producer of Sounds Jewish, told me our podcast, “The Jewish Revival in Poland,” was nominated for a prestigious broadcasting award, I was definitely flattered and excited. But I was also a bit confused. The Sandford St. Martin Trust is dedicated to promoting religious broadcasting. Why, then, had we been nominated?

            First, as an American, I have a very specific and unflattering understanding of religious broadcasting. To me, religious broadcasting is little more than the corrupt world of televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham—men with bad toupees who preach fire and brimstone and promises of salvation in order to terrorize their viewers and listeners into parting with their savings. I knew that world well after I reported on Rex Humbard, the father of televangelism, in 2007. The title of my story was “Jesus for Sale,” which exactly encapsulated what I thought religious broadcasting was.

            Of course, that is a severely limited and unfair definition of what religious broadcasting is and can be. But even in a broader sense, our podcast still didn’t strike me as particularly “religious.” Though the piece we made was by and about Jews for a program funded by the London Jewish Community Centre (JCC) called Sounds Jewish, I understood our podcast as a strictly cultural piece of narrative journalism for a general audience of international listeners of all faiths and backgrounds. Not only is Sounds Jewish produced for The Guardian, but also our piece was interested in Jewishness not from a strictly religious perspective, but from a more complex understanding of what Jewishness is as a cultural, historical, religious, ethnic, and sometimes national identity that can not be limited to any one category. Furthermore, our piece wasn’t interested in Judaism generally, but in the reemergence of Jewish life and culture in Poland specifically.

It was also a piece about me. And I’d describe myself as anything but religious.

In fact, my religious background is incredibly complicated. While I was raised Catholic, it was the discovery of my grandmother’s (and therefore my own) Jewishness that had brought me to Poland in the first place. Like many of the Poles I’d interviewed, I, too, had stumbled across my own Polish Jewish roots late in life. My maternal grandmother, who had been born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, had gone into hiding, changing her name and her identity, so that she could survive the war. Even after the war was over, she decided to keep her Jewish identity a secret from our family until I was 28 years old. Ever since she told us the truth about who she was, I’d been obsessed with my family history, the history of the Polish Jews, and the revival of Jewish life in Poland, where I found a community of people just like me.

That’s also how I’d found myself living in Warsaw on a Fulbright grant in order to research and write about this cultural phenomenon. I had been living in Warsaw for seven months when Sarah first contacted me. She had read a story I’d written for Tablet Magazine about Poland’s Jewish revival—a piece that coincidentally did focus more specifically on the religious aspect of this much larger story. There was a chance, she said, that she was coming to Poland to do a story on the subject and she wanted me to tell her more. As we talked for nearly an hour about adult Hebrew schools and contemporary Polish perspectives on the Jews, Sarah asked how and when I’d become interested in this topic. That’s when I had to admit that my investment wasn’t purely academic or journalistic. It was personal. When I was done telling her my family’s story, the line went silent. “You should present the podcast. You should tell it through the lens of your family’s story,” Sarah said.

            Two weeks later, Sarah and I met in Krakow, where we worked 15-hour days interviewing everyone who was willing to speak to us, and then headed to Warsaw to do the same, until we had more than 30 hours of audio. It was very important for us to cover all the nuances of this very complicated story—one with ties not only to the Holocaust, but also to Communism and the fact that Poland was once home to the largest Jewish communities in the world. We wanted listeners to understand the historical conditions by which the Jews had all but disappeared from Polish life and then exactly how Jewish life began to reemerge. We interviewed not only the Head Rabbi of Poland and members of the JCC Krakow, but also non-Jewish Poles who had made it their life’s work to revive and preserve Poland’s rich Jewish history and cultural legacy. We never conceived of it as a story about religion, but as a socio-historical story about trauma, inheritance, and healing.

            Our podcast was posted online on June 5, 2013—the same week that The Guardian was making waves for its reporting on Edward Snowden. Even in the shadows of such huge breaking news, I was extremely proud of what we’d made and I was glad that it was in the world so that anyone could hear it. A month later, I returned to the United States, where my time in Poland often felt like little more than a dream. Then, almost a year later, Sarah wrote me with the news that we’d been nominated for a Sandford St. Martin Trust Award, which we eventually won for the “Best Local, Community, and Online” program.

Despite my initial misgivings about our podcast being defined as “religious,” I eventually embraced such an understanding of our work. It wasn’t simply the fact that we won, but also, after much thought, I finally realized how important it was to understand what religious broadcasting could be in a much broader sense. In today’s world, we sometimes emphasize the absolute divide between the secular and religious to a fault. In fact, much of what we understand as “secular” or “non-religious” has a crucial religious dimension that we willfully ignore in our attempt to see ourselves as rational actors beyond the hocus pocus of religious belief. We fear that by acknowledging the ways in which our behavior, our history, or our beliefs might be implicated in religious thought and traditions, we might be revealed as unenlightened, medieval, or irrational.

But ultimately, what I’ve learned through my own research is that culture is almost always implicated in the religious, both good and bad. To deny this fact is to ignore the whole truth of who we are and where we’ve come from, as well as to perpetuate some of the more unseemly prejudices and behaviors that we’ve inherited from religious practice. After all, though Communist thought insisted on its opposition to religious belief, the exile of Poland’s remaining Jewish community by Poland’s Communist government was not unlike those exiles perpetuated the Catholic Church in previous centuries.

To that end, winning a Sandford St. Martin Trust Award was much more than an honor or a professional accolade. It also offered me the chance to interrogate my false assumptions about what we deem as religious or not. Just as our podcast revealed, things are not always what they seem and it is in what is not immediately obvious that we learn the most about who we are.

Don’t forget, the 2015 Sandford Awards  – for programmes that explore who we are, where we come from and the role that religion can play in our lives – are now open for entries. 

You can listen to Denise’s 2014 Award-winning programme here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/audio/2013/jun/05/sounds-jewish-podcast-poland

Roger Bolton - Radio's Resurrection

Atheism is in crisis

Atheism is in crisis, not least because it fails to satisfy human needs.

This may seem a questionable statement given the success of the atheist author Richard Dawkins, but it’s beginning to occur to many of his readers that the God of the Old Testament which he so vigorously debunks, is not believed in by most Christians, Jews or Muslims today. He is demolishing a straw man.

And the consequences of discarding God are worrying the most unlikely people, some leading atheists.

In a remarkable article for the weekly magazine The Spectator the atheist, Douglas Murray, faced up to the difficulties involved: “The greatest challenge in the atheist argument,” he wrote, is that “contra most atheists, ethics are self evidently not self evident”.

As he pointed out: “We should look back only a century when entire schools of very intelligent non-believers could discern no moral objections to eugenics.”

“We may have to accept,” he said “that the sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian concept which might very easily not survive Judeo Christian civilisation. Those who do not believe in God and who stare over that cliff,” he went on “may realise that only three options remain open to us.

The first option is to fall into the furnace.

Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.

If that does not work, then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.”

In the same edition of The Spectator Theo Hobson writes that “the energetic universalism of modern humanism is rooted in Christianity”. He quotes the Marxist author. Terry Eagleton. as saying that “rational humanism is rooted in the Protestant passion for reform,” and he refers to the point made by American writer, Marilynne Robinson, in relation to the US Declaration of Independence. She writes:

“Is it self evident that all are created equal? Only in a religious conception. Jefferson makes the human person sacred and thereby sets  human rights outside the reach of rationalization.”

The most moving account of this disillusion with atheism which I have read is contained in the latest book by one of our foremost writers, Julian Barnes.

In Levels of Life, which concerns the death of his much loved wife in 2008,

Barnes reveals that his devastating loss has made him inconsolable. He writes:

“When we killed – or exiled – God, we also killed ourselves. Did we notice that sufficiently at the time?

No God,

no afterlife,

no us.

We were right to kill Him of course, this long-standing imaginary friend of ours. And we weren’t going to get an afterlife anyway.

But we sawed off the branch we were sitting on.

And the view from there – even if it was only the illusion of a view – wasn’t so bad”.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I went down last month to Hay on Wye, on the borders of England and Wales, to chair some debates organised by The Institute of Arts and Ideas which coexists with the Book Festival there. Religion was not directly mentioned and the organisers are mostly atheists.

They like to be provocative in their choice of subjects for debate.

One took as the question to be addressed: “Can neuroscience settle philosophical debates about the mind”.

The three members of the panel were a cognitive scientist, a philosopher of mind and language, and a neurobiologist. None were religious. Their answer was a resounding “no”. Neuroscience cannot settle debates about the mind.

The neuroscientist Professor Stephen Rose said that “we are not just a bunch of neurons”, that the brain is the servant of the mind and that we are nowhere near understanding how the mind functions. He said that 93% of brain scans, for example, were pointless. He later upped that to 98%

All three panellists agreed that neuroscience was in crisis, engaged in “scientific fishing expeditions”, without theories to investigate. The early hopes that we might understand consciousness for example were in shreds.

The mind remains a mystery.

A second debate also addressed a provocative question. Under the heading “Beyond Good and Evil” it asked: “Is Morality an instinct.”

The panel consisted of a philosopher, a neuroscientist and a Professor of Bioethics. Again, none were religious. To the likely disappointment of the organisers the answer came back in the negative… No, morality is not an instinct.

One panellist said that instinct played a part in some moral decisions but the Professor of Bioethics, John Harris, was insistent that  “Morality is a matter of rational reflection and judgement, not instinct.” When I pressed him to say where concepts of good and evil and equality came from, he did not seem to me to have a clear answer.

The point I am making is not that religion is winning the argument against atheism but that it is very much in the ring and that its opponent is experiencing a great deal of self doubt, perhaps even exhaustion. Atheism does not have answers to some of the most important existential questions, and cannot satisfy our spiritual needs.