Most of what Archbishop Phillip Wilson of the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference has to say in his statement about the axing of The Religion Report is sensible. He points out that according to the 2006 census, 70% of Australians identify themselves with a religion, which doesn’t imply that 70% of Australians are ululating fundies, but does suggest “in theory at least, seven in 10 people will have a nominal interest in seeing, hearing or reading about matters of religion.” He notes the following that The Religion Report appeared to have garnered among atheists and agnostics, judging by the online response to the axing of the programme. Religion is socially relevant, he argues, because it “calls for engagement with one’s neighbour, and in the Christian tradition from which I come, this has meant that for more than 2000 years, religion has been at the forefront of public discussion.”
I would add at this point that “engagement with one’s neighbour” hasn’t always taken on benign manifestations, as many an apostate, backslider or outgrouper who has lived to tell the tale can attest. Still, the Archbishop’s point stands. Religion is relevant to theists and non-theists alike, albeit (at least in some cases) for different reasons, and therefore it is newsworthy.
Therefore it merits the professional, journalistic treatment that Crittenden’s programme provided (well, most of the time).
The Archbishop also decries the shift from specialist to generalist programming on RN that the reshuffle heralds. I’m not sure where he is getting this from, given the craven and mealy-mouthed defence of the reshuffle that Mark Scott has provided thus far. ABC management refuses to go into much detail about the new line-up—we know that some existing programs will be moved into the 830am slots, and a new program “will focus on current world trends of globalisation, communication technologies and the shifting cultural, social, political and economic responses.” And in the spirit of accountability to the taxpayer, ABC management refuses to make public the reasons for the RN axings.
And by arguing that, as with politics or economics, “when it comes to thorough analysis and deeper reflection on questions of religion, specialised knowledge is required,” Wilson seems to imply that Crittenden himself is an expert. I’m not aware that he is. His soon-to-be-expunged bio at the soon-to-be-expunged Religion Report website tells us that he has worked in a variety of portfolios during his tenure at the ABC, including current affairs and the arts. While I don’t think that Crittenden needs to be an expert in order to helm a programme like The Religion Report (though it certainly would help), if he has any qualifications in this area, let me know.
I can’t really go along with his appeal to popularity argument, either. 7 out of 10 Australians may have some religious affiliation, and may therefore potentiall be interested in religious reporting. But this populist tack undercuts his more reasonable point that “we can get more than enough of the latest celebrity gossip or political PR manoeuvrings via other outlets,” and that “without the commercial imperatives of its competitors, the ABC is not only free to put more resources into less populist areas, but it has an obligation to do so.” The proportion of the general public with a theoretical interest in philosophy, psychology or linguistics is probably several orders of magnitude smaller than the market for religious reportage . . . but that isn’t an argument—given the ABC’s charter—for scrapping The Philosopher’s Zone, All In The Mind, or Lingua Franca.
It’s his opening statement, however, that really grates. There is no doubt, he asserts, that “there are many secularists who are cheering to hear that their eight cents a day will no longer be going into funding Radio National’s The Religion Report.” This is a rather bigoted claim, based on the assumption that if one is a secularist—that is, if one supports the separation of church and state—one is by definition opposed to any mention of religion in the public sphere. There is a very good reason why secularists might have issues with a programme like The Spirit of Things: it proselytises for belief in belief. There is no reason to assume, on the other hand, that secularists will automatically oppose a programme like The Religion Report. Certainly we will protest if the presenter steps over the line into parochialism, as Crittenden sometimes did. But there is a clear difference between reporting on religion and preaching, and there is no reason—other than ignorance or prejudice—to presuppose that secularists are unable to recognise this distinction.