Justin Welby: It’s time television treated religion seriously

"Religion is about the stuff of life. It's about people and communities, and what drives them," says the Archbishop of Canterbury

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Identity matters, not only for individuals, but for whole communities and countries. And we can only know who we are if we know where we have come from; and we can only shape the future if we know who we are now.

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Which is where religious broadcasting comes in. BBC Charter renewal, and questions about the ownership and purpose of Channel 4, have focused to some extent on the diversity of people who make up our islands and who constitute the audience of our great broadcasting institutions. But if diversity is to mean anything, it must mean more than differences in ethnicity or personal tastes. Despite easy assumptions of secularity, true diversity also means paying proper attention to religion.

After all, it is impossible to understand the world today without an understanding of religion. Not religion as an exercise in private piety that needs to be covered simply to keep some strange people happy, but because religion is a prime motivator of behaviour for both individuals and communities.

A religious commitment or worldview shapes ethical choices, political priorities, economic preferences and cultural expressions of whole societies. We cannot hope to understand why people do the things they do if we don’t understand what drives them.

As AA Gill wrote in 2014: “Religion has never been more tangible in world affairs and public life. Not having more sensible and serious religious broadcasting isn’t modern, it’s a failure to face modernity.”

Which is why the Sandford St Martin Trust is in good company in arguing for the BBC not only to inform, educate and entertain, but also 
to interpret. The White Paper proposes a reshaping of the BBC’s public purposes. Surely there must now be a place for religious literacy in there – to improve people’s understanding of the modern world.


Indeed, as the White Paper states, “the BBC should reflect the diversity of the UK both in its content and as an organisation. In doing so, the BBC should accurately and authentically represent and portray the lives of the people of the UK today, and raise awareness of the different cultures and alternative viewpoints that make up its society.” Religion stands at the heart of any notion of diversity.


And I support the case that the Trust is making that the promotion of religious literacy should be a specific duty for the BBC across its broadcasting services. In this context, recent debates are more than simply arcane arguments about economics, competition or even recipes. They raise important questions of media independence and proper accountability within the context of a public service remit unique on the planet.

For religion to be taken seriously there needs to be an improvement in religious literacy across the media. Commissioners, editors and producers are essential in this respect. Religion is about the stuff of life. It’s about people and communities, and what drives them. And, as has been argued before now, religion needs to be treated with the same seriousness as other genres like sport or politics, economics or drama. If anything, they should make an articulate case for more.

Or, as Ian Hislop put it in Radio Times in March 2014: “All programme-makers are ultimately looking for good stories to tell, and audiences are looking for good stories to watch. There are few richer repositories of stories than the world’s faiths and the extraordinary ways that human beings have attempted to find meaning through them.”

Amen to that.

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Justin Welby is the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. He will be celebrating the best of religious broadcasting at the 2016 Stanford St Martin Awards on 8 June, including the announcement of the winner of the RT Faith Award.