Contributors to Thought for the Day mustn't attack the beliefs of others. It's a basic BBC rule. This is not a place where Christians can fire pot shots at Hindus or Muslims have a go at Judaism. Which is why it's just not appropriate for atheists. Not that they haven't important things to say. The problem is that atheism is defined by what it's against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of "againstness" would fundamentally alter TftD's character.
The claim that “atheism is defined by what it's against” is true as it stands, but when he goes on to add that “atheism is parasitic upon religious belief, united only by what it is against”, we can see that he’s tiptoeing into rather different territory. It’s correct that none of us atheists would talk much about our atheism – or even think of ourselves as atheists – if there weren’t so many theists around.
But the fact that I don’t believe in goblins plays no part in my self-conception, it doesn’t inform anything I say or do. This is because nobody else believes in goblins. If lots of people did, then I would find myself in discussion taking an agoblinist position is response to the goblinism that so befuddled society.
My conscious public agoblinist stance would indeed be parasitic upon the conscious public goblinism that I found myself facing.
Likewise with theism. Were it confined to a few schizophrenics or children, I’d barely give it a moment’s thought. But no: I believe a great many people to be mistaken on this point, so it’s hardly surprising for me to pipe up on the subject.
Now, while atheism as a belief (not a belief system, it’s just ‘there are no gods’) is defined by what it’s against, atheists as people have a whole panoply of moral, social, cultural and political beliefs – with much greater scope for variation than among a group of theists who all adhere to the same creed (theistic religion is far more than a mere belief in a god). Most of an atheist’s beliefs will not reference the idea of god at all, so perfectly non-negative points of view can be offered.
Indeed, there’s nothing in the atheist rulebook (I could end this sentence there, of course) to say that we must dislike religion. Just as a Christian may applaud other faiths for various reasons, so may we.
Fraser recalls an occasion when “Richard Dawkins was offered a slot to experiment with a secular TftD” – with a predictably anti-religious result that proves nothing about what atheists have to say about moral issues.
To discuss moral issues without reference to the supernatural is not only possible but easy, with scope for a spectacular variety of thought. It’s like practising medicine without the use of leeches: you might use antibiotics or radiotherapy or bandages or scalpels or homeopathy or chanting. You’ll get a range of results, but mostly the doctors won’t stand around talking about how useless leeches are until the patient bleeds to death.
An atheist Thought for the Day would, I think, have much the same blend of wisdom, banality, woolliness and and worthiness as most of the religious ones do - but different flavours of each.