Militant atheist Dr Merlin Godfrey has a habit of insulting clergymen

There are those who maintain that Godfrey's stand against religion is compromised by his not so much disbelieving in God as regarding Him as a personal enemy

Dj Taylor
Saturday 14 November 2015 23:56
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Illustration by Silje Eirin Aure
Illustration by Silje Eirin Aure

If not quite in the topmost echelon of militant atheists alongside Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling, Dr Godfrey occupies a comfortable niche in one of the upper ranks. As well as being vice-chair of the National Secularist League, he is also the author of a combative paperback entitled Faithlessly Yours, can often be found in the newspapers complaining about Church of England primary schools, Songs of Praise and the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, and once caused a sensation on a Radio Four phone-in programme by describing Rowan Williams as "a dismal fantasist".

Professionally, Dr Godfrey is employed to teach philosophy at the University of Loamshire, but it cannot be said that his students see a great deal of him. There was even talk, once, of a piece of graffiti found on the wall of a student urinal that read: "What is the difference between Merlin Godfrey and God? God is everywhere. Godfrey is everywhere but here." On the other hand, the university is glad of the publicity brought by this extracurricular profile, and the vice-chancellor is thought to have remarked that one of his appearances on Any Questions? was worth any number of first-class degrees.

Casual observers often contrast the vigour of Dr Godfrey's rhetoric with the innocuousness of his personal life. Sprung from the TV studio or the radio forum, he is revealed as a small and somewhat diffident man, much given to pipes and patterned waistcoats and supposed to be deeply in thrall to his younger (and taller) wife. Still, there is no doubting his moral courage – if that is the right description for his habit of insulting clergymen in public debate – or his capacity for hard work: no editor of a Sunday newspaper, telephoning in desperation for 800 words on a Saturday lunchtime, finds him anywhere other than at his desk.

Odd as it may seem, Dr Godfrey is not without detractors. The critics who allege he is merely a self-publicist are no doubt motivated by jealousy. But there are those who maintain that his stand against religion is compromised by his not so much disbelieving in God as regarding Him as a personal enemy. Then again, he is sometimes charged with attributing excess significance to such equally unprovable entities as "everyday common sense". His students, on the other hand, are more inclined to lament his complete lack of humour.

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