Age Old Battle between Atheists and Christians; Controversy over Christianity Is Raging Again. Dan O'Neill Takes a Look at the Latest Row over Religion
Byline: Dan O'Neill
HIS name was George M Woodcock and I met him years ago in Manchester, attracted by the banners he carried proclaiming GOD IS A LIE, the cardboard notice stuck to his hat announcing ATHEISM IS THE TRUTH, and also by the fact that he could bellow his beliefs without ever dislodging the last half-inch of Woodbine glued to his lower lip.
George was 80 years old and, he proudly boasted, the only full-time atheist missionary in Britain.
He stood four days a week in the centre of Manchester, bringing the Message, banners flapping, fag smouldering, and he had local fundamentalists chewing their dog collars with fury.
These gents warned passers-by to stay away from George. At any moment, the divine thunderbolt would smack down, an apocalyptic shot across the bows, reducing him to a pile of ashes.
George replied that Manchester weather was such that even a high-grade thunderbolt could have a perfectly natural explanation. It would take, he mused, at least a large reproving finger wagging down from the clouds to get him back into the fold, yelling his ``Hallelujahs'' with the rest of the saved.
George died years ago and, because he would doubtless have turned down St Peter's invitation to pass through the Pearly Gates on the grounds that the whole thing was an illusion, he will not be looking down today on the controversy concerning his beliefs - or maybe, lack of them.
He preached to only a handful of bystanders each day: now we have 100 - count `em - 100 of Britain's brightest atheists (from George Melly to Harold Pinter) demanding equal time on the BBC's Thought for the Day, a potential audience of millions. But really, they don't need a platform. George would probably pack away his banners today at the sight of Christianity so frequently shooting itself in the foot, even in a country where only a tiny minority have any beliefs at all.
When George attended the Young Men's Bible Class in Salford at the turn of the century, God was that big, booming bloke with a beard along the lines of that sported by Uncle Albert in Fools and Horses.
Yet now we have the Rt Rev Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, who resents these chauvinistic claims that God is a He. …