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Atheists and God cancellers



I must have time on my hands. I have been thinking about the difference between atheists and God cancellers. I love my atheist friends, of whom I am blessed with many. I relish the existential grist of our talks, the deep sense of substance and mutual respect. I also love the constant jokes. We keep each other honest. I enjoy a rich engagement with the history of thought and I believe we ennoble each other through the kind of trust that is prepared to talk about things that are off limits to others.

I call one of my dear atheist friends Mr Catheter. He is always taking the piss out of me. At the same time, he commiserates when my church kicks yet another own goal. For him, my pain is more significant than scoring points against an easy target. Our relationship reminds me a bit of Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, a beautiful book.

Another atheist friend of mine sometimes asks me to light a candle for her. She has a tough life. She does not believe in prayer at all. But, as she tells me, she does believe in my belief, meaning she is comforted that I perform a little ritual in which I am at home on her behalf.

God cancellers are different. I know a few of them too. They use mockery more than humour, ridicule more than bemusement. They have a superior attitude, as if believers must surely be less intelligent than they are, unable to see what is blinking obvious to them. They suspect we are insensitive to the pain caused by our church communities, not realising how bad that pain feels from the inside when you live with it day in and day out.

They accuse us of having all the answers when that is not what God is about at all. God, for me, is the creative love that exists beyond all love and beyond all creation and, for that matter, beyond easy words. Not a pet rock that makes me feel better.


'God cancellers, in my experience, are prone to accuse believers of their own intolerance and narrowness. They want us to go away.'


God cancellers, in my experience, are prone to accuse believers of their own intolerance and narrowness. They want us to go away.

May I offer a couple of comparisons to explain the difference, at least as I see it. Atheists, in my experience, often appreciate the beauty of sacred art and music. God cancellers, on the other hand, tend not to tolerate Christmas carols in public.

Atheists will acknowledge the good things done by religious communities, the hundreds and thousands of old and lonely people supported through the pandemic. God cancellers are irritated by any good news about church communities.

Atheists may ask about saying the Lord’s Prayer in parliament. This is a perfectly fair question, especially in an open society. Personally, I would not like to lose the Lord’s prayer until we can agree on an equally profound statement of existential humility and narrative of forgiveness. I very much appreciate the acknowledgement of country and think it should be on real estate contracts, as a matter of fact, where it might be more than symbolic. Does the prayer need to be Christian? Perhaps not. I happen to love the physical rhythm of Islamic prayer.

God cancellers, on the other hand, tend to want the religion question removed from the census. They want the census to be about the number of rooms in our houses and the level of our education. They see no need for us to be present to each other at a level deeper than that.

The religion question has plenty of room for people to be atheists or have no religion or not to answer. The days of people subscribing to the religion of their grandparents when it means little to them are long gone; I have not met anyone who has done this for years. We can all express whatever understanding we have worked hard to reach. Surely, we can embrace each other at that level without animosity. We are all struggling to make sense of our humanity. It is hardly a competition.


Michael McGirr’s new book, Ideas that saved my life, will be published in Spring by Text.



Michael McGirrMichael McGirr is the bestselling author of Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleep, Bypass and Things You Get for Free. He has reviewed almost one thousand books for various newspapers; his short fiction has appeared in Australian and overseas publications; and he has been a publisher of Eureka Street and fiction editor at Meanjin.

Topic tags: Michael McGirr, Atheists, God-cancellers, belief, Graham Greene, Census



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Existing comments

Every time I walk through the door of church it is a leap of faith. It's personal, it's imperative and I have the certainty that alongside my brokenness is the brokenness of every other person who has walked through the door as well. The brokenness is the only thing I know for sure about my companions. Maybe at this point I should quote from the bible, why not? Today I read from Isaiah 49:16 - "Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me." I'm not sure I could classify anyone I know as an atheist or God-canceller. Maybe some people wouldn't see what I see in that verse; that doesn't make me better, just different.

Pam | 10 August 2021  

I enjoyed the article and the author's thoroughly informed yet relaxed humanity. Anyone quoting Graham Greene's book of a sunny tragiccomedy pilgrimage through Spain hits bullseye for me. Ole

Rein Zeilstra | 10 August 2021  

Last night on Phillip Adans Late Night Live he interviewed the new head of Australian Humanists who was making a plea that people who did not attend religious services on a regular basis should tick " no religion ". She st s get several times she respected choice but millions of dollars should not be directed to Churches work and away from secular organizatuons . But she repeated the flawed definition that only church attenders qualified as religious which means 9% on recent counts . However as we all know most of the missing 91% are living their faith and values every day through family, personal example, workplaces and community activity. They have withdrawn from corporate religious model not faith and practice . The annual religious research survey shows the dichotomy between the last census figure of 61% and the belief in some form of supreme being as around 80% while many of our atheists and humanists are in search of an authentic faith as their 19th century forebears were . When God was declared dead it was God of the Ancien Regime to be replaced by the God the Roman Empire replaced and hid.

Wayne McGough | 10 August 2021  

A very good, thoughtful article. Thank you Michael

William Frilay | 10 August 2021  

Whether it is in Eureka Street, MADONNA or elsewhere I am always uplifted by my friend, Michael's insightful, sensible and faith-filled commentary. I eagerly await his new book in the spring, having been enthralled by all of his previous books.

(Bishop) Pat Power | 10 August 2021  

It's a matter of respect. People can endeavour to lead a decent life no matter what their faith or whether they have any faith. Those whom Michael McGirr refers to as God Cancellers lack respect for others and are indeed arrogant. Like fundamentalist religious people, who believe they have a special knowledge of God, God Cancellers know God doesn't exist. This certainty, either way, can be dangerous.

Anna | 10 August 2021  

Intelligent belief in God and how it is expressed are far more nuanced these days than many bitter sceptics imagine. If someone asked me 'Are you a Christian?' my answer would be 'What do you mean by Christian?' I had not conciously realised how deeply the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray (a Quaker by convincement); Emil Brunner (a Swiss Calvinist theologian) and Richard Holloway (formerly Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh) have influenced me. I first came across Macmurray and Brunner at Melbourne University. My friend John Alexander, Vice-Master of Ormond, had been deeply influenced by Macmurray, which was good. It helped me on the way. Mentorship is good. I think, if you have a good education in the Christian tradition and good mentorship, whether you temporarily leave the Church or not, you have a good foundation. Richard Holloway has copped much vilification, often by people who have not read him. I think they are decidedly off target. He has a deeper, more vibrant living faith than many more supposedly orthodox Christians.

Edward Fido | 10 August 2021  

A mathematician, name of Gödel proved that in a consistent mathematical system, statements can be made validly in that system which cannot be proved in that system. In other words, Truth does not imply Proof. Mathematics declares itself to be agnostic. Too often, God cancellers, like Dawkins, think that atheism is the only legitimate position for a scientist. But, really, science is agnostic. To Science, the existence of God is an open question which it cannot by its nature (and Gödel's theorem) answer. But, people are not subject to scientific ideas, but have a personal belief or not or disbelief as the case may be.

Peter Horan | 11 August 2021  

Thank you Michael. A lovely exposition on positions! For me atheists have thought out a position and are comfortable there (yet happily still pondering as the conversations with your friends attest). God cancellers are being poked in places where they are not comfortable and respond by attacking. Jorie

Jorie Ryan | 11 August 2021  

An excellent categorization, Michael. Like yourself, I have friends who are atheists, but I don't personally know any God cancellers. There are plenty out there, in both printed and digital media. Such certainty; such arrogance! My memory reverts immediately to probably the best known British God cancellers - Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Ian Fraser | 11 August 2021  

Interesting argument with some sweetly agreeable responses! My reflection, however, takes me to a television program I watched recently in which Alan Jones of Sky News interviewed Archbishop Anthony Fisher. This was a pre-arranged interview by News Ltd/Murdoch Press which has a very deliberate conservative policy agenda. Prior to the interview, 'The Australian' (also owned by News Ltd/Murdoch Press) carried an article by Archbishop Fisher arguing that because so many Australians involve themselves in good works, our's must be a 'religious' society with a great many believing, if non-'practicing', citizens. I regard this as a solipsism that invites the kind of extreme reaction demonstrated by Michael McGirr's 'God-Cancellers'. The field of Ethics has many atheists and to attribute to them, while hidden from them, the surreptitious influence of a God, is as likely to enrage as it is to engage. Archbishop Fisher has allied himself, accordingly, with a group of God-Cancellers who are, as it were, from within the tent and who are every bit as guilty of cancelling God as Michael's target in these columns. Personally I disapprove of 'cancel-culture' as an abusive term, which Andrew Hamilton has argued against in ES. Michael's description differentiates between agnostics and atheists.

Michael Furtado | 11 August 2021  

Hello Michael: Let’s in our imagination go to an alternative world where the white cat is black and the black cat is white. Let’s imagine a poem by an atheist about his good-people friends, the theists, and bad-people friends, the godismists. The theists being good people accept our writer as he is. The godismsist, being bad people, use mockery more than humour, ridicule more than bemusement. They have a superior attitude, as if unbelievers must surely be less intelligent than they are, unable to see what is blinking obvious to them. I wonder how different is the poem of our atheist writer in the alternative world to your essay in our world? For me though it is not really so much a thing of fantasy. For me it has been a living experience. Back in the 70’s, when I joined the exodus as a young person that’s what I copped from the godismists - most were catholic priests. I could quote what was said of me but it would rightly be censored because it was foul-mouthed. For the godismists it always had something to do with my sexuality?

Fosco | 11 August 2021  

As Michael McGirr indicates well, there are atheists and there are atheists, and usually it's not hard to tell the difference. Thirty years ago I had a Frankfurt-educated Marxist colleague, who, on an overseas school exchange trip insisted that Sunday Mass and church services be included in the itinerary; and who, when we reached Cologne in what, all over Europe, was a "white winter", sternly admonished students who had proceeded to crush the ice in the cathedral's holy water fonts and use them as snowballs. God rest your soul, RHN.

John RD | 12 August 2021  

Christ said, “I am the way the truth and the life.” Truth is what is important, particularly in an age of fashionable, but toxic, ideas.
And who is an atheist anyway? Some years ago, the self-proclaimed atheist, Richard Dawkins, insisted that the ex-nun and prolific writer on religion, Karen Armstrong, was actually an atheist, even though she didn’t know it. The theologian Albert Mohler also found Armstrong’s arguments were “superficial and theologically reckless” and “elegant nonsense”, and he agree with Dawkins that Armstrong was an atheist.
I think St Edith Stein got it right: “When you seek the truth, you seek God whether you know it or not.”

Ross Howard | 12 August 2021  

I have a friend I've known for most of my life. He was born and raised a Catholic but as soon as he 'acquired the philosophical tools' he rejected any notion of God. It is hard to have a meaningful conversation with him because I don't have countering 'philosophical tools'. It means that he's often dismissive about my perspective, wrapping it in cliche's like 'the god of the gaps'. This does come across as arrogance, but I think he'd see it as 'being clear' or 'been there, done that ... not interested in going there again'.

Tony Carey | 13 August 2021  

If I were invited to spend an hour in conversation with an atheist of my choosing, it would surely be 'The Ancient Broadcaster' himself, Phillip Adams. His occasional pronouncements on RN's LNL on the human need to find meaning in an essentially meaningless universe are honest and nuanced and capture the Theism-Nihilism dichotomy perfectly. And then, he is able to spend an evening on The Little Wireless Programme with Dr Rowan Williams and Mary Zournazi in a fascinating - and sometimes moving - discussion. Kudos to them all! The file is still available for download on the LateNightLive website.

Richard Jupp | 13 August 2021  

Thank you Michael.
Give me an atheist to converse with any day.
God cancellers generally seem to be well acquainted with fear, that most corrosive state which is currently running the country it would appear.

Tess | 14 August 2021  

Thanks Michael. The question arises as to why some feel the necessity to bag religion and theology. It would be good for the believers to interrogate the hatred they invoke. A couple of things occur; Hillsong Church makes millions and pays no tax. Catholic private schools get lots when there are poor public schools-and that student investment gains an elite network for the price of tuition. People searching for absolutes replace science as religion and are not sure whether they did the 'right thing' so they are defensive. Many have suffered at the hands of religious organizations and feel aggrieved. Some resent the fact they were taught nonsense in place of sound spirituality or common sense. Then there is the arrogance of many believers who persecute anyone who leaves their sect and who need people to look down on.

Michael D. Breen | 16 August 2021  
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Like logs and splinters. It's too easy for believers to dismiss the atheist and the 'God-canceller' as being beyond the pale and lesser breeds without the law. It's much more difficult to interrogate what organised religion might have contributed to their current positions.

Ginger Meggs | 20 August 2021  

Richard Dawkins, as Ross Howard infers, has become the High Priest of Atheism, with a PR machine that's sharper and more ruthless than the Vatican. Oxbridge scoffers, like him, are like their Parkville and Newtown clones. Middle England and Middle Australia ignore them. The problem comes when they, or their neo-Marxist or Trotskyite friends try to get their ideas and practices into the schools, first the state system. I remember, in the 1960s, when Melbourne High School had Principals like Bill Woodfull, a devout and practicing Methodist and the school had an active Christian group, led by masters who believed. This would be not on now. A Christian Principal would need to keep his/her mouth firmly shut on matters of religion. No Christian teaching in school hours. What a crying shame! Are prayers now banned at the annual Anzac Day Service? MHSOBs have been prominent in the Armed Forces and Church leadership. One of our Chaplains at Melbourne Grammar School, the Rev'd John Brown, was a MHSOB. Andrew Curnow, once a suffragan bishop in Melbourne, then Bishop of Bendigo, sent his son to MHS. Many ex-GPS men did. They felt their alma maters 'elitist'.

Edward Fido | 16 August 2021  

My experience is that many of the agnostics and atheists that I know are far better Christians than the Catholics that I was surrounded by growing up. And when one contemplates the stone cold indifference of the hierarchy to debate, women's rights, laity rights, social change and to cleaning out the mire in their stables, from outside the doors they should be taken for exactly what they are: a bunch of political power hungry poseurs who occasionally emerge from the shadows of their stone mansions when they need to pick the pockets of the faithful.

Francis Armstrong | 17 August 2021  

Michael unlike many Catholics and "born agains" it has been my misfortune to encounter, many atheists and agnostics I have known are far better Christians than the proclaimers in the way they live their lives. The church is riddled with hypocrites.

Francis Armstrong | 18 August 2021  

Which is the greater threat to the Great Commission, censorship by decorum or the permission given to Christians by the canceller to reciprocate with an equivalent vigour? Sin and redemption are not conversations for polite society, which is why, by breaching decorum to assail the apparent superstitious stupidity of Christians, cancellers are worth their weight in gold --- but only when a fight is taken up to them.

roy chen yee | 20 August 2021  
Show Responses

An original but - coming from you - predictable insight, Roy; except to say that the Church's teaching on Justice and Peace is encased in a kind of triangle that includes Love, which when wielded by you takes on the brutalist form of a sledge-hammer, thereby blatantly countering the spirit of the Great Commission, which is always to ensure coherence between intention and method and which invariably confuses your position - a tragic outcome in my view for the destructive impact of your verbal assaults - with that of the enemies of Christ. A pity THAT, in terms of its waste of your incalculably lavish personal gift, as well as for harnessing an immense human resource for these columns, especially when you are so unswervingly wedded to spreading Christ's Gospel!

Michael Furtado | 28 August 2021  

‘An original but…predictable insight….’ No such thing. If the insight is original, it’s not predictable. If it’s predictable, it’s not original. If this is the kind of logic on which you build your posts, they must be houses on sand. I’ll go with predictable. That means there are others with the same thought, that noisy cancellers are better for the Great Commission than those who smilingly put their finger to their mouth to signal decorum.

roy chen yee | 30 August 2021  

The Church (and that would include all denominations) may indeed be 'riddled with hypocrites', Francis Armstrong. There have been recent appointments in both the Anglican and Catholic Churches which have horrified me, because I knew the people. Many people leave the Church because of these. Chaucer summed it up well with the range of clerical characters he presented in 'The Canterbury Tales'. I believe there are places which try to turn out mature, discerning Christians. Xavier College in Kew is one. I would imagine Newman College at Melbourne University under Frank Brennan is another (I was at Trinity and don't know Newman that well, but I do know Xavier). Unfortunately, we have the reflex, unthinking authoritarianism in many bishops which stifles good priests - an absolute necessity for Church revival. Look what they did in forcing Bob Maguire's retirement. A bishop in southern England recently resigned because his clergy had lost confidence in him. He was Anglican. I wish some of our Catholic bishops here would note his example.

Edward Fido | 06 September 2021  

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