Prime Time Godlessness: Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the Rise of American Atheists
We atheists have a fascinating habit of eating our elders. We huddle behind them during the bad times, letting them fight in our name and suffer the consequences, and then we push them into the nearest ditch during the good times, expressing embarrassment at the combativeness that made our age of more genteel atheism possible.
I know I’ve been guilty of this, my stripe of armchair philosophical humanism often quailing before any more aggressive brand of atheism that, you know, does things.
As such, there seems nobody I am less qualified to talk about than Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), the “Most Hated Woman in America,” who fought harder at longer odds and in terms more abrasive and sensational than perhaps anybody in the atheist pantheon. She was brash and litigious and dictatorial, brow-beating fellow atheists into toeing her line and perpetuating all of the nation’s worst fears about what atheism did to an individual’s character.
And yet, in many ways O’Hair was so unlikable that it is virtually impossible not to like her. She was brave to the point of recklessness, a woman afraid of nothing in a movement filled with people who would really rather be left anonymous, thank you very much. The frustration of a person of action, faced with a mass of individuals who allowed their rights to be trampled in order to “blend in” is palpable in her every outburst. How can they expect things to ever get better if they never stand up for themselves? How will religion ever release its hold on public institutions if nobody legally challenges its triumphal procession?
In the 1950s, during America’s great communist scare, there was a concerted effort to lump atheism with communism as the great enemy of the American way of life. President Eisenhower, in a flurry of panic that the devil was at the gates, slapped God and Jesus onto everything that wasn’t nailed down, including the currency, the Pledge of Allegiance, and morning prayer meetings. It was rhetorically impossible in that age to be a good American and an atheist, and the surest way to reveal a community’s dark heart was to unveil a nonbeliever in its midst, an exercise in inevitable mob brutality that O’Hair was to experience first-hand.
She had lost her belief in God at the age of fourteen when, dreadful thing, she actually read the Bible from cover to cover and felt nauseated at its basic immorality. From then until the age of forty-one, when she made atheism the overriding focus of her life, she essentially drifted, from school to school, job to job, and lover to lover. During World War II, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and served in Italy in the cryptography department, only to descend to a series of secretarial jobs after the war, with two children born out of wedlock to different fathers to make her social situation that much more impossible to bear.
She was smart but had trouble putting the finishing touches on her formal education to get the degrees she had essentially earned. She was independent but deeply needed to be loved, and that led her into a succession of unsuccessful relationships and notorious single motherhood. She didn’t believe in God but permitted her children to be baptized to make her parents happy. And in spite of all her talents, her combativeness prevented her from holding down steady employment, meaning she had to live with those parents well into adulthood.
And then, all at once, she was done with being pushed around by circumstance, her formidable will crystallizing around a single identifiable issue. Her son, William, was complaining about being compelled to say morning prayers at his Baltimore public school even though he didn’t believe in Christianity. Unlike the many amorphous tides of fate that had been pushing O’Hair’s life up to then, here was something that could be fought, and she plunged into the battle with heedless abandon, suing the school district for unconstitutionally promoting the Christian religion in clear violation of the Establishment Clause.
The Baltimore community reacted with a wicked and instinctive violence, breaking all the windows in her house, slashing her tires, pelting her sons with stones, looking the other way while they were beaten in the street, shooting at her home, killing her pets, and sending her letters filled with perverted torture dreams of what her neighbors would do to her if she persisted in her suit. Other freethinking organizations kept their distance in a pattern that would haunt O’Hair’s life, letting her take the brunt of the shame for bringing the suit while benefiting fully from her victory should she win.
And she did win. In the landmark 1963 Murray v. Curlett decision, the United States Supreme Court struck down the practice of allowing morning prayers in schools, launching O’Hair into national infamy as the woman who killed school prayer. She parlayed that infamy into a string of organizations that would ultimately become American Atheists. Tired of hiding behind innocuous-sounding organizations or alternative labels, O’Hair made the fateful decision to call her organization what it was, a band of atheists who sought to retard the encroachment of religion into the secular state. She scooped the term “atheist” from the gutter where McCarthyism had lobbed it and reclaimed it with a fierce pride that many found reckless and harmful but many others found inspiring.
It is hard for us to imagine today, when atheists, if not gleefully accepted in the arms of society are at least indifferently tolerated, how much of a difference it made to see “atheist” used by a public figure as a positive badge of self-identity, as something that denoted a jaunty sense of individualism and dedication to human good that thumbed its nose at the Christian horde in spite of their numerical superiority and perhaps even because of it. It was a big thing, and to many closet nonbelievers, it changed their lives.
It is a near impossible task to get fervent individualists effectively gathered in a group and pointed in the same direction. The minute a positive statement of identity is declared, they tend to head off in fifty different directions, erecting a hundred different splinter groups and accomplishing a thousand different degrees of nothing in the process. But by force of personality, a good degree of judicious lying about the size of her movement, and a fearless willingness to fight religion with law even when defeat was absolutely certain, she cobbled together not only the American Atheists society, but in time a magazine, a nationally broadcast atheist radio program and cable television show, a massive atheist library, and a financial structure that somehow supported three decades of constant legal battling. Like O’Hair or hate her, there’s no denying the scale of what she conjured from virtual nothing.
And as atheism started to look like a going affair, those who had hidden behind O’Hair when atheism carried the opprobrium of anti-American communism came out in the open and began questioning her leadership. And though it’s hard to say much good about the timing on that, their points weren’t always bad. Is it a good thing to fight so many court cases that are going to lose and thereby establish a precedent that will make it easier for religious organizations to win future cases? Is it wise to antagonize freethought or civil rights organizations that could be allies just because explicit atheism isn’t their sole motivation? Should we be spending so much money chasing after inheritances that we don’t really have a legitimate claim to?
O’Hair, perhaps understandably but ultimately to her detriment, figured that people who hadn’t had the courage to stand beside her when she was founding the movement ought not have a voice in reorganizing it now that it was successful. She kept on with the court cases, challenging the tax-exempt status of the church that cost American taxpayers millions a year in extra tax burden, fighting to remove references to God from currency and the Pledge of Allegiance, and protesting the requirement of religious oaths to office that were somehow still in place into the 1970s. She won rarely, and the cost was massive, but it established a tradition of atheist resistance to religious expansion, the necessity of which we see with every Good News Club that infiltrates the public school system today.
And that might have been the story—lawsuits and donation drives and radio appearances in an unbroken succession, were it not for one of the great acts of pure weak-willed selfishness in the history of humanism: the treachery of her son, William Murray. Let’s not sugar coat the frog, William Murray was a fuck up. He married three times and abandoned each wife when someone he temporarily liked better came along, abandoned his daughter to the care of his mother while he bounced around between various unfulfilling airport jobs, and descended steadily into alcoholism. He could never get his life straight: he conflated his personal failings with his philosophical beliefs and pushed the blame for his life’s direction on the latter so that he could continue ignoring the former. He found God and dedicated his life to slandering his mother, his brother, and daughter, condemning them to hell so that he could feel himself worthy of a second chance.
Many say he did it for the money, but I am genuinely convinced that he believed to the core the truth of his conversion. Blind to his own nature, he made his family a sacrifice to his desperate need for redemption, not realizing that a person who is willing to make such a sacrifice is by that act, fundamentally beyond any hope of redemption whatsoever. Whatever evil he sensed in himself as an atheist is still very much there as a Christian, and if you don’t believe it, just read absolutely anything he’s written since his conversion.
The betrayal hit O’Hair hard, and William’s overt need to challenge her at every front, to please his new masters by hurting his family, only deepened the wound. He would counter-protest events where he knew she would be, an act of spite that ought to have disgusted his newfound allies but of course didn’t. O’Hair’s dictatorial streak deepened, and she cut affiliates off ruthlessly for atheist heterodoxy. Her harshest words seemed to be not for “religionists” but for freethinkers who didn’t view the way forward as she did. (She once wrought to the editors of the Humanist, “You are a dying organization. …I am pleased and proud to say that I have been an instrument in your decline, and will continue to fight you more than religion, for you are the worst opponent,” and that was among her nicer communiqués.)
Tired of fighting and losing, worn out in body thanks to obesity and diabetes, and nearly collapsed in spirit after the religious resurgence characterized by the Reagan-Bush years, she railroaded the rise of her second son to the presidency of American Atheists and theoretically retired, publicly stating that the day was coming, and soon, when everything she had worked for was going to get wound back by conservative theocratization. But then, suddenly, she was gone. Madalyn, her son Jon, and her adopted daughter all disappeared, leaving their organization in a temporary shambles.
As it turned out, in a story so bizarre it has made O’Hair’s death an event that somehow eclipses the three decades of steady and thankless work that preceded it, the three had been kidnapped, made to pull as much money as they could from their organization, and then murdered and mutilated before being buried by a trio of twisted extortionists, one of whom had worked for O’Hair for a year. William, characteristically, had attempted to gain guardianship over their assets when they had gone missing, but dropped his efforts when he realized he might have to pay for attempts to find them.
The remains were eventually found and given over to William, who cremated them and buried them in an undisclosed location, refusing to pray for them because, he said, they couldn’t be prayed out of hell.
And that leaves us with Madalyn Murry O’Hair’s legacy. She said hateful things to people who did not in any way deserve it. She said hateful things to people who probably did. She lived for a good fight, pitting her grit against religion’s force of traditional inertia, and even when it was tacky, it was a challenge to bourgeois complacency that had to be noted and dealt with.
Unchallengeable assumptions were questioned and, if she often looked foolish in playing her irritating part, the raising of those questions has redounded ultimately to our good. Perhaps, by being so outrageous, so utterly hate-able on the public stage, she made the rest of our often overly academic ranks seem positively charming by comparison, making atheists as a group more likeable than we might have been had we not had such a strong example to kick against.
Or perhaps I’m giving her too much credit because of what a dumpster fire her son turned out to be.
That could legitimately be it.
The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair by Bryan F. Le Beau is an entirely fine book about O’Hair’s life and work, her court challenges, the evolving structure of American Atheists, and the overall religious climate of America in the 1950s through the 1990s.