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April 18, 2006

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

O'Hair.jpgInform an American over a certain age that you are writing a history of disbelief and, likely as not, they'll ask about: Madalyn Murray O'Hair. For much of the second half of the 20th century, this dedicated, gutsy, combative woman -- more firebrand than intellectual -- was the public face of atheism in the United States. She was the opposite of prim and proper. She led a cause before women were leading many causes and stood up to religion at a time when it was dangerous to stand up to it, earning the description: "most hated woman in America."

Murray O'Hair was a plaintiff in an important school prayer case. She founded the organization American Atheists. There is a picture of her picketing the White House in 1982 with a quote from my hero Charles Bradlaugh.OHair_pickets.jpg

However, things got sordid and tragic in a way they did not with, say Bertrand Russell, who may have been the international face of atheism in those years. One of Murray O'Hair's sons found Jesus and denounced his mother for all sorts of deviltry. And in 1995 Madalyn Murray O'Hair plus another son and a granddaughter (both involved in the movement) disappeared, along with a lot of money. For a long time the authorities thought they had run off to New Zealand -- atheists presumably being prone to such behavior. Eventually their murderers were arrested (Murray O'Hair liked to hire ex-cons) and the bodies were found.

I can't say she contributed to the development of the idea of atheism -- as Bradlaugh did, as Russell did. But this story -- my narrative in this book -- will be about courage and obstinacy, too. I suspect that one of these months I will find myself researching the story of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at April 18, 2006 5:51 PM


Well, it is an interesting story, and MMOH deserves thanks for helping to get forced prayer out of public schools. However, her group always turned me off with its shrill claim to speak for all atheists and its sometimes petty complaints. Michael Newdow follows in the tradition with his quixotic campaign against "under god" in the pledge of allegiance. I guess someone needs to do it, but it would be way down on my list of priorities. My problem with American Atheists and people like Newdow is that the general public thinks that all atheists are members of the AA group and hence all of them are shrill, easily offended, and forever "trying to drive god out of the public square".

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at April 18, 2006 7:33 PM

I agree with MR NG about the atheist label. Non-believers cannot/should not be organized. It just ain't right. Even non-believer is a pejorative. Nothing captures the openness of the non-theological.

The trouble is one cannot even get to words without jumping some kind of leap of faith.

People, rise up and be disorganized! :)

Posted by: Jay Saul at April 19, 2006 2:01 PM

I disagree with Mr. Nice Guy. All groups encounter such problem - they are easily characterized and therefore some members of the group are of offended by the characterizations. However, I would much rather a group of people work to fight for the rights of atheists rather than not fight for fear of misrepresenting the views of some atheists. Born in 1981, I know nothing of Murray O'Hair, and perhaps Mr. Nice Guy is correct that the group pretended to speak for atheists everywhere. If so, perhaps it could have been more careful in its choices of rhetoric.

But perhaps not. I believe "driving god out of the public square" is a valid mission, not a petty one. And in order to do this, one might wish to discuss how god-in-the-square affects the ordinary atheist, not just the activist atheist. While it's unlikely that I'll take legal action, I do feel a little less accepted by this country when I look at my coins, or when I stand in a courtroom, or when I hear the pledge. And I shouldn't have to feel this way, given the clear language of the Constitution. I agree that there are more important fights, but I don't think this fight is not important. Therefore I applaud the work of people who work to change these issues, to drive god out of the public square.

Posted by: Lauren at April 19, 2006 5:38 PM

To believe one can drive God out of the public square is hopeless. Religious belief is not just cultural but genetic. Evolution is our only way out (or in).

Posted by: Jay Saul at April 19, 2006 7:10 PM

Religious belief is not just cultural but genetic.

You might want to back up a statement like that with some proof.

Posted by: Dayv at April 19, 2006 9:56 PM

Posted by: Jay Saul at April 19, 2006 11:31 PM

You confuse religious belief with religious inclination.  There is a world of difference.

Posted by: Dayv at April 24, 2006 11:43 AM

Well just to let all of yall know I am not a believer in all the Evolution mess. I am 100 % aginst everything that O'Hair stood for and everyting that she done. I am a true believer in Jesus Christ and I am currently in the Process of getting a program together called Pray in School. You are probably saying that I am teachin g children to disobay athority. No I am not I am Teaching Children to stand up for what they believe in. I do see that she had a little bit of Good in doing what she did but not much. I for one am standing here saying that I fill that America would be alot better if she would of left prayer alone. I am at the moment a College student studying to be a teacher and I am 100 percent PRO-prayer. I know everyone has there one way of thinking and this is my way of thinking. To also let you know know that Jesus loves you. Thanks for your time and It is to lkate for O'hair but not for you.

Posted by: ChRiT iS lOrD at January 16, 2009 4:33 PM

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