Reassessing Madalyn Murray O’hair
The visit of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son Jon, and adopted granddaughter Robyn to New Zealand in 1982 had an immediate effect on the humanist movement in that country. The three spoke at Rationalist House, headquarters of the New Zealand Rationalist Association, attracting the largest audience in the association’s history. Their visit was brief, but their influence over the Rationalist Association was long-lasting. Nowhere was this influence more apparent than in the association’s journal. Over the next ten years the NZ Rationalist & Humanist was more dependent on material from O’Hair’s organization, American Atheists, than from all other sources combined. This influence was strengthened in 1985 and 1993, when American Atheists sponsored a New Zealand delegate to speak at their conventions. What was it about American Atheists that made their influence so great to an organization so far away? Answering this question reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the American Atheist style of advocacy as it existed in O’Hair’s day.
The strengths of the American Atheist style of atheist advocacy were apparent enough to the New Zealanders: clarity of style and accessibility. It is quite understandable that written material with these qualities will be attractive to kindred organizations. But—and this is more revealing—the New Zealanders were attracted to this material for its weak-nesses no less than its strengths. As we will see, the main fault of O’Hair’s work, and that of much of the American Atheist material during her lifetime, was that it rested on a bunker mentality and an extreme polarization of “us” and “them.” The New Zealanders were attracted to these negative features of O’Hair’s work no less than by the positive features. It fitted in with their Manichean view of the world.
Despite the preceding paragraphs, this article is not intended as a general attack on Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Still less is it a criticism of the contemporary American Atheist organization that has, against all the odds, survived the death of the O’Hairs and successfully rebuilt itself. As the title suggests, this is an attempt at a reassessment of O’Hair’s achievements. That such a reassessment is needed is apparent from the extremes of praise and damnation O’Hair has attracted. Wild criticism from Christian apologists is to be expected, the most extravagant of which comes from an article posted on William Murray’s Web site. Commenting on her murder, Don Feder suggests, with no hint of irony, that O’Hair became a casualty of the world she helped to create. So being murdered is a result of atheism!1 The range of comment, positive and negative, is only slightly less extreme within the ranks of the freethought movement. In a wide-ranging and unpleasantly ad hominem attack in 1983, one critic called her “the mouth that roars.” This attack accused American Atheists under O’Hair’s leadership of being a failure by virtue of its inability to attract every possible atheist in the country as a member. Few organizations of any type and regardless of the personality of the leader could be deemed successful by this criterion. But as some of the criticism has been overdone, the praise she has attracted has been no less extravagant. A recent article by a long-standing friend of O’Hair likened her to Aristotle and called her the most important legal figure of the century.2
So if Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s legacy suffers from excess of praise and damnation, how does one begin a balanced reassessment of her contribution? The best place to begin is in the legal field. While she is far from being the most important legal figure of the century, nothing can diminish Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s courage during the long struggle that led to the Supreme Court decision in June 1963 (Murray v. Curlett) that school prayer was indeed unconstitutional. This decision was hugely important for American education, law, and politics. It helped reshape the American landscape. What is more, the victory was achieved at high personal cost. O’Hair was the target of cowardly harassment from people defending what they thought was Christianity. However, the high moral ground was squandered by a selective account of the legal battle, in particular an unseemly squabble for priority with a concurrent case, Abington Township v. Schempp, in which the plaintiffs claimed to be practicing Unitarians. O’Hair later claimed that the Supreme Court decision, which responded to both cases together, was an attempt to deny O’Hair, and atheism, of the kudos for the victory. The problem is not that the charge is unlikely; the problem is that it revealed O’Hair’s bunker mentality in an unattractive way.
On the strength of Murray v. Curlett O’Hair founded American Atheists, although she would claim the organization was founded in 1959. Over the next thirty years Madalyn Murray O’Hair became one of the best-known opponents of Christianity in American history. In contrast to most other significant non-Christian leaders, O’Hair attracted quite a lot of media attention. This was a double-edged sword for the movement. On the principle of all publicity being good publicity, O’Hair’s exposure could only be a good thing. But if looked at from the perspective of combating old prejudices about atheism, O’Hair’s media exposure was, to say the least of it, unhelpful.
Madalyn O’Hair, and the American Atheists organization she founded, were not reticent in advancing their claims for priority. The O’Hairs frequently referred to themselves in their own literature as the First Family of Atheism, all suit-ably capitalized. More specifically, O’Hair described herself as the best-educated, most widely known atheist leader in the United States. Elsewhere, she described herself not simply as an atheist, but as the atheist. Declarations of this sort were backed up by regular purges of members who were thought to have forgotten them. Such behavior conforms in many respects to the behavior of a cult. Cults need to maintain the sense of isolation and danger. O’Hair did that using statements such as: “The judicial system hates this family. The political system hates this family. Everything that can be done against the Murray-O’Hairs is done continually—and usually by foul means.”3 The tragedy of a statement like this is that it was made during a very worthwhile legal struggle to protect the rights of nonbelievers of all descriptions from having to make the declaration “So help me God” when being inducted for jury service in Texas. This is not to deny that the O’Hairs were disliked by many people in positions of influence, nor to suggest they lacked courage in the face of cruel opposition. The problem lies in the way they encouraged much of this hostility by their own actions, and so tarnished the wider atheist cause.
In this article I can only touch on the history of American Atheists under O’Hair’s control. Her main objective was constantly to reinforce the power and authority (different things) of the so-called First Family of Atheism within the organization. Inevitably this meant periodic arguments and expulsions. The first loss was also the most prominent: William Murray, Madalyn’s son and the person in whose interest Murray v. Curlett was originally brought. He found God in 1977 or 1980, depending on which source one relies on. In 1980, Murray wrote a tell-all account of his years as an atheist and has traded on his past ever since. There were some famous conflicts within atheist ranks as well. George H. Smith, author of the Objectivist-inclined Atheism: The Case Against God, was an early casualty. Four years later, in 1983, G. Richard Bozarth left and wrote a stinging exposé of O’Hair and the organization that was published in another freethought publication. Others came and went, not infrequently people who had won awards at American Atheists conventions only the year before.
The final meltdown began in the early 1990s. In October 1991, O’Hair had a serious heart attack. She would never recover her former health and vitality. Her infirmity exacerbated growing tensions and quarrels. In 1992 O’Hair dissolved American Atheists’ network of regional chapters and centralized the organization. All sorts of reasons were given for this, but the main causes were chronic infighting among the chapters and their tendency to challenge O’Hair. Problems also grew for the American Atheist magazine, which had improved considerably between 1988 and 1992. Under growing financial and health pressures, the journal staggered and, in 1992, collapsed. It was replaced by an expanded newsletter.
By the time the O’Hairs disappeared in September 1995, the organization was in severe difficulty. Not least of their woes was the ever-reducing number and quality of people prepared to work for them. Everyone else had left, bitterly estranged, by the time David Waters—a career criminal with convictions for a range of brutal crimes—was employed as typesetter and office manager. It was Waters who, along with two accomplices, was responsible for the abduction and murder of the O’Hairs.
Assessing The Legacy
Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s legacy is a mixed one. The American Atheist, like most journals, had its ups and downs, but in its day was a good magazine. A strength was its historical awareness, particularly with regard to freethought history. But such an orientation serves to give a journal a backward-looking emphasis, which contributes in turn to the generally hostile and uncomprehending attitude to the world as it actually is. Less successful, in my opinion, were the books American Atheists chose to publish. They pursued eccentric theses or were written poorly. More valuable were the pamphlets, which were concise and well designed for their target market.
The strengths and weaknesses of American Atheists during O’Hair’s lifetime can be illustrated by the example of their treatment of Joseph McCabe. That O’Hair should have been enamored of McCabe’s trenchant and at times defensive style is not surprising. Not only McCabe’s forthright atheism but his thin-skinned truculence made him an obvious choice for O’Hair to honor by republishing some of his numerous works. In 1980 American Atheists published an abridgement of two of McCabe’s Big Blue Books, published originally by Haldeman-Julius in 1936. The abridgement, retitled The Logic and Virtue of Atheism, is a worthwhile work. The editing was skillful and the result is a valuable popular study of atheism. But as against this worthwhile exercise, it was also thought a good idea to reprint McCabe’s History’s Greatest Liars, another Haldeman-Julius Big Blue Book, this one from 1951. While this book is a readable and learned critique of the tendency among historians to dissimulate in favor of Christianity, McCabe’s irascibility mars the final result. It was one of the last things he wrote. Haldeman-Julius’ subtitle captured McCabe’s—and the O’Hairs’—bunker mentality: “A study of biased misinterpretations, omissions, and outright lies that have been chronicled by many of history’s prominent writers.” The other difficulty in reprinting History’s Greatest Liars thirty-four years after its original publication was the time-sensitive nature of the book. Few of the historians McCabe criticized were active later than the 1930s. It is a tribute to the bunker mentality of American Atheists that a criticism of historians, most of whom had been dead for half a century or more, should have had sufficient appeal to reprint.
The problem is just as evident in O’Hair’s own work. On the positive side is a piece like Why I Am an Atheist, a well-written and intellectually sound defense of the atheist worldview (though marred by her tendency to self-promotion). Then there is the introductory work entitled All the Questions You Ever Wanted to Ask American Atheists—with All the Answers. Once again, this is a useful and candid introduction to O’Hair, her organization, and views. But, as if to deliberately undermine the positive effect of the main work, my edition of the book included as an appendix excerpts from O’Hair’s address to the 1982 American Atheist Convention. The address was called “Atheists” and featured a series of sarcastic criticisms of various types of atheists she had encountered. The end result was the exclusion by ridicule of virtually any manner of atheist outside of her ideal category. Neither were the criticisms kept general; specific names were included as examples of each category. The only acceptable atheist was “the Maslovian type,” referring to Abraham Maslow, the humanistic psychologist who spoke in terms of human self-actualization. O’Hair’s description of the perfect atheist read pretty much like a self-description.
This alienation of entire groups of potential allies was odd enough, but to see such an exercise as a suitable addition to a book designed as a general introduction for people ignorant or hostile to atheism is bizarre. Once again, such a decision would only make sense to people trapped in a bunker mentality. The inclusion of this deeply flawed address undermines the generally positive impression given in the main part of the book.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair made three great contributions to the progress of atheism: two of them marked by what she did, the other by what she didn’t do. The first of the positive contributions was her seeing through the Murray v. Curlett case and thus changing America forever. The second positive contribution was to advance the cause of atheism in a way non-specialists can appreciate. For all the valid criticisms made of American Atheists during her lifetime, that organization was a refuge for many people who had seen the less seemly side of religion and craved a full-bodied rejection of religion. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was one of the greatest promoters of popular atheism since Joseph McCabe. Just like popular religion, popular atheism may take shortcuts that are annoying to those with the leisure to spot the differences. But, despite this, it is important that such widely accessible material is produced.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s other major contribution was in what she didn’t do. At no time did she give any comfort to the fundamentalists who work so hard to portray humanism as a religion. If O’Hair’s rejection of religion was often unhelpfully expressed and easily used by opponents to portray atheism as extreme negativity, it never fell into the trap of painting atheism as a “me too” substitute to religion. She deserves recognition for that.
Balanced against these positive contributions are the negatives. O’Hair’s legendary vulgarity served to confirm the prejudices of those who would equate atheism with a breakdown in morality. It also drove away many who might otherwise have been worthwhile allies. Her high media profile was as much due her ability single-handedly to damage the atheist position as to any recognition of her eminence. More damaging still was her destructive bunker mentality, which alienated friends and strengthened enemies. These personal flaws may well have been surmountable, but they were exacerbated by intellectual flaws of similar magnitude.
Her greatest intellectual flaw was in not seeing the intellectual limitations of atheism. Atheism is not enough on which a viable nonreligious system can be built. Atheism states only what one does not believe in; the next step is to move forward and determine what one does believe in. Exploring the realms of naturalism and humanism are essential to giving atheism a positive orientation. This is where Paul Kurtz’s contribution has been incomparably better grounded than that of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Organizations that are united only by what they hate or fear are rarely going to prosper for long without feuding and dissension. But more important than mere organizational tension, such an approach misunderstands and fatally undersells humanism as a viable way of living without religion. Humanism is so much more than mere rejection of religion; it is a way of living based on an insatiable love of living, a recognition that one’s life is enriched by virtue of enriching the lives of those around us. Far from downplaying the role of atheism in humanism, this understanding of nonreligious living recognizes atheism as foundational, but equally recognizes that.
1. Don Feder, “O’Hair a Casualty of Her Own Revolution?,” www.wjmurray.com/madalyn.
2. G. Richard Bozarth, “Madalyn Murray O’Hair: A Mouth that Roars,” American Rationalist, Jan.–Feb. 1983: 68; and Frank Zindler, “Madalyn Murray O’Hair,” American Atheist, Spring 2002: 6.
3. American Atheist Newsletter 31, no. 11 (November 1992): 8.
Bill Cooke has authored three books on humanist history and is the former editor of New Zealand’s humanist journal The Open Society. He is a Free InquIry senior editor and the director of the Center for Inquiry’s new Commission for Transnational Cooperation.