Don’t Stop Unbelieving

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the woman who brought a lawsuit that, when it reached the Supreme Court in 1963, ended Bible reading and prayer in American public schools. But when I was growing up in rural Texas in the late 1970s, each school day still began with “a moment of silent prayer” — an ordeal that only compounded the crisis of losing my faith after reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. Sometime around 1980, I phoned O’Hair at the American Atheist Center in Austin, telling her (with what teenage self-dramatization may be imagined), “This place is a fundamentalist dictatorship. It’s a nightmare. I’m the only person in this town who doesn’t believe in God.”

O’Hair erupted in a distinctive laugh — bitterly joyous, the two tones somehow blurred together. “No, you aren’t,” she said. “You’re just the only one with balls enough to admit it.” In truth, my activism consisted entirely of keeping eyes open and head unbowed throughout the compulsory “moment” and silently editing “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. No such evasions for Madalyn Murray O’Hair: She had the strength of her convictions, a quality not altogether distinct from raw belligerence.

The grand lady of American atheism inspired (and indeed cultivated) a cult of personality, as Bryan F. LeBeau shows in his biography. Her rough-hewn charisma brought in a steady flow of revenue to fund the organizations she created, which were run by members of her immediate family. And like any sectarian group, the O’Hair family and its followers could be very stringent on doctrine. (I once heard Robin Murray O’Hair, her granddaughter, denounce agnostics as people too cowardly to declare themselves atheists.) To remain in O’Hair’s company, you had to be a true unbeliever.

Not many readers will turn to Bryan F. LeBeau’s The Atheist in search of a hagiography. A magazine once called O’Hair “the most hated woman in America” — and passages that LeBeau quotes from the mail she received makes this sound plausible. (Sample: “You damn gutter rat. Jesus will fix you, you filthy scum.”) But she alienated her co-thinkers as well. Adept at gathering funds from people committed to reinforcing what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation” between church and state, O’Hair considered most other atheists “nitwits” (to use one printable expression).

The challenge for a biographer is to find the driving force within O’Hair — the energy fueling her three decades of warfare with both the religious establishment and her own supporters. Finding the roots of her temperament is no easy task. Although O’Hair published autobiographical writings, LeBeau shows that she never narrated any incident in her early life the same way twice. (Just when and why she turned against religion remains open to question.) LeBeau has access to the diaries she began to keep in the 1950s, in her 30s, which sound as if they deepen the puzzle of her personality as much as they illuminate it.

In the years before launching her jihad, O’Hair was a very intelligent and very lonely person: trained in the law, uncertain about her career, with two children born out of wedlock and no stable romantic prospect in sight. She was an odd woman out in a period of culturally reinforced “normalcy.” Her way of rejecting a society that had rejected her was suitably extreme: She applied to become a Soviet citizen. Her son William later said that her suit against the Baltimore school system was, in part, an effort to win the attention and good graces of the Russians.

But the attention her case attracted became an end in itself. She abandoned a flirtation with communism to become a vehement partisan of the U.S. Constitution, humanistically construed. She “set out to undermine every aspect of [the] repressive system, especially religion, which she had identified as the principle source of her condemnation,” LeBeau writes. “Her fight, then, was as much to free herself as it was to free American society.”

Whoever the beneficiary might be, the important thing was that it was a fight. And, more to the point, a public fight. It made O’Hair into a celebrity of sorts, with a career uniquely suited to her contrarian personality. She dug into the intellectual history of atheism and devoted magazine articles and radio broadcasts to the great unbelievers of American history. Clearly, O’Hair thrived on the enmity she generated. There was always another lawsuit to file, another debate to attend, which kept the hostilities flowing on both sides. So goes LeBeau’s interpretation, which sounds credible enough. I’d go a little further and risk the possible cliché of saying that atheism became her religion. Emile Durkheim interpreted theological belief as a society’s way of projecting an image of its own unity and coherence, while Alfred North Whitehead called religion “what man does with his aloneness.” O’Hair was the heroic figure who gathered around her a small community of people, united by a faith that the world would be heaven if not for the believers. Litigation became a secular sacrament.

The later chapters of The Atheist are a depressing record of schisms in the movement’s ranks — the most wounding conflict being with her son William, who became a Christian evangelist. (This was not a family given to taking half steps.)

LeBeau provides a temperate and dispassionate account of the life of a woman who was seldom either. On the whole, he admires her fortitude, without overlooking just how much misanthropy fueled it or how much it cost her. He quotes a striking diary entry from 1986: “One starts out with a dream … and then slowly is drawn to tighten-up, to become more rigid, to retreat into the safety of one’s self until one becomes dictatorial.”

The author could have been more careful about some things. He treats anti-communist sentiment following World War II as if it were an upsurge of unbridled American yahoo instincts. (Other factors at work might have included such little details as the Soviet concentration camps or Stalin’s annexation of Eastern Europe.) A gay journalist attending a convention of O’Hair’s organization in 1976 is described by LeBeau as “well known at the time for his articles and books on the AIDS epidemic.” Which would make him a very farsighted reporter indeed, since the disease would not really be identified (and certainly not named) for several more years.

The book ends on a sordid note. When O’Hair, her son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair disappeared in 1995, it seemed entirely plausible that this was an effort at tax evasion and embezzlement. There does appear to have been some financial shadiness at the American Atheist Center: money socked away in offshore accounts, even as the fund-raising letters kept going out to O’Hair’s donors. In 2001, police found the bodies. Some petty criminals had kidnapped them, hoping to extort the hidden fortune. It seems very likely the thugs tortured them before giving up. God may or may not exist, but as for evil, there is no room to doubt.

Scott McLemee is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Feed, Lingua Franca, The New York Times, and Studia Swedenborgiana. He writes about the humanities for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where the present article first appeared in somewhat different form.