It was this day 15 years ago when Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the most famous atheist of her time, was murdered by a former employee.
It’s hard to find people these days who have anything nice to say about her. For all she did — like getting mandatory prayer out of public school — she was rude, unpleasant to be around, and not popular even within a like-minded crowd. The biographies written about her attest to that.
Last week, I asked over a dozen atheists/Humanist leaders of the present day if they had anything to say about Madalyn and her legacy.
I got one response.
And even that person admitted it would be tough to find anyone saying something positive about her.
My responder did give Madalyn credit for one thing, though:
Many people today blame Madalyn’s anger and flamboyance for the negative stereotype of atheists today. If it weren’t for that anger and flamboyance, however, there wouldn’t be an atheist movement today.
There’s some truth to that.
Somehow, the “angry atheists” who are the spokespeople for our movement (whether we like it or not) are much more affable than Madalyn ever was. That combination of fame, a minority viewpoint, and a mass of people eager to follow you is what it takes to build a real movement. Madalyn had the first two, but many atheists didn’t want to follow her. They wanted to get away from her.
From Madalyn, we learned what a true activist was willing to sacrifice. Unfortunately, we also learned how not to spread our message.
I wonder how she would fare in the present environment. Would she be popular? Would she have a strong following in the wake of “New Atheism”? Or would we just get upset or annoyed every time she wrote an article or did an interview?