Remembering Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the Founder of American Atheists

This is an article by Frank Zindler. It appears in the 2nd Quarter 2013 issue of American Atheist magazine. American Atheist magazine is sold in the U.S. and Canada at Barnes & Noble, Book World, and Chapters Indigo. To subscribe or join American Atheists (members receive a free subscription), go to Atheists.org.

As we approach the ninety-fourth anniversary of the birth of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, I am moved to try to total up the historical, intellectual, legal, and human significance of the woman who, for more than a decade, was virtually a mother to both my wife, Ann, and me. It is a daunting task. I confess I am still too close to be able to attempt a truly objective assessment of Madalyn the person, Madalyn the friend.

Madalyn the Intellectual

During the last fifty years, I have known a lot of brilliant women. I’ve worked with them as a science professor and in the field of scientific publishing. I even had the good fortune to marry one. And then, of course, there was Madalyn — arguably the smartest woman I’ve ever known. Her intelligence was analytical, dissective, and often applied like an x-ray probe. Most problems, both in daily life and in law, are complex composites composed of a skeleton of facts and hard data surrounded by a foggy envelope of misperceptions and emotional color. In its prime, Madalyn’s mind could pierce such fog covers with lightning speed to reveal the hard core of the problem facing her. When she did this on the debate platform or in the midst of a radio or television show, she was dazzling. Although she retained this ability to the end of her tragically abbreviated life, during her later life her cognitive functions were sometimes impaired by the brittle form of diabetes that bedeviled the final years of her career. With blood sugar too high or too low — I never could decide on which side the problem lay — problems presented too suddenly could elicit fiery emotional outbursts. On a number of occasions, she would punch out letters on her typewriter that utterly devastated their recipients. At least some of these letters I am certain she later regretted. But she could never publicly go back on a decision once made.

For someone who, for so many years, had been able to wield the scalpel of reason with the self-assurance and finesse of a neurosurgeon, it must have been difficult or impossible to admit even to herself that anything could affect her ability to reason objectively. Fortunately, such lapses were rare.

Madalyn Mays, then Madalyn Murray, then Madalyn O’Hair or Murray O’Hair, was the quintessential intellectual — that is, a person who takes pleasure in exercising the intellect. Like Aristotle, she took all knowledge as her province. Coming as late in history as she did, however, she had a lot more provinces to master than did Aristotle — and all of Aristotle’s provinces had become much bigger. Nevertheless, Madalyn was a lifelong student who went after every subject as though it were a rare or exotic butterfly to add to her collection. She read all the classics. She read all the “Great Books.” She read all the philosophers and theologians. She read all the histories. She studied the sciences. She assembled the greatest library on Atheism that ever existed in the U.S.

Music also was a province Madalyn sought to subdue. Completely conversant on all the great classical composers, she studied their lives as well as their music, concluding that many of the greatest had been Atheists — or at least not Christians.

Beethoven, I think, was her favorite. She clearly could relate to the story told of his death. Beethoven, it is said, was lying comatose upon his deathbed, unable to speak or respond to speech. A terrible lightning storm developed. A sudden barrage of thunder shook the death chamber, causing him to sit up suddenly, shake his fist at the sky with a look of wild defiance upon his face, and then fall back dead. Beethoven’s remark, “I have seized Fate by the throat and grappled with him,” probably was ever in her consciousness.

She could play the piano, too. The first time I ever visited her at home, I noticed a modest spinet piano in what my grandmother would have called a sitting room. I asked if I might try out the instrument and she told me to go ahead; there were music books in the piano bench if I needed them.

Opening the bench, I seized upon Schirmer’s edition of the Chopin Études. Turning to my favorite, the so-called “Revolutionary Étude,” I was startled to see that the pages were dog-eared, thoroughly worn, and had been carefully annotated in pencil for fingerings. “Who’s been playing the Revolutionary Étude?” I asked. “Me,” she replied, “before the Baltimore cops broke my wrists when they attacked us in our home.” I was too stunned by this information to attempt the piece myself, settling instead upon the “Moonlight Sonata.” How appropriate, I thought later, for Madalyn to have devoted so much effort on a revolutionary étude. Symbolism was as important in Madalyn’s life as was breakfast.

Although Madalyn was well-read in all the philosophers and her Atheism was firmly grounded in solid philosophical principles, she was not a philosopher herself — at least not a technical or theoretical philosopher such as Bertrand Russell or A. J. Ayer. She discovered no new disproofs of gods that I am aware of, and wrote very little on epistemology and the other topics that professional philosophers like to gnaw upon. One of her treasured possessions was an admiring letter written to her by Bertrand Russell.

She was an applied philosopher who attempted to put into practice the eclectic philosophy of materialism or realism that she had put together in the course of her voracious reading. She wanted to make the world reasonable, and tried until the end to do so. Everything in the world sorted out so clearly in her mind. Why couldn’t the rest of the world see things the way they really were? Once people could be made to see how evil religion is — how they are being conned and duped by preachers, priests, and gurus — surely they must rise up, overthrow their deceivers, and join her cause.

To do that, she had to get the attention of the world, which was not easy given the vast amounts of money being spent to keep people inattentive to voices of reason. Madalyn often had to be flamboyant and even somewhat outré. Since professional philosophers never got on television and radio, she knew she would have to be theatrical and more than a bit outrageous.

To get the attention of the world, she often had to apply the principle behind the joke about the Quaker farmer who had to hit his mule over the head with a two-by-four to get his attention.” She was Phil Donahue’s very first talk show guest, and as such launched his career in television at the same time she launched her own.

Madalyn never even tried to hide the fact that she had no respect for anybody’s religion. According to her aphorism, religion had caused more harm than any other single idea in the history of humankind. It would be immoral, in fact, to pretend that evil so great might become just another personal preference in a society that wanted to remain both civilized and free. Religion was the enemy of freedom, the corrupter of natural human ethics, and the greatest threat to survival of Homo sapiens. Religion and religious modes of thought had to go. Clearly, that could not be achieved by force. Only education, assisted by completely free speech, could attempt it. Madalyn the educator, the free-speaker, accepted the challenge with relish.

Free speech: that was what was needed to educate the public about religions and the illogic of superstition. Madalyn knew that words can have magical significance in religion — for example, preachers end prayers with “In Jesus’ Name We Pray” in order to use the heap-big-medicine of a name of power to make the prayers magically come true. She knew that the commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” was simply a prohibition against using a magical word for unauthorized purposes. She knew that this was the foundation upon which the concept of blasphemy was based — as were the anti-blasphemy laws which seek to nullify the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

Madalyn argued that in the world of physics and physiology there were no magical words, and blasphemy was a subjectless crime. Words are words, nothing more. People who reacted to certain words as though they were magical had to be educated. Specifically, they had to be desensitized to the religious words of power. “My gawwd!” she would exclaim, relishing the reactions of “Christers” as they recoiled from the mockery of an Atheist demonstrating so casually the utter triviality of their most potent word.

Madalyn knew also that the taboo four-letter words proscribed in ordinary American speech are anthropologically no different than the religious words of power that must not be “taken in vain.” She would point out that “Yahweh” (the secret name of the deity which must never be pronounced, on pain of death) is a four-letter word in Hebrew (YHWH). She realized that speech taboos were nothing less than the intrusion of religious (i.e., illogical) modes of thought into daily life. Four-letter words were, when you got down to it, religious. People had to be desensitized to them also. She delighted in challenging people to explain the objective difference between the words “fuck” and “copulate,” and she would point out that ficken, the German cognate, was fairly acceptable for use in ordinary German discourse. Why should it be wrong to use the word in English but not in German? Superstition, nothing more.

She did expend great effort to desensitize the nation to the “A-word.” She used the words “Atheist” and “Atheism” — capitalized, no less — over and over in every possible venue. Before Madalyn, most Atheists were afraid to use the word other than in whispers. Things are much different now, thanks to her, although I can’t say the desensitization of society as a whole is yet complete. Nevertheless, Madalyn made it much safer — and much more natural — to call oneself an Atheist.

The Legal Legacy

Madalyn is most remembered for her watershed lawsuit Murray v. Curlett (1963) in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forced prayer and bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional. Murray v. Curlett, moreover, had contested school prayer on behalf of Atheists, and the plaintiffs had identified themselves as Atheists — supplying an eloquent explanation of Atheist philosophy. Unfortunately, this very fact of which Atheists are justly proud resulted in the court spitefully relegating Madalyn’s case to a subsidiary role in its published decision, which combined Murray with a similar case brought by Edward Schempp, a Unitarian. That made it hard for legal scholars even to obtain her case. Although the full title of the decision is School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania, et al., Appellants, v. Edward Lewis Schempp et al., William J. Murray III, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. John N. Curlett, President, et al., Individually, and Constituting the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City, the case is always indexed and referred to as Abington Township v. Schempp. Period. Despite the fact that Murray had docket No. 119 and Schempp was No. 142 (Murray clearly having priority), and despite the fact that Murray was broader in its petition, the Court could not dignify Atheists by granting them the title of a decision.

Madalyn never forgave the slight.

Despite the judicial smothering of her case, Madalyn was quick to claim the victory — and the world ignored Schempp — even though that was now the official name on the case — and focused all its wrath on Madalyn. Life magazine dubbed her “the most hated woman in America.” (Madalyn’s gripping, personal account of the violent aftermath of the SCOTUS decision can be found in her autobiographical An Atheist Epic, available from American Atheist Press.)

Virtually every First Amendment religious case before the Supreme Court since 1963 has either been enabled by Murray v. Curlett or has been necessitated by attempts of religionists to nullify it. All the attempts to sneak creationism into the public schools, all the prayers at football games, all the attempts to get vouchers for parochial schools — all these efforts and more have, without exception, had Madalyn’s case down deep below the surface as the irritant motivating them. Of course, this motivation is not always hidden. In fact, literally millions (probably billions, if one counts all the sermons preached since 1963) of words have been written and spoken by religionists about the case that “kicked God out of the public schools” and about the Atheist who challenged the hegemony of the clergy in American secular society.

Although Murray v. Curlett — a case she won — was Madalyn’s most important case for our country, O’Hair v. Blumenthal (1977) — a case she lost — was of greatest importance to me personally. This case sought to remove the motto “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency and coins. In ruling against the case, U.S. District Court Judge Jack Roberts agreed with a federal appeals court’s ruling that that the use of the motto on coins “has nothing to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.” The Supreme Court refused to review the case on appeal. Attempts to remove religious slogans from money, the national motto, and the pledge of allegiance to the flag continue today. (All three intrusions of religious language into the secular sphere occurred in the mid-1950s, as the finale of the McCarthy crusade against “Atheist communism.”)

O’Hair v. Blumenthal changed my life completely, forcing me to abandon a twenty-year career at a community college branch of the State University of New York. How did this happen? In 1977 I had joined with Madalyn, the composer Leonard Bernstein, and a multitude of other co-plaintiffs in her suit to get “In God We Trust” off our money. I made the rounds of radio and television talk-shows in the New York State Capital District. That infuriated the right-wing politicians who controlled the purse strings of the college and led to their withholding funds for science education until I was forced to resign.

Office Space

Living and working long hours together in what psychologically were tight quarters was not easy or without instability. The three highly-charged personalities of Madalyn, her son Jon Garth Murray, and granddaughter Robin Eileen Murray-O’Hair were like mutually repellent protons in an unstable nucleus—threatening to fly apart at any moment but held together by the invisible binding forces of common purpose and consanguinity. New staff would often be alarmed — even frightened — by the shouting matches that often erupted among the three principals, but such emotional outbursts were always short-lived. One time, when my wife, Ann, and I were visiting it looked as though they were about to kill each other. Several hours later, they treated us to late-night hamburgers and regaled us with the day’s hate mail. We all were jolly as we parted to get some sleep before the next fourteen-hour day of work.

Madalyn’s Voice is Silenced

For many years, persistent rumors had circulated that Madalyn had embezzled millions of dollars from her organizations and had squirreled them away in some offshore repository. (No matter that those organizations were always so close to bankruptcy that she often had to use her military and Social Security pensions to help pay the staff!) She was, after all, an Atheist, and how could an Atheist be trusted?

Somehow, rumors of the millions found their way to David Roland Waters, a man who had committed his first murder while yet a teenager and had served time for other violent crimes as well. Out of prison once again, he found his way to the American Atheist Center in Austin and sought employment. Presenting a completely bogus resume, he started work as general factotum and quickly demonstrated that he could do anything needed to keep the office running. When the Murray O’Hair family had to leave the office for a week or so to join me and other members of the board to defend ourselves and our corporations in a trial to be held in a federal court in San Diego, he was charged with holding down the fort.

As soon as the family was gone, Waters hacked into the computers and stole tens of thousands of dollars of the operating funds. He cracked the safe as well, stealing over a hundred thousand dollars in bonds. When the Murray O’Hairs returned to the office unexpectedly early, they found that the staff had been dismissed and Waters was nowhere to be seen. Madalyn quickly found incontrovertible evidence that Waters had robbed her corporation, but when she took the evidence to the Austin police, they would not take any action. It wasn’t until weeks later — after Atheists all over the country, myself included, had faxed letters and petitions of protest to the chief of police, the sheriff, the county prosecutor, and a judge — that David Waters was brought in for questioning. After pleading guilty to the thefts, he was released and was ordered to repay the stolen money as he was able.

While rummaging through the computers, Waters had found a million-dollar account in a bank in New Zealand. Having been hired about a year after American Atheists had completed its well-publicized fund drives to amass a million-dollar trust fund — it had been hoped that the earnings from the fund would pay for the day-to-day operations of the organization — Waters must have concluded that he had found one of the fabled offshore accounts he had been seeking. The New Zealand account, however, was not hackable, and Waters had to delay its acquisition to a later date.

That date appears to have been Sunday, August 27, 1995, a day Waters knew the Murray O’Hairs would be working at the Atheist Center alone. Accompanied by fellow ex-con Gary Karr and petty crook Danny Fry (and indirectly assisted by girlfriends and another ex-con, Gerald Lee “Chico” Osborne), Waters kidnapped the trio, held them hostage for a month, and extorted over $600,000 from them. Jon was forced to withdraw money from the New Zealand trust fund and wire it to a coin dealer in San Antonio, Texas, [who] converted it into gold coins. When the kidnappers obtained the coins, they killed the “First Family of Atheism” — apparently by strangulation, dismembered their bodies, stuffed them into small plastic barrels, tried to cremate them, and then buried them on the Camp Wood ranch near San Antonio.

The Murray O’Hairs were forced to leave a handwritten note on the front door saying that they had been called away on important business. Soon rumors began to circulate about their disappearance. In order to keep American Atheists operating, the board of directors elected Ellen Johnson acting director. Ann and I were asked to rejoin the board from which we had retired a year earlier. When Ellen discovered the $600,000 missing from the New Zealand trust fund and reported the theft, widespread claims circulated that the family had absconded with the money and were hiding in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, or even Bulgaria or Romania. But no police agency would investigate their disappearance, even when Madalyn’s estranged son William, a born-again Christian, tried to get them to do so.

It would be January 2001 before the dismembered remains of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Eileen Murray-O’Hair would be exhumed from their shallow graves on the desolate Texas ranch. Only then could it be proved that they were not traitors to their own cause or robbers of their own corporations. No one was ever charged with murder in the case, but David Roland Waters and Gary Karr were sent to prison on lesser charges.

A Chilling Memory

At one point, Ellen Johnson was able to contact Jon and Robin by means of Madalyn’s cell phone. They assured Ellen that everything was okay — they were just away on business. I also tried several times to call Madalyn on her cell phone, but she never answered. Several days after I gave up, I started to receive death threats on my home phone in Columbus, Ohio. Although I had received dozens of death threats over the years only a few were deemed to require the attention of police. These calls, however, were different. They all were from a man who could disguise his voice in multiple ways and then, after engaging me in conversation, would revert to what I suppose was his real voice and snarl, “The same thing that happened to Madalyn and Robin is going to happen to you and your wife.”

The calls came daily for more than a week. Immediately after the first call, I notified the police and a trap was placed on my phone. Never could a call be traced accurately; they seemed to bounce all over the country and trace to innocent, real people. One call came as a police officer was at my home. He picked up the phone and argued with the caller. The caller would not believe it was actually an officer of the law! Days later, the threats ceased, and it was only five years later, after the bodies were found, that I had a chilling thought. Had Waters gotten my home phone number from Madalyn’s phone? Had I been talking to Waters? Improbable, but certainly not impossible.

The Summing Up

I wish to conclude this assessment of Madalyn O’Hair by saying without apology that I think Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the most important legal figure of the 20th century in terms of both the practical impact she had and the theoretical implications of her cases. Her fight was not just about school prayer and Bible-reading in schools. It was not just about the separation of state and church. Her fight was fundamentally a fight for liberty, and it was a fight for the most fundamental of liberties: the liberty of the mind.

All her life, Madalyn sought truth, both in the microcosm and in the macrocosm. The pursuit of truth, however, depends upon freedom — freedom of inquiry. Minds that are shackled by superstition and forced to reason in chains cannot seek truth. Minds that are free but barred by religious or other authorities from carrying out investigations cannot seek the truth either. Madalyn fought against all forces impeding pursuers of truth. She did not win that war, but she bravely gave her every erg of effort to the fight. For that I honor her. For that I remember her.

Frank R. Zindler is a member of the American Atheists Board of Directors and managing editor of American Atheist magazine.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Rain

    unconstitutional

    The Founders are rolling in their graves right now. They would have pronounced it like “unconftitutional”. Wafhington and Congrefs and all those guys talked funny back then. Good thing the aren’t alive today or they would have to get themselves a translator to understand everyone. Yeah, I’ll be here all week folks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rvinekar Rtvik Viñekar

      I think you meant “unconſtitutional” , “Waſhington” and “Congreſs” (or as German orthography uses it : Congreß ). It is a long S , a long obsolete typographical convention, an ſ not an f , so there should be no change in pronunciation, just a different way of writing.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_s

  • Houndentenor

    She was such a bogey-man for the religious right when I was growing up that mimeographed letters claiming that she had a bill before Congress to ban all religious programming from the airwaves (a bill that not only couldn’t get passed then or now but that would be quickly ruled unconstitutional if it did) for years after her death. I saw one such letter on the bulletin board of a church in NYC (not exactly a fundamentalist one, btw) in the late 1990s.

  • Pseudonym

    I wish to conclude this assessment of Madalyn O’Hair by saying without apology [...]

    This piece read, to me, as nothing but apology. I have no opinion about how accurate it is, but it is certainly a work of apologetics.

  • Emmet

    A glowing hagiography, in contrast to an earlier account on this blog.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2010/09/29/remembering-madalyn-murray-ohair-15-years-later/

    So did she embezzle the money in the NZ account or not? Why did she have that account?

    And did she say the racist and bigoted anti-homosexual things attributed to her? http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2005/2005-r1.pdf

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki.7 Joe Zamecki

    The Murray-O’Hairs did finally get a physical memorial in public: http://youtu.be/xj2hRTGxjVs It was long overdue, and a terrible shame that AA didn’t make something like this happen. Individual grassroots activists had to.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=806308057 Sam Chapman

    As a young man coming out of the gay closet and as an Atheist on the same night, American Atheist gave me hope that I was not alone in my non-belief. (Scorpios Night Club showed me I was not the only gay man.) I adored the plain-speaking Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her frank assessments of religion. I read the magazine and bought books from American Atheists, and watched the programs on cable access. Was she perfect, no. But, she brought Atheism to the forefront and told me I was not alone.
    BTW, as a nurse, I’ve seen how fluctuations in blood sugar can cause bizarre behavior. It can be pretty ugly.

  • The Watchman

    She knows the truth now.

  • advancedatheist

    I consider Madalyn over-rated, and Frank Zindler’s fawning over her unseemly and unnecessary. Zindler hasn’t needed Madalyn’s approval for his status as an atheist since 1995, so he really doesn’t have to do this any more.

    Just consider the context in which Madalyn became America’s celebrity atheist back in the 1960′s and 1970′s: Almost no one else of any notoriety wanted to do this, so by default a mediocre, extroverted figure like Madalyn could step into the vacuum and become the go-to spokesperson for atheism.

    If she tried to start a career as a professional atheist today, she would have to compete in a field crowded with people with generally more attractive personalities, and she probably wouldn’t have gotten as far.

  • BigBrother

    I would hesitate to wax poetic over a woman who was a thief, bigot racist, homophobe and not very emotionally stable. Changing a name and naming a son after a man who wouldn’t divorce another to marry her is quite telling. A woman whose cause was more important than even her family, and who adopted her granddaughter and fought her son for custody of his own child, isn’t a very grand woman at all. Mr. Mehta, your recollectio is jaded and your summary of Ms. Murray, Ohair or whatever, is certainly not credible, and even less respectable.


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