American Icon

Over at Friendly Atheist, Hemant reminds us that it’s the anniversary of the death of a very unfriendly atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

He’s having a hard time finding someone to say something pleasant about this unpleasant woman. So let me just say that I agree with Garry Wills, when he suggested that O’Hair could be seen as a kind of Horatio Alger figure who showed what a single person of humble origins could do against “the system”.

Wills quotes Frank J. Sorauf’s, The Wall Of Seperation: The Constitutional Politics Of Church And State:

Without holding any office or seeking any, without any formal political support or allies, without, indeed, very much support or status of any kind, and with only modest expenditures and a somewhat inexperienced attorney, she ultimately stopped the use of the Lord’s Prayer in the schools of Baltimore and the nation.

We like to tell our children that they can grow up to change the world. Well, O’Hair proves that we’re not a pack of liars.

(For the record, I know that the cases would likely have come out the same without her. But she fought for it and she certainly took the heat for it and deserves some of the credit for what was accomplished.)

The Great Commoner
So Long, And Thanks For All The Memories (From Dan)
Hallquist on Eich
I Cannot Tell a Lie
  • Nelly

    my father really hated her

    which in itself is somewhat ironic. He never really went to church, but was a mason and a staunch republican

    she’s still vilified by the fundies,

    I’d say RIP…….but…….you know ;)

  • mikespeir

    She was certainly not the way I want to be. Yes, she accomplished some good things, but good things are accomplished by nicer people.

    • Nelly

      true indeed

    • Skippy

      And good things have been accomplished by meaner people. Sometimes you have to be mean.

      • WMDKitty


        You can’t stop the bullies and abusers with flowery words, sometimes it’s just necessary to use their own tactics against them. (In this case, being loud and rather obnoxious.)

        • mikespeir

          Often being nice works a lot better than being mean. Being nice persuades; being mean at best forces. Being mean might leave people compliant, but it also leaves them resentful and often looking for revenge. You have to be hard-nosed, true, but that’s not the same as being mean.

          • JK

            Show me some evidence that “[o]ften being nice works a lot better than being mean.” Firstly, it’s bizarre to classify someone along the nice/mean spectrum. What does it even mean? Does brusque equate to meanness? Does delivering facts without sweet, softening placation make one mean? What about style of language, or social graces? How do those factor in?

            Frankly, I find it odd that O’Hair’s lack of “niceness” is such an issue here. Shall we recall that she was kidnapped, extorted, tortured, murdered and mutilated along with her son and granddaughter? And that the local police department largely treated her case with disaffection because of her notoriety as an atheist?

            Meanness is in the eye of the beholder. This woman was wronged and the country, atheists included, largely breathed a sigh of relief, and her legacy was left as more of a hard ass and less of a brave pioneer. That, I believe, is mean as hell.

            • mikespeir

              Evidence? It disturbs me that you can’t cite evidence from your own life. I can certainly tell you when it’s worked for me. I’ve done my share of mean things, too. It rarely got me anything but enemies.

              No, I don’t think it’s “bizarre to classify someone along the nice/mean spectrum.” We all do it, and we’re not being “bizarre” in doing it. We’re a lot more likely to befriend people who are nice to us, even if their opinions are different from ours. We’re also a lot more likely to listen to and consider their opinions.

              The criminal acts that happened to O’Hair are neither here nor there to the discussion. The meanness we’re referring to here happened long before that.

            • Ty

              Actually, people being ‘mean’ in their attacks on my religious beliefs inspired me to do the research to defend them. Which led, quite directly, to my atheism.

              Being mean has also saved my life, on at least one occasion.

              Mean has its place.

            • JK

              I suppose my only point on the nice/mean spectrum is that you (and we all) use a very journalistically weaselly kind of language in describing the benefits of niceness. “Often” nice works better than mean. We’re “a lot more likely” to befriend a nice person than a mean one. “We all do it.” None are justifications; all are anecdotal.

              If we judging based on the net effect of new friendships gained, you’re inarguably right that nice is more of a virtue. But you also haven’t addressed that, when we’re talking about getting tasks accomplished instead of looking for new friends, “being mean” is ambiguous. O’Hair wasn’t looking for new friends, was she? No, she was looking to change policies. She was working for very official changes.

              I’m sorry that you were disturbed by my lack of support for your contention that being nice makes it easier to make friends. Yes, when I make friends I aim to be nice. I like niceness.

              However, my work persona is very different. It doesn’t care that you took offense at my lack of personal anecdotes of niceness reigning supreme. Because I work at a non-profit with a scientific agenda, and I aim to change laws through legislation and legal challenges. With work, I am brusque, attentive to detail, and a needler for specifics and the letter of the law.

              O’Hair wasn’t mean to her friends. She was definitely a hard-ass with an agenda when it came to work. That her work persona has come to represent her daily life is a discredit to her personal life, to whom few were privy.

        • Custador

          I quite agree. The one time in my adult life that I have ever assaulted another human being was because I witnessed him punch his girlfriend full-force, closed-fist in the face. Not that I’m chauvanist or think women can’t handle themselves, but I thought I’d offer him the option of trying it on a (then) twenty stone man instead of a six stone woman, and to my delight he did try it. I’m not sure that asking him nicely would have had the same effect as throwing him out of the (open, ground floor) window, smacking him up and down the street then giving his missus a lift to her parents’ house. You may think it’s macho bullshit, but some people only get a message if you write it one way.

          • mikespeir

            And there are times for that, Custador. You anecdote was perhaps one. But let me ask you this: do you think you solved the problem long-term? Did you bring him around to your way of thinking? Granted, in situations like that sometimes it’s the only answer, because something has to be done immediately. But you didn’t change him.

      • noen

        “Sometimes you have to be mean.”

        This is a fallacy. You never have to be mean spirited. Sometimes one needs to be forceful but you never need to be mean.

  • nazani14

    I recall seeing her on TV, and she didn’t strike me as rude or unpleasant in any way – maybe because the interviewer that day wasn’t a prick? Now if she was involved in some financial shenanigans, that’s another story. I wonder if she was really any more abrasive than, say, William F. Buckley, and it’s just that people weren’t used to seeing a woman who stood her ground in those days.
    Anyway, she didn’t deserve to be murdered.

    • Custador

      I have a similar thought whenever my Christian future sister in law talks about Dawkins and describes him variously as “shrill”, “angry” and/or “aggressive”. He’s forthright and he’s assertive – but he’s certainly not shrill or aggressive. Perhaps it’s because people unthinkingly accept that you cannot criticise a faith and he challenges that convention.

      • Mark the Pilgrim

        Yeah, the same thing happened with me and my religious girlfriend. She was convinced Dawkins was a jerk, despite the fact she couldn’t really give a proper example of what he does so offensive. Being assertive is not the same as being a jerk. Hitchens comes across as a jerk, even though he’s talking sense. Dawkins on the other hand remains civil despite having disagreements with the person he is debating with.

  • MahouSniper

    She was vocal and blunt, but she seemed like someone I would have liked.

  • Rechelle

    I think that it is quite possible that she was a victim of her times. Strong women are difficult for people to deal with. If she had been a man – would she have been viewed differently?

    • LRA


    • WMDKitty

      Without a doubt.

      Strong women are still characterized as “bossy”, “ball-busters” and “bitches”, just for being assertive.

      Meanwhile, men are PRAISED for being assertive, and even ENCOURAGED to be AGGRESSIVE.

      • Custador

        Am I the only man in the world who frikkin’ LOVES dominant women?! And not even in a whips-and-chains kind of way. Although…

        • Jasowah

          Nope. ^_^

      • Siberia

        This. x1000.

    • noen

      “If she had been a man – would she have been viewed differently?”

      No, flaming narcissists are viewed negatively regardless of gender. Madalyn went out of her way to be vicious and domineering to everyone around her. She hated everyone, including other atheists and was verbally abusive to anyone who opposed or disagreed with her in the slightest.

      “My mother was an evil person… Not for removing prayer from America’s schools… No, she was just evil. She stole huge amounts of money. She misused the trust of people. She cheated children out of their parents’ inheritance. She cheated on her taxes and even stole from her own organizations. She once printed up phony stock certificates on her own printing press to try to take over another atheist publishing company….Regardless of how evil and lawless my mother was she did not deserve to die in the manner she did.”

      I met her. Sounds about right.

  • Sarah

    I’ll say something good about her: she had guts. I wonder if she could have accomplished what she did at the time period she did it in if she hadn’t been so… mean. I don’t think she could have done it nicely. And if she did, all of the aftermath would have probably turned anyone into an angry person.

    • WMDKitty

      She had bigger balls than any of the men that opposed her.

      • WMDKitty

        Er, *who* opposed her, that is.

  • busterggi

    How can anyone say anything good about MMO?

    Unlike truly holy people she wasn’t a pedophile, didn’t rip off millions of dollars from followers who got meaningless prayers said (or not actually said for them, didn’t support genocide or any of other constructive things religious leader do.

  • claidheamh mor

    Well, people who told us one person can grow up to change the world are still MOSTLY a pack of liars.
    (Or, what Mad Magazine said. A liar is someone who throws bull, and a hypocrite is someone who believes the bull he is throwing. First time I saw that word.)

  • noen

    I met Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Unpleasant is not the word I would use to describe her. Flaming paranoid narcissistic asshole is a bit closer. It was at an American Atheists convention at DC and the rest of the atheists there didn’t improve on the overall image much either. Many of the convention goers were equally “unpleasant”. Though most never really bothered to leave their rooms and come to the convention. I think there was a lot of extra curricular activity going on since there wasn’t much to do in DC at that time anyway.

    The height of her insanity was the bus trip to visit the grave of Robert Ingersoll. The buses were the worst I’ve ever seen because she was too fucking cheap to pay for buses not 40 years old. When there was a problem with the drivers she instantly thought it was a conspiracy but really it was just the result of her stupid assholish treatment of other people and the fact that she tried to stiff the drivers from their pay.

    American Atheists at that time was little more than a viper’s den, a poorly run con peopled with other grifters looking to get their cut of the action.