Growing up Baptist in the 60’s and 70’s, the name of the woman who helped “kick God out of the public schools” was infamous. Although this Supreme Court ruling was decided in 1963, a year and a half after I was born, as a Christian teenager I knew Madalyn Murray O’Hair to be an evil, hateful woman, and an enemy of all that was righteous and moral. Unfortunately, her name was the first I ever linked with the word “atheist”.
Most movements have characters of whom they’d rather not claim. Christianity itself has hordes that have bruised and tarnished the cause of Christ. Aside from the different characters involved in the various crusades of long ago, who can forget the more recent embarrassments caused by televangelist Jim Baker, numerous Catholic priests (not to mention their perverted Protestant counterparts), and most recently the reverent Ted Haggard. Most Christians I know feel disappointment in such men but seem to easily forgive and forget, ready to defend them in a moment as, after all, they are susceptible to temptation like everybody else.
Although Ms. Murray advanced freedom from religion in our public schools by having public prayer and Bible reading at these institutions made illegal, I think it was her persona that caused the most damage to atheism. I have read that she was a brash woman – often coming across rudely and crudely. It does seem true that “nice woman seldom change history”, but Ms. Murray seems to have gone rather overboard with her “un” niceness. It is unfortunate that many people from my generation, at least in the United States, link atheism with Madalyn Murray O’Hair and somehow have the idea that atheism and a rude/crude/nastiness walk hand in hand. This is the hurdle that I speak of needing to step over.
Now I cannot speak for atheists historically, as far as whether or not Madalyn was rather a bit of a thorn in their side in her day, but I do feel that I will need to make excuses for her from time to time from those who, like myself, had only seen atheism (up until this past year) as cause for which she fought. I am thankful that I can now quote men like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in the defense of atheism, but many contemporary Christians quickly judge these men by the names of their books with no knowledge at all to what it is that fills them. I suppose part of the problem, as a whole in defending atheism, is the difficult task of getting through minds which have been so tightly closed for such a long time that a crowbar is often rendered useless.
I bring up all of these things, especially the Madalyn dilemma, as I have heard the encouragement through books and the Internet that atheists need to “step out of the closet”. Though this is something I want to do, frankly, I feel rather intimidated –even afraid. Most of my family now knows, some have been loving, understanding and supportive, and others have dutifully warned me of my future burning in hell. My husband, who is still a conservative Christian, though he has given up church (not wanting to try and explain that his wife is an unbeliever) will not take kindly to my “coming out” in a public way.
In this next year, I would like to start an atheist society in my town where others with like minds can get together as a think tank and, of course, as support. I have a very peaceful temperament and know that, besides dealing with my husband, I may have to deal with militant and argumentative Christians who may well come to meetings out of curiosity or a need to simply disrupt the “evil force” of atheism.
I would appreciate any suggestions on starting an atheist society and possible implications of attendees who do not come for enlightenment but for argument. Also, I would like to hear from some of the good folk who were atheists during the time of Madalyn Murray O’Hair to hear, first hand, what it was like to be an atheist during her “popularity” within the movement. Perhaps your advise will help me to get over Madalyn , at least in my own mind, and help me move forward toward helping myself and others begin the process of “coming out” into the light of confessed atheism.