Stepping Over Madalyn and Moving On

By Psiemens

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.


Anonymous said...

Instead of starting another atheist organization, why not affiliate with an existing one? O'hair is gone but Ellen Johnson now heads the American Atheists. She's not only very personable, she's a 'looker' too. She has made appearances on many major TV news programs.

SEO said...

I use You can also double check the site to see if there an established group already in your area.

Anonymous said...

To paraphrase the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, "I knew Madalyn O'Hair, I worked with Madalyn O'Hair...." Seriously I did, back in the 70s -- started a Dallas chapter of her group, and she was a bit of a whilrlwind, but I don't think she deserved her fate. Bobathee is right, the new American Atheists is a more kinder gentler group. There's also the FFRF, Freedom from Religion Foundation, a great group. I myself belong to an atheist "church" where we have the benefits of a church, such as the fellowship and someone to marry and bury you, etc, but no mythology and no superstition. Google freethought church north texas and see what's there, it might be a model for a local group for you.

Anonymous said...

seo mentioned and I'd like to second that motion. I live near Orlando and we have a local group that uses to help us communicate and plan get togethers. Check it out on line and if there is no local atheist organization, it can be fairly easy to start one. You should also definitely join larger organizations such as FFRF or American Atheists but you won't get the personal social interaction with them. I wouldn't worry too much about harassment from local Xtians. I've never seen any at our meetings or social affairs but you might want to hide your real name, etc. The organizer we have here goes by the handle "Orlando Jack".

Anonymous said...

I remember being shocked when Madalyn O'Hair was on the Phil Donohue show. I was a kid then, probably in sixth grade or so. She said things about Christianity that were absolutely unheard of in those days. People were (as many are now) so wrapped up in the idea that you can't criticize any religion (other than maybe some 'far out' sounding cult) in any way because it was disrespectful. So if you were agnostic or atheist, you kept your mouth shut.

I remember my impression of her at the time and she came off as a brash, hostile
know-it-all. I was raised in a liberal, Catholic Christian home but even this was crossing the line for me. It was hard to get past how arrogant she was--but, ironically, as religion is faith without proof, I couldn't see how much more arrogant the Christian position was compared to hers (at the time).

I would LOVE to see the videotape of that show today--I've even tried searching for it on YouTube. I wonder what my impression of her would be today. My parents have always believed in a separation of church and state so, in that, I was in full agreement with her. I just can't help but wonder if it was really just her manner that was so shocking at the time or did she use words now like 'delusional' or 'arrogant' that sound so offensive to believers, even today, but are actually very accurate adjectives when I see it from an atheist perspective.

What is it we should be embarrassed about regarding her? Maybe I'm just not up on her biography. I kind of feel like we owe her a debt for opening the door and exposing superstition.


Spirula said...

Ms. Murray seems to have gone rather overboard with her “un” niceness

So it's okay for a white guys like Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, the Pope et. al. to get up in public and spew hate, push legislation (through their lackey's), and somehow they evade (in general) these pejoratives in the press and public at large?

I'm not saying you are necessarily claiming this, but perspective is important here. Basically, you have a "pushy bitch" mentality permeating the culture of the 60-70's (which was steeped in misogyny. Remember, this is when feminism first began to gather public attention). It has never gone away either (you can sense it lurking underneath the blatherings of clowns like Chris Matthews (among others) in regards to Hillary Clinton).

Generally, Americans don't like assertive women. O'Hair was thoroughly vilified by the the churches and the press. She pushed back.

Abrasive? Uncouth? Crude? It's all POV.

Remember, when you criticise religion in America you are being disrespectful and will be vilified for doing so. But it's A-okay for them to blame everything from 9/11 to Columbine on atheists and secularists. That's what you are really up against.

I don't think atheists, agnostics, non-religious people really give her the credit she deserves. Your kids would probably be reciting Christian prayers in public schools without her efforts.

Anonymous said...

Great observations, Spirula. It helps to put this in a more historical context to see just how courageous her efforts were, even if you didn't like the way she put it out there. Sometimes society really has to be shaken up and to get angry to discuss and confront issues it would rather avoid. I've always thought she was the catalyst for change in this country.


Anonymous said...

Don't want Christians at your meetup? Meet on Sunday mornings, right at 11 am. That's what we do, and no-one has ever bothered us.

Our home page states clearly that Christians are not allowed. We had one join but was deleted right away.

Rich said...

But now we have the Brit Pat Condell who is a master at straight talk about religion, yet his sarcasm, wit, and personal delivery make him easier for people to accept. In today's climate if you have the talent to dish out mockery and ridicule in this way you are going to find a receptive audience for highly critical comment. The world is ready for it thanks to what the radicals have been up to and the openings made by HHHD (and don't forget A. C. Grayling another stalwart Brit).

If you are not viewing Pat Condell on YouTube you need to see him in action. Now that I composed this comment I see that I have named four Brits who are leading the charge. Hhuummmm.

AWLHEART said...

I absolutely love Madalyn Murray O’Hair! She was so intelligent. I don't find her arrogant at all. She was brutally honest. And as usual the truth hurts. If she was here today, I think most atheists would love her. Except the weak atheists who feel walking on glass while talking to christians is the best way to handle things. I'm not a glass walker so Madalyn is my type of atheist. Amazing woman who made history. I envy her.

I was a child and catholic at the time. I remember hearing about her. I remember thinking, "what's wrong with her ideas?" It all made sense to me even though I was so young. But I was a christian at the time. Guess I always had an open mind, but was just stuck in a box by force.

Anonymous said...

Gotta love Pat Condell

after hearing "I'd like to thank all the angry born-again christians..." I was sold :o)

Anonymous said...

If a man acts like a jerk, he's 'being assertive'. If a woman is assertive, she's considered to be a 'loud mouth bitch'. Shouldn't the content of their statements be the qualifier?

Anonymous said...

I really hate to see this, but I do not understand these new systems. I just want to post under my real name--Ryan--and I cannot seem to do that.

webmdave said...


Underneath the comment box, it says "Choose an identity."

You have the choice of using your Google ID, if you've registered one at some point. Or, you can click on the radio button that says "Nickname" and type in "Ryan." No registration is required to type in the "Nickname" box.

Anonymous said...

Okay, how's this?

Anonymous said...

Well I'm damned, it works.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to wish everybody a great holiday. I do not believe in any "christ-mass" but I do believe in having a good time--and for me that includes eating too much and a little extra brandy.

Thanx to the Webmaster for helping me out and for providing this site.

Merry Fucking Xmas.

Anonymous said...

Considering the state of schools today, I can't imagine how the lack of prayer has helped any.

webmdave said...

You're right, anonymous.

We should be teaching the Qu'ran and offering prayer to Allah five times a day in each and every state school.


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