Secularism's Saint

A biographer of Madalyn Murray O'Hair explains the goals, impact, and legacy of America's most hated atheist.

Bryan Le Beau is Dean of the University of Missouri at Kansas City's College of Arts & Sciences. He is the author of many books on American history and religion. His latest book is a biography, "The Atheist," about Madalyn Murray O'Hair. O'Hair gained notoriety for bringing the 1963 case Murray v. Curlett to the Supreme Court. The case, along with several similar cases, abolished school prayer in American public schools. She founded the organization American Atheists. O'Hair disappeared with one of her sons and her granddaughter in 1995. Her remains were found in early 2001. Le Beau spoke with Beliefnet recently about O'Hair's court case, American Atheists, and the battles she left unfinished.



You've written a few books about religion in America. What interested you in the story of this famous atheist?


I was interested in investigating the role of religion in Cold War America. I was particularly interested in Roman Catholicism, interestingly enough, because there were so many Catholic leaders involved in the anti-Communist movement. This period was probably the highest point of religion and religiosity in America, measured in traditional ways. So I bumped into the idea of atheistic Communism, and then I ran into the Murray case, and then into Madalyn Murray O' Hair. I thought I should look at the other side of the coin here, not just at religion, but at those who professed to be atheist in Cold War America. That's what led me into Madalyn.

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If Madalyn Murray O'Hair had lived in a different time period, or even now, would she have been the same kind of person she was? Or was she such a strong atheist personality because she was in that anti-Communist, anti-atheist environment?
The timing directly impacted on her public visibility. The fact that she rose to prominence as she brought the Murray case during the waning years of the Cold War, at a time when people just did not understand and were viscerally opposed and antagonistic toward atheism, gave her the platform that she needed to gain national recognition.

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