Secularism's Saint

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

BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips

 

Continued from page 1

The organization O'Hair founded, American Atheists, is often regarded as a more reactionary organization compared to other secularist groups. Do you think the organization is her main legacy, or it is the prayer case?
That's a good question. First of all, I'm not so sure that the direct connection between Madalyn and the organization American Atheists will stick, or even sticks now. I think most people just associate Madalyn Murray O'Hair with being an atheist. To the general public, it doesn't matter which particular atheist group you belong to.

I don't think the association hurts or helps American Atheists, but I think it's interesting that when I go out and speak to groups and I mention the Murray case, no one remembers-by the name of it-what the Murray case was. For simplicity's sake, I usually say it's the case that, along with Shemp, removed prayer from school. Even though it took a number of cases for that to happen, that case still stands. When you read constitutional law books, that's still the case that's usually cited.

So when people hear word atheist today, do they immediately think of her?
Oh, I think they do. The point I made is that I don't they associate her necessarily with American Atheists, the organization. But when you mention atheism, I think people think of her.

Do you think that will continue for long, since she's no longer alive?
Yes. I don't know for how much longer. She had another 15 minutes of fame when they discovered her body, but sometimes it takes a little bit of work to get people to remember her when I go out to speak.

Was O'Hair completely anti-religion, or was it more that she so strongly supported the separation of church and state?
I think she was anti-organized religion, and probably anti-religion as well. But the position she took was, you can believe whatever you want to believe, just don't inflict it on me. So her battleground was the separation of church and state.

What do you think Madalyn would have thought of the Pledge of Allegiance case?
She talked about it quite often. She absolutely wanted "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance. She hammered away at that consistently. Never had any luck.

Your book implies the conversion of her son William to Christianity affected her deeply. How so?
Well I think she truly loved her son, and they were joined in bringing that case. I think she could have lived with it if he had just converted and then gone quietly off to live in the suburbs. But instead, he became her prime challenger and denounced her publicly and regularly and her organization. That, I'm sure, is what hurt her.

Did you interview him for the book?
I exchanged emails with him. He wouldn't meet with me to talk about it.

And he still is opposed to her as he once was?
Oh, yes. Very much so.

How do you think Madalyn Murray O'Hair would react to the amount of religion in the public sphere today, especially in the Bush presidency?
She knew it was coming. Her last years were under the Reagan administration, which was even more so. I don't think she was surprised. I think there were moments when she felt it was a losing battle-that she was never going to succeed with her goals. She knew it would be a long-term quarrel.

What do you think were her hopes for the future before she died? Was there anything that she still had left to do?
One of the issues that was around for her right down to the time of her death, was to eliminate the tax exemption for churches, and she never succeeded. I think that really became, in many respects, her major battle after Murray.

Beyond Madalyn, do you think your run-of-the-mill atheist in America today has a voice? Many think that they don't.
No, I don't think they do. People have people have become reasonably tolerant of atheists. I don't think there's any of that antagonism that existed in the 50s or early 60s. But I think if the atheists were to try to mobilize in any kind of major political way, there would be a lot of resistance to that. So I don't think they have much political clout-certainly not like the conservative Christian movement.

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