The Martha Stewart of Atheism

Ellen Johnson, the successor of the 'most hated woman in America,' makes American Atheists family-friendly

When Ellen Johnson walks into a room, the first thing you notice is that she looks nothing like the last grande dame of freethinking atheism, Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Johnson is a tall, blond, Angie Dickinson-slim soccer mom (her words) from suburban New Jersey who is dressed in a pastel outfit with matching pumps.

On this spring day, she has convened a national gathering of American Atheists Inc. O'Hair was an unkempt bullhorn of a woman who reveled in her role as the most hated woman in America, an epithet she earned after winning the 1963 Supreme Court case that banned prayer in public schools and made her a celebrity.

From then until the day she vanished four years ago, O'Hair was atheism in America--and her creation, American Atheists, was a major force in keeping religion out of public life and tweaking America's delicate religious sensibilities. For decades, O'Hair was a favorite of the TV talk-show circuit who could curse like a sailor and counted pornographer Larry Flynt among her allies. Then, in 1995, she disappeared from her Texas home, along with her son Jon Garth Murray, 42; her granddaughter Robin Murray-O'Hair, 32; and $629,500 in American Atheists' funds.

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Ellen Johnson, a longtime member of American Atheists' executive board and a personal friend of O'Hair's, was drafted to lead the movement out of the wilderness where O'Hair had dumped it and make it newly palatable to the mainstream.

"We're civil rights workers is what we are, working for a cause that's very important," Johnson says. Her cause is the defense of a besieged minority in a religion-made world. "It's not something I want to do for the rest of my life, but I will if I have to."

But the question is whether anyone, even this Martha Stewart of atheism, can save what used to be the most venerable, visible manifestation of unbelief in the nation's history.

Johnson has made a promising start, bringing the organization's shaky finances under control, stanching the hemorrhaging membership, and reorganizing some of the state directors whom O'Hair had swept aside in her mania for control. And in the most public sign that life for American Atheists will go on after Madalyn, Johnson moved the group's headquarters from Austin, Texas, to Cranford, N.J.

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