Who Was Madalyn Murray O'Hair?

Ten years after her mysterious disappearance and gruesome murder, the legacy of the famous atheist is still up for grabs.

BY: Rebecca Phillips

 

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"I found more animosity among the atheist community toward her [than among Christians]. They felt like she had a golden opportunity and had blown it," Seaman said. "She couldn't delegate authority, she was mean to her followers, she was unappreciative of their sacrifices. They worked for a pittance because they believed in her cause, and she would curse them and write terrible things about them and fire them.

"As time went on, Madalyn got more and more dictatorial, so she made a huge number of enemies in her own camp."

She was a "deeply corrupt, depraved human being," wrote Texas journalist Ted Dracos in an email interview. Dracos researched O'Hair's life for his 2003 book "UnGodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair."

"As I was, a lot of people were attracted to Madalyn's staunch stances--the goodness of her Jeffersonian ideals when it came to religion and governance," Dracos continued. "Alas, they were taken in by her. Seduced by her brilliance."

Nevertheless, many atheists today credit her with leading the way on the issues that are most important to them. Non-believers in America today--numbering as much as 14.1% of the U.S. population, according to one study--are a diverse group. Ranging from devout atheists and rationalists to secular humanists and other freethinkers, they are united in their vision of complete separation of church and state. Many say O'Hair's activism was the forerunner of current church-state debates, from the current "Under God" controversy to the drive to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. money to fights over the public display of the Ten Commandments.

"She opened such a Pandora's box," said Seaman. "A lot of the things that are in the news right now are things that Madalyn did long before--like the Pledge case. She filed a lawsuit to get the Ten Commandments removed from a state capital in Austin, and she filed a suit to remove the cross from the city seal of Los Angeles. [These suits] got in the news all the time; they raised the nation's consciousness of the question of what is church-state separation."

Not all agree about her leading role in this process, however. "The constitutional question of separation of church and state has been adjudicated for more than 200 years in this country," Dracos argued.

There are a lot of "people who hate her and who think she's done more harm than good for the cause of atheism," said Marcus Dunavan, President of Seattle Atheists, an atheist social and activism group. "They see her as the atheist equivalent of a Christian fundamentalist."

O'Hair's death was as dramatic and controversial as her life. In August 1995, at age 76, she mysteriously disappeared, along with two of her family members, son Jon Garth Murray, 40, and granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, 30, who was William's estranged daughter. When they were first reported missing, many thought the trio had run off with funds stolen from American Atheists; about $500,000 in gold coins were also missing from the organization. It wasn't until six years later, in early 2001, that their remains were discovered on a 5000-acre Texas ranch. The killings were particularly grisly--O'Hair had been dismembered and her body was only identified by matching the serial number on her metal hip replacement. David Waters, a former employee of O'Hair's organization, was convicted of the plot to extort and murder them. He died in prison of cancer in early 2003.

Whether or not O'Hair's cases had a marked effect on future legal battles, her unabashed atheism in a period marked by religious zeal during the Cold War made nonbelievers feel more at home in the U.S.

"Even though she wasn't liked, she got people talking, and for that she deserves a place in history," said Dunavan. He said she remains an inspiration for atheists today, many of whom still feel alienated in a dominant religious culture.

"We shouldn't deify her for it," agreed Britton, "but we should use what she did to carry forth her cause."

It's a sentiment America's most famous atheist certainly would have agreed with.

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