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.

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.

The new office is close to New York City, the nation's media center, and to Washington, D.C., where American Atheists hopes to establish a political foothold. "We're changing our image," says John Obst, the group's Maryland state director. "The organization is more upbeat."

Last year on Good Friday, when much of the country solemnized the crucifixion of Jesus, Johnson unveiled the new version of American Atheists in Piscataway, N.J. At first, it seemed a lot like the old version, complete with O'Hair's sense of both persecution and privilege and her disdain for faith. Bumper stickers on the cars outside proclaim "Jesus Is Lard," and posters show a God-like figure sodomizing Uncle Sam. "Religion is really the culture of death," Ron Barrier, American Atheists' spokesman, tells about 75 attendees. "This week is a zombie festival predicated on death."

Johnson's keynote address is largely a polemic against the prevailing religious culture. "From cradle to grave, religious superstition pervades our lives, and it is not by accident, my friends," she says. She ridicules the notion that students might want school prayer. "The very same students who go to schools with rings in their tongues and lips? Oh, puh-leeez!"

Flashing the techniques and scorn of a Southern televangelist, Johnson runs down the standard litany of school-prayer abuses, reading testimonials from victimized atheists and, to the delight of the delegates scattered in half the available seats, making easy fun of religious belief.

But hints of a new tack are also discernible, from the baby-boomer-friendly theme Johnson chose for the gathering--"Supporting Our Atheist Youth and Families"--to her insistence on setting aside a room for day care.

The difference is style rather than substance. In place of O'Hair stands a polished 44-year-old housewife with the demeanor of a den mother. She banishes two protesters from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), not because their sign billing Jesus as a vegetarian might offend, but because they're tacky. One protestor is dressed like a cow.

Johnson has established a Washington lobbying office, and earlier this year she snared New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, the Democrat and physicist who defeated Christian rightist Mike Pappas, to address the organization. Last year, the federal government flew Johnson to Seattle to testify on religion in public schools at a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Johnson doesn't shed much light on her life. She won't talk about where she lives, her children, or her husband.

But from interviews with Johnson and a variety of other sources and records, her background can be sketched in. She grew up in Midland Park, N.J., in the late '50s and early '60s--the high-water mark of churchgoing in the United States. Her hometown remains 96% white and largely Republican, despite changes in America's social topography.

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