2016-11-18
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.

She says her parents were atheists, even though they didn't label themselves that way. "It's almost like growing up gay," she says. "You know you're different."

In high school, she sang in the chorus but mainly worked on behalf of population and women's issues. Her senior yearbook picture shows a post-Twiggy blonde; benath is a quotation from the humanist George Bernard Shaw: "The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them."

Indifference wasn't Johnson's problem; she wanted to save the world. She majored in environmental science at Ramapo College and earned a second degree in political science and a master's from the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. She was headed for law school when, she says, "I got tired of school." It wasn't until Johnson saw O'Hair on television in 1978 that she discovered herself. "Oh, that's what I am," Johnson recalls thinking.

Today, Johnson lives in predominantly white and Republican Rockaway Township and drives her children to soccer games, piano lessons, and dance classes in a sports-utility vehicle. She swears that it wasn't her plan to be American Atheists' savior. After O'Hair disappeared, the board of American Atheists drafted Johnson, telling her that the organization wouldn't survive without her leadership. It was still a close call.

By the time O'Hair vanished, at age 77, the best days of American Atheists were long gone. Many believed O'Hair had driven her organization into the ground. In fact, her disappearance quickly became as enthralling as her presence had ever been. Countless news reports put O'Hair in Mexico, New Zealand, even Tahiti, living the good life on money donated by credulous freethinkers.

The most likely theory is that Madalyn, Jon, and Robin were killed for money, according to the assertions of authorities. Whatever happened, it left American Atheists rudderless, and Johnson stepped in to remake the organization in her own image. She says American Atheists now has 2,500 members, an increase from the group's low of 1,400, though still a far cry from the fanciful 70,000 that O'Hair liked to claim. But further gains may be hard to come by.

For one thing, America remains a fiercely religious country. An estimated 95% of Americans consistently profess a belief in a higher power. Social surveys from the past 20 years indicate less than 1% of Americans consider themselves real atheists, certain that God and an afterlife do not exist. And atheism, like Marxism and pacifism, remains a luxury of the privileged. Atheists are largely white, older, and well educated; hardly any minority members or anyone under 50 attended the Piscataway convention.

The movement has been damaged by squabbles among various secularist groups, feuds once fomented by O'Hair, who managed to alienate even her own followers. Tensions erupted in the early '80s when O'Hair, during the last American Atheists national convention in New Jersey, disbanded all state chapters. Most urgent now is straightening out the financial mess O'Hair left behind. "I want money and power, and I am going to get it," O'Hair once wrote in her diary, and she allegedly fulfilled her ambition on the backs of her followers, plundering the organization's accounts to support a lifestyle that included $1,000-a-day vacations, mink coats, and expensive cars. Yet she still owed more than $250,000 when she vanished.

Johnson says the group's finances are under control and that she can attract members by focusing American Atheists' agenda on the church-state issues that have proved critical to lobbies like the American Civil Liberties Union. But she may be too late. While American Atheists floundered, other secularist groups established themselves as serious advocates of the cause. In contrast, Johnson's group comes off like a bunch of wacky cousins.

In the end, success for American Atheists may depend on a reinvention of the O'Hair formula: relentless self-promoting. History shows that atheist movements in America usually grow up around charismatic leaders and die with them. Johnson hopes to avoid that fate by courting the public without offending. "Right or wrong, I'm just not comfortable being antagonistic," Johnson said.

She needs to work on her execution, though. When "Nightline" producers rebuffed Johnson because she attached a series of conditions to her planned appearance, she fired off a dense four-page protest that included remarks like, "Why should American Atheists provide ABC with millions of dollars in advertising revenues?" Any whiff of criticism of her or O'Hair provokes complaints about society's dislike of strong women. "The emphasis is always on the negative.... It's like how Barbara Streisand always gets trashed," Johnson says during an interview at a Staten Island, N.Y., studio where she tapes "Atheist Viewpoint," a cable show. The studio is the only venue where she has agreed to answer questions, and only after lengthy efforts to secure her cooperation. She explains that the burdens of being a working mother leave her no time.

"It's seven days a week, morning, noon, and night," she groans, referring to her job with American Atheists, which pays a meager $10,000 a year.

Complaints notwithstanding, Johnson vows to keep the faith. "My atheism is something that I hold very dear to my heart," she says. "It has enriched my life and made me a better person, which is why I have spent the last 20 years of my life working to share the 'good word' or 'good news' of atheism, to put a twist on a typical religious phrase."