Madalyn Murray O’Hair
Madalyn Elizabeth Mays was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 13, 1919. In her late 20s, after already having been married and divorced, she began referring to herself as Madalyn Murray—taking the last name of William Murray, with whom she had an adulterous relationship, and never married. At the age of 46, Madalyn married Richard O’Hair and became forevermore known at Madalyn Murray O’Hair—the poster-child of atheism in America during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
Relatively few people knew anything about Madalyn Murray the first 40 years of her life. She was a single mother of two boys, both born out of wedlock. According to Madalyn’s oldest son, William Murray III, his mother couldn’t keep a job because of her “dysfunctional, argumentative personality.” Such unemployment and instability led her to Marxism, which led her to atheism (“Marxism…,” 2012). After an unsuccessful attempt to defect to the Soviet Union through the Soviet Embassy in Paris in 1960, Madalyn returned home angry, agitated, and seemingly looking for trouble—which she found later that same year.
In the fall of 1960, “Madalyn found her cause” (Woodhead, 2006). Madalyn became irritated that students in her oldest son’s school participated in prayer and Bible reading, and filed a petition demanding they cease. After the Baltimore courts ruled against her, she appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court, who overwhelmingly ruled in her favor in 1963: school-sponsored Bible reading and prayer were banned in public schools. Americans were devastated; Madalyn was delighted. Her defining moment had arrived, and she positioned herself as “America’s number one atheist”—“the atheist—Madalyn Murray” (Le Beau, 2005).
“God’s Noisy Challenger”
Madalyn’s Supreme Court victory (in which she was actually a secondary litigant) was just the beginning. Two years later, she founded American Atheists, Inc. and served as its director for more than two decades. She filed a lawsuit against the city of Baltimore in hopes of forcing them to begin collecting property taxes from churches. She challenged the use of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, as well “in God we trust” on American currency. Madalyn went so far as to even file a lawsuit against NASA in hopes of banning government employees (i.e., astronauts) from saying prayers in outer space.
From lunar lawsuits to countless crude, contemptible public comments, O’Hair was a constant, noisy challenger to theists (and especially Christians) throughout America. “She relished her battle with traditional religion and she ridiculed believers she called ‘Christers’” (Woodhead, 2006). She claimed that God was “sadistic,” that the Bible was “nauseating,” and that the Lord’s Prayer was “uttered by worms groveling for meager existence in a traumatic, paranoid world” (McGrath, 2004, pp. 245-46). She wrote articles and books. She published anti-God posters and bumper stickers. She hosted numerous radio shows and was the first-ever guest on the Phil Donahue show in 1967. O’Hair offered little in the area of reasoned argumentation, but she rarely missed an opportunity to publicly pour scorn on the prayerful and mock the moral.
Madalyn’s Mean Demeanor and Murder
Christians were not the only ones in Madalyn’s crosshairs. Her oldest son (William) began to alienate himself in the 1970s when he began adopting a more Libertarian (as opposed to Marxist) form of atheism. O’Hair then seemed to lose it when William professed to being a follower of Christ in 1980. She repudiated him “entirely and completely for now and all times.” He was, according to her, “beyond human forgiveness.” Sadly, with William, she had what she called “a postnatal abortion” (Huckabee, 2012).
Although O’Hair was popular with many atheists around the country, those who spent much time with her soon discovered that she was viciously rude and profanely vulgar, even to employees and donors to her work (McGrath, p. 250; Van Biema, 1997). In fact, it was former, disgruntled American Atheist employee, David Waters, who, in 1995, abducted, mutilated, and brutally murdered O’Hair, her youngest son, and her granddaughter. O’Hair died at the age of 76.
Though many in the older generation will forever remember the name Madalyn Murray O’Hair, today’s younger generation knows little about one of America’s most famous (and repulsive) atheists. Some Christians seem so uninformed about the name that they do not hesitate using it for their daughters. I recently taught a Bible class full of teenagers—20 in all. I asked them if they knew who Madalyn Murray O’Hair was. One thought she was a nurse. One believed that she was a character in Gone with the Wind. Only one teen in the entire class knew of the atheist—Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
Today’s Militant Atheists
It wouldn’t surprise me if 50% or more of Americans were unaware of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist. Still, though O’Hair’s infamy has languished, her ungodly effects on this country will be forever felt. The Supreme Court ruling (50 years ago this year) that banned school sponsored Bible reading and prayer has done nothing but expedite the production of a more hedonistic, disrespectful segment of society, who, like Pharaoh, arrogantly question, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice…?” (Exodus 5:2).
Perhaps the most negative effect of O’Hair’s life on America was that she seemed to pave the way for a whole new kind of atheist—militant atheists. Her outspoken vitriol toward God, the Bible, and Christians undoubtedly served to embolden and mobilize more zealous atheists in recent years. From Christopher Hitchens’ New York Times bestseller god is Not Great to Brian Flemming’s film The God Who Wasn’t There; from Dan Barker’s defiant, “go-to-hell” to God comments in debates to science symposiums that arrogantly seek to put atheistic, evolutionary science “in place of God;” O’Hair’s hateful, outspoken criticisms of Christianity for over three decades no doubt served to cultivate an entire crop of militant atheists.
In the face of such defiant unbelief, Christians must be resolved to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). God is serious about His people teaching and defending His Word (Acts 4:20). In our proclamation of the Truth, however, we must not sink to the level of the O’Hairs of the world and disparage those who hate us. Rather, as Jesus taught, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “Be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). May God help us to live according to the Truth as we seek to defend it.
*Originally published in Gospel Advocate, February 2013, 155:16-17.
Huckabee (2012), “Undoing an Atheist’s Legacy,” June 11, http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/huckabee/index.html#/v/1684616589001/undoing-an-atheists-leg.
Le Beau, Bryan F. (2005), The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair (New York: New York University).
“Marxism Led Madalyn Murray O’Hair to Atheism” (2012), World Net Daily, May 10, http://www.wnd.com/2012/05/marxism-led-madalyn-murray-ohair-to-atheism/.
McGrath, Alister (2004), The Twilight of Atheism (New York: Doubleday).
Van Biema, David (1997), “Where’s Madalyn?” Time, 149:56-60, February 10.
Woodhead, Leslie, Director (2006), “Godless in America: Madalyn Murray O’Hair.” Documentary. Reggie Nadelson, Narrator. http://documentarystorm.com/godless-in-america-madalyn-murray-ohair.