Sunday, January 24, 2010

Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a hero worthy of song

I remember back in the early 60s when Madalyn Murray O’Hair was instrumental in getting mandatory prayer and Bible readings removed from Public School practices. As Christians, we (my mother and I) were absolutely shocked! Mother was always open-minded and curious about diverse religious beliefs. She avidly collected and read books: the writings of Josephus, The Satanic Bible, Lost Books of the Bible (anything on the fringes or that was no longer canon), Dead Sea Scrolls, Egyptian Book of the Dead, Edgar Cayce, Numerology, Palmistry, Tarot, all kinds of Mythology, Book of Mormon (we studied with the Mormons for awhile during the endless quest for the Truth that will be Found in the Next Religion, a journey that included Baptists, charismatics like Assembly of God and Pentecostal, and many others including several years spent as Jehovah’s Witnesses). She openly welcomed friendship with Pagans, Satanists, and all manner of Christians [eh… Catholics? Not so much. Catholics were viewed as lost. I accompanied my Catholic friend to church once, and she was very worried that my soul might be damaged by the Holy Water.] I was interested in her list of studies too, and added on a bit of Eastern thought and astrology.

But Atheism? The very idea of it was unthinkable. Shocking. During that time period, some other things that were shocking and unthinkable to the populace were interracial relationships and sex-change operations, so if you didn't live through it you can get the general idea how restrictive our society was then.

Here is an hour-long documentary called Godless in America (broken up into six 10-minute videos) telling Madalyn's story.

| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 |

Madalyn Murray O'Hair was called "the most hated woman in America," and because of my religious background and history, I understand that very well. We hated her too. Now that I have grown up, I deeply appreciate the bold moves that she made then. I would even compare this initial act of battling religious indoctrination in schools to Rosa Parks' refusing to sit in the back of the bus. One of the main differences is that atheists are still fighting for legal equality. Madalyn and her family had to endure death threats and open scorn for the rest of their lives... until they (all but son Bill) were murdered (although that was not the motivation for the murders).
[article on Crime] O'Hair herself told Life magazine back in 1963 that it would only take one crazy person to end her life: "These death threats are no picnic...I think sooner or later some night some nut is going to get a message from Jesus Christ and I'm going to have had it. But as long as I'm still round I'm going to keep on being a squeaking wheel."

She went on to found the American Atheist Society and the American Atheist Press right here in Austin, Texas.
[Bio source material] The purpose of the center she created was to provide support for practicing atheists, and give them the necessary materials to defend their views. She also created the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives. O’Hair published a magazine, American Atheist, and broadcasted information about her cause on the radio and television. She appeared on shows hosted by personalities such as: Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson, trying to reach the largest audience possible. She also gave lectures at various campuses such as Dartmouth, Harvard, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania. By the early 1970s, O’Hair had become the leading proponent for Atheism in the United States.

Probably the most ironic part of her tale is what happened with her son, named William "Bill" Murray. He drifted as far away from his mother as possible, becoming a born-again preacher whose organization seeks to establish Christian dominance over all things, a grossly mis-named organization with a deep misunderstanding of the word freedom: Religious Freedom Coalition. He tells his side of the story in this bitter editorial piece.

You can learn more about the murders, and the bodies that were cut up and buried for 5 years before one of the killers directed the police to them, in the quoted links and videos above. I don't know if it's true or not that Wm Murray gave his mother a Christian burial against her wishes (at the end of the video series above, it shows their unmarked graves), he claims it didn't happen, but it sounds plausible to me that someone else would have held prayer over her. In this video is one of our local singer-songwriters, Gurf Morlix with a song called "Madalyn's Bones." He talks about her in the intro some, what he says about her personality is not meant to be mean, it's just true. She was not exactly known for politeness, to say the least. The song itself has some dark humor here and there, but given Madalyn's attitude about death, I think she would have appreciated this homage a lot more than the prayers.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Lots of people still don't believe that freedom OF religion includes freedom FROM religion too. And I don't doubt that she was an unpleasant woman sometimes or hard to be around. Any 110% committed activist I've ever known has been that way. They have to be. They have to be stubborn and intractable so that they can withstand the abuse that will come their way as activists. "Nice" people get worn down after a while.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Well done.

Blueberry said...

One of the articles I read made the point that at that time, freedom of religion was generally viewed as freedom to choose a religion, not freedom from religion or the freedom to not choose one. I think most people still feel that way.

It is true about activists, esp. for unpopular causes. You have to be able to take the heat, because there will be lots of it.

Booksteve said...

Having watched her quite often on Phil Donahue's show during my formative years, I have to say I really don't think she was one of those folks that were SOMETIMES unpleasant. I have to think if she had somehow been less unpleasant she would have made a better case for her cause. As it is, her attitude consistently turned me off even though, at least in my case, the message was getting through. A strong, fascinating woman, though.

Blueberry said...

Good point, Booksteve. Seems to me that the PR could have been in a lot more diplomatic hands, plus obviously she was a poor Human Resources manager, to say the least in each case.

She's the one who made the unthinkable "thinkable" and I am very grateful for that.