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The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair

by Bryan F. Le Beau
New York University Press (New York, 2003). 386 pp., index.

Reviewed by
Conrad F. Goeringer

Madalyn Murray O'Hair repeatedly insisted that she wished no biography written about her before or after her death. The woman who attracted notoriety for her important role in the historic combined cases of Murray v. Curlett/Abington Township v. Schempp which helped abolish mandatory, unison prayer and Bible verse recitation in the public schools was, in crucial respects, a very private person. She left behind an extensive collection of writings, however, including an account of that battle which ended at the U.S. Supreme Court. Her 1995 disappearance and murder, along with son Jon Garth Murray and granddaughter (adopted daughter) Robin Murray O'Hair, propelled her into the public spotlight once again more than three decades after her confrontation over school prayer. The resultant fallout has been a mélange of Internet gossip, outrageously inaccurate "celebrity journalism" exposes such as a misleading piece in Vanity Fair, and a crank book complete with psychic visions and other speculations.

Bryan F. Le Beau's work The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair is the first work out of the literary stable that makes a serious effort to appreciate her life and ideas, and to locate this amazing female reformer in the context of modern history. Dogmatic critics of O'Hair will find little grist for their mills here. There are no "access" exposés or lurid tales. Le Beau takes a surprisingly objective, even at times sympathetic view toward the person Life magazine glibly branded "The most hated woman in America." He is certainly no apologists for O'Hair, though, and reveals what even many of us who admired MMOH already knew - she was a flawed and temperamental human being, exhibiting traits which played a Janus-like role throughout her lifelong struggles against mindless social conformity, political orthodoxy, and especially religion.

Le Beau approaches his task of biographer as an academic, relying extensively on primary and secondary source materials such as O'Hair's own public writings, her FBI file, and a partial collection of diaries obtained by an attorney in a tax auction. He also calls upon news clippings and magazine articles to flesh out the time line of O'Hair's life, as well as recollections of informants many of whom once embraced her as a modern day heroine for the Atheist cause.

The introduction tells the casual reader who Madalyn Murray O'Hair was, and places her within a "freethought" tradition beginning with Socrates ("charged with disbelieving in the gods of the state and put to death..."), through the various strains of Unitarian belief and British philosophical though, the Enlightenment, and the American tradition of intellectual skepticism embraced by Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Clarence Darrow, Felix Adler, H. L. Mencken and Octavius Brooks Frothingham. From there, Le Beau discusses the Humanist movement, and then ventures into an examination of the cold war, a period of time where public profession of religion was a considered a badge of political loyalty and wholesomeness. This latter theme emerges later in the book as an important element in comprehending O'Hair's place in American history.

Le Beau explores the legal and cultural battle over school prayer and related First Amendment issues going back to Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the McCollum (1948) and Zorach (1952) cases, and Roy Torcaso's historic legal fight to abolish religious oaths as a qualification for holding a public office. His summary of these and other cases should provide any reader a workable understanding of the establishment clause, and how it applied to the legal disputes over classroom prayer. Le Beau articulates the various aspects of the Engel v. Vitale suit, which examined student recitation of a "nondenominational" prayer composed by the New York Board of Regents, then segues neatly into the Murray v. Curlett case and a companion suit filed by the Schempp family. Unlike many uninformed critics of Mrs. O'Hair, Le Beau does not marginalize the Murray case. Indeed, he discusses the problems O'Hair encountered, her tireless work in lining up financial support for the legal trek she faced and the opprobrium - even violence - the Murray family endured. As elsewhere in the book, there are comments made by O'Hair, such as her response to an editorial in Life magazine pronouncing her "the most hated woman in America."

We find the Bible to be nauseating, historically inaccurate, replete with the ravings of commandments. We find God to be sadistic, brutal, and a representation of hatred, vengeance ... This is not appropriate untouchable dicta to be forced on adult or child. The business of the public schools, where attendance is compulsory, is to prepare children to face the problems on earth, not to prepare for heaven - which is a delusional dream of the unsophisticated minds of the ill-educated clergy.

The Atheist is filled with other verbatim comments taken from O'Hair's own writings, or interviews in the media. Entire chapters are generously peppered with these quotes including selections from An Atheist Epic which gave her account of the school prayer case, to other works such as War in Viet Nam, All About Atheists, An Atheist Speaks, and What on Earth Is an Atheist! The sheer narrative power of these texts gives insight into O'Hair's analytic mind, witty reasoning, and compelling style of writing. Even critics within the freethought movement may see O'Hair in a new and more favorable light after reading these passages. She was a quick study, keen, and articulate.

This book is no whitewash of O'Hair, however. Her circle of critics that emerged over the years, including former employees and associates, receive their fair hearing, although their attacks on "the most hated woman of America" and her family focus mostly on issues of personality and management style. One scold who felt compelled to put her criticisms in book form described O'Hair as "a paranoidal (sic) type of personality with obsessive, fixed ideas," who was "rebellious against all existing authority, and tyrannical in conduct in forcing her will and ideas on others."

Another pundit claimed that "Madalyn Murray has brought more discord to adherents of the free thought movement, more bad publicity in the press, more hatred by the public at large toward freethinkers, rationalists, secularists and humanists than have all the combined theologians from the beginning of man's fight for freedom."

Unfortunately, LeBeau allows such hyperbolic rhetoric to stand unchallenged. One weakness in his book is a lack of balance regarding the personal assessment of The Atheist. At times, Mrs. O'Hair is painted as almost a caricature. Those who knew and admired her will find that her persona is poorly defined in Le Beau's book despite the access he enjoyed to a sample collection of diaries and other sources. Biographers, of course, cannot compel witnesses to somebody's life to speak frankly, and often the lure of playing to critics, however flamboyant they may be, is a temptation difficult to resist. One senses that Le Beau may have realized this, and hence relied so heavily on Mrs. O'Hair's own words and writing in hopes of possibly providing that elusive balance. These make the case for O'Hair The Atheist and social activist, but the chapters are woefully lacking on input from those who had less temperamental and belligerent views of O'Hair and her family, or who found the grande dame of Atheism to often be humorous, generous to a fault, and a woman of astonishing dedication to her ideals. This, of course, may be the responsibility of O'Hair's friends and associates who, in the days following the disappearance and subsequent revelations of the family's horrific murders, chose - for whatever reason - not to comment and speak out. What kind of effort Bryan Le Beau made in locating these people is difficult to say, but it is one omission that tarnishes The Atheist, and deserves inclusion in future biographical assessments about Mrs. O'Hair whether from Le Beau or other thoughtful authors.

One also senses that while Le Beau put considerable effort into assembling thousands of "facts" about O'Hair and the era she lived in, there are still critical parts of the puzzle of her life that remain missing It would be interesting, for instance, to know what motivated some of her critics in order to better assess their claims about The Atheist and her movement. Le Beau and many others attempting to write an O'Hair biography may fall short in this respect; they compile their chapters-and-verses essentially as outsiders, and may not be privy to much of the information known to those closer to the subject of this work. Two cases are worth noting.

Le Beau relies perhaps too weightily on William J. Murray's autobiographical exploit, My Life Without God. Searching for fragments of truth amidst any family feud, including the combustible Murrays, is a daunting enterprise. It was surprising, though, to see Bill Murray's accounts providing so much foundation for elements of Le Beau's chronology and description of events. Even by his own account, much of My Life Without God covers events during which William Murray was nearly comatose thanks to a lifestyle of drug and alcohol abuse. Mrs. Murray and her other son, Jon, stated that much of the book was riddled with inaccuracies and fictions. It may have been, and sorting out the truth from the exaggerations and inventions (whether fueled by cocaine or sheer vindictiveness and resentment) may prove impossible.

The other involves some of the critics who were informants for Le Beau and whose own record of truthfulness may need to be questioned more critically. In the era of the "whistleblower," of course, it is de rigueur to smear and undermine anyone who calls attention to organizational abuse, excess, and other wrong-doing. But the O'Hairs rarely resorted to attacking their numerous critics in public, although they made an exception in the case of David Waters, the man eventually unmasked as the mastermind behind the family's 1995 kidnapping, extortion, and murder. Again, not being an "insider" and perhaps not talking to the right people or having access to complete records, Le Beau is put in the position of having to regurgitate statements unflattering to Mrs. O'Hair, and leaving their veracity for the reader to ponder without benefit of further information. One ex-staffer, for instance, quoted in The Atheist was noted for making outrageous and unsubstantiated claims of financial impropriety by Mrs. O'Hair, including charges that her alleged pilfering of the organizations' accounts was on a scale even greater that the Jim Bakker-PTL scandal. Only in death were the O'Hairs exonerated of these sorts of lurid claims, a fact not widely acknowledged in the press. Since the recovery of the O'Hair family remains, in fact, even critics acknowledge that the tales of overstated wealth may well have contributed to the violent deaths.

Le Beau does take a surprisingly objective tack in assessing the role and impact of Madalyn O'Hair's "crusade." He includes the quote from Time magazine in 1997 that noted, "what became a sideshow for the public remained a vital issue for the small groups of people whose isolation she had broken."

O'Hair's outspoken critics who broke ranks with her over any number of issues, should even grudgingly admit that she was a force of nature. One writer speaks of her "role in history," and another tells of how O'Hair seemed able to connect with those disparate Atheists and other heretically minded people throughout the years. "It reassured them that they weren't the only ones on earth to feel this way." Said another, admitting that while O'Hair had her share of faults, "What she's accomplished is more than any of her critics have ... Maybe she isn't the best leader for atheists any longer, but let's see if someone more qualified steps forward..."

And what did O'Hair have to say about her fellow Atheists?

In his chapter "Why I Am an Atheist" (borrowed from the title of one of O'Hair's books), Le Beau does a credible job in excavating how O'Hair perceived the Atheist-materialist philosophy. He cites that famous quote from the Murray v. Curlett case: "An Atheist loves his fellow man instead of a god. An Atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now, here on earth, for all men together to enjoy..."

The reader is also given an insightful summary of how O'Hair viewed the different "kinds" of Atheists, from the sectarian "who flourished only in bitter internecine warfare and factional strife" and whose entire energy was devoted to attacking other Atheist groups, and was therefore "destructive to our cause," to the Opinion Atheist "who made his opinions known at every opportunity, whether he was well informed or not, and whether it was appropriate or not."

"Freddy the Free Loader Atheist," utilized the services of the movement but would not contribute financial or other support. And there was the "Messiah Atheist," whom Le Beau describes accurately as "those who following without question the teachings of Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and others."

In addition, there are primitive, discreet, philosophic and practical Atheists, all with their strengths and shortcomings. This section alone should be a rewarding read for any nonbeliever, whether critic or supporter of Mrs. O'Hair.

Le Beau goes on to cover Mrs. O'Hair's career following the historic school prayer decision. He provides a concise history of the subsequent legal battles she and American Atheists fought in the wake of the Murray v. Curlett decision, such as the effort to challenge the federal "In God We Trust" motto, end government-sponsored religious displays like nativity crèches, and the fight against religious oaths for jurors. Other cases involved challenging prayer at city council meetings, tax exemptions on property held by religious groups (Andrews v. Monson, 1980), and prayer at high school graduations.

There are also sections on how O'Hair surveyed the political and cultural landscape in America following the tempestuous 1960s and early 70s. She had been "critical" of Presidents Ford and Carter, but considered Ronald Reagan as the most dangerous threat against "the premises upon which our nation is founded." For O'Hair, the Reagan era was Thermidor, an invitation to return the country to the dark days of the McCarthy era with its congressional witch hunts, intolerance of dissent and persecution of political radicals. It was in that religiously-charged cultural climate that O'Hair and her son, Jon Garth Murray, saw the day when the school prayer decision would be reversed, and the floodgates of American theocracy opened.

In his section "O'Hair Retires," it becomes evident that Le Beau may have taken on a literary task too ambitious given his resources and the patience of editors. Once again the voices of critics seem to dominate this section of the book. Le Beau does note, however, that various "accusations" against Mrs. O'Hair "had not been proven" (as in parts of the Truth Seeker case, and that concerning allegations of financial improprieties), "No complete, final and objective accounting of O'Hair's financing is available. What survives are several unsolicited, biased, and often erroneous statements and only a few official documents."

The Epilogue is a brief summation of the disappearance and murder of Mrs. O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray-O'Hair. Le Beau might be faulted for not digging deeper into some of the aspects of the case and thus avoiding more egregious errors. One example is the IRS "money-laundering probe." This amounted to a diktat from the IRS, that took advantage of the situation to seize the family's property following the disappearance supposedly to pay for "back taxes." In fact, the campaign of harassment by the IRS over the years often resulted in literally hundreds of charges being dropped for lack of proof. Had they lived, it is doubtful that the Internal Revenue Service would have prevailed in its latest shake-down. The O'Hairs simply did not possess the vast fortune some of their critics recklessly and unfairly accused them of having. Despite the Cadillacs (they were donated as used vehicles), the Mercedes and Porsche which Jon Murray and Robin Murray-O'Hair considered among their few "toys," the family lived quite modestly, and often on a scale well below that of some of their critics.

Regrettably, Le Beau closes his narrative with a word concerning the disposition of the O'Hairs' remains. William Murray cremated and buried his mother, John Garth Murray and his daughter Robin Murray in an unmarked grave "in an undisclosed cemetery in the hills of Central Texas, near Austin." By this time, the leadership of American Atheists had passed to Ellen Johnson who took legal steps to recover the bodies. This incident led a professor of religion at Emory University to engage in totally uninformed speculation, suggesting that this effort was "to transform O'Hair into a sort of atheist saint..."

It wasn't. Mrs. O'Hair had stipulated that she wished a certain disposition of her remains, one that William Murray simply did not carry out. It had nothing to do with religious iconography, "reaffirming community" with some departed "saint," or anything else of that nature. Indeed, that type of speculation and fictional musing seemed to stalk her in life, and even in death. Le Beau's work on Madalyn Murray O'Hair needs to be read by both friends and critics alike.

The latter must realize that despite her wit, intelligence, ideological integrity and commitment to ideals, O'Hair was, after all, quite human. Both she and her family members who carried on following her retirement had difficulties in developing the sorts of interpersonal skills necessary in making any organization effective. No one, however, can question their dedication and tenacity, as well as their long list of remarkable accomplishments. Atheists too often mimic the religious in inventing heroes and saints to idolize. When these members of a secular pantheon fall short, they are quickly savaged and transformed into outcasts. In the case of Mrs. O'Hair and her family, this process occurred all too frequently, and has discouraged a more dispassionate and insightful assessment of their contributions to Atheism and the defense of the First Amendment

The Atheist is really the first serious work to place Madalyn Murray O'Hair in the context of historical and cultural events. She was a both a product and shaper of her times. In the turbulent era of the 1960s, she epitomized the confrontational and often outrageous, theatrical style of political activism. Unlike other icons, she did not forsake her particular cause - converting to religion, retiring into the comfortable environs of ideological suburbia, or choosing to market a degree of celebrity cachet and notoriety. She remained, steadfastly, "The Atheist."

Conrad F. Goeringer is Director of American Atheists On-Line Services and a Contributing Editor to American Atheist. He surfs the Web and writes about the world from his home on the South Jersey Shore.


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