Madalyn Elizabeth Mays was born in Pittsburgh on Palm Sunday (April 13) 1919. She married John Henry Roths in 1941. During the war, she worked as a cryptographer in Italy. While apart from her husband, she became pregnant with her first child. Although William J. Murray, a senior American officer, did not acknowledge the child as his own, she seemed to regard herself as married to him. She divorced Roths, and called her son William Joseph Murray III and referred to herself as Madalyn Murray. In 1954 she became pregnant again as a result of an affair with Michael Fierello. She named this son Jon Garth Murray.
Madalyn began to get involved with certain radical – probably Communist – groups. She had hoped to live and work in Russia, but her attempt at defection was refused. Then, in 1960, she enrolled the 14-year-old William at a school in Baltimore. She noticed that children at the school were praying and reading the Bible. She took exception to this, and ordered her son to keep a log of all religious activity at the school. She said to him: “The United States of America is nothing more than a fascist slave labor camp run by a handful of Jew bankers in New York. They trick you into believing you’re free with those phony rigged election…If they’ll keep us from going to Russia where there is some freedom, we’ll just have to change America. I’ll make sure you never say another prayer in that school.” William, be it noted, had expressed no objections to the religious activities at the school.
When she judged William’s log to be full enough, Madalyn made her move. She wrote first to the school board, demanding that her son be exempt from Bible reading and prayer. When this was refused, she wrote to the local press, giving vent to her grievances. The Baltimore Sun ran a front-page story, with the headline: “Boy, 14, balks at Bible Reading”. The story became a national issue.
The school came up with a compromise. Any student who took exception to Bible reading or prayer could be excused from those activities. But this wasn’t enough for Madalyn. She had enough letters of support and money coming in to hire a lawyer. She demanded, in the name of her son, that Bible readings and prayer in schools should cease. She fought her case all the way up to the Supreme Court, becoming more celebrated all the time.
In 1962 Madalyn took over control of the Free Humanist magazine, and renamed it the American Atheist. This publication became an ideal vehicle for Madalyn and her ideas. The following is typical of her comments: “We find the Bible to be nauseating, historically inaccurate, replete with the ravings of madmen. We find God to be sadistic, brutal, and a representative of hatred, vengeance. We find the Lord’s Prayer to be that uttered by worms grovelling for meager existence in a traumatic paranoic world.”
The Supreme Court came to its decision: the Bible and prayer were to be kept out of public schools. As for Madalyn, she revelled in her identity as ‘the most hated woman in America’, and made it clear that she had no time for traditional sexual morality.
In 1965 she married Richard O’Hair, and settled in Texas. Her organisation, American Atheists, began to grow, and she involved herself in a series of lawsuits. Her hostility to religion was trenchant, bordering on pathological. She enjoyed a national profile.
Her arguments were characterised by banality and superficiality, rather than sophistication and finesse. She blamed religion for the evils of the world, and seemed blind to the atrocities sometimes perpetrated by those opposed to religion.
In 1980, Madalyn’s son William (who as a 14-year-old had been placed at the centre of her crusade against prayer and Bible reading in schools) became a Christian believer. William wrote, in his 1992 My Life without God, of his long journey towards faith, and spoke of his mother in generally unattractive terms. Then, in 1995 he published a manifesto (Let Us Pray) for the reintroduction of prayer in schools.
It becomes clear from William’s account that there was a world of difference between his mother’s public pronouncements and her private behaviour. She had insisted that freedom from the demand to love God freed people to love other people more effectively. But Madalyn’s treatment of her own parents, for example, does not provide a good advertisement for this dogma. She treated her father with disdain, and, in fact, attempted to get her son William to poison him (he refused). She was vehemently homophobic. She treated with contempt those who donated to her causes.
In 1993, rumours of fraud began to circulate. At first, these concerned the membership numbers of American Atheists. Those within the organisation were advised to cite a national mailing list of ‘about 70,000 families’, when the actual membership was believed to be around 2,000. The various chapters of the organisation began to break away, alienated by O’Hair’s aggressive management style. She tried to wrest control of another atheist company and the related estate on the grounds that she was the world’s leading atheist. In response to her predatory efforts, a lawsuit was launched against her. Faced with the possibility of incurring heavy payouts, O’Hair resorted to a massive concealment of her her assets.
Then O’Hair disappeared, along with her son Jon and granddaughter Robin (both members of the board of her organisation). It turned out that they had been kidnapped and murdered for money. This had been perpetrated by David Waters, a former employee of American Atheists who had recently been sacked for financial misappropriation.
It has been estimated that O’Hair siphoned off eight million dollars from the funds of American Atheists. The organisation itself has survived, with one recent annual convention attracting about 250 attendees.
It would not be right to claim the Madalyn Murray O’Hair, with her abusive attitude, hypocritical behaviour and corrupt practices is typical of atheists generally. But her story does show that atheists are capable of as just as much arrogance and deceit as any of the religious people they are so dismissive of. She may have been America’s most celebrated propagandist for unbelief, but she has projected an immensely unattractive image of a Godless world.
Based on: Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, 242-256