A biographer of Madalyn Murray O'Hair explains the goals, impact, and legacy of America's most hated atheist.
She paid a very dear price, though, for establishing her national prominence in the early 60s. Once what we would ordinarily consider the more liberal 60s began, which really happened in the mid-60s, she was already so well established as a anti-establishment figure, that in many ways she was able to ride the wave, into that period. There were many radical reformers of one kind or another, so if she had waited a few years, she would have just been perhaps one of many radical leaders and reformers. She may not have gotten the notoriety that she did. If she had started too early, then maybe she would have simply peaked with that case and that would have been the end of it. So I think the timing was important.
How did O'Hair become the figure most associated with the school prayer case-even though her actual case, Murray v. Curlett, was peripheral to the main Supreme Court case, Schemp vs. Vitale?
She used the limelight. The Schempps did not want to be in the limelight, and when the case was over, they just simply went home and stayed undercover. Madalyn walked right out the front of the Supreme Court building, her son by her side, and grabbed the microphone from the press and insisted that this was a major case and she was responsible for it. She sort of took credit for bringing the case and then went on to say that she wasn't done, that she was going to go on and challenge all kinds of other church-state matters. So on one hand, the times made her--for reasons which I explained earlier--and the other hand, she certainly made the times. It was a perfect combination of being in the right place at the right time and also seizing the initiative.
Some people in the atheist and secular movements today describe Madalyn Murray O'Hair as the worst thing to happen to American atheism. What do you think?
I don't think that's true, however I understand why they would think that. I think most atheists in America, up through Madalyn, cultivated a public persona that was based on being educated, cultured, and refined. Although they weren't believers, they tried to gain an element of trust in the American population that these were people who could be trusted. Madalyn, of course, simply didn't care about that part of it. She was going to have her say. She was blasphemous, she was rude, and she certainly did not represent the kind of person that the atheists had been cultivating over the years.
I don't think that was the worst thing that could have happened to atheism, because I think the other side of the coin is that she made people think about what atheism was all about. She really threw it in their faces and made them come to terms what it meant to be a non-believer. The difficulty for atheists is one of the things associated with being an atheist is the idea that if you an atheist, then you have no moral bearing--you have no roots in any kind of moral or ethical value system and therefore you become an immoral and unethical person. The only way that they could counter that was by living a life that was beyond or above reproach. Madalyn came around and just simply said I'm not going to do that. Not only in her public presentations and her confrontational style, but also through her personal lifestyle. She married her childhood sweetheart and then went off to war and ended up getting pregnant with another man's son, came back home, got a divorce then had another baby out of wedlock. Her behavior was not exactly the kind of behavior favored in the 50s and 60s.