One in an odd blue moon on our atheist forebears

So i was thinking about Madalyn Murray O'Hair. I bet most of you are too young to remember her (as i scan the demographics, a significant portion of you are in your mid 20s and younger). And a number of you aren't American.

I hope I'm not repeating a post if any of you mentioned O'Hair already.

Madalyn Muarry O'Hair was the founder of American Atheists. Founded in 1963. When this country was knee deep in Christian dogma. Good grief, in my history class I learned people made a huge stink about President Kennedy being Catholic. We're lucky today that people even openly whisper Obama might be agnostic. We're even lucky to talk about there being an Obama. Yes, people have evolved in their thinking over time. Congratulations America!

O'Hair stuck her little neck out long before any of today's atheist superstars tore their shirts open to reveal the blood red A printed on their wifebeaters (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=wife+beater). Founding an unpopular club? A woman? You want to talk balls? She had a pair as big as my living room. She was the proverbial salmon swimming up stream. Keep in mind, this was a time of mandated daily prayer in PUBLIC schools, cold war, the red scare, communism, patriotism. Pre sexual revolution, pre woman's liberation.

My only memory of O'Hair was watching a TV show about the end of her life featured on a crime program. Unfortunately her death was that heinous, that it was profiled on a forensics show. And yes, back then when I heard "atheist", the automatic word association was satanist. So sue me.

I know this snippet in Wikipedia doesn't do her justice.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madalyn_Murray_O%27Hair

She was a tragic figure on too many levels. If you want to draw a comparison between her and today's prominent atheists, you really can't. She wasn't a scientist or a politician, so naturally she had no clout. She was simply a belligerent citizen who filed lawsuits on a Newdow (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Newdow) scale to draw attention.

The more I read about her though in these unofficial snippets on the web, the words sourpuss, coot, and codger come to mind. Leave it to an atheist to be so divisive. According to some reports, she wore "America's most hated woman" as a badge of courage.

It's easy to say this most opinionated and mean person could have benefited from a public relations class or two. If religious deconversion meant living so ostracized a life as Madalyn Murray O'Hair's, there was no point to join her in her mission. Deconvert to become a crotchety alienated badger? Who would gain from that? That doesn't sound as satisfying as everlasting heaven. So it's doubtful she won over any "converts".

If she had lived just a little longer to see the internet flourish, would she have benefited from a presence on the Web? I don't see how the atheist movement could have gained any traction but for the web. There's no unifying holy book for us to point to, no centralizing prophet to throttle people with, no infallible leader to lionize. We are the sum of our parts.

In spite of the serious flaws in personality, what O'Hair did attempt to do was unionize a class of normally isolated citizens. She lived big through a socially conservative time. And I leave her with the atheist creed of critical thinking. I admire O'Hair to be the David facing down the Goliath theists that ran the country. But she was apparently as nutty as a fruitcake. If that's not an atheist "hero" I don't know who is.

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Tags: American, Atheists

Comment by Gaytor on January 22, 2009 at 4:30pm
She did great things in a terrible manner. But we can't forget that as much as $500,000 turned up missing when she was gone. She set the tone for us versus them. And she was emotionally abusive to her children. She's as valuable as Nedow is to our cause now. If you have leaders reaching publicly from the fringe, that's how the world will view you, as fringe. She does have some great quotes though and it's history that we should know and appreciate. It's a great post.
Comment by Jay E on January 22, 2009 at 9:54pm
Thanks for the compliment! You bring up an interesting point. If you talk about Catholics, you automatically associate the pope (a good strong leader/figurehead). If you say civil rights, you say Jesse Jackson. If you say Southern Baptist, maybe you say Oral Roberts? (I could be wrong, but I think of that University in the south). Lately, if you say atheist, you possibly associate the four horsemen of the apocalypse, a couple of scientists, a drunk journalist. For the atheist, it's a coalition of people. There's no one person who is brave enough or would lay claim to be articulate enough to express the all-encompassing views of a disparate group. So, I think the ideal atheist spokesperson would have to be articulate, engaging and photogenic (because sex sells). Hey, Morgan Matthew, I think there's a job waiting for you!

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