America’s Most Hated Woman: Remembering Madalyn Murray O’Hair

I would recommend, for those who have not yet read it, a biography of Madalyn Murray O’Hair: Ann Rowe Seaman’s America’s Most Hated Woman. O’Hair herself reveled in that appellation and used it to portray herself as the ultimate Outsider, a communist, freethinking female and victim of a capitalistic Christian empire. By doing so she made both money and history.

O’Hair was apparently born to be a maverick. Her mother Lena had tried to induce a miscarriage, when she found herself pregnant with Madalyn, by using herbal remedies and black magic. Eventually Lena threw herself down a stairway, which started labor. Madalyn was born with a misshapen rib cage, a rather common birth defect, though her mother blamed herself for that deformity.

The family environment was toxic and remained lethal (even when Madalyn was famous).  She lived with her parents throughout much of her adult life.  In her early twenties, she married, hated it, divorced, and joined the U.S. Army where her 150 IQ got her into officers’ training. During this “happy” period, she traveled, widening her worldview, but she then got pregnant by the married Bill Murray, and was forced to resign from the military.

Afterwards, life was a scramble. She got education enough for an LLB degree, but held jobs that she despised; she traveled, desperately, seeking a better life, and yet remained on the edge of poverty, and had another affair and another child. Developing a thorough hatred for the U.S., she eventually attempted to immigrate to the Soviet Union—which wouldn’t have her, likely because her children meant more mouths to feed for the failing State.  

She was a “white trash scandal” in the McCarthy era. Seaman writes of O’Hair and refers to her diaries: “The twice-unwed mother knew that she was never going to join the Good Housekeeping ranks of five-minute fudge, neighborhood coffee klatches….  She was sick of the ‘moral code inculcated in school, church…. Everyone is playing a horrible game…one must lie and cheat and steal and dissemble to belong to society.  She lived, she wrote, ‘by raw rules that disgust, revolt, and injure,” and she’d keep doing it. ‘I will be ostracized, by my own volition, from society henceforth.’”

Eventually she brought all her pain, maverick energy, brilliance, and narcissism to the cause of Atheism and Freethought. She was in her forties when the 1960’s Cultural Revolution disrupted the U.S. and, like other iconoclasts of that era, she gained notoriety, making her atheism a cause celebre.  The publicity she received often came from finding ways to outwit religious opponents (whom she called “Christers”), such as when she founded a “church” in Austin, Texas.  (Living in Texas, I can appreciate O’Hair’s savvy maneuvering, which might have gained grudging admiration from the likes of Tom Delay.)

Madalyn and husband Richard O’Hair (whom she met while living as a refugee in Mexico) purchased two homes in Austin, and used one residence as a printing shop for all the newsletters and atheist non-tracts that Madalyn produced.  A city councilman had O’Hair put on legal notice for violating zoning codes: that is, for running a business in a residential area.  O’Hair, however, savored such legal battles, and soon discovered that churches were permitted in residential zones.  She then mailed the self-ordained California “minister” Kirby Hensley, founder of the Universalist Life Church, which was completely unregulated, and received from him a church charter and a certificate of ordination, which decreed that Madalyn was in fact a bishop. Her second residence thus became “Poor Richard’s Universal Life Church,” a tax-exempt entity.

Cleverness, humor, an insatiable appetite for battle and hard work, pure grit, survival instincts, loneliness, and mania, come through in this biography, humanizing the usually demonized O’Hair.  Yes, she was profane and gross; she clung to her two boys until the older one, in full rebellion, converted to Christianity and evangelism.  She was greedy, taking one-dollar donations from poor and desperate admirers, only to purchase stylish handbags and shoes.  She studied how Christian evangelists used media to raise cash and enlarge their influence, and she aped some of their worst qualities, creating a cult of personality to sell an ideology.  Like today’s radio personalities, she enjoyed using “shock”: she would rile Christians by saying that Jesus “was the most despicable man in human history, including Hitler.”

In an era when new ways of thinking and living were coming into play, O’Hair managed to influence popular trends toward less interest in religion, with only 14% of population (according to the Gallup and National Opinion Research Center) believing that religious influence was growing in the year 1970.  Maybe the increasing piety of our nation is a sign that O’Hair stigmatized atheism, or maybe it’s a sign that we need more activists with the flamboyance and dog-down-dirty-nothing-to-lose grit of O’Hair.


America’s Most Hated Woman: Remembering Madalyn Murray O’Hair — 9 Comments

  1. While Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s rebellion against things like school prayer are notable, she actually did have faith in something or a personal god: the state.

    Its a fact that O’Hair was a socialist. She was active in the Socialist Workers Party and attempted to apply for citizenship with the Soviet Union, respectfully.

    My grandfather and 2 of my uncles were socialists and one went so far to install the name “Marx” in his name taking after Karl Marx.

    Its a fact that while socialists (like O’Hair) do not believe in God, they believe and have faith in the collective will over the needs of the individual.

    So O’Hair was an atheist in so far as her disbelief in a creator and ruler of the universe, but her faith was placed in a human institution geared towards ruling the minds of men and suppressing individuality.

    Not a true atheist in my mind.

  2. I find your logic to be of some interest, but quite flawed. If MMO was not an atheist, no one ever was. I will certainly respect your opinion, but will equally certainly not share it. At any rate, thanks for stopping by and sharing that opinion. Even if one does not agree with it, something that make one rethink an opinion is never a bad thing. ;o)


  3. Mike,

    Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    Atheists, to my thinking, can believe in many things; they simply are without belief in a god or gods.


  4. I know of some atheists that believe in the IPU (Invisible Pink Unicorn). Does that make them less atheistic? Chuck Lesher and I both believe in humanistic philosophy. Does that make us less atheistic? Like Marilyn, atheists simply are without belief in a god or gods, as presented by any organized religion. Good for MMO to rage against the machine.

  5. I would suggest you all consider reading Ayn Rand’s essay Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World. The essay can be found on the internet or in the book Philosophy: Who Needs It?

    In her essay, Ms. Rand pointed out that it is altruism that leads to human devastation since by suspending ones ability to think (i.e. reason) people will in turn want to force their view of life (like religious views and values) on others at the point of a gun.

    While Ms. Rand did not specifically criticize religion in “Faith and Force”, it as well as collectivist political philosophies, (such as communism, environmentalism and fascism) are all based on altruism and, as a result, that is why we have the problems with religious and political violence seen today.

    Interestingly enough, Sam Harris seems to come to similar conclusions as Ms Rand did in his book The End of Faith. I would not be surprised if Harris drew on Ayn Rand’s wisdom when he wrote The End of Faith (which was excellent by the way).

    Like Ayn Rand said: if mankind is to survive it is the morality of altruism (i.e. the you are your brother’s keeper) that men have to reject.

    That is the kind of god that Ms. O’Hair subscribed to and it, as well as other altruistic philosophies should be rejected by all since they are ultimately evil, if not anti-life.

  6. Mike, I’ve enjoyed reading much of Ayn Rand, but I have come to disagree with her about altruism. If Rand were writing today, I think she would have a more difficult time shaping her philosophy, given studies (even some neurological studies) that show humans disposed toward altruistic behavior. In fact, I think we atheists can argue, pointedly, that you don’t need god to be good; that would include our willingness to help someone out, without worrying about sin or eternal reward.

  7. Despite those with a tendency to worship at her feet, I find that much of what Rand had to say was like bread taken out of the oven much too soon. I have found that most people eventually get over Ms. Rand and move on. Nor can I see where Rand and Harris have a great deal in common. If you wish to connect threads, there are always loose ends that can be tugged together.

    I must also say that, in all honesty, it is very difficult to be certain about most things, especially philosophy, so I do not want to declare myself right. I know all too well how easy it is to be wrong. ;o)

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