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.