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The Atheist

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Bryan Le Beau

Publication Year: 2003

In 1964, Life magazine called Madalyn Murray O’Hair “the most hated woman in America.” Another critic described her as “rude, impertinent, blasphemous, a destroyer not only of beliefs but of esteemed values.”

In this first full-length biography, Bryan F. Le Beau offers a penetrating assessment of O’Hair’s beliefs and actions and a probing discussion of how she came to represent both what Americans hated in their enemies and feared in themselves. Born in 1919, O’Hair was a divorced mother of two children born out of wedlock. She launched a crusade against God, often using foul language as she became adept at shocking people and making effective use of the media in delivering her message. She first gained notoriety as one of the primary litigants in the 1963 case Murray v. Curlett which led the Supreme Court to ban school prayer. The decision stunned a nation engaged in fighting “godless Communism” and made O’Hair America’s most famous—and most despised—atheist.

O’Hair led a colorful life, facing assault charges and extradition from Mexico, as well as the defection of her son William, who as an adult denounced her. She later served as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt’s chief speech writer in his bid for President of the United States.

Drawing on original research, O’Hair’s diaries, and interviews, Le Beau traces her development from a child of the Depression to the dictatorial, abrasive woman who founded the American Atheists, wrote books denouncing religion, and challenged the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” on American currency, the tax exempt status of religious organizations, and other activities she saw as violating the separation of church and state.

O’Hair remained a spokesperson for atheism until 1995, when she and her son and granddaughter vanished. It was later discovered that they were murdered by O’Hair’s former office manager and an accomplice.

Fast-paced, engagingly written, and sharply relevant to ongoing debates about school prayer and other religious issues, The Atheist tells the colorful life-story of a woman who challenged America’s most deeply held beliefs.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. vii

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p. ix

Many more people were involved in the writing of this book than I can mention by name. Nevertheless, I am indebted to all of them. Several individuals provided valuable insights and information gleaned from their personal knowledge of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. At the request ofI would like to acknowledge two individuals whose assistance was...

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pp. 1-18

ON DECEMBER 8, 1960, Madalyn Murray (later O’Hair) filed suit inthe Superior Court of Baltimore, Maryland, asking the Court to rule that required Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s prayer in the city’s public schools are unconstitutional. She claimed that her son William’s First Amendment rights were being violated, and that he...

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1 Out of Obscurity

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pp. 19-56

AS WITH SO many people whose early life gave no hint of the levels of fame or infamy they would attain, the records of Madalyn Murray O‘Hair‘s first years are few, and the personal accounts of those who knew her, recorded decades after the fact, are biased and contradictory.William Murray‘s My Life without God (1982) is an important case in...

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2 Murray v. Curlett

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pp. 57-93

AS IN SO many things, timing is crucial, and that was the case for Madalyn Murray’s suit against the Baltimore Public Schools. By 1960, the McCarthy era, a period of rabid anticommunism in which communism and atheism were assumed to be synonymous, had peaked but not run its course. Similarly, the era in which prayer in the public schools was being called into question had begun, but not peaked....

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3 “The Most Hated Woman in America”

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pp. 94-129

THE DECISION IN Murray/Schempp affected a majority of the nation’s schools. According to a New York Times report, 41 percent of the nation’s public school districts—in thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia—required Bible reading and/or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Those districts, however, included a high proportion of large systems...

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4 “The Atheist”

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pp. 130-169

THE YEARS 1965 through the early 1980s were good to Madalyn Murray. The previous two decades—the height of the Cold War—had helped to set her apart, to create her image as “the most hated woman in America.” She flourished in the more tolerant environment created by the political, social, and cultural unraveling beginning in the mid-...

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5 “Why I Am an Atheist” [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 170-209

...1961. She was in the midst of her legal battle with the Baltimore Public Schools, which she was asked to address by the student body of the University of Maryland. It became her “perennial favorite lecture ,”which she revised, recorded on a two-record LP album, and used as a publication to inaugurate the American Atheist Press.1 In Why I Am an...

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6 Articulating the Atheist Position

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pp. 210-243

MADALYN MURRAY O’HAIR attacked “Holy Writings,” especially the Bible. She acknowledged they were treated as “sacred, independent of any earthly or temporal authority.” They were distinguished by “external marks” such as the unusual veneration accorded them, the religious merit attached to the reading of them, their being attributed to di-...

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7 O’Hair’s Prominence Recedes

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pp. 244-277

THIS I S HOW an O’Hair observer pictured Madalyn near the end of her public life. He reported having seen “anxiety” in her eyes, which he allowed might have been due to recent family losses. But he also noted that some of her religious opponents had begun to gloat over her decline in influence, for which they often took credit. They pictured her...

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8 O’Hair Retires

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pp. 278-306

IN APRIL 1986 at age sixty-seven, at the annual weekend conference of American Atheists in Somerset, New Jersey, Madalyn resigned as president of the Society of Separationists and American Atheists. She appointed her son Jon Garth Murray her successor. She made headlines by announcing that there should be a statue of her in every park in...

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Epilogue: The Strange Disappearance of Madaly Murray O'Hair

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pp. 307-322

...bizarre note, or, as one reporter put it, with “a grisly climax to a life that was, in many respects, the stuff of comic relief.”1 On August 28, 1995 O’Hair (age 77), Jon Garth Murray (age 41), and Robin Murray-O’Hair (age 30), all of whom lived together on Greystone Drive in Austin, disappeared. Some thought they had left Austin for New York to picket the...


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pp. 323-368


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pp. 369-386

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About the Author

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p. 387

Bryan F. Le Beau is Professor of History and American Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri—Kansas City. He is the author of several books, including The Story of the Salem Witch Trials, Religion in America to 1865 (also available from NYU...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814765166
E-ISBN-10: 0814765165
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814751718
Print-ISBN-10: 0814751717

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2003

OCLC Number: 58842158
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Atheist

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Subject Headings

  • O'Hair, Madalyn Murray.
  • Atheists -- United States -- Biography.
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