“Religion – religion, at best – at Best – is like a lift in your shoe. If you need it for a while, and it makes you walk straight and feel better – fine. But you don’t need it forever, or you can become permanently disabled. Religion is like a lift in the shoe, and I say just don’t ask me to wear your shoes. And let’s not go down and nail lifts onto the natives’ feet.” – George Carlin, October 11, 1975 on the first episode of Saturday Night Live.
I just returned from Austin, TX and the 50th Anniversary of the American Atheists. It is normally held on Easter weekend as it was this year. Activities began on Thursday and ended on Easter Sunday. This year there were 938 attendees. It was a diverse group, too. That’s not too surprising given that the American Atheists was started by a woman.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair is responsible for the creation of the organization in 1963. She was in Austin, TX at the time. Then, she was “the most hated woman in America.” People hated her but she got needed things done and was outspoken and controversial. There were a lot of firsts associated with Madalyn. She was the first guest on the Phil Donahue show. On another appearance on the Phil Donahue show in a debate with “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street,” Bob Harrington, she said, “If America wakes up, what America will do is kick Christianity out.” Additionally, she tried to straighten out the preacher on the definition of Atheism but Bob continued to talk over her. Her cantankerous manner got her an interview in Playboy along with appearances on Merv Griffin and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. However, her most famous “first” was the fact that she was to first to address the United States Supreme Court as an Atheist. She started her opening statement with, “Your petitioners are atheists…” Also included in her statement was the following excerpt which was silk screened on the back of this year’s convention T-shirt:
“An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated.”
In 1963, the justices of the Supreme Court voted in favor of her petition 8 to 1—a decisive victory for the separation of church and state.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was born on April 13th, 1919. She was a World War II veteran who served in the field of cryptography. She was college educated and trained in law. She worked as a psychiatric social worker for 17 years and was a supervisor at the Baltimore city public welfare department in 1960. Her Atheist activism started with a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Public School System for requiring her son to participate in Bible readings in the school he was attending. Her case reached the Supreme Court in 1963. Please note, she was not the only one that filed suit against such practices. Her case was combined with Abington School District v. Schempp and school prayer was previously eliminated by the court’s ruling on the case Engel v. Vitale in 1962. However, she was a lightning rod for controversy and unapologetically outspoken. She created the American Atheists and her “empire” had its own printing press and a loyal following.
In 1963 in an interview, Madalyn said that it would take one crazy person to end her life. That crazy person turned out to be David Waters, an ex-convict who served as the American Atheists office manager. He had been caught stealing from the organization and was fired. He took revenge on Madalyn, her younger son, and granddaughter by kidnapping them and squeezing what he could out of the American Atheists bank accounts. After 30 days of holding the family, he strangled them and disposed of the bodies. Ultimately, the disappearance of the trio would be solved but their bodies—dismembered, burned, and sealed in barrels—would not be found for five and a half years. The entire story can be found here. It is estimated that Madalyn Murray O’Hair was brutally murdered on September 29, 1995.
I didn’t know Madalyn but I know people that knew her. Some of the current leaders of American Atheists knew her well. Most that knew her, respected her. She was remembered by many. She knew that, “There is no God. There’s no heaven. There’s no hell. There are no angels. When you die, you go in the ground; the worms eat you.” The people that searched for her, found her, and attended her burial expressed the deepest sorrow for her. She got her wish when she said:
”I hope I live my life in such a manner that when I die, someone cares – even if it is only my dogs. I think I want some human being somewhere to weep for me.”
– Madalyn Murray O’Hair
…and they did.