The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair Review


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In the Summer of 2002, Michael Newdow, an atheist, sued his daughter's school district for violating the separation of church and state specified in the U.S. Constitution. Newdow claimed that the phrase "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance constituted an official endorsement of religion.

Judge Alfred Goodwin of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California agreed. Newdow was following in the footsteps of prominent atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who many years earlier had successfully questioned the constitutionality of religion in the public school system.

In The Athiest: Madalyn Murray O'Hair, professor Bryan LeBeau offers a penetrating assessment of O'Hair. O'Hair is most famously known for, back on June 17, 1963, winning a landmark 8-1 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that prohibited prayer in public schools.

The successful case began O'Hair's long career, which included the founding of the American Athiests organization, and decades of prominent, outspoken advocacy of atheism. LeBeau spends great time examining the story of the 1963 Murray v. Curlett, as well as her own philosophy on atheism.

In this respect, The Athiest is more an examination of O'Hair's beliefs, rather than an outright biography of her interesting life. However, LeBeau ultimately devotes significant attention to both.

O'Hair, founded of American Athiests, whose stated dedication was to work for the civil rights of atheists, promote separation of state and church and provide information about atheism. Upon the success of Murray v. Curlett, Life magazine declared her "the most hated woman in America."

Her life certainly changed afterwards. Family problems, and refusals to swear alleigence to God in court testimony caused her an additional year of high-profile legal problems, with quick escapes to Hawaii and Mexico. With the help of the ACLU, and noted civil rights attorney Maury Maveirick in San Antonio, she successfully emerged when the Maryland Court of Appeals voided 2,500 contempt of court cases by people who refused to affirm a belief in God, including her own.

During her well-publicized legal battles, her profile rose. O'Hair's home and property were vandalized and her children attacked. In 1965, she fled her hometown in Baltimore to live in the more liberal Austin, Texas. O'Hair continued to remain outspoken in Austin, taking American Athiests into new litigation, and developing a controversial business out of it. She even mounted an unsuccessful bid for election to the Austin City Council.

O'Hair's abrasive personality, including her profane language, and what some considered abusive behavior, created many enemies, many of whom were fellow atheists. Le Beau assesses this and her other personality traits which magnified as she got older. O'Hair's life is capped by her bizarre disappearance in 1995 along with $600,000 in funds from her organization. It took six years for law enforcement to uncover her muder.

Her story is fascinating, at times almost unbelievable. O'Hair's impact on the law, particularly the on the debate regarding school prayer and the separation of church and state was significant. Her life story is, as one of her son's described, "a circus." The Athiest: Madalyn Murray O'Hair takes on analyzing her life and philosophy, which students of American culture will find very interesting.

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The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair
398 pages
NYU Press 2003-01-15
Purchase Book on Amazon.Com