|Jon Murray, Robin Murray, Madalyn O'Hair|
A passionate atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair has been described as obscene, outrageous, belligerent, up-in-your-face, controversial and highly despised by critics and Christians. She was catapulted to national recognition in 1960 after filing a lawsuit to stop Bible reading in public schools.
In the consolidated lawsuit, Abington School District v. Schempp, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 in favor of Schempp, June 17, 1993. Bible reading public schools was banned. O'Hair said Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional, and it violated the First Amendment rights of her son William Murray lll. The 1962 lawsuit, Engel v Vitale, banned prayer in public schools.
Madalyn, O'Hair being the name of her second husband, Richard O'Hair, was a woman who took no prisoners if you crossed her. She was a tall woman, and "big boned" as my grandmother would say. In other words, she was not a petite woman. Her size could be intimidating when linked with her need to be in control. When I interviewed her in the mid-1980 at her Austin, Texas headquarters, I found her to be sharp tongued, ready to challenge me, and cunning with her words. We talked for a while before I turned on my tape recorder. I wanted to get a feel for who she was.
O'Hair was a woman who relished a verbal fight. She was amusing and manipulative. She was ready to convert me to atheism had I been receptive to her argument against organized religion. Despite of her hating God and all things religious, I liked her.
Prior to the interview I had looked at some of her interviews on TV and saw the temper she was noted to have. She was quick to fly off the handle. She glared at the host. She raised her voice in anger. She cursed. When I told her that I had watched a few interviews she assumed that I had formed an opinion of her. I could see her tense up. I was ready for her to step over the line. I was prepared to walk her back across the same line. But she was nice the hour we talked. I finally concluded that the fanfare and theatrics were reserved for the courts and TV.
Interviewing O'Hair I had to stay on my toes. I spotted right away that she had little patience with people who believed in God. She said she became disillusioned with God when she was a young child. An avid reader, the well known atheist said after reading the Bible from cover to cover, she had questions about God that her parents could not or would not answer. She questioned God's cruelty and having the unilateral power to "murder" innocent men, women and children as written in the Old Testament.
O'Hair thoroughly believed in her solid stance and contentious opinions about organized religion. A woman who was sure of herself and her riff against religion, O’Hair could be persuasive when arguing the pros of atheism as opposed to the cons of religion and God.
Madalyn O'Hair was born April 13, 1919 in the Beechview neighborhood in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Her lower-middle class parents were Presbyterian, and so was she until she developed a strong dislike for organized religion. Upon migrating to Austin, Texas, O'Hair founded American Atheists, Inc. The actual membership numbers are sketchy at best, and O'Hair said she did not know the actual numbers. She was its president from 1963 until 1986. Her son Jon Murray took over from 1986 to 1995.
In 1995, O’Hair, 77, her son Jon Murray, 40, and granddaughter Robin Murray, 30, daughter of William J. Murray left Austin suddenly, leaving a typewritten note attached to the door of the American Atheists headquarters. "The Murray O'Hair family has been called out of town on emergency business. We do not know how long we will be gone at time of writing this memo." The note was signed by Jon Murray. When the headquarters was entered by employees they discovered O'Hair's diabetes medication was left behind, her dogs were unattended, breakfast dishes still on the table.
William Murray, O'Hair's only surviving son and father of Robin Murray, who was adopted, had not spoken to each other in years. The relationship between them was set asunder when Murray became a Christian in 1980. It took him a year to finally file a missing person report. In an interview with the Austin Chronicle, Murray said, "I don't want to search for people who don't want to be found."
An investigation of O'Hair's vanishing act took a year to get the police interested. They surmised that she just packed up and left town. The FBI eventually joined the investigation. Eventually it was learned that the trio had been kidnapped and subsequently murdered by a former employee named David Ronald Waters, and two accomplices named Danny Fry and Gary Karr, neither of whom were employed by O'Hair. The two were Waters' friends.
According to media reports Waters became angry after O’Hair exposed him for stealing $54,000 from the organization. At the time was on probation for prior unlawful infractions. O'Hair wrote a scathing editorial about Waters in the organizations newsletter. That added to Waters' anger.
Murray said his mother liked hiring "unsavory characters." In a 1999 press release Murray wrote unflatteringly about his estranged mother. He wrote that his mother, daughter and brother were murdered by fellow atheists. He wrote about him being a young boy, living at home with O'Hair.
"When I was a young boy of ten or eleven years old she would come home and brag about spending the day in X-rated movie theaters in downtown Baltimore. She was proud of the fact she was the only woman in the movie house watching this filth. My mother’s whole life circulated around such things. She even wrote articles for Larry Flynt’s pornographic magazine, Hustler. My mother lived in spiritual death as Paul writes: “But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” I Timothy 5:6
"My mother delighted in hiring unrepentant criminals to work in her atheist office. She particularly enjoyed hiring convicted murderers who had served their time, but were unrepentant about what they had done. She got a sense of power out of having men in her employ who had taken human life. It was love of power over people that finally caused not only her death, but the deaths of my brother and my daughter.
"My mother had complete power over my brother, Jon, and my daughter, Robin. Although I was able to break away from the evil of this family, an evil that had been there for generations, they could not. My mother did not permit either my brother or my daughter to speak to me. She had total control of them."
It took from 1995 to January 2001 to finally charge David Roland Waters and his accomplices with the murders of O'Hair, Jon and Robin. One of his partner's in crime, Danny Fry, was found dead soon after the triple kidnapping/murders. He was shot in the back of the head. His head and hands were severed. The rest of his body was left on the Trinity River in Texas. It took three and-a half years for police to identify him.
After cutting a deal for himself with the district attorney, Waters led authorities to Camp Wood, Texas on the outskirts of San Antonio, where the decomposed bodies of O'Hair, her son and grand-daughter were buried. All three had been dismembered. The media wrote that the remains indicated that the bodies suffered “extensive mutilation.” The head and hands of Fry were found in a plastic bag in the shallow graves with the decomposed bodies. O'Hair, her son and granddaughter were identified through dental records and DNA. In the case of O’Hair the serial number on her prosthetic hip was an identifier.
The deal that Waters cut for himself was conditional. If found guilty and sentenced to prison, he wanted to be sentenced to a federal prison rather than a state prison in Texas. At the conclusion of his trial the jury rendered him guilty of kidnapping, robbery and murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. His accomplice, Gary Karr, was sentenced to life in prison. Waters died of lung cancer in 2003.
O’Hair’s surviving son, William J. Murray, father to Robin, made this statement in a press release after the remains of his family were exhumed: “The media asked me if I would hold a funeral and if so would there be prayer. My answer was simple but Biblical, and sort of surprised them I am sure. They are already either in heaven or hell, praying over them now will not make a difference. I made that statement knowing the torture they must have gone through the last thirty days of their lives. Did Robin pray to receive Christ as she was bound and gagged? Perhaps. Did my mother or brother cry out to the Lord just before they were murdered? I don’t know.” Their remains are buried in an unmarked grave in Texas.
My interview with Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Dorothy: Were your parents atheists? If not, what religion did they teach in the home?
O’Hair: I was born into a Presbyterian family, and I think that was the same kind of situation that existed a great deal with other persons at that particular time. My mother had been born into and reared in the Lutheran church. When she married my father it used to be the custom that the woman take the religion of her husband. The moment she married my father she began to attend the Presbyterian church, and she never went back to the Lutheran church again in her life. However, if you asked her what religion she was she would always say a Lutheran. She attended a Presbyterian church for 50 years. I was born into the Presbyterian church, went to Sunday school, some sort of thing on Wednesday nights, went twice on Sunday with my parents. I had a very good indoctrination into the Presbyterian religion
Dorothy: When did you stop believing in God?
O’Hair: When did I stop? There are fairy tales about how people become atheist, and it is usually that something horrible happened to them, and then they turn against God and hate God. That’s absolutely not the truth, because I think the same thing that happened to me happened to every other atheist. It is an intellectual confrontation that one has. I was in the fifth grade, so I must have been 10 or 11 years old. I am an avid reader, and have always been an avid reader. So I didn’t have anything to read one weekend, and my parents refused to take me to the library. So one of the books that I picked up to read in the house from cover to cover was the bible. And I was turned off by it, because of the hatred, the brutality, the murder, the hatred of people that God had. I really couldn’t stand it.
Dorothy: What was it in the Bible . . .
O’Hair: Well, just stop and think. You have a God who was all powerful, all knowing, all good, all old and wise, all everything. And yet he creates a world in which he creates a man and a woman who are immediately going to sin as soon as he puts them down into the place (the Garden of Eden). Well, since he knew everything, he knew in advance they were going to do that. After they immediately sinned, just the moment he leaves them alone for 24 hours, then he punishes them and all of the people who are derived from them, forever and ever. He’s going to send them all into a burning eternal hell, simply because of something that somebody else did.
*** O’Hair stops the interview to introduce Eric McCain, who sits on the board of directors. “I told him you represented a Black journal, and I said Eric 'you come over here and talk to her too.' I sensed that O’Hair’s explanation was forty acres and a mule away from the truth. She was about to make some controversial statements, and he was her backup just in case I reacted negatively.
O’Hair was not accustomed to talking the African American media, nor did it seek interviews with her. McCain did not participate in this interview, though he sat near her. Through all of her hell raising, boast and bullying on TV, I sensed that O'Hair was uncomfortable with this interview. I was unfamiliar to her in her own territory. I thought to myself: I can read you Madlyn like you believe you can read people. I smile to myself, just as amused with her as she was with me.
O’Hair: . . . And he (God) got so angry with all of the people in the world that he drowned everybody, but the old drunkard (Noah) and his family. Now I wouldn’t drown everybody. You wouldn’t do it! Look at all the babies that were born that day! Keep your eyes on the ball. He drowned the kids. What did they do? And so everything that I read kept getting worse and worse and worse.
This was irrational, hate filled, very vindictive, disgusting, brutal, sadistic. I wasn’t thinking in those terms when I was 11, but boy I was getting the message! And then this female (Mary) . . . my mother was just telling me about human sexuality. . . come out with this big story. Now anybody else, if you come out with a story like that, they would say, 'Ah, you’re a bastard.' But Oh, with her, she said, ‘Oh, God did it.' And I said to my mother, 'Does anybody else tell those tales?'
Dorothy: Do you think it’s fair to impose your religious beliefs on others? Example, stopping school prayer, having in God we trust removed from money?
O’Hair: I don’t have a religious belief in the world! Not a one! I don’t have any belief system. Atheism is not a religion. Atheism is an inspection of the history of religion, and the philosophy of religion from a secular view point. So I don’t have any belief systems at all.
Before you leave here I will give you some information showing how our organization is incorporated, and what its actual corporate goals and purposes are, everything there is to know. We have absolutely no religious convictions at all. We have no dogma, no creed, no nothing, to use a double negative. Okay, now you say how am I imposing my beliefs on anybody else. I’d like to take them one by one: prayer in school. Prayer was not supposed to be there to begin with.
Dorothy: Why would you say that?
O’Hair: Because the Constitution of the United States predicates our nation as one being founded on separation of religion and government. Since the public schools are funded by tax money and they are government schools, then there is no place for religion in those schools ever, under any circumstances. Prayer was introduced into the public schools very, very late in the school system. And the first secular schools didn’t have it. They wouldn’t have dared have in the time of (Thomas) Jefferson and (James) Madison in the public schools and indeed they didn’t. Actually prayer was fully introduced in the school system in the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t there in 1779 or 1876. It was introduced as an idea to capture the children for Christianity.
Let me ask: If you are going to have prayer, which one are you going to have? Are you going to have the Roman Catholic prayer? Are you going to have the Protestant version? If you do, what are you going to do with the Jews? They don’t think there is a Jesus Christ. They are still waiting for the messiah. They don’t recognize that. So whose God are you going pray to? Pray to the black Muslim God for Ali? Who are you going to pray to? Which religion are you going to introduce into the public schools? Are you going to introduce Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, Judaism? And which brand of Protestantism . . . the Lutheran, the Baptist, the Presbyterian?
Does everybody have to be dunked to be baptized? Can’t some people have water (poured) on the head? All of those are such bitter battles that wars have been fought about. It’s better if the schools are used for what they should be used for: to teach people the accoutrement of civilization so that they can go off and earn a living. Religion is a private affair and it should be kept in the home as a private affair with parents having their choice of how they want to brutalize their youngsters while they are still young.
Dorothy: If the world was free of the word God, what do you think you would try and have abolished then?
O’Hair: Well, see that implies that I’m a gadfly, and that I’m just an abolisher. I am more interested in the fight than I am in the substance of the fight. (She did not like the question. Her body language changed, as did her tone of voice. I thought to myself: If you get silly Madalyn, I'm going to get silly with you.)
Dorothy: When something good happens to you, when you pull through something dramatic, I say thank you God. What do you say?
O’Hair: You see I don’t thank anybody, because if I pull through something, it was because I mustered the inner resources myself to get through. Or if I had to depend on somebody else to do it like . . . I go to Eric and say, 'Hey Eric do this or do that.' I depend on him to have the capacity and the ability to do it. I would never think in terms of thank God or thank anybody else, anywhere along those lines. As a matter of fact, I think it’s a duty and obligation for every member of the human race to do what they can to increase the understanding and the outreach of all human beings to other human beings. I feel that’s such a duty and obligation, that if they do something I have no intentions of thanking them. They should have done it.
Dorothy: You believe in heaven? (She bristled at the question)
O’Hair: Oh, come on! I have absolutely no concepts of that! Let me tell you what we do not accept. We do not accept heaven, hell, perdition, purgatory, and any step in between, going up or down. We don’t accept angels. We don’t accept prayer. We don’t accept gods, prophets, preachers, ministers, reverends. Nothing. (She has that irritated tone again)
Dorothy: Do you believe in reincarnation?
O’Hair: Absolutely not! Somebody would have to prove that scientifically to me! I was absolutely wrong with my oldest son. My oldest son Bill (William Murray) was born in 1926. So he is 34 years old this year, and I permitted him to go to any church that his friends went to. I permitted him to go the church his grandparents wanted him to go to. I permitted him to be involved with religion. And when he was about 17 or 18 years old, one day he said to me, 'Well come on now . . . what about prayers. Are they answered or aren’t they answered?' And I said to him 'What you’re talking about is the efficacy of prayer. That is does it work or doesn’t it work.' And he got furious. 'You let me flounder around and I don’t even know what words to use.'
So then I got a second son, (Jon) he was born in 1954. He going to be 26 this year. And boy he didn’t go to church! Absolutely not! But I still thought, well the kids have to choose for themselves. That's bullshit! How can three year olds choose for themselves? How can a three year old say, 'Well, daddy, I’m going to choose if you beat me tonight, or if you don’t beat me tomorrow.' Bullshit! The father should never beat the kid. The kid has no choice.
What he’s got to learn, he's got to do, he’s got to be educated to help himself, to be educated to use his mind. And he can’t say 'No, I’m not going to do it. I'm never gonna go to school. I’m three and I’ve decided.' Now I’ve got another kid (her granddaughter Robin, who she adopted) and she was born in 1965. This child has been reared as an atheist from the word go. From the word go she has heard about the virtues of atheism. Just like you teach your child black is beautiful. Atheism is the best philosophy in the world. All three of my kids are atheists.
Note: O'Hair's oldest son, William Murray, converted to Christianity in 1980. They have not spoken to each other since.
O’Hair: First off we don’t keep records and Eric is to blame for that. Eric is a computer programmer and he is helping us to put it on disk. We’ve got it on tapes right now. And we have to guess names and such. We feel that we are somewhere below a 100,000 families. All children are born atheists. (O’Hair was evasive. At the time this interview her organization consisted of a handful of people. The atheist movement had waned, so has her power, influence and national recognition.)
Dorothy: I saw you on the Tom Synder Show. I closed my mind to the interview because I didn't want to let what you said on his show interfere with my interview.
O’Hair: How wonderful (sarcasm in her voice). A great number of persons go to church for social reasons and they do not say they are atheist because they are afraid something will happen. And I am furious with those atheists! What can happen? Can they be skinned alive? Do we have the Inquisition any more? Will their eyes be gouged out? Will they be boiled in oil? Of course not. I keep saying to the atheist, come on out and say exactly what you want to say, because you no longer have those fears of what ties you down. These are your own fears, not fears from the community. And if everybody would speak up and say they are atheists-- the sociologists are now saying that we are 23 to 27 of the population. That’s one out of four.
Dorothy: I know you don’t agree with this, but I’m going to ask you anyway. Do you think we die by choice or because we just get tired of living? Or as the Bible says our days are numbered?
Mine is numbered right now. I am wearing out. I can see that I’m wearing out. My skin is changing. I’m getting some wrinkles. I now have to take insulin every day. And as my body wears out, finally I’m going to die. It’s pretty much like a car. After a while you have to junk it. And I have to face the fact that I am going to terminate as a unique individual personality. Let me ask you something. Supposing you die, and you go to heaven. What are you going do up there? With whose eyes will you see? With what ears will you hear? With what mouth will you talk? What mind will you think?
Dorothy: No one has eve come back to tell what heaven or hell is like.
O’Hair: Oh, boy Indeed they haven’t!
Dorothy: Do you think we have control over everything we do, or do things just happen?
O’Hair: I’m pretty much a person who believes . . . who accepts the fact that heredity and environment influences are very impactful on us. We get a great deal from our DNA. From our heredity. We also get a great deal from our culture. I believe like B.F. Skinner says that there’s a considerable operant conditioning growing up. I’m indoctrinated day after day after day. When I look in the mirror, I am a White Nordic person. It is held up for the whole human race that the idea is to be a blue eyed blonde Nordic, with a family of four. So I have always felt very, very comfortable. I can’t imagine if I ever looked in the mirror and see a Japanese, when we were willing to drop a bomb on those little yellow people. I can’t imagine what I would feel if I looked an saw a minority person.
Dorothy: Are there some days when you feel that everything is going wrong . . .
O’Hair: Life is hard. You’re a minority person, and part of your trouble is that you are a minority person. The White dominant society is going to kick the hell out of you! Don’t you forget it. As a individual human being, no. That is happenstance. It is circumstance. You are influenced by the weather, by your social economic position. You are influenced by the persons with whom you associate. There isn’t anything that isn’t impactful upon you. Incidentally, there is nothing that can stop me from being happy. I am happy most of the time. I am extremely optimistic.
Dorothy: I usually end interview with the question: What is happiness to you?
O’Hair: Everything there is to do about life. The celebration of live. Come on, what makes you feel any better in this world, this whole wide world than to have a good bowel movement! People knock it. They knock it but its a beautiful feeling A feeling of well being and comfort.
Dorothy: I’ve got a feeling you’re pulling my leg.
O’Hair: No! No! Everything is good. (We both laugh).