The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair

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In this first full-length biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Bryan Le Beau offers an assessment of her beliefs and actions and a discussion of how she came to represent both what Americans hated in their enemies and feared in themselves. Drawing on original research and interviews, Le Beau traces O'Hair's development from a child of the Depression to the 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 a host of other policies she felt violated the separation of church and state.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Forty years ago Madalyn Murray O'Hair was so notorious for her role in the Supreme Court decision banning prayers from public schools that she was, in the words of one Life profile, "the most hated woman in America." Although she assembled a nationwide movement of atheists and remained a thorn in the side of America's religious conservatives for nearly three decades, this biography more than ably reveals her limitations as a public intellectual and a social activist. In the opening chapters, Le Beau, a historian of religion at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, provides a thorough account of O'Hair's struggle to eliminate morning prayer from her son's junior high school, deftly portraying the anti-atheist sentiment of the Cold War era and fleshing out the precedents set by earlier Supreme Court interpretations of the separation of church and state. The book then continues with a look at her "caustic, sarcastic, even outrageous" rhetoric. But the biographical account is interrupted halfway through with two chapters cataloging the philosophical and historical underpinnings of O'Hair's arguments, before Le Beau resumes the depiction of her downfall and the bizarre circumstances surrounding her disappearance in 1995 and the subsequent discovery of her body. The consequences of O'Hair's arrogance and combativeness will draw readers in initially, but in the end, there's only so much to say about her; even academics may find the account padded with quotations from political debates and O'Hair's fan mail. However, with the Pledge of Allegiance facing the same challenge O'Hair mounted against school prayer, her story couldn't be more timely. (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Best known as a plaintiff in the overwhelmingly unpopular 1963 Supreme Court decision to remove prayer from public schools, American Atheists founder O'Hair (1919-95) earned-and obnoxiously promoted-her reputation as "The Most Hated Woman in America," a title granted by Life magazine. This comprehensive biography looks beyond O'Hair's grating public persona to reveal an extremely intelligent and shrewd woman with a passion for publicity and a distrust of organized religion. Among the book's chief characters is the Cold War itself-its paranoia, conservatism, and nearly pathological fear of all things "godless." O'Hair fought for the separation of church and state in an era that allowed for maximum controversy, and many of the events of her life were extraordinarily timed. Le Beau (history, Univ. of Missouri, Kansas City) presents a well-rounded and thoughtful treatment of O'Hair's life and times, and his knowledge and research are evident throughout. As much an exploration of church-and-state issues as the biography of a fascinating woman, this focuses on subjects that are often sorely lacking in critical attention and that have once again come to the fore with the recent controversy regarding the Pledge of Allegiance. This first serious consideration of O'Hair and her ideas is recommended for all libraries.-Christopher Tinney, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Clear-eyed and judicious.”
-The Women's Review of Books

“Le Beau’s biography is the longer and better researched of two recently published lives of Murray.”
-The New Republic

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814751725
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 387
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

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

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Table of Contents

1 Out of Obscurity
2 Murray v. Curlett
3 “The Most Hated Woman in America”
4 “The Atheist”
5 “Why I Am an Atheist”
6 Articulating the Atheist Position
7 O’Hair’s Prominence Recedes
8 O’Hair Retires

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