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The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair

The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair

4.0 2
by Bryan F. Le Beau

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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


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.

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.

Product Details

New York University Press
Publication date:
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Barnes & Noble
File size:
3 MB

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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The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This woman made her mark in history. This book will help you understand how. Maybe even why.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book gives a good insight on Ms. O'Hair and many of her beliefs. Atheist or not, you will realize this woman will go down in history.