American Atheists, the group that was disinvited from this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, was founded by a left-wing gadfly who looked to the Soviet model of a post-religious society and whose brief against religion did not extend to wider concerns for individual rights or freedom.
After her victory in a 1963 consolidated Supreme Court case that struck down mandatory Bible readings and prayer sessions in public schools, Madalyn Murray O’Hair created American Atheists, an organization that gives the late atheist (O’Hair was murdered in 1995) a respectful but not effusive mention in its official history.
O’Hair perfected a shrill village atheist persona while producing a substantial body of work criticizing religion, advancing atheism as a means of inspiration, and resurrecting old controversies — including several efforts to establish state religions in the 19th century.
O’Hair’s lectures and books in the 1960s highlighted George Washington’s church avoidance and Thomas Jefferson’s stern opposition to superstition. O’Hair resurrected figures she considered atheist predecessors like Robert Green Ingersoll, a 19th-century Republican jurist, polymath, and orator. She argued, compellingly, that phrases like “freethinker” and “humanist” applied to many favorite figures of cultural history were just euphemisms masking an affirmative disbelief in a deity.
O’Hair’s life and beliefs have been covered in books like Bryan F. Le Beau’s good but boring The Atheist; Jon Rappaport’s true-crime quickie Madalyn Murray O’Hair :”Most Hated Woman In America” (written before the case of her murder was closed); and Ann Rowe Seaman’s America’s Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. O’Hair’s murder is also the subject of a splendid episode of the A&E Network’s City Confidential. William Murray, the son on whose behalf she sued the Baltimore school system, wrote a memoir called My Life Without God, recounting his difficult relationship with his mother and subsequent conversion to Christianity.
But while O’Hair’s life was tragic and fascinating, it does not suggest a figure or a movement of interest to conservatives. In the early part of her movement she made comments arguably supportive of the Soviet Union’s suppression of faith; and while these are somewhat mitigated by her later efforts to push communists away from the atheist movement, they illustrate an approach that attacked the church but rarely, if ever, the state. O’Hair criticized prayer in public schools while ignoring the more important question of whether government should be using a compulsory education system to mold compliant citizens. Rather than trying to remove nonprofit tax exemptions for churches, she might have asked why for-profit organizations must pay taxes in the first place.
Post-sixties American culture pushed O’Hair further toward the left end of the spectrum, where her crusades to remove the phrase “In God We Trust” from American currency and prevent astronauts from reading Bible texts in space became increasingly esoteric and less popular. The presidency of born-again Christian Jimmy Carter, followed by the high profile of evangelical Christianity in the Ronald Reagan era, demonstrated even to O’Hair that she was on the losing side of history. The final insult came in 1989, when a Moscow Book Fair crowd ignored her atheist literature while grabbing 10,000 free New Testaments.
In 1995, Murray O’Hair and two of her family members, second son Jon Garth Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray, were kidnapped by three men (one a former employee at O’Hair’s office), held captive for a month, forced to empty their bank accounts, and finally murdered. Their bodies were not discovered, and the murders went unsolved, for another six years.
CPAC’s decision to revoke American Atheists’ invitation has generated plenty of commentary, and National Review has published articles criticizing and praising the decision. But little attention has been paid to the American Atheists organization itself. The group’s interests do not appear to overlap with conservatives’ interests in any substantial way. While some subsets of conservatives may share A.A.’s interest in atheism and secularism, that appeal is not broad, and there just aren’t many other issues on which political atheists and conservatives share common goals.