Some Observations of Atheists
Throughout my life I have known my fair share of atheists, all of whom have fallen into two categories:
- Genuine Atheists - these people truly do not believe in God, and in my experience they have typically been polite people with great attitudes, and with whom anyone might want to be friends.
- Faux Atheists - these people actually believe in God, despite their protests to the contrary, and they have typically been awful people with whom most people would hate to associate.
Faux Atheists are interesting character studies, because their professed disbelief does not actually match what they appear to believe behind their gruff facade. Every Faux Atheist whom I have known is actually a believer, but they are mad at God for some perceived cause that is too severe for them to reconcile with the image of a loving, benevolent Creator. Here are the primary justifications that I have encountered for these atheists:
- Most often the source of Faux Atheists' hatred is the death of a loved one - usually an immediate family member, (e.g. a parent, spouse, sibling, or child). These atheists believe that God is the direct cause of their loved one's death, and their only recourse is to curse God incessantly.
- Fairly often the source of Faux Atheists' hatred is self-condemnation for a lifetime of bad life decisions that they have made. These Faux Atheists generally lack self-reflection, and blaming God is much easier than learning to consider their contribution to their current situation.
- Less often the source of Faux Atheists' hatred is a vain attempt to justify a lifestyle that they know is objectionable, and therefore a disbelief in God gives them the 'freedom' to do as they please. However, these atheists know deep down that they are doing something wrong, so they lash out at God in an effort to rid themselves of the guilt that they feel.
- The least often source of Faux Atheists' hatred that I have seen is the perception of persecution; these atheists believe that society is 'too religious,' and all of the 'religious' people around them are oppressing them. I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I find these atheists extremely amusing to converse with, because their claims of being a 'victim' and taunted mercilessly by the Christians around them are almost-always the by-product of a pre-existing victim mentality. These atheists invariably encounter situations where they already believe that they are being persecuted, and therefore they misinterpret everything that does not go their way as additional persecution. (Quite often a little reasoning with these atheists will deflate a situation, but sometimes they are too convinced of their misfortune to see clearly.)
All of these Faux Atheists create an interesting paradox, for despite all of these atheists' hatred and never-ending rhetoric about how terrible all the 'Religious People' are, it is usually the atheists who are behaving badly. (Please do not misunderstand me, there are plenty of 'Christians' who are also terrible people; being a terrible person is not a prerequisite for being an atheist or a Christian.) The Faux Atheists that I have known seem to make it their life's mission to publicly ridicule every Christian (and most of the Jews) they know.
All of this discussion brings us to Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
To put it bluntly, Ms. O'Hair was a paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur. She was addicted to the acclaim that she received as a champion of radical causes. She relished her title as the 'Most-Hated Woman in America.' She founded the American Atheists (AA) organization under the guise of educating and supporting fellow atheists, but the simple truth is that she was a megalomaniac who was embezzling from her organization. There were several dramatic ironies in her life, and her erratic, abusive and paranoid behavior eventually became her undoing.
Madalyn's Earlier Years
According to a book that was written by Madalyn's son, William J. Murray, Madalyn was born into a family with an alcoholic father as the patriarch, and she often fought viciously and vociferously with her father. Before entering public life, Madalyn had:
- Married young just before the onset of WWII
- Joined the Army after the war started (while her husband joined the Marines)
- Had an affair with a married officer that resulted in an out-of-wedlock child (at a time when these actions were cause for public scorn)
- Divorced her first husband hoping the officer would marry her (which he didn't)
- Had another relationship that resulted in an out-of-wedlock child
According to Madalyn's son, each of these poor decisions were the source of countless family arguments.
Madalyn's children subjected the extended family to additional financial strains and care-giving necessities, which were largely ignored by Madalyn. Adding insult to injury, Madalyn could not keep any job for longer than a few months; she was continuously forced to leave one job after another because she felt that everyone above her was stupid, and she needed to be in charge. Her attitudes may have angered her bosses, but some of Madalyn's proclamations of her superiority found welcome recipients among her coworkers, which led to Madalyn embracing Socialism and Communism. Meanwhile, Madalyn began to work her way through law school by taking classes on the side, and even though she graduated, she never passed the bar exam. As a result, she remained in a long line of dead-end jobs, and her extended family was forced to live in decrepit, low-income housing.
According to William, it was during this time period that Madalyn formulated her special brand of atheism, and it was shortly thereafter that she would infamously enter public life.
The 'Most-Hated Woman in America'
In 1963, Madalyn sued the Baltimore public school system, where her son William was a student, over the fact that students were required to listen to daily Bible readings and recite prayers in class. Madalyn's lawsuit was eventually elevated to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was decided that mandatory prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. This catapulted Madalyn into the public arena, and she used her new-found fame to create the American Atheists (AA) organization, over which she presided (and from which she profited) for the rest of her life.
Throughout the ensuing decades, Madalyn filed numerous lawsuits in attempts to prevent NASA astronauts from reciting Bible verses or prayers during the space program, to remove "One Nation Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency, to remove nativity scenes from government property, etc. All the while, Madalyn relished the attention that was showered on her publicly. However, her paranoia continued to grow in private, no doubt from an ironic sense of betrayal when her son, William, the boy for whom prayer was outlawed in American schools, became a born-again Christian and abandoned her. Madalyn summarized her feelings on the subject when she said of William, "One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times. He is beyond human forgiveness." However, as if this irony wasn't already sufficiently palpable - William's daughter, Robin, rejected him and was subsequently legally adopted by Madalyn.
In the mid-1990s, things were not going well for Madalyn. By that time, AA was being run from its headquarters in Texas by Madalyn, her younger son from her second pregnancy, Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter, Robin. However, many AA employees complained of vicious arguing and constant profanity between the three family members, as well as abuse of the employees. Adding insult to injury, Madalyn's paranoia was increasing, so in addition to doling out abuse and profanity, she had chain-link fencing with barbed-wire coverings installed to keep out her imaginary 'persecutors.' All of this was far too much for several employees, many of whom eventually quit. Because of the toxic work environment, Madalyn tended to hire ex-convicts, because they were desperate for work, and therefore a little more willing to tolerate the profanity, abuse, and low wages.
Over the years, Madalyn had gone through a spate of legal woes, all of her own doing, and while she was away from town settling the details of another harassment suit that had been filed against her, the AA was robbed. The anonymous thief had stolen several thousand dollars' worth of computer equipment, and police determined that the thief was probably an AA employee. Shortly thereafter, the AA office manager quit, and Madalyn promoted David Waters, a two-year veteran at AA, to office manager. While the Murray-O'Hairs were away settling legal disputes again, Waters laid off the entire AA staff, and stole 12 bonds worth around $5,000 apiece.
Waters was brought to trial, where he cut a plea bargain for a single count of theft, and was sentenced to several years' probation, with no restitution to be made. In order words: Waters walked away from the crime with no jail time and no fines. This did not sit well with Madalyn, who used the AA newsletter to publicly expose Waters' long criminal record in a six-page article, which included tales of attempted murder and domestic battery against his mother. Waters had been attempting to put together a new life in the community after his trial had ended, and Madalyn's article effectively killed any chances he had to do so.
Madalyn's fiery temper had finally gone too far.
Disappearance and Theories
In August of 1995, one of the AA employees arrived at work to find the building locked and a note on the door staring the Murray-O'Hairs had left town for a family emergency. This seemed more than a little odd to the AA staff, and the mystery deepened when staffers visited the home that was shared by the Murray-O'Hairs; they discovered an unfinished breakfast, Madalyn's diabetes medicine on the counter, and Madalyn's three dogs had been left unattended. Two of the board members were eventually able to reach Jon Garth via his cell phone, and Jon tried to assure everyone at AA that nothing was wrong. Robin also spoke to a few people, but despite her similar assurances that nothing was amiss, those who spoke to her could tell that something was seriously wrong. Over the next few weeks, the Murray-O'Hairs' credit cards were slowly maxed out, and Jon and Robin occasionally spoke to various members of the AA staff, but all calls ceased near the end of September.
A few weeks passed, and AA was in full denial mode. One of the AA board members, Ellen Johnson, had assumed the presidency at AA, and despite mounting public opinion that the Murray-O'Hairs were dead, Johnson assured the public that nothing was wrong. In the meantime, AA staffers continued to put the business back in order. As the AA staffers continued to go through the business records, they found that Madalyn had been greatly exaggerating her membership numbers; 2,400 instead of her claims of 50,000. In addition, the Murray-O'Hairs were in trouble with the IRS, who questioned whether Madalyn had been using the organization's finances as her personal account.
One of the staffers had discovered that the Murray-O'Hairs had been funneling money to a bank in New Zealand, and it was easy to suspect that Madalyn might have other offshore accounts as well. Because of this, one theory emerged that the Murray-O'Hairs had simply taken the money and ran. One of the largest problems with this theory was, however, the fact that the Murray-O'Hairs had left all of their personal belongs, their pets, and their personal bank accounts.
Another theory was that Madalyn had left town to die. She had often remarked that she didn't want Christians making a fuss over her death. (And by that she meant that she wanted no Christians to pray at her funeral.) That left Jon and Robin, who might have tired of the life they were forced to live in Madalyn's shadow, and they might have taken their newfound freedom to do something a little more private with their lives.
The most-prevailing theory was - of course - that the Murray-O'Hair family had met with foul play. It was no secret that Madalyn had made a large number of enemies throughout her life - many of whom would have had sufficient cause to seek retribution; as William stated, "She was just evil. She stole huge amounts of money. She misused the trust of people. She cheated children out of their parents' inheritance. She cheated on her taxes and even stole from her own organizations." Madalyn's entire life would have provided more than enough motive for many people. Several people bought into Madalyn's paranoia and believed that Christians or operatives of a Christian-backed, theocratic governmental agency had silenced the Murray-O'Hair family.
As the months passed on into years, nothing was found of the family members. A month after the disappearance of the Murray-O'Hair family, a body had been found by a river in Dallas with its head and hands missing, but the authorities were able to determine that it did not belong to anyone from the Murray-O'Hair family. Madalyn's remaining son, William, eventually filed a Missing Persons report, but since the police found no actionable evidence of foul play, there was nothing that they could do. In their estimation, "It's not against the law to be missing in Texas."
A San Antonio reporter, John MacCormack, picked up the story around the one-year anniversary of the family's disappearance, and he discovered that AA had covered up the fact that Jon Garth had withdrawn $600,000 before his disappearance, and then sold his Mercedes through a classified ad. All of this amounted to an enormous amount of money, which had put AA in a difficult position financially. However, such a large sum of money cannot remain unnoticed for long, so MacCormack teamed up with a private investigator, and the two of them were able to determine that Jon Garth had used the $600,000 to purchase 1,500 gold coins (at $400 apiece) from a local jeweler. Jon had picked up the coins in person, which was the last time that anyone saw any member of the Murray-O'Hair family alive.
Solving The Crime
Several years after the disappearance, Waters - the former AA employee - was living in a run-down apartment and cooperating with authorities by providing documents from AA that he had kept with details from the Murray-O'Hairs about their financial misdealings, and he had been enjoying a recent spate of popularity with reporters as a former associate of the missing family. Around that time, MacCormack received an anonymous tip from someone who knew a con artist named Danny Fry. The anonymous tipster claimed that Fry had disappeared around the same time as the Murray-O'Hairs, and at the time he had been working with Waters. Even more revealing was that the anonymous tipster stated that Waters had kidnapped the Murray-O'Hairs and was afraid that Fry had shared their fate.
MacCormack was able to piece together a prison association between Waters and Fry that refuted Waters' statements to the authorities that he barely knew Fry, and MacCormack was able to trace Fry's last whereabouts to a hotel in San Antonio by using the phone records from Fry's calls to family members. MacCormack was also able to discover that Waters had purchased a Cadillac with cash around the time that the Murray-O'Hairs' credit cards were being maxed out. But the most-important item that MacCormack was able to uncover that motivated the authorities to re-think their investigation was when MacCormack was able to have the anonymous body found near the river in Dallas tested for Danny Fry's DNA - which was a match.
The authorities raided Waters' apartment, wherein he had another former prison mate staying with him named Gary Karr, and the two of them were quickly behind bars. Karr's ex-wife and Waters' ex-girlfriend provided the authorities with their knowledge of the kidnappings, about which they had remained silent for years. Once all of these primary actors were talking to authorities, a picture was pieced together about the fate of the Murray-O'Hair family in their final month.
What Happened To Everyone
I will keep this section sparse, because it's not a pretty picture. Madalyn and her family were kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to the hotel from where Fry had called his family members, and they were held as prisoners there for an entire month. Madalyn and Robin were sequestered in their room for the duration, whereas Jon was allowed to travel around with Waters' accomplice, Karr, in order to drain all of the bank accounts to which he had access, and then he gave all of that money to Waters and his group. However, Madalyn and Jon did not reveal all of their accounts, ostensibly in the hope that they would survive their ordeal. This was - of course - hope in vain.
At the very least, Waters and Karr killed the entire family: Jon and Robin by strangulation, and Madalyn by blunt force trauma, which was undoubtedly part of Waters' revenge. Waters had hatched the entire plan - as many suspected - in retribution for Madalyn's article in the AA newsletter. Waters' ex-girlfriend stated that Waters had described his fantasies about torturing Madalyn in various ways, and whether he fulfilled any of those fantasies is open for speculation, because the reality of their situation required a fair amount of logistical planning: the three ex-convicts needed to get three people (alive or dead) from a public hotel without arousing suspicion, then take them somewhere else either to be killed or simply dismembered, then their body parts were loaded into 50-gallon barrels, driven over a hundred miles to a remote ranch, and buried. Then Waters and Karr killed Fry, and dumped his partially-dismembered body in Dallas.
What happened to the money is an interesting story by itself: of the $600,000 in gold coins that were purchased by Jon Garth, only $500,000 were collected. The balance was on order, although they were never picked up since Waters and his associates had already killed the Murray-O'Hairs by the time the jeweler received the second lot of gold coins. Waters and Karr took $80,000 from their heist, and they stashed the rest in a storage locker. After that, they spent the next several days partying in town - buying fancy suits and Rolex watches. But in a quirky twist of fate - when Waters returned to the locker at a later date, he discovered that the rest of the money had been stolen. (Police eventually tracked down those thieves, who had spent all but one of the gold coins.) In the end, Waters had taken out his revenge on Madalyn, but profited very little from his crimes, and he died of cancer in prison a few years after his arrest.
I mentioned in my opening paragraphs that - in my observations - atheists generally fall into two categories, and Faux Atheists seem to be the most-violent in their opposition to those of faith, which is usually due to denial or blame-shifting. Madalyn Murray O'Hair spent a lifetime cursing God and Christians for situations that she believed were unfair, yet she failed to realize that fairness is subjective. Madalyn never took ownership for her plethora of bad decisions; it was her choices and her actions that left her single and poor with two fatherless babies to care for. Madalyn's lot in life was not God's fault - it was her fault - and by her example we see what will happen whenever every vestige of a moral compass is removed from society.
- Atheists tend to avoid ridiculing Muslims, because that might get them in trouble. More often than not, antagonistic atheists only attack Christians.
- From the book My Life Without God, by William J. Murray. (See the bibliography.)
- In principle, I agree with the SCOTUS' decision; I do not believe that anyone should be required to pray. However, the consequences of this landmark decision cannot be understated; the fabric of American society has been indelibly damaged by the removal of God - and thereby a concrete moral standard - from our schools.
UPDATE: This post is one of several that I had written that I later discovered had never been set to "public."