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The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair Paperback – March 1, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0814751725 ISBN-10: 0814751725

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 387 pages
  • Publisher: NYU Press (March 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0814751725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814751725
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #969,281 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


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


The Atheist belongs on the short shelf of books on American atheism, church-state relations, and school prayer.”
-The Journal of American History


“Clear-eyed and judicious.”
-The Women's Review of Books


The Atheist is especially instructive today as issues of the separation of church and state continue to reverberate throughout our culture . . . well documented.”


“Le Beau offers an informative and melancholy portrait of self-promotion and folly.”
-American Historical Review


More About the Author

I am an historian trained in interdisciplinary studies - American studies to be more specific. As a result, although the subjects of my several books published vary, they find common ground in being historical, interdisciplinary, and by-and-large addressing subjects related to American cultural history, which is my primary interest.

By way of a brief introduction to my work, I will provide some background on two of my favorite books - at least thus far - and reference a third that may interest some of you.

The Story of the Salem Witch Trials

Perhaps it was inevitable that as a historian, a native of Massachusetts, and related by marriage to two of the accused I would develop an interest in the Salem witch trials. While still a student, I latched on to the subject whenever appropriate for a research paper. And upon becoming a professor, I took that interest with me -- ignoring the well intentioned advice of my usually wiser mentors not to spend my time on a topic about which so much had already been written.

I found there were some things yet to be discovered concerning the events of 1692, and much to be learned from the episode about the human condition. I also discovered a seemingly endless fascination with the topic among my students. But I faced a challenge. I found it impossible to come up with a reasonable amount of reading for my undergraduate students, which would provide them with a detailed overview of the trials, historical context, and information on the major schools of thought on the subject. What I needed was a single volume which would accomplish all three goals, to which I could add trial records and other primary sources that would provide breadth and depth of understanding.

The Story of the Salem Witch Trials, the first edition of which appeared in 1998, is a relatively brief book written primarily for college students but also appropriate for the general reader. The text runs just over 200 pages, to which I added endnotes, a select bibliography (including electronic resources), and information on the accused. The first two chapters of the book situate what happened in Salem in 1692 in the larger scope of the centuries old Great European Witch Hunt. I then provide a narrative approach to the events of 1692, making the point, as one reviewer put it, that the decisions and actions people make matter and often lead both to intended and unintended consequences. And it includes references to the leading scholarship on the subject, placed throughout the book in locations that present evidence for each school of thought. A brief epilogue addresses the history of witch hunts in the United States after we stopped believing in witches, a subject students find endlessly interesting. Prentice Hall published a second, revised and updated edition of The Story of the Salem Witch Trials in 2010.

The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Intended for a more general audience is The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair (New York University Press, 2003) -- my most widely reviewed book. In 1964, Life magazine called Madalyn Murray O'Hair "the most hated woman in America." It was hardly an exaggeration at the time, given her role in the 1963 US Supreme Court's ruling declaring Bible reading and prayer recitation in the nation's public schools unconstitutional. Unlike other litigants in that and other related cases, it was a role and responsibility she embraced and parlayed into becoming the most visible atheist in America for the next three decades - until she and two of her family members were murdered. This first full-length biography of O'Hair approaches this fascinating figure on two levels. It tells the story of her public life as leader of American Atheists. Making use of her unpublished diaries for the first time, it also provides insights into her largely unknown personal life, which helps us better understand what she did and why.

Currier and Ives: America Imagined

Currier and Ives: America Imagined (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001) is no longer in print, but it is widely available for purchase or through your local library. Lithography was the leading source of visual communication for most of the nineteenth century, and Currier and Ives were by far the leading producers of lithographs - at one point accounting for 95% of all lithographs sold in American. If you are among those, including me at one point, that think that Currier and Ives produced only pretty pictures of an idealized life in America, think again. Check out this book and you will find a window on life in nineteenth-century America, through which you will glimpse a much more realistic portrait of the nation, including "the good, bad, and the ugly."

One Last Note

Most of the edited volumes you will find under my name (commonly co-edited) contain essays presented at conferences in which I had the honor of being involved. Some of these may interest you, as well.

Bryan Le Beau earned his bachelor's in history from North Adams (MA) State College (now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts), a master's in United States History from the Pennsylvania State University, and a Ph.D. in American Civilization from New York University. He taught at Creighton University, where held an endowed faculty chair in the humanities. He also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri - Kansas City and Dean of Institutional Services at the Kansas City Kansas Community College. Currently he is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of History at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He has been active in several professional organizations and created and served for seven years as host of the national public radio program, Talking History, which was supported by the Organization of American Historians. He is a regular newspaper columnist and public speaker. He has appeared on C-SPAN's Booktv and been a consultant and contributor to various video documentaries.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Max Varazslo on March 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Whether you're an ardent fan or a bitter foe of world-renowned atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, once widely known as "the most hated woman in America," you've probably read most of what Bryan Le Beau's biography has to tell you already, whether it's in O'Hair's own books, such as "All the Questions You Ever Wanted to Ask American Atheists -- With All the Answers," in her elder son William J. Murray's critical autobiography "My Life Without God," or in other third-person accounts of her life's work such as Lawrence Wright's "Saints & Sinners." I credit the author with bringing together a comprehensive compilation of facts, figures, observations, and quotations, but unfortunately not with presenting a unified portrait of a major figure of late 20th-century American free thought.
Le Beau's exposé begins promisingly enough as we're treated to invaluable excerpts from O'Hair's diary entries covering the early days of her adult life, when she was still wrestling with many of the iconoclastic ideas that would later make her famous, and which are more a part of our present worldview than most people probably want to admit. She left her first husband for another man during the conformist McCarthy era, for instance, nearly twenty years before such behavior became socially acceptable, and refused to marry the father of her second son because she considered him her intellectual inferior. The book shows us the genesis of her mission against the influence of organized religion in the lives of unbelievers as well as her family's exodus from persecution and hostility.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Mark C. Aldrich on January 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This biography is informative and I found the Introduction and first two chapters to be particularly well done. However, the author's writing fairly quickly becomes tedious. His style is flat, unengaging and repetitive. Once he has covered the initial case that brought notoriety to Murray O'Hair, the rest is just slogging through a sad and difficult life. For example, the time when Murray O'Hair was debating the evangelist Bob Harrington in the 70s should have made for fascinating reading, but the narrative here is disappointingly superficial.
The tragic end to Madalyn Murray O'Hair's life is reported. There are lots of details, but that's it. It is tedious and Le Beau's sometimes excellent insights are overshadowed by uninspired prose.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By E. M. Finkelstein on April 17, 2003
Format: Hardcover
and then there is the truth. Bryan Le Beau gets to the truth beautifully in this informative and interesting book.
Trying to understand Madalyn Murray O'Hair was always difficult. Her message was sometimes lost in the chaos of her showmanship. Le Beau presents quotes and arguments in a cohesive form that help the reader understand her point of view in a way that eliminates all the emotional button pushing that O'Hair needed to do in order to get the attention of the press. Without O'Hair's personality interfering with her message it becomes infinitely easier to understand what the message actually was and how the prevailing mores of the time affected the various media, and even personal, events in O'Hair's life.
I found the examination of O'Hair's controlling personality and it's effects on her life and her cause particularly interesting and it was presented in an unbiased way - something that is rare when reading and trying to understand about O'Hare and her views. The historical overviews of Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lifetime were nicely written and ultimately necessary to fully understand what it was that was propelling O'Hair through her life.
After reading "An Atheist Epic" by Madalyn Murray O'Hair and "My Life Without God" by William J. Murray it was difficult for me to really understand where the truth lies. I was pleased to find it in "The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair".
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I had to do a paper on school prayer. So of course I had to read up on cases concerning the subject. Madalyn Murray O'Hair certainly was not the first to fight in court over this matter but she was the loudest. This book gives the reader an impartial view of what she was really like. Her surviving son gives personal accounts of what she was really like and what her fights were about. I found it fascinating.
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