- Hardcover: 387 pages
- Publisher: NYU Press (January 15, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0814751717
- ISBN-13: 978-0814751718
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,798,591 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair
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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.
“Le Beau offers an informative and melancholy portrait of self-promotion and folly.”
-American Historical Review
“Le Beau’s biography is the longer and better researched of two recently published lives of Murray.”
-The New Republic
“The Atheist is especially instructive today as issues of the separation of church and state continue to reverberate throughout our culture . . . well documented.”
“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
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Top Customer Reviews
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. All too quickly, however, we move into the realm of religious polemics and lose sight of the colorful personality behind the Murray (and later O'Hair) family's struggle to protect what Madalyn regarded as her First Amendment right to freedom not only of but also from religion. She had only begun her fight when she won her 1963 landmark victory in the Supreme Court to have mandatory prayer and Bible reading removed from America's public schools, and wasn't about to stop there. By the book's midpoint, quotes from O'Hair's radio and television broadcasts are presented out of chronological sequence without a unifying theme that might show us more of the real motivation behind the message. In William Murray's autobiography, which for the most part depicts O'Hair as a heartless villainess, she at least emerges as a three-dimensional flesh-and-blood human being who for better or worse held sway over a coterie of non-conformists and freethinkers who, apparently like her son, began to resent and ultimately to rebel against the extent of her influence. He honestly exposes his own flaws as well, at least up to a point, explaining how he virtually abandoned his daughter to his mother's care as he struggled with drugs and alcohol. For him, religion was the cure-all. For Madalyn O'Hair, we learn, it was just another soporific intoxicant best avoided by responsible individuals. Le Beau's analysis presents Madalyn O'Hair more as the often cold, analytical brain behind the operation than its warm, pulsing heart, even though it offers us random detailed glimpses of her emotional vicissitudes -- courage, bitterness, determination, panic -- and while it is more impartial than Murray's book, it never takes us very far beneath the surface. We learn little about O'Hair's second marriage, which lasted more than a decade, or her relationship with her family after her notoriety began to wane in the 1980s, when her son William became a Christian and when she began to alienate many of her former supporters with her increasingly outrageous behavior. Even most of those who stood by her to the end are only mentioned in passing.
For nearly eighty pages (and through more than the usual number of typographical errors), Le Beau's O'Hair remains only a figurehead to us, even as he discusses her mysterious disappearance in 1995 and her eventual murder, which even those who had long hated her found inexplicably brutal. Even though we may admire O'Hair as an indefatigable pioneer of secularism (or hate her as a foul-mouthed exponent of irreligion), we only occasionally feel we really know her as the driven human being she unquestionably was. While the astute reader can discover how O'Hair managed to distill the ideas of other freethinkers from Socrates to Carl Sagan into a refreshing elixir of liberating unbelief, the book remains more journalism than true biography. If you like cold facts, though, presented dispassionately, this is the book for you.
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.
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".