Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair

I read this biography early in 2008. Here are a few of my notes.

LeBeau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Publisher description.

1/3/08: Atheist in a Bunker Reassessing Madalyn MurrayO'Hair by Bill Cooke, Free Inquiry, Volume 23, Number 2.

It's an interesting portrait of O'Hair's dubious leadership style, and helps to explain the creepiness I experienced here [in Washington, DC] two decades ago.

I object only to the self-serving concluding paragraph:

Atheism states only what one does not believe in; the next step is to move forward and determine what one does believe in. Exploring the realms of naturalism and humanism are essential to giving atheism a positive orientation. This is where Paul Kurtzs contribution has been incomparably better grounded than that of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Kurtz represents a different constituency, much more polished, upper crust--a technocratic elite.  One of his greatest heroes is the McCarthyite scumbag Sidney Hook, a major player in the suppression of academic freedom.  I don't call this well-grounded at all; it's just differently grounded. 

As for the philosophical foundations, from American Atheist's own declaration of purpose, its philosophy is grounded in materialism.  Kurtz's is in naturalism with a significant influx from the pragmatic tradition.  Kurtz is a professional philosopher, so he has the greater advantage, but in the matter of specific philosophical grounding, what makes his philosophical stance superior?  People can of course call themselves more "positive" all they like--but without a concrete referent for what this positivity applies to--it's just rhetoric.

I never liked the mentality of either the upscale "humanists" or the misanthropic social misfits of American Atheists.  During the aforementioned time period I was a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which was my favorite organization.

4/21/08: As it happens, I'm reading a biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. While she ended up lashing out at the world in a rather unfocused manner, underneath she was a progressive through and through. She was a product of a rigid, repressive, hypocritical society, and her rebelliousness boiled over.  The only time she could thrive to the extent she did was in the '60s and early '70s--before and after was pure hell. She was born in 1919: I don't think even my mother could imagine what that's like.

4/28/08: I finished the biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, which left me depressed.  I did not read the book in normal order from beginning to end.  I began with the middle chapters, when she was at the height of her influence and whatever powers she had, i.e. from 1965 to the early-'70s, and then I read the chapter on the decline of her influence.  Then I read from the beginning of the book about her troubled early life up to the aftermath of her landmark Supreme Court victory.  Then I resumed where I left off, where she declines as the Reagan years advance and her son Jon's behavior proves to be as bad or worse, and as we know Madalyn with Jon and Robin come to a grisly end.  But just as depressing is the negative side of Madalyn's personality, for which the repressive society in which she grew up is probably not solely responsible.  To be aggressive and strident is one thing, to be impossible to deal with at all sabotages one's efforts and guarantees an essentially lonely life.  Moreover, her ideas and behavior were sharply internally contradictory, a factor which upped the inevitable tensions of her situation.  Even the progressive side of her political ideas could not advance, as they were neutralized by a universal hostility to humanity--an understandable sentiment up to a point--which she could not rationally manage.

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