Madalyn Murray O'Hair, 76, perhaps the world's best-known atheist, mysteriously disappeared last August. Rumors abound. In poor health in recent years, some speculate O'Hair died. Others theorize she was kidnapped by radical Christians; some think she relocated to New Zealand or Australia. O'Hair's conceivable death brought to mind Freedom Writer's March 1989 interview with the outspoken activist. Here are some excerpts.
FW Were you always an atheist?
O'HAIR Oh no, not at all. I was born into and reared in the Presbyterian faith. My father was a Presbyterian and it used to be the obligation, the social obligation, of women to take their husband's religion, no matter what they [the women] were reared in. So my mother was a Lutheran, and the moment she married my father she started attending a Presbyterian church. She attended that church for 50 years. My brother and myself were both brought up in the Presbyterian church.
FW At some point you must have changed your mind.
O'HAIR I sure did!
FW What happened?
O'HAIR I used to skip grades in school, and I'd been reading since I was three. Just generally speaking, my family's pretty bright, including my parents. One weekend my father refused to take me to the library. I used to go down and load up on library books, and when he wouldn't take me to the library, I was forced to read the Bible from cover to cover. I was either in the fifth or sixth grade. Now, you know damn well I didn't understand everything that I was reading, but I understood enough that I thought it was pretty horrible. I thought that it was violent, that God was pretty mean, and that the visitations he made caused troubles of all kinds on the chosen people. Then I started to read some of that to my father and mother. I would pick out stuff that I thought was pretty horrible. My mother would just look at me and say, "Oh, that's not in my Bible!"
FW Is your organization tax-exempt?
O'HAIR Oh, we are now, yes. We just finished winning tax- exemption for every one of our organizations. So, every single one is tax-exempt. Now let me tell you about that because you probably have the same thing. Are you tax-exempt?
FW Yes, we are.
O'HAIR Good, good. There are four kinds of tax exemptions. Health, education, welfare, and religion. With health, education, and welfare, you have to file Form 990. With religion, they file nothing. Nobody can ask them anything. That's a tax-exemption we think they shouldn't have. They should be accountable to the citizens of the United States for exactly what they do with that tax-exempt money. Also, I think that they're obligated to do something. Such as, there are millions of homeless, and millions of churches that are used one day a week. There isn't a reason in the world that they can't let people come in and sleep on the pews. There isn't a reason in the world that they can't feed them. Most of the churches have kitchens. And, they should do this for love of Jesus Christ, not asking for a government grant, or a handout. If they really want to say that they are going to do it to the "least of these," then let them do it.
FW Do you support religious freedom?
O'HAIR Oh, absolutely! I feel that everyone has a right to be insane. And that they can do this any place at all. If they want religious schools, build them! My only problem with that is, do not ask for the land to be tax-free. Do not ask for a government grant to build them. Do not ask for money for teacher's salaries, or more books, or anything else. Just go ahead and do your thing, and do it yourself. Just exactly the same as if you were a nudist. Somebody doesn't get a tax break for being a Mason, or whatever they're interested in. And I feel that religions can have administrative bodies, social services, hospitals, anything at all, as long as they pay for it totally themselves, and make certain that the people who are involved with them are aware that they are basing their premises on religious ideology.
FW On the issue of censorship of pornography and rock music, do you see that as a religious issue, too?
O'HAIR Yes, I do. Incidentally, I don't like rock music. I never have liked it. I have never understood it, and I can't hear the lyrics. I think that most people can't hear them either. I'm still stuck with Chopin and Beethoven and Bach, and all those old ones. The whole point is, I feel that everyone who wants to say anything, do anything, should be able to say anything or do anything, within the limits of not hurting another person. And I don't see how rock music hurts anybody, or I don't see that pornography hurts anybody.
Incidentally, one of the things that I learned very quickly when I first met Larry Flynt — he wanted to interview me for his magazine, and I went and met him several times and developed a friendship with him — one has to pay for pornography. It is not distributed free anyplace in the United States. There has to be a deliberate act of someone going in and purchasing it. So, I think that's a hell of a lot different than distributing leaflets or pamphlets on the street. It's merchandise. If someone wants to get involved in that, it's their business.
The relationships that people have — that are sexual, psychological, emotional — these relationships are not open to supervision by parents, schools, churches, or government. Nobody has any right to intervene at all in any kind of relationship like that.
FW What do you see as your greatest accomplishments?
O'HAIR Oh, one of the things that I am most proud of is that people can say, "I am an atheist," in the United States today, without being called a Communist atheist, or an atheist Communist. I separated those two words. I think that's probably the best thing that I did. The other thing is, of course, that we are developing something that we call "modern atheism," or "American atheism," which is entirely different from the materialism of the Greek philosophers. What we are interested in is moving out, in order to see that there is a more viable life cycle for all people, and that the human condition can be ameliorated somewhat by human beings working in concert to do something. We must do something about the pollution. We must do something about the waste. We have to do something about the greed. We must stop war. And we're not going to do any of those things as long as we feel the solution is to go to church on Sunday, or funnel our energy into prayer or religious solutions. Everybody has to get mixed up in the problems, to try to solve them.
FW How would you like to be remembered?
O'HAIR I told my kids I just want three words on my tombstone, if I have one. I'll probably be cremated. One is "woman." I'm very comfortable in that role. I've loved being a woman, I've loved being a mother, I've loved being a grandmother. I want three words: Woman, Atheist, Anarchist. That's me.