Toward a Better Understanding of Atheism (II): a Tale of Two Leaders

Outspoken American atheist activist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair once said, “An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church.  An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said.  An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.  He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished, war eliminated.”

That’s interesting, because many Christians hold the same views, and not surprisingly, work tirelessly toward those goals.  Mrs. O’Hair’s comments, I believe, demonstrate a deep and willful misunderstanding of what it means to be Christian.  In 1963, while she was pleading her case against school prayer to the Supreme Court, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—a Baptist minister—was leading one of the most significant movements in history, the American Civil Rights Movement.  It was in that year that he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” that I believe confirms my assertion relative to involvement in life and deeds being done.  He called people, both black and white, to demolish the ill-contrived walls that separate us and to work together in a spirit of non-violence and brotherhood to achieve peacefully what many would attempt to thwart by force.

In 1965, Dr. King began openly criticizing American involvement in the Vietnam conflict.  Combining this with his strong association with the non-violence championed by Mahatma Gandhi (who was influenced by the teaching of Jesus), it is obvious that he wanted to see an end to war and violence.  

Dr. King rejected conventional western capitalism because of its social and economic inequities.  He was often accused of being a Communist, but he soundly rejected that system due to its anti-religious platform based on its “materialistic interpretation of history,” its “ethical relativism” that undermines moral authority, and its “political totalitarianism” that leads to oppression.  Mrs. O’Hair, on the other hand, attempted to immigrate to the Soviet Union back in 1960 by seeking asylum in the Soviet Embassy in Paris, in large part for the USSR’s state support of institutional atheism.  She and her sons were denied entry.

In 1968, Dr. King was embarking on The Poor People’s Campaign as a means to address the thorny issue of economic justice.  He was slain in Memphis, TN, as he prepared to show solidarity with the largely African-American sanitation workers who had gone on strike for better pay and better treatment.  Thus, it is obvious that Dr. King wanted to see poverty eliminated. 

Mrs. O’Hair took the opportunity in 1968 to file suit against NASA for allowing the Apollo 8 astronauts to publicly read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, in awe of the view of the Earth as no men before them had seen it in its fragile beauty from a quarter million miles away.

Dr. King wrote and spoke passionately of his faith.  Mrs. O’Hair, upon learning that one of her sons had converted to Christianity, declared him a “post-natal abortion.”  Of his conversion, she said, “I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times …he is beyond human forgiveness.”

While history does attest that Dr. King had his weaknesses and imperfections, Mrs. O’Hair was accused of financial fraud in her acquisition and overtaking of several atheist organizations, probably in merging them with her American Atheists organization.    

Dr. King is remembered for his vision, leadership and sacrifice.  Streets and schools are named for him in countless cities and towns across America.  A national monument has been built in his honor.  A national holiday was declared in his memory.  Mrs. O’Hair was kidnapped by an angry former employee in 1995 who forced her to provide several hundred thousand dollars-worth of gold coins before murdering her and dismembering her body.  She is buried in an undisclosed location in Texas.

It is interesting that while Mrs. O’Hair made that impassioned description of the altruistic, philanthropic characteristics of a good atheist, I found absolutely no record of any such benevolent activity on her part.  Certainly, my brief search may not have been sufficient to reveal any such benevolence.  However, I find it rather interesting that her life and legacy apparently did not correspond with her rhetoric.

As a college professor, I work with people every day who describe themselves as atheists.  I know that many of them are good and moral people on whom I can depend professionally and with whom I am friends, socially.  Madalyn Murray O’Hair was not the mold from which most of these people are made.  Similarly, I know many purported Christians who are that designation maybe only as they give religious preference on hospital admission forms or check boxes in a survey.  People will be what they will be, whether committed Christian or hypocrite, altruistic atheist or mocking cynic.

I began this essay not knowing exactly where it would go.  The comparison of two larger than life figures of 20th Century America provided a canvas to explore philosophies.  While O’Hair spoke of action, she primarily spoke, and occasionally litigated.  When King spoke of action, he not only spoke but acted, and lived his convictions.  O’Hair’s implication that Christians pay only lip service to philanthropy and altruism is built of straw.  Examples of Christians living their faith can be seen throughout history, from the martyrs of the early church through leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the resistance against Nazism.  But if people like Madalyn Murray O’Hair refuse to see the sincerity and passion of those with higher profile, they would certainly never see the “little” people who live and work and sacrifice and serve and die without notice or fanfare–people like my mother.  These are real Christians.  These are people with commitment and faith.  They make the world a better place, one life touched, one small deed at a time. 

Many of these unknown Christians do such things not out of a sense of obligation or under threat of penalty or punishment, but because it is the right thing to do.  Consider the two greatest commandments as commended by Jesus, and read the 13th chapter of I Corinthians.  This is Christianity.  Unless a better atheist comes along than Madalyn Murray O’Hair with teachings that are not hollow preachments of negativity, I’ll stay with Jesus.  The selfless love that he taught and lived far outstrip any of the teachings of the most vocal atheists like O’Hair, Russell, Rand or Dawkins.  Many of these people confuse conventional interpretations of Christ with the reality of Christ.  Listen to him.  Get to know him before you reject all that he stands for.  He is the greatest example and pattern for a good life and a life of goodness.  That should be enough for at least a passing consideration.  I know it got my attention.            





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