Guest post: NASA, atheism, Mars, and God

August 9, 2012 • 10:16 am

Who remembers Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the earliest New Atheist of our era? Here reader Sigmund remembers her (he’s edited out a clip for us) and her dislike of the scripted religious aspect of NASA missions.  If you think of her, as some do, as a humorless, bigoted zealot, you’ll be surprised at her humor in the video.  But her fabled assertiveness comes through loud and clear!

As Wikipedia notes:

She is best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling ending official Bible-reading in American public schools in 1963. Officially-sponsored prayer in schools had been ended a year earlier by the Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale. O’Hair later founded American Atheists and became so controversial that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as “the most hated woman in America.”

That’s true, for I remember how reviled she was.  Back then it was not okay to be an out atheist—especially one that actually accomplished something.  Now it’s easier, though still hard: O’Hair’s spiritual (do I dare use that word?) heir is Jessica Ahlquist.

O’Hair met a sad end:

In 1995 [O’Hair] was kidnapped and murdered, along with her son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair, by former American Atheist office manager David Roland Waters.

But on to Sigmund’s post:

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Richard Dawkins and Experiment P

by Sigmund

The justifiable feelings of pride in the accomplishments of science in landing the Curiosity rover on Mars are sometimes accompanied by the worry that religion will, yet again, try to sneak its foot in the door.

A commenter, “Lansolo” on Richard Dawkins site raised the following point:

“I’m dreading the day that a US astronaut steps onto the surface of Mars for the first time, and utters the requisite soundbyte praising god for the beauty of the universe that he created, and for delivering the crew safely to their destination. When I hear scientists talking about “God,” it’s hard for me to take them seriously as scientists. I guess not all astronauts are scientist though.”

To which Richard Dawkins replied:

Don’t despair, things may not be as bad as they seem. Last year, at the splendid STARMUS conference in Tenerife that brought together astronauts and scientists, I had many agreeable conversations with Bill Anders, astronaut who famously read from the first Chapter of the book of Genesis while orbiting the moon on Apollo 8 in 1968. Major General Anders, a gallant, intelligent and entertaining man, told me he has no respect for religion. He read the Bible in space only because he was told to by NASA.

What Dawkins is referring to here is something that I had heard about previously but had mistakenly assumed as an apocryphal tale spun by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Her organization, American Atheists, had filed a federal lawsuit against NASA in 1969, aimed at preventing a reoccurrence of religious encroachment in the Space Program, something she regarded as a violation of church/state separation (the lawsuit eventually failed as she was judged to lack ‘standing’ in the matter.) The incident involved the three astronauts of Apollo 8, the first manned mission around the moon, reading from the book of Genesis as the Earth came into view on Christmas Eve, 2008. The occasion is also famous for the capture, by Bill Anders, of the famous Earthrise photograph.

O’Hair can be seen in the following excerpt from the 1970 documentary ‘Madalyn’, revealing that the “spontaneous” event was actually carefully scripted by NASA, “Experiment P” – an indictment finally confirmed by Bill Anders’ admission to Dawkins.

61 thoughts on “Guest post: NASA, atheism, Mars, and God

  1. Merry Christmas!

    You know, I’m all for official celebration of holidays, even religious ones…just so long as nobody is stupid enough to think that Jesus really does leave brightly-colored eggs under children’s pillows at the stroke of 07:31:10 the morning after they eat their first crackers….


  2. Struck by three things: 1) What a cheerful, exuberant, funny woman she was – not at all the prim scold you might expect the “most hated woman in Americato be; 2) How vocal and engaged early 70’s audiences were – I’ve noticed this on live recordings, Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall has some interesting outbursts; and 3) How I miss blackboards! I’m sure lots of older lecture halls still have them, but it’s all dry-erase and projectors where I’ve been for maybe 20 years.

    Great, great video!

    1. I have a nominal nostalgia for blackboards (though they were greenboards by the time I got to high school), but I do think dry-erase is a great advance. I’ll take a temporary acrid marker odor over chalk dust in the sinuses for the following reason:

      My junior year I had to give a presentation on one of those chapters in the back of the Biology II book one otherwise never gets to.

      You know how it is in ones adolescent hubris; one thinks himself prepared until the night before the day of. All of a sudden one can’t read his notes; the writing is too small and faint and all in one large continuous paragraph as opposed to large-print bullets, necessitating having ones nose stuck in his notes as opposed to sufficiently looking up and engaging with the audience of his adolescent peers, most of whom are poker- if not sullen-faced – perhaps reflecting on their own presentation minor ordeals.

      One realizes how some rehearsal in front of a mirror (or in front of otherwise engaged and sympathetic parents or classmates) would have been beneficial, just as he had otherwise rehearsed and memorized his not-a-few lines in the school play.

      So, the stage is set for a nominally-informed and nervous presenter, whose face reflects the anxiety of one wishing he didn’t have to do this and to get it over and done with.

      My most vivid memory of running this gauntlet is the trembling hands and sweaty palms getting caked with yellow chalk dust and, not having the prior experience and presence of mind to bring a towel for the purpose of wiping off the dust (“Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance,” as I later learned at Navy OCS), repetitively and absent-mindedly wiping my hands on my navy-blue trousers, so that by the end of my glorious presentation my trousers above the knees had turned green.

  3. As an ex patriot Brit who has lived in the US for 31 years, even I have been embarrassed for America at the Olympic Games. When interviewed for their medal victories (not losses of course) the American athletes want to thank God for rearranging the Universe just so they could win. It makes me want to puke up my dinner. I’ve watched interviews with athletes from other nations who thank their coaches and parents (as they should) with no mention of the supernatural..

    1. There’s been plenty of high-profile God-thanking by non-U.S. athletes, including British ones. British runner Mo Farah made a very ostentatious display of thanks to Allah following his victory in the 10k, for example. Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee South African runner, attributed his successes to God and said God is the “most important person in the world” to him.

      1. I have seen quite a few athletes crossing themselves and blowing kisses at the sky. If only they could know how stupid it makes them look. As for double amputee guy, you can’t help but be filled with admiration for him. On the other hand, if he was relying on God rather than technology in order to compete, I’m not sure how successful he would be.

      2. It would have been so refreshing to see Oscar Pistorius look up into the sky, smile, execute a vigorous two arm middle finger salute and exclaim something like, “*#!% you Universe, despite the hand I was dealt I still made my dream come true!” Or something like that.

      3. The result of a lifetime of indoctrination passed on from generation to generation and a very strong element in the lives of Afrikaners in South Afrca

      4. Usain Bolt effectively referred to himself as a “legend” or well on his way to becoming one.

        Seems that such a sentiment would sound a bit better coming from a more disinterested third party.

        I bow in the direction of the Narcissus of the London Games.

  4. I am trying to imagine the meeting where they decided the exact time that inspiration was to occur.

    Why so precise?

  5. good post.

    one typo:
    “The incident involved the three astronauts of Apollo 8, the first manned mission around the moon, reading from the book of Genesis as the Earth came into view on Christmas Eve, 2008.”

    The year, of course, as you know, was 1968!

    1. The son who made a career out of badmouthing Mad Madalyn was Bill Murray, the plaintiff in the prayers and Bible-reading case. That Wikipedia article bit big time! They didn’t even get the case name right.

      The who disowned who thing was another false bit of Wikilore: I remember reading an article by Bill Murray about thirty years ago wherein he said that Madalyn would call him about once a week, but that he “realized it was the hand of the devil reaching out for me when the phone rang,” so he wouldn’t answer it. How he went from alleged atheist to certified religious whack job I don’t know, but he very obviously did.

      I recently saw an old documentary about Madalyn and her untimely end. It was horrible what happened to her, son Jon Garth and granddaughter Robin. Bill Murray was in and out of the documentary many times, mostly doing variations of “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me,” but also talking about the search for Madalyn and the other two before the case was solved. Bill Murray was described as “a professional lobbyist,” and he sported a spiffy little ‘merican flag lapel button. He looked, and sounded, like a professional lobbyist – The kind who makes you feel like you’re about to puke. What, or who, he lobbies for was not said.

      The most hated woman in America during the time the media portrayed Madalyn as that was actually Jane Fonda. The label was applied to Madalyn, along with the dour sour not so little old lady in tennis shoes persona, to try to isolate and discredit her. Once again, once the real facts are known, the media made themselves look like the charlatans they are, and helped make people understand the common wisdom, “STAY TUNED! LIES AT 11!”

      My father worked for the aerospace industry. He would always say that not much is not scripted on those space flights. He’s also the guy who would say about his U.S. Marine Corps service in the South Pacific during WWII, “I knew there were atheists in foxholes, because I was there!”

      1. It’s hard to not become a religious whack job and live in Texas. It’s taken me decades to move away from it and there are still times I want to carry a lightning rod with me.

  6. It will be interesting to see what reaction we get from the religious if Curiosity does succeed in finding life. If there is life on Mars that would strongly suggest that the whole universe is teeming with life. That would make God’s obsession with this minute speck of a planet even more ridiculous than it already is. I’m not sure, but I believe that the Catholic Church has long had a response already prepared in advance just in case.

    1. Actually the Roman Catholic Church has bought into the whole possibility of alien life for a while now. They even have unofficial plans to baptize it!

      Okay, I think I just answered the question as to why SETI hasn’t found anything out there yet.

  7. Interesting – her Wikipedia page says she was born in Pittsburgh. While we hear about Rachel Carson and Andy Warhol all the time, I wasn’t aware that MM came from here too.

    (Also wasn’t aware that her murder had been solved.)

    And even if, as her son suggests, she was a crook first and foremost, it’s nice to see her smiling and sounding witty in the clip. All the still-picture coverage I ever saw of her at the time portrayed a dour, dumpy old woman.

    1. >And even if, as her son suggests, she was a crook first and foremost

      I assume you mean William J. Murray, the son who became a christian and who keeps reissuing his Mommie Dearest book about her to try to stay relevant and extract more money from christian suckers. William apparently hasn’t figured out yet that atheists in the U.S. have bypassed his mother, we don’t depend on her example or her authority for our apostasy, and we show signs of becoming a significant force in the culture.

      1. Yep, I was just going from the W’pedia page. I’d never heard of that son, which in a way is good, proving your point.

    2. She was actually very charming, humorous and witty the times I met her. But, given the abuse and death threats she took for decades, etc., I can certainly see why should might have become embittered later in life.

  8. Major General Anders, a gallant, intelligent and entertaining man, told me he has no respect for religion. He read the Bible in space only because he was told to by NASA.

    Yet another officer, no matter how gallant and intelligent, who “just obeyed orders”.

    Hard to imagine any officer, anywhere on Earth at the time, in a better position to disregard an order. Especially such an absurd and irrelevant one.

    I was still behind the Iron Curtain in 1968. Radio Voice of America ran a report on the event. I distinctly remember my disbelief: inured to Soviet cosmonauts chanting the paeans of Soviet Communism in carefully scripted phrases, I couldn’t believe American astronauts, whom I imagined as independent-minded, hard-nosed scientists-adventurers, willingly carrying the opposite kind of propaganda.
    As Master Po would tell Kwai Chang Caine, this young grasshopper had still a lot to learn.

    1. I realize NASA isn’t DoD, but DoD uses NASA’s technology, satellites in particular. Seeing DoD get more and more Christian over time, and reading your wise take on that having been the perfect moment for an astronaut to disobey orders, I wonder whether the military would have been able to convey the religious orders it does, and get away with it, as happens today, if astronauts, back then, had upheld the Constitutional separation of church and state.
      It galls me to think hard earned taxpayer dollars are paying for such sickness, too.

    2. I wonder if the Cold War was not part of the impetus for this reading? Public religion got a boost from the effort to contrast godless communism with god-fearing capitalism.

        1. As most of us now know, Richard Nixon taped just about everything in sight, including conversations he had with Right Hand Man & Resignation Recipient Henry Kissinger. One recently released tape had Nixon telling Kissinger that the moon “race” was important because it kept people’s minds off the war on Viet Nam and domestic turmoil. So it is a good guess there was a big fat Cold War tip of the iceberg involved in all that NASA posturing.

    3. “Yet another officer, no matter how gallant and intelligent, who ‘just obeyed orders’.”


      One does not envy anyone who has such a set of circumstances imposed on him. To be sure, no civilian who declines to voluntarily submit to the risk of military (or astronaut?) duty – and to the Uniform Code of Military Justice – will ever have to act on – and will never know how he would act on – such a set of circumstances. Everybody rides the bucking horse better than the guy riding it.

      (Regarding no one being in a better position to disregard an order, the discontent and controversy caused by doing so would have been an ongoing, possibly dangerous, distraction. As if astronauts on the first manned mission outside of Earth orbit needed an additional distraction, especially not having a Lunar Module aboard. Re: Apollo 13.)

      Maybe he hoped to be on one of the Apollo 11 – 17 (18 was cancelled) missions, and perceived that he needed to “go along to get along” in order to keep open that window of opportunity.

      It’s the rare person – on whatever side of the “Iron (and “Bamboo”) Curtain” – whose circumstances have been such that s/he has never had to “go along to get along.”

      Per Wikipedia, “He served as backup command module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission, before accepting an assignment [in 1969] with the National Aeronautics and Space Council, while still remaining an astronaut.”

      One wonders whether assignment to this Council – though he remained an astronaut – nevertheless reduced his chances of getting assigned a moon landing mission.

      To be command module pilot (CMP) on one of the moon landing missions would be effectively no different than being one of the three astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission. I.e., to be CSP would not be much of a “carrot” compared to landing in the lunar module.

      Also, is it reasonable to consider his financial obligations as a father of six would cause him to be rather circumspect about his words and actions? (That would be some load to bear for the widow of an astronaut.) He had an uncertain post-astronaut future to negotiate. He went on to work for G.E., and became CEO at another defense contractor. These private corporate tyrannies are oaks, not willows, and are controversy-averse, and would not hire anyone not a “team player,” no matter how eminently qualified.

      I am curious about the identity of the Washington politico/bureaucrat who came up with “Experiment P.”

        1. “For the record, it is legal to disobey an illegal order and illegal to follow an illegal order.”

          I clearly remember that from my time in the military.

          I’m all for that, just as I’m all for the Law, without the least doubt, clearly delineating what is legal and illegal in any set of circumstances, so that one may know whether to obey or disobey. Is it possible for the Law to do that?

          1. The Constitution and First Amendment make it illegal for government to even appear to support and promote religion, particularly one religion over another, so reading from Genesis promotes the Judeo-Christian, wishing “Merry Christmas” narrows it to Christian, and pretending this was spontaneous proves the cover-up of illegal behavior.

            1. Disobeying NASA, especially back in the day, was an excellent way for an astronaut to make sure he never flew in space again.

              Ironically, although Anders was backup command pilot for Apollo 11, he moved on to other related fields and did not fly in space again.

              He is also the one who took the famous Earthrise photos during Apollo 8, even though Lovell tried to claim otherwise. I don’t think NASA even had that planned, ironically enough.

              1. Whistleblowers’ careers are so easily destroyed because whistleblowers are so rare, they stand out. I know. I am one. And it’s happened to me.

              2. My understanding is that Lovell only ever “claimed” to take the photo in a tongue in cheek manner; he apparently never handled the camera(s) involved. The issue of who took the Apollo 8 Earthrise photo arose because there were two photos taken, (using two different Hasselblads if I recall) one in colour, one in black and white, one by Anders one by Frank Borman. IIRC Anders took the colour one, Borman the B&W. I’ve seen Lovell jokingly claim credit for the photo in a documentary. Jokingly, because he admits he was the only one not handling a camera at the time. I think.

      1. Filippo, see the link to NASA-JSC History Portal provided by ForCarl at #17 below.
        In a way, if this was no direct and explicit order, it makes the whole business even worse.
        Worse for the sheer mindlessness.

  9. According to the Wiki page this woman disowned her son for becoming a christian. I can’t respect a dad which disowns his son for being gay, nor can I respect a woman who would disown her son for being a christian (or a christian who disowns his atheist son). Tolerance for all people not just the religious and not just the irreligious. If this is true she’s as bad as a fundamentalist and shouldn’t be admired.

    1. Well, atheists aren’t flawless and they aren’t even supposed to be. I prefer to admire people for what they did well, especially in difficult circumstances, and criticize them for what they did wrong.

        1. Unless that was what he was shooting for, egging her on, pushing her past her limit. His “secondary gain” was to say, “Oh, woe is me! See how bad I have it? Oh, and while you’re pulling me into your religious circle, offering all the pity you can, this and you will work together to separate me from the infamous person, giving me a bit of fame at the same time.” My own sister did similarly, though there fame was nowhere near publicity level. She wears it on her sleeve as a badge of …. well, BS, if you ask me.

  10. O’Hair and her son lived in my neighborhood in Baltimore where I grew up. I didn’t know her son or go to school with him, but some of my friends did. He was a strange kid, and was mercilessly bullied. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I realize it was disgraceful.

    1. “He was a strange kid, and was mercilessly bullied.”

      Yep, the conformist peer pressure of the collective human ape troop. At all costs one must avoid being perceived as “strange,” “weird,” “odd,” “eccentric,” etc.

      “We bear the stamp of our lowly origin.”

      – Darwin

      1. More evidence that humans are just monkeys with car keys. No wonder most of them keep worshipping imaginary beings.

  11. I’m especially disheartened to learn the whole thing was institutionally scripted by NASA, and am very glad the truth finally emerged.

    I don’t mind scientists being religious as long as it doesn’t corrupt their profession. It’s a danger but I don’t know that it’s inevitable.

    I tend to agree with the post about MMO’H disowning her son, but there may have been many other “hidden variables” there that we don’t know about.

  12. I’m glad to learn that was planned in advance.
    where I work, we run a planetarium show that recaps that event with the original recording of the reading. I get extremely uncomfortable each time I have to hear it. It’s great to know it wasn’t the astronauts idea. Also nice to see another reason to dislike NASA officials, or the people in charge.

    1. I don’t suppose that “the people in charge” of the planetarium would allow to be sold in the gift shop (I assume there is a gift shop) any book or publication shedding light on this matter?

  13. Well, look at it this way: You are in a tin can 240,000 miles from Earth for the first time, circling a very dead world that you have no way to land on in case of emergency or otherwise. I can see even grown men of that day asking for some help from a higher power.

    Read how the Apollo 16 astronaut who did an EVA between Earth and the Moon was so terrified of the black void that he gripped the Apollo craft for dear life the whole time he was outside. More evidence that we are not that far from the savannah, despite our shiny toys.

  14. He read the Bible in space only because he was told to by NASA.

    They had to tell him what to say, because when they sent a confirmed non-believer into space first all they got was:
    “Hooh-hooh-hooh-hooh-hooh aaah-aaah-aaah!”

  15. I met Madalyn Murray O’Hair a few times when I was at UT. She was very pleasant and almost frighteningly intelligent. She had that laser mind and demeanor that could make you feel completely at ease or, if you were a rude fundie interrupting one of her talks, slice you in half. Mostly I remember the fundies trembling and hyperventilating in her presence. I usually giggled under my breath. Too bad she ended in such a horrible way.

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