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
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.