American Atheists: A History
The American Atheist organization was founded in Baltimore,
Maryland, on July 1, 1963. The ruling in the case of "Murray v.
Curlett," 374 US. 203, had been handed down by the Supreme Court
of the United States on June 17, 1963. That decision removed
compulsory Bible reading and unison prayer recitation from the
public schools of our country. The Murray family had been the
The case caused an outbreak of hostility against the family
which has been recorded primarily in the book written by Madalyn
(Murray) O'Hair, "An Atheist Epic: Bill Murray, the Bible, and the
Baltimore Board of Education" (available from the American Atheist
Press). Due to the publicity surrounding this well-known case, a
good number of Atheists contacted Mrs. Murray. She also slowly
became aware of small groups of freethinkers, rationalists,
secularists, and humanists which existed in the country. Some of
them had histories stretching back scores of years. In 1959 when
she began her fight to remove prayer and Bible reading from the
Baltimore, Maryland, schools, male chauvinism was of considerable
importance in the United States. The groups she contacted, or
that contacted her, were headed by old men who felt that a woman
should not engage in such behavior as challenging the cultural
system through litigation. Mrs. Murray, therefore found it necessary
to start her own ad hoc support group, which she dubbed the Maryland
Committee for State/Church Separation. She had been fired from her
employment at the Baltimore Department of Public Welfare, as a
supervisor of a group of psychiatric social workers, on the day she
filed her appeal in the United States Supreme Court. The head of
the department, Mrs. Lazarus, advised her that she was "making a
laughing stock" of the department by her frivolous and contentious
behavior in the courts and that the filing in the Supreme Court
would cause the department to be held up to ridicule and scorn --
hence, Mrs. Murray had to go.
Gathering together all of the names of persons who had contacted
her and beginning a monthly "Newsletter," she had, without knowing it,
created the roots of American Atheists.
When the case was won, the family did not have an opportunity to
savor the sweet taste of victory, for an avalanche of hatred hit them
with national reaction to the court decision. Lou Alt, who had been
publishing a non-standard, almost pocketbook-size, magazine by the name
of "The Free Humanist," decided that he would give that magazine's
subscription list to Mrs. Murray, and he encouraged her to begin a
magazine to accompany her monthly newsletter. Several other persons,
most notably Carl Brown, a former Kansas state legislator, and Gustav
Broukal, a retired workman from Iowa, with others (a total of five
persons) agreed to form a corporation. Mrs. Murray, an attorney, drew
up the corporation papers, and an organization known as "Other Americans"
was put together. The five met in New York City in mid-July, and by
that time hostility in the nation toward an openly-avowed Atheist family
was so great that two of the five incorporators resigned on the spot.
The name "Other Americans" had been chosen somewhat for protection.
In that era (circa 1960) there was an organization purporting to espouse
the concept of separation of state and church. It was known as
"Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and
State." Although declaring mightily that this was indeed its goal, when
contacted by Mrs. Murray the organization not alone refused support, but
was quite condemnatory of her court activity. Although the media never
made it clear, it was basically an anti-Catholic group composed primarily
of Baptists with intent only to curtail the growing power and influence
of Roman Catholicism. Mrs. Murray simply announced to the world that
there were really no "Other Americans" than Baptists in this group and
that she would welcome any "Other Americans" for separation of state and
church into her organization.
Meanwhile Other Americans, as an Atheist organization with the
intent of striving for separation of state and church, had been born.
The period of duration of the corporation was declared to be perpetual.
The objects and purposes of the corporation were to "advance and promote
the philosophy of Materialism." A definition of materialism is available
in Madalyn (Murray) O'Hair's "Why I Am an Atheist" (available from the
American Atheist Press).
As the new kid on the block, Other Americans was immediately under
attack by the aged males who headed up the old freethought, rationalist,
and secularist organization, who were unhappy with a female's being so
"uppity" as to start her own group. Religious zealots, government
functionaries, and church representatives came out in force. There were
actual breaking and entries into the premises of the new group,
harassment and physical abuse of real and personal property, illegal
handling of the mails, boycotting, surveillance by governmental security
organizations, and bandying about of the name of Mrs. Murray in political
campaigns. J. Edgar Hoover authorized a COINTEL (counter-intelligence)
operation against Mrs. Murray. This was a special policy plan of the
FBI in which that agency engaged in the placing of deliberately fictitious,
defamatory items into the media with the object of reducing the esteem and
reputation of the person attacked.
The Murray family was actually driven from Maryland through physical
abuse and assaults. The organization was closed down after the corporation
was captured in June 1965 by a "gang of three" -- a former attorney of the
organization, a person whose employment had been with the CIA, and a former
hired employee, all hostile and inimical to its interests. With the
assistance of certain officials of the state of Maryland, the organization
was stripped of all its assets, real estate, personal property, and bank
accounts and was then abandoned.
Meanwhile the Murray family fled to the only place in the nation that
was not Christian-dominated-- Buddhist Hawaii. During the Murray's last few
days in Baltimore, the Baltimore police had charged their home in an
infantry-type assault, severely beating the entire family. Mrs. Murray's
aged mother was hospitalized with concussion of the brain, and Mrs. Murray
herself was extensively hospitalized later as a direct result of the
beatings. In Hawaii an effort was made to restart the organization, only
to have it closed down again through harassment by government agencies.
It was at this time that Mrs. Murray was denied a passport by the United
States Department of State. The family fled to Mexico anyway, only to be
returned illegally -- at gunpoint and without extradition process --
to the United States.
In Texas, another attempt at reorganization was begun while Mrs.
Murray fought an attempt to extradite her to Maryland for her "assault"
against the sixteen police officers who had beaten her, her son, and her
It was not until June 1967 that an attorney was found in Maryland who
had courage enough to cooperate with Mrs. Murray to attempt to recapture
the original Maryland corporation of Other Americans. This was finally
effectuated on March 12, 1968, when the state of Maryland accepted and
approved the "Articles of Revival" for the corporation so that it could
be returned to its rightful owners. They were to find out that this
was -- in respect to its property -- a return in name only. All real
estate, property, and bank accounts which had been stripped from
the corporation could not be recovered. The courts were too hostile.
Meanwhile, being in and out of jail eleven times on specious charges,
Madalyn Murray (then) O'Hair, with her new husband Richard O'Hair, had
organized a trusteeship known as "Society of Separationists" on January 1,
1966. Having won the legal battle in Maryland to regain the corporation on
May 20, 1969, the name of the Other Americans corporation was changed to
"Society of Separationists, Inc." and merged with the trusteeship of the
same name. This was to become the first viable group, or society, of
outright Atheists who would advocate, labor for, and promote in all lawful
ways *complete* and *absolute* separation of state and church.
The purpose of the corporation was expanded to include a definition
of American Atheism, and the "Aims of the Society" were included in the
corporate "raison d'etre." These were:
"American Atheists, Inc. is a nonprofit, nonpolitical,
educational organization dedicated to the complete and
absolute separation of state and church, accepting the
explanation of Thomas Jefferson that the 'First Amendment'
to the Constitution of the United States was meant to
create a 'wall of separation' between state and church.
American Atheists is organized to stimulate and
promote freedom of thought and inquiry concerning religious
beliefs, creeds, dogmas, tenets, rituals, and practices;
to collect and disseminate information, data, and
literature on all religions and promote a more thorough
understanding of them, their origins, and their histories;
to advocate, labor for, and promote in all lawful
ways the complete and absolute separation of state and church;
to advocate, labor for, and promote in all lawful
ways the establishment and maintenance of a thoroughly
secular system of education available to all;
to encourage the development and public acceptance
of a humane ethical system stressing the mutual sympathy,
understanding, and interdependence of all people and the
corresponding responsibility of each individual in
relation to society;
to develop and propagate a social philosophy in which
man is the central figure, who alone must be the source of
strength, progress, and ideals for the well-being and
happiness of humanity;
to promote the study of the arts and sciences and of
all problems affecting the maintenance, perpetuation, and
enrichment of human, and other, life;
to engage in such social, educational, legal, and
cultural activity as will be useful and beneficial to
members of American Atheists and to society as a whole.
Atheism may be defined as the mental attitude which
unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at
establishing a lifestyle and ethical outlook verifiable by
experience and the scientific method, independent of all
arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds.
Materialism declares that the cosmos is devoid of
immanent conscious purpose; that it is governed by its own
inherent, immutable, and impersonal laws; that there is no
supernatural interference in human life; that man -- finding
his resources within himself -- can and must create his own
destiny. Materialism restores to man his dignity and his
intellectual integrity. It teaches that we must prize our
life on earth and strive always to improve it. It holds that
man is capable of creating a social system based on reason
and justice. Materialism's 'faith' is in man and man's
ability to transform the world culture by his own efforts.
This is a commitment which is in its very essence life-
asserting. It considers the struggle for progress as an
ethical obligation and impossible without noble ideas that
inspire man to bold, creative works. Materialism holds that
humankind's potential for good and for an outreach to more
fulfilling cultural development is, for all practical
From January 1966, when Society of Separationists was still a
trusteeship, through the May, 1969, conclusion of the corporate fight
with the state of Maryland, Mrs. O'Hair was in a protracted legal
battle with the Treasury Department, Internal Revenue Service (IRS),
to obtain tax exemption as an educational organization. As the
confrontation developed, IRS required an amendment to the Articles of
Incorporation to prohibit it from lobbying or engaging in political
activities. This Article of Amendment was accepted by the state of
Maryland on August 19, 1973.
On April 5, 1974, the Society of Separationists, Inc., was held
by the Internal Revenue Service to be an educational, tax-exempt,
nonprofit organization. Upon appeal of the ruling with a request for
retroactive dating on July 12, 1974, the Internal Revenue Service
ruled that the effective date of tax exemption of the corporation
was to be retroactive to March 1, 1968.
The war of attrition begun in 1963 continued without abatement
as the Murray-O'Hair family fought simply for the right to have an
organization of Atheists openly operating, openly demanding civil
rights for Atheists in the United States. During the period from
1965 to 1975 the survival of the organization was constantly in doubt.
A bare subsistence budget was managed by Mrs. O'Hair's charging for her
appearances and giving any monies derived therefrom to the organization.
Society of Separationists grew at a snail's pace as the media
refused to give open and fair access. It operated out of the Murray-
O'Hair home in Austin, Texas, for its first four years. Then a small
house was purchased and converted to offices for another six years.
During the ten-year period from 1965 to 1975, every agency of federal,
state, county, and city government that could move against the small
organization did so. Mr. O'Hair was a permanently and totally disabled
Marine Corps veteran of World War II. Mrs. O'Hair also had two minor
children for whom she had to care as well as needing, singly, to steer
the young organization. From yearly tax audits, telephone tapping,
burgeoning mailbags full of opprobrious letters, suits for infractions
of nonexisting laws, invasion by those intent on destruction, to
physical assaults against the buildings, every effort was made to sink
Despite it all, the Society grew as Atheists in every state of
the Union slowly became aware of it and joined in hopes that at last
there was a glimmer of hope for the halting of religion's assault on
the precious First Amendment guarantee of freedom from religion.
About this time, here and there, a few brave Atheists began local
groups affiliated with this "national office." And in 1975 Jon Murray
graduated from the University of Texas and joined his mother, Mrs.
O'Hair, in the organization.
On and off over the years, the Society has attempted to issue a
magazine, to produce a weekly radio series, to compile a library, to
gain some respectability for Atheism, and to file court cases on behalf
of embattled and beleaguered Atheists everywhere. It failed as often
as it succeeded. Often its only achievement was to stay afloat in a
sea of Christian hostility. Each month it issued an "Insider's
Newsletter," and more and more Atheists rallied 'round as they saw
that nothing would defeat this tenacious, courageous Atheist family.
The Society filed suit after suit in federal courts to stop the most
blatant state/church violations: "In God We Trust" on our currency and
coins; Bible reading by the astronauts in space; Christian nativity
scenes displayed in government buildings; refusal of public libraries
to accept or display Atheist reading material; invocational prayers in
government -- especially in state and federal congresses; "belief in
God" requirements to hold public office.
Mrs. O'Hair was, meanwhile, giving lectures, appearing on radio
and television, writing books and assigning all of the money to the
Society. First another small building was purchased for the growing
library and then a larger home was found for the general offices. By
January, 1976, it was felt that the organization had acquired enough
strength to function openly, "doing business as" American Atheists, and
that name was filed with and accepted by the secretary of state of Texas.
In June 1977 a prestigious, thirty-one-room office building was
purchased in northwest Austin, and a fight was on again when a thirty-
five-foot, red-white-and-blue sign proclaiming "American Atheist Center"
was placed on the eighty-foot front of the building. Insurance was
immediately cancelled, and the mortgage company advised that foreclosure
would result if new insurance was not provided.. The groups that
finally agreed to insurance coverage included Lloyd's of London. And
obstacle followed obstacle: No suppliers would extend any credit. For
all purchases of furniture and equipment, cash was necessary. Often
wholesalers refused to do business with American Atheists. It was not
possible to purchase printing, for example. Therefore, the Society set
up its own internal direct mail and printing plant. The staff had
increased to four paid employees plus the Murray-O'Hairs. Again, the
response by the religionists was to escalate the attack. More harassment
suits, insurance cancellations, threats of violence, and picketing were
features of the first year's operation in the new Center. Religious
zealots joined the organization, even found employment in The Center,
to do the maximum possible damage.
The organization absorbed these blows and survived. In fact, it
has even flourished just a bit. It proudly issued the "American Atheist"
magazine, the finest journal of Atheist news and thought ever to be
published; the magazine was being made available in over 1,000 public
libraries. A one-hour daily radio program was broadcast internationally,
to 2,000 stations. A sophisticated "news forum," a half-hour, television
program found its way onto 100 (public access) cable television channels
in most major markets.
The United World Atheists, founded in 1970 in cooperation with GORA
(GORA is Goparaju Ramachandro Rao; he took the GO of the first name,
added RA of the second and third names, and reduced it all to GORA) of
the Atheist Centre of India, sponsored and carried out two World Atheist
Meets: in Vijayawada, India, in 1972; and in Helsinki, Finland, in 1983.
It also sponsored international visits as the Murray-O'Hairs met with
other organizations in London, Paris, Helsinki, Auckland, Melbourne,
Sidney, Beijing, Moscow, Lausanne, Rome, and Berlin.
The American Atheist Center came to house the Charles E. Stevens
American Atheist Library and Archives, Inc., which preserves Atheism's
intellectual heritage from obscurity and oblivion, and presents that
rich, profound heritage as a vital source for scholarship. The Library
consists of 30,000 books and as many as 100,000 booklets, journals,
magazines, pamphlets, and brochures, most of which are first edition,
rare, and often more than a century old.
Each year the annual American Atheist Conventions (begun falteringly
in 1970) became better organized, better presented, and better attended.
More and more prestigious scholars became willing to appear. Conventions
were held in New York City, New York; Detroit, Michigan; Washington, D.C.;
Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, California;
Lexington, Kentucky; Newark, New Jersey; Denver, Colorado; and Dallas and
Austin, Texas. International guests included officers of Atheist
organizations from India, England, Finland, Germany, Australia, and
Richard O'Hair died in March of 1978, and the Murray-O'Hair family,
consisting of Jon Murray, Robin Murray-O'Hair, and Madalyn O'Hair, continued
to head the American Atheist movement. In 1980, at the suggestion of Gerald
Tholen (vice president of American Atheists), a sustaining trust fund was
established as a method of financing the organization. In the summer of 1981,
Gerald Tholen closed down his business in order to move his family to Austin
and become a permanent part of The Center. In May of 1984, Robin Murray-
O'Hair graduated from the University of Texas and joined The Center as
editor of the American Atheist magazine. In April of 1986, Jon Murray
became President of American Atheists, when Madalyn O'Hair "retired" to
assume the full-time, working position of "President Emeritus."
The organization moved painfully along, everyone despairing of the
slowness of mobilization of Atheists generally. But at the end of 1986,
with the acquisition of several inheritances, the mortgage on The Center
was retired. The real estate and The Center's building were owned, in
fee simple, totally free of any encumbrance. Sophisticated typesetting,
printing, computer, and other equipment was acquired. American Atheists
opened the first exclusively Atheist bookstore in the US, in Denver,
Colorado. Through the determination and dedication of one family, American
Atheists as an institution came to our nation, to stay. The Center was
a modern, sophisticated, direct-mail plant with state-of-the-art equipment.
Its magazine, American Atheist, was issued monthly. An entire line of
American Atheist Press paperbacks became available as The Center moved
into book production, bringing a wide variety of titles into print.
American Atheists continued to grow. It outgrew The Center. In May
of 1987 a new, much larger, office building was purchased in a different
part of Austin, Texas, in order to accommodate the growing Charles E.
Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives, the American Atheist Press
with its printing and publication facilities, and a staff which had grown
to fifteen full-time, paid employees and five dedicated volunteers. The
new office building is 17,500 square feet in area and is a brick and
glass structure of the most modern construction and design. It was
purchased at a cost of $1,750,000.
Under the leadership and hard work of the Murray-O'Hair family,
American Atheists continued to grow and carry on the fight against the
forces seeking to breach the wall of separation between state and church.
They fought hard to make "the A-word" acceptable to American ears and
safe to use. Then, in August of 1995, the entire family suddenly
disappeared from their Texas home. Over a year later, their condition
and whereabouts remain a mystery. It is not even known if they are alive.
All activities of American Atheists, Inc., came to a halt. After a
number of months had elapsed, in order to reactivate the organization and
get it "back on track," the American Atheists Board of Directors met to
elect new officers who would be able to restart the activities of the
corporation. Ellen Johnson of New Jersey, a long-time member of the
board of directors, was elected president and has since brought most of
the functions of American Atheists back into active status. American
Atheist Press has a new editor, Frank Zindler, and Orin Tyson has
assumed the directorship of American Atheists GHQ, the office building
purchased in 1987.
With the assistance of a new national media coordinator, Ronald
Barrier, Ellen Johnson has succeeded in producing "The Atheist Viewpoint,"
a television program which is rapidly reclaiming the spaces left when the
Murray-O'Hair series "American Atheist TV Forum" ceased to be produced.
The year 1996 has certainly been a time of trial for American
Atheists. But although one cannot foretell the future, it looks as though
the organization is going to survive the loss of its founder-- something
that has often proven fatal in organizations founded by charismatic
personalities. The new leaders are young and every bit as dedicated to
the advancement of Atheism as were their predecessors. American Atheists
can still be counted on!
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