I got this book because I am deeply interested in how someone arrives at their personal beliefs and deeply held convictions. I had read somewhere that the famous atheist, Madeline Murray O’Hair’s son had become a Christian so when I learned of this book I wanted to read his story. In a nutshell, let’s just call it a crazy trip.
Before I review this book I want to make clear that I am not trying to prove any points about atheists or Christians. There are plenty of nice atheists in the world and more than a few nasty Christians. This needs to be understood before anyone reads this post so they don’t arrive at the conclusion that I’m saying, “See what a monster Madeline Murray O’Hair was? Atheists are all horrible people!”
As I said, I wanted to read one man’s journey from atheism to Christianity. What was his starting point? Why did he believe what he believed? What happened to change his views? Where is he now?
Through this process we learn a good deal about the person who initially influenced Bill Murray’s world view and beliefs. That would be his mother Madeline.
Madeline had Bill while serving in the Woman’s Auxiliary Corps during WWII. The father, William Murray, was an officer and not the man she was married to. Her husband J. Roths agreed to stay married to Madeline and adopt Bill as his son.
Madeline refused to do this and chased down Murray Sr and did everything in her power to get him to divorce his wife and marry her. This he never did but she named her son after him anyway. She also changed her last name to
even though they never married (she added "O'Hair later after she married Richard O'Hair). Bill Jr.
met his biological dad only once in his life. Murray
Madeline later had another son out of wedlock. She often told Bill that his half brother Garth’s father would have married her but only if she got rid of Bill. “I would never do that, Bill. I love you.”
This sounds noble, but in fact it was Madeline’s way of inflicting guilt on her oldest son. This was a tool she used a lot with him and everyone else connected with her.
Life in the
filled with constant fighting and tension.
The T.V. was always on and the volume set at the loudest setting. People screamed at each other over it. Bill’s grandparents and Uncle all lived in
this house together with him and his mother and half brother. Murray
He remembers that as a baby, his brother was only touched when picked up to be fed. Otherwise he was kept in his crib. To get attention baby Garth would hit his head against the bars of his crib.
Madeline was as uninvolved with his own life. He didn’t even know she was his mother, even though they lived in the same house. He referred to her as “Madeline” until he was eight when she informed him that she was his mother and should be called, “mom”.
And that was the house Bill grew up in. Loud noise, fighting, and a baby hitting his head against the crib. No peace.
Madeline and her father constantly fought and at times, Madeline could get violent, hurling plates and knives at her father. She seemed to have a maniacal hatred against him. She even studied ways to murder him so it would look like a heart attack. But instead of doing it herself, she urged young Bill to do it. This was while he was still in middle school. “If you loved me, you’d do it,” was her constant harangue.
The point became moot. Worn down by the incessant harassment and fighting. Madeline’s father finally had a heart attack on his own and died. At first Madeline was crass about it, “Get the cheapest coffin.”
Later she became consumed with guilt. For the rest of her life she would visit his grave and talk to him. She also became involved in séances and the occult, which is ironic for an atheist.
Madeline was deeply involved in the Communist party of
. She was head of the local chapter. She tried to become a Soviet citizen, even
moving her family to America
to obtain a Visa but was turned down.
Later she tried to become a Cuban citizen but was refused that as well. Paris
One morning she arrived at Bill’s school to pick him up. She heard the class recite the pledge of allegiance. She asked her son, “Do they always do this?”
He replied in the affirmative. When she discovered that they also prayed and read the Bible she became enraged.
The rest is history. Bill relates the incident from his own point of view. When Madeline complained to the head of the school, they removed Bill from the class during prayer and Bible reading but she told Bill to sneak in. She wanted her case to be based on the fact they were forcing her son to be subject to prayer and Bible reading. She made him keep a daily log of every time they mentioned God or anything religious. When she read the textbooks she became elated.
“They teach as if the Bible stories were fact. We can sue them for this as well.”
Madeline had boundless energy. She called every newspaper and TV station. She got plenty of media attention. And then the financial support came rolling in. She had found her mission.
And Bill? He got to be the object of taunts, shunning and bullying. His life became hell. He finally had to change schools.
The rest of the book is an interesting study of how someone can purport to be for a cause (as in Madeline’s case to eject religion out of the public arena) and really not care at all about that cause. What did Madeline care about?
Herself. Her own glory. Receiving nationwide attention. And making lots and lots of money.
People from all over wrote her letters of support enclosing checks for huge amounts of money. People bequeathed their estates to her. She had apparently touched a raw nerve with a certain segment of society and they wanted her to succeed. Years later, when Bill was a part of her American Atheists Association he wrote these same people asking them to join him in creating positive change in the name of atheism, such as creating atheist chairs in universities or hospitals. The response was vile, to say the least. Apparently Madeline’s supporters weren’t interested in producing anything positive but seemed to be a bunch of malcontents whose only interest was in tearing down religion.
Madeline Murray O’Hare is an interesting study in someone who, in my opinion, had to suffer from some kind of narcisstic personality disorder. She had limitless amounts of energy, rage and hatred. It’s possible that she was sexually abused. Bill mentions that in his mother’s office at her atheist headquarters, she had hundreds of figurines of animals copulating. They covered her bookshelves and desk.
She never stopped trying to figure out ways to keep herself in the public eye. Her main tactic was to sue religious figures. She sued everyone from Billy Graham to the Pope.
By this time O’Hare’s outrageous antics had outlived their usefulness and she was starting to become irrelevant to most Americans. She still had her supporters but they were dwindling.
And what did Bill do after he served his purpose? He supported his mom for a while but mainly he wanted to get out of her clutches and away from the stigma of being her son. His own life journey was a head long tumble into alcohol and drug abuse.
He doesn’t white wash his own self absorption or how he used people for his own gratification. This was primarily through getting women pregnant. His first wife, he married for this reason, at the age of nineteen. The marriage didn’t last and he eventually handed the raising of his daughter, Robin, to his mother. He knew it was the wrong thing to do, but didn’t want to be saddled with raising the toddler himself.
Years later, when Robin was still a young girl, his brother, Garth, who was twelve at this time, pleaded with Bill to take them away from his mother. Bill knew the situation was bad with heavy fighting, alcoholism and abuse rampant in his mother’s home but his own interests were more important to him.
Later, when his daughter was a teenager he tried to reestablish a relationship with her but it was too late. She wanted nothing to do with him. He writes all this with remorse because both Robin and Garth eventually became partners with Madeline in her American Atheists Association.
The rest of the book describes Bill meandering from one job to another combined with sleeping around and abusing drugs. His turning point came when he got a job at an airline with a man, Tom, who reminded him of his mother. This man purposefully flew planes that were substandard. Twice this cost the lives of a plane full of people.
Bill knew why these lives were lost but because Tom was wealthy and had connections no investigation was ever held.
By this time, Bill was going to Alcoholics Anonymous and trying to follow the twelve-step program. Part of this is relying on God.
God? Does He even exist? Bill was pondering this while driving home from the airport, right after a close friend was killed in a plane wreck he knew could have been prevented. He had a flash:
“Tom ran Universal Airways the way my mother ran the Society of Separationists. Whatever doubts I may have had that there was distinct evil in the world were snuffed out by Tom Evans....
I was not a model of virtue, of course, and now had a very serious problem with alcohol. I drank with Tom, and one night after he chugged a pint of brandy, he tried to molest one of the girls who worked with Val (his then wife). Because of the amount of money Tom paid me, I looked the other way. I hated him for what he did, and I hated myself for letting him get away with it.
One day, while driving home from work, the truth struck me. I thought, 'There has to be a God because there certainly is a devil. I have met him, talked to him, and touched him. He is the personification of evil. I’ve seen him in the lives of people I’ve known.'" (pg. 285)
This was the turning point for Bill Murray. He didn’t have a sudden, irreversible leap into virtue, but it was a slow steady climb.
“Within days my life and attitudes began to change...I no longer intensely hated my mother. Now I really wanted to be able to love her, whereas before I had only wanted revenge. I began to see my mother for what she truly was, a sinner, just like me...
...The only thing in my mind that was left undone was to apologize. I wanted to apologize to Susan (first wife) and Robin, to Valerie and Jade (second wife and daughter). I wanted to apologize to my country for robbing a part of its heritage of righteousness by participating in the prayer and Bible reading case...”
Twenty years after the prayer case Bill wrote two letters of apology. One was to the newspaper in
asking the people of that community of forgive him for helping to build the
in their city. The second was to the
people of American Atheist Center
where the prayer case took place. He
quotes his letter to the Baltimore
paper in full in his book. Baltimore
Today he heads many ministries, concentrating on working with people in former Soviet countries. He has many interesting insights on the former
Soviet Union. He contends that the Soviet
Union was never a world power but a third world nation with a big
army. He said the strongest currency in
circulation there was the U.S. dollar.
Ironically he is allowed to talk about Jesus Christ in public schools,
public parks and other venues in and the former satellite
countries, something his mother’s lawsuit prevents him from doing in his own
When his mother was asked on TV what she thought about her son’s conversion she replied that she had a “post natal abortion” and had nothing more to do with him.
He ends his book by sadly stating:
“I have not seen my daughter Robin for more than a decade. Like my mother she refuses to speak with me. Like my mother and brother she has tremendous wealth which has been created from donations for the atheist cause. The three of them live together, work together, take all their meals together, and vacation together. They see nothing outside their own little family unit. The lives of my brother Garth and my daughter Robin are dedicated to the survival and worship of my mother.”
This book was published in 1992. Little did Bill or his estranged family know of the horror that awaited them just a couple of years later.
This is not in the book but for those of you who don’t know, Madeline Murray O’Hair, her son, Garth and granddaughter, Robin disappeared in 1995. Their bodies were found on a
ranch a year
later. They had apparently been
tortured to death and their bodies dismembered. A former employee and two accomplices were
charged with the crime. Texas
And that is the story of William J. Murray. The book is a worthwhile read for those interested in the life of the son of one of the most controversial characters in American history and also learning the life story of that controversial character.
$7.69 on Kindle
My Life Without God book reviews on amazon.com
Thanks for such thoughtful commentary Sharon.
You are spot on to decry the argument that people who believe what I do are "nice and smart " while those who do not are "mean and dumb". As you know I am a non believer, but I too like to learn how folks came about their views. l love discussing and hearing about those beliefs especially with those folks who do not agree with me.
Thus this sounds like a fascinating narrative. It does unfortunately sound as if terrible personality flaws got in the way of important ideas and issues in the lives of these people. It also sound a little bit of a reverse story. We so often hear stories of folks who rejected religion after being raised by religious parents who manifested their beliefs in abusive ways.
Brian: It's true. A friend and I were just having this conversation. She and I are both believers and we were discussing a survey that said many children growing up in Christian homes leave the church. My guess is that the parents never had a genuine belief. It was more cultural or "that's how I was raised and I won't question it" or they never really engaged their kids in making their beliefs relevant. They thought that was Youth group and Sunday school leaders' jobs.
Interestingly, my friend, who grew up in a non believing home, quoted another stat that said a large percentage of church members today came out of non believing homes.
As for Madelyn Murray O'Hair, I wonder if she cared one way or the other. I think she just cared about promoting herself and profiting by it and that was the venue she used. I think the same about Richard Dawkins. I don't think they really believe in any cause but themselves.
Or course there's unfortunately more than a few examples of Christian leaders throughout history who have used and abused the name of Christ for the same reasons.
Thanks for your comments, I always appreciate them.
Great commentary, to be honest Madelyn Murray O'Hair sounds a bit nuts. Not because of her beliefs or her efforts, but because she does everything to the most extreme and that is not good whether you believe or you don't. Life is not simply black or white, just shades of gray.
Thanks, Zohar. I really think Madeline was mentally unbalanced. Her rage was so obsessive and her end so tragic. Her whole story fills me with sadness.
I copied your article to a Christian Website. Thanks a lot!
Hi Jochebed! Thanks for visiting my site and posting it on a website. I noticed you translated it into Chinese. Are you Chinese or do you just live in Hong Kong?
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