When I was a kid back in the mid-1960s, a woman named Madalyn Murray O’Hair was often in the news.
See, she didn’t believe in god and, rather than do the right thing and keep her mouth shut about it, she traipsed all over the country telling people she was an atheist. In fact, she even founded a group called American Atheists, a moniker about as contradictory as, say, Obese Marathoners.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair
How she ever found more than one or two other like-minded spawn of Satan in the year 1963 in this holy land is beyond me.
At the time I was a second grader at St. Giles, a Catholic school, under the tutelage of a pack of the sternest nuns this side of the cast of a John Waters movie. The principal was Sister James Mary. When she’d taken her Holy Orders, she assumed the name of a male saint known as a “perpetual virgin” and that of the Virgin Mother of Christ, a double-whammy of the Catholic church’s bizarre sexual value system. Sister James Mary — or, as we referred to her, JM — was the toughest, scariest, most brutish, deep-voiced, flinty-eyed bully I ever knew until I was introduced to a gang tough named Little Willie in 1973. Little Willie once beat a guy in the side aisle of the Mercury Theater simply for liking the same girl he did. The poor guy was hospitalized for several weeks, having suffered a concussion, a broken jaw, broken ribs, and a broken arm. Yeah, Little Willie was tough, although I’d hedge my bet on him were he to be matched against JM.
Anyway, Sister James Mary visited our classroom one day in the winter of 1964 wearing her meanest look. We knew she was deadly serious. Even the class clowns, Albert DiPrima and I, refrained from making goofy faces at each other while JM visited that day. She had a message of great import for us. She looked around the room when she spoke and I swear that when her eyes landed on me, the radiant energy emanating from them raised my body temperature a degree and a half.
She told us that a horde of people in this dangerous, dangerous world were trying to rob from us the right to worship our Holy Father. We were to resist them at all costs.
A little background. A couple of years earlier, the US Supreme Court had ruled against school prayer. And then the next year, that same Court had outlawed the reading of the Bible in classrooms. (Never mind that these decisions affected public schools only.) The Court, clearly, was under the thumb of the pagans. At the forefront of this assault on all things godly and good, JM warned, was Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Sister James Mary grimaced when she mentioned O’Hair’s name, as if she was about to retch.
At the time I was still trying to be a good sport about all this Catholicism and god business. It would be another five or so years before I finally quit the Church. As an obedient Soldier of Christ at the time, I immediately counted Madalyn Murray O’Hair among the most vile humans on Earth. She, Castro, Kruschev, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Boston Strangler constituted my personal Axis of Evil in 1964.
I was not alone. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was, according to Life magazine that year, “the most hated woman in America.”
That was then.
In the year 2013, it would be an oddity to find a nun who is the principal of a Catholic school. If you do find one, it’s a sure bet she’s wearing a pantsuit as opposed to a habit and a wimple. And she sure as hell hasn’t named herself after a fellow whose claim to fame was his steadfast refusal to have sex.
And, although the world’s most famous atheist is still reviled among backwoods fundamentalists and politico-Christianists, he is not ranked among the likes of Bashar al-Assad, whoever the boss of al Qaeda is today, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and — oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus? — among the general populace.
As a matter of fact, Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist today, is one of the most respected thinkers on this crazy, mixed-up planet.
Hey, the place has changed a lot in 50 years.
I bring this all up because I just learned that Dawkins’ memoir is due to hit the streets in a couple of weeks. The book is An Appetite for Wonder. One of the things I like best about Dawkins is his obvious impatience with theists. He’s about as tolerant of believers as he is of the object of their adoration. From his book, The God Delusion:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infantificidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Dear god, I can’t wait to read his new book.
God Only Knows