Friday, November 1, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair on The Donahue Show

The next time you feel a little nervous before the Q&A part of your talk, take a moment to be glad you're not "the most hated woman in America." In 1964, that's what Life magazine dubbed American atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair. But here she is, graceful as can be, fending off queries from an evangelical preacher and a mostly hostile audience--on The Donahue Show, no less.

O'Hair became the world's most famous atheist after she sued the Baltimore City Public Schools over their policy of starting the day's lessons with the Lord's Prayer or a reading from the Bible. Her case, combined with another suit called Abington School District v. Schempp, resulted in a 1963 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found school-sponsored Bible readings in public schools to be unconstitutional. O'Hair's statement to the high court includes a widely quoted section on "what an atheist believes:"
An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said...He believes that we cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of trouble in a hereafter. He believes that we are our brother's keepers and are keepers of our own lives, that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.
After that, O'Hair never relinquished the spotlight. Outspoken, combative, sometimes deliberately lewd or shocking, the founder of the American Atheists organization was so provocative in her appearances that other prominent atheists distanced themselves from her tactics.

She was a guest on the very first Donahue Show, and O'Hair was invited back several times to debate the Reverend Bob Harrington, known as "The Chaplain of Bourbon Street." It's unusual that we feature a talk show appearance in The Eloquent Woman Index, but stay tuned for this one. The video from 1970 shows some excellent sparring between the two, but it's the way O'Hair handles some intense questioners that really steals the show. What can you learn from her technique?

  • Take your turn, even if you have to steal it. I have no doubt that the Reverend filled the proverbial pews in New Orleans. He's got a calm, assured, silver-tongued delivery that attempts to ride right over O'Hair's comments. But O'Hair refuses to let him go on. Sometimes she jumps right into his sentences and talks over him. In other places, she cleverly uses his own words to launch her next salvo. When he name-checks his Wake Up America program, for example, she's ready with, "But you know if America wakes up, what America will do is kick Christianity out and all of you preachers."
  • Don't let them put words in your mouth. Harrington wants to talk about God and the Holy Spirit and heaven, but O'Hair asks him to define what he thinks they are and explains why she refuses to accept his definitions. That becomes important later on, when some in the audience wonder aloud if she's going to hell. She's not drawn into any arguments on Harrington's religious terms, because she has already objected to them. If you think the terms of a debate are false, say so early and often.
  • Maintain a sense of humor and calm. That's easier said than done, yes, but if the most hated woman in America can do it, so can you. O'Hair looks like she's having a rollicking good time throughout most of the show, and isn't afraid to lighten the mood. She pushes past numerous asides by both Harrington and Donahue about whether her husband finds her hard to deal with, or "devilish"--sort of hard to imagine this happening with a male atheist. And when Harrington asks whether she has "holy matrimony," O'Hair delivers a camera-grabbing eyeroll and declares that she and her husband "have the unholiest matrimony we can get."
O'Hair, one of her sons and her granddaughter were murdered by a former American Atheists employee in 1995. O'Hair was often asked about whether she feared death as an unbeliever, and she replied that she wasn't afraid of any such judgment. "I told my kids I just want three words on my tombstone, if I have one. I'll probably be cremated," she said. "One is 'woman.' I'm very comfortable in that role. I've loved being a woman, I've loved being a mother, I've loved being a grandmother. I want three words: Woman, Atheist, Anarchist. That's me."


(Editor's note: O'Hair's legacy continues as it was recently made optional for U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to mention God in their oaths. This post was contributed by freelance writer Becky Ham.)

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