American Atheists: A History The American Atheist organization was founded in Bal

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************************************************************ 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 litigants. 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 seventy-year-old mother. 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 purposes, unlimited." 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 the Society. 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 New Zealand. 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! *********************************************************************** * * * American Atheists website: http://www.atheists.org * * PO Box 140195 FTP: ftp://ftp.atheists.org * * Austin, TX 78714-0195 * * Voice: (512) 458-1244 Dial-THE-ATHEIST: * * FAX: (512) 467-9525 (512) 458-5731 * * * * Atheist Viewpoint TV: avtv@atheists.org * * Info on American Atheists: info@atheists.org, * * & American Atheist Press include your name and mailing address * * AANEWS -Free subscription: aanews-request@listserv.atheists.org * * and put "info aanews" in message body * * * * This text may be freely downloaded, reprinted, and/other * * otherwise redistributed, provided appropriate point of * * origin credit is given to American Atheists. * * * ***********************************************************************

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