Throughout the month of February, this column will be featuring stories of noted atheists who experienced dramatic shifts in their views, eventually becoming Christians. The stories will highlight the reasons why they held their atheistic views to begin with, and the reasons they became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
In 1960, a lonely 13-year-old stood in the hallway outside his classroom each morning. His name was William J. Murray III, and inside that classroom, his teacher and schoolmates were saying morning prayers to a God that Murray didn’t believe in. Murray refused to participate in this mandatory prayer, and so he was forced into the hallway.
When William’s mother, also an atheist, discovered the hard truth of what her son had to endure each day, she was enraged. By her reading of the constitution, a public institution had no right to enforce mandatory prayers and humiliate her child for staying true to his convictions.
William’s mother, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, filed suit against the school system, eventually escalating her case to the Supreme Court. In the landmark 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp case it was ruled that mandatory Bible reading and prayer in the public school system was unconstitutional. This case, which began in the hallway of a small Maryland school, rocked the nation and earned William’s mother the title “The Most Hated Woman in America.”
William’s mother wasn’t finished in her campaign, though, and the hatred of the nation became fuel in her tank to take up arms against the oppressive Christian majority which she felt was pressuring and coercing atheists and the non-religious with their views.
O’Hair went on to found her activist organization American Atheists, and brought her son aboard in her lifelong campaign to rid the government from religious influences.
Much of O’Hair’s idealism was fueled by her politics. She was a staunch supporter of socialism and even attempted to defect to the Soviet Union at one point. As William grew to adulthood, he became a successful businessman, especially in the airline business. With the success of his business ventures, William’s political ideas began to diverge from his mother’s. Finding success in capitalism, William became a Libertarian politically, although he remained an atheist ideologically.
What William found, however, was that his success brought nothing but self-destruction. William became an alcoholic and an addict, and was involved in several failed marriages. Finally reaching the end of his rope at age 33, he came to find comfort, hope, and reform in the Church.
When she learned of her son’s conversion, O’Hair is quoted as saying, “One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times… he is beyond human forgiveness.”
In 1995, O’Hair made the news again when it was discovered that she had been kidnapped and murdered along with William’s half brother (O’Hair’s other son) and William’s daughter (O’Hair’s granddaughter). William’s daughter was 30 the year she was murdered. When the split occurred between William and his mother, William’s daughter, Robin, had sided with O’Hair and remained an atheist – refusing to communicate with her father. The perpetrators of the kidnapping were former employees of American Atheists who used the kidnapping to cover up stealing money from the organization.
William now pursues his faith with the same zeal that his mother had pursued her ideals – becoming a Baptist minister, lobbyist, and the chairman for the Religious Freedom Coalition.
William’s story may be found in its entirety in his book My Life Without God.