The 50th Anniversary of American Atheists

The 50th Anniversary of American Atheists

Dr Craig reflects on the tragic story of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and how the current American Atheists organization stands in her long shadow.

Transcript The 50th Anniversary of American Atheists

Person 1: “Religion has caused more misery to all men in every single state of history than any other single idea.”

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, there was an article in the Christian Post featuring you - it was an interview with you in this article. It says, “Christian Apologist Dismisses American Atheist 50th Anniversary Convention as Nothing but Posturing.”[1] Pretty flashy title.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that really was misrepresentative of what I said. This is so typical of the way the press excerpts words and then uses them to make an attention grabbing headline. What I said was, and this is quoted accurately in the article, is that their moto, 50 years of reason, is nothing but posturing, and that is true. People may not remember the history of American Atheists and who founded the American Atheists. This is Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s organization, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair was one of the most down and dirty, a vociferous, emotion, angry, anti-intellectual atheist to come on the American scene.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Recording) “Jesus Christ has not influenced the total world.” . . . “Listen, I wouldn’t even let him lick my boots.” . . . “quit saying that you know - you don’t! You are not saying anything” . . . “From nothing, nothing comes, but God created” . . . “You don’t have any idea? No. This New Testament that you have, oh, this was written after J.C.” . . . “You have no right to say God did it.” “Incidentally, was that an immaculate conception or did Joseph have a part in that?” . . . “You don’t know a thing about the Bible. It is a conglomeration of rubbish and you are an expert on rubbish?” . . . “Christ is probably the most mixed up person in the world” . . . “No historical evidence of Christ and you know it. Now, don’t be asinine . . . There is no historical evidence. The only evidence that there is, is in the mythology of the Old Testament, which nobody can understand” . . . “For if God caused or created everything, who caused or created God? If everything must have a cause, he had to have a cause too to account for his existence. So, the cosmological argument is worthless.” . . . “You are going to spend your whole life preparing to meet the Lord. Boy, you folks are crazy as hell.”

Dr. Craig: And so to characterize themselves as, “50 years of reason,” as though this is some great intellectual movement is just clearly posturing, attempting to have a credibility and status that they have not earned and do not deserve.

Kevin Harris: She was a very unreasonable person and it’s sad. I read a book on her, how she died, and the horrible way that she and her adopted daughter, who was her granddaughter, and her son, and how they died. Fascinating story but also very sad. She was really a very mean spirited person. A real bone to pick, and so, I think the American Atheists have tried to distance themselves from this.

Dr. Craig: Which is good. I’m glad about that actually. I think you're right. I think they are trying to do a make-over.

Kevin Harris: She was the face of atheism, and she went out and got herself murdered by some bad guys that she hired, that is what happened but that is also the perception. She was a disdained women, a hated woman. I think that we neglected the subject of atheism in the church for so long because it was just Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her rantings, and people just wrote it off as, she’s crazy and we have other things to talk about. If you're an atheist you're just Madalyn Murray O’Hair. You're just a nut.

Dr. Craig: Really, that was the perception of her, and I think not unjustifiably. She was an angry, ranting, mean-spirited person, and American Atheists would now, I think, like us to forget that that was the genesis of this organization.[2] They are attempting to have a quite different public face now.

Kevin Harris: This whole thing about reason being in their moto. There are two things. First of all, how reasonable is it, as you point out? Second of all, it seems to say, you guys go ahead and have your religion, you have your faith, we are going to have reason.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. Things like the Reason Rally. They are playing off a false dichotomy here, that opposes reason to faith, and that’s why I so love the name of this ministry, Reasonable Faith. To these atheists, this is an oxymoron. They do not think that faith can be reasonable, and yet, there are so many fine Christian scholars in philosophy, in historical studies, in the hard sciences, who are faithful Christians and are entirely reasonable in being so, and therefore, this idea that reason is to be opposed to faith and played off against faith, is just a false dichotomy. We as Christians celebrate reason as well. Ours, as St. Anselm put it, is a faith that seeks understanding.

Kevin Harris: One of the speakers this spring at their convention was A. C. Grayling, and I believe that among all the speakers he is the only one that you have had a debate with or interacted.

Dr. Craig: No, actually, I had debated some of the other speakers at the convention, such as Robert Price, as well. Grayling was supposed to be, I think, this sort of big heavy hitter. He was one of the headliners for this convention, and what struck me as ironic about this was just a few years ago I debated A. C. Grayling at the Oxford Union of Oxford University, that is the debating society on campus there. We had a debate on the topic: Is Belief in God Reasonable in Light of Tsunamis.[3] It was shortly after that terrible tsunami that swept Indonesia and Malaysia. So, it was really on the problem of evil, and even though Grayling is supposed to be the heavy hitter at this atheist convention, if you listen to the debate that I had with him, it was like shadow boxing. He just had very little to say in support of atheism or in critique of the arguments that I presented. So, when I have had the opportunity to debate representatives from American Atheists, like Frank Zindler, and then others that are on the docket here like Grayling and Price, I found, frankly, that they don’t hold up their end of the bargain - that they do not, infact, show that their view is the more reasonable worldview.

Kevin Harris: You were asked in this article about the rise of the “nones.” We have done a podcast on that and have shown so many things. The fact that theism and Christianity are rising in other parts of the world, but right now there is kind of a shift going on in people who declare themselves as not having a particular denomination affiliation, and a lot of those are confused with atheist. They are not necessarily atheist and you point this out in the article.

Dr. Craig: That’s correct, because people will respond to a survey about their religious affiliation and say I have none, and so are called “nones”, but that doesn’t mean that they are atheists. In many cases they simply mean that they are not affiliated with any denomination. They may be people who believe in God who pray and have a spiritual life. So, these statistics don’t bear their interpretation on their sleeve, Kevin. As we have emphasized in the past, when you begin to look at them in more depth it is not at all clear that there is this great wave of atheism that is sweeping western society and American culture today.

Kevin Harris: We have pounded in our young people’s head (the churches), we have pounded it in our heads and in others heads that we are not religious, not necessarily, and that was a real evangelistic thrust of the 70’s. The best selling book was How to be a Christian Without Being Religious - bestseller. I read it, and we all ran around saying this and we still say it. Aw, it’s not religion, you can be religious about anything.

Dr. Craig: It’s a relationship.

Kevin Harris: And so, polls often say, are you religious? You go, no, I’m a Christian. I’m a follower of Christ. So, there is confusion and you have to really dig down in these polls.

Dr. Craig: As I’ve grown older I’ve become more sympathetic to the term religion because it does connote a certain perspective on reality and a dimension of your personal life that needs to be acknowledged, frankly, in opposition to secularism.[4]

Kevin Harris: Bill, you point out that a lot of statistics show that it is still about only 2% or 3% of people who actually identify as atheist.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and as we've mentioned in previous podcasts, Kevin, theism seems to be on the rise in many countries of the world today that one wouldn’t expect. So, that it is simply inaccurate to think that atheism is experiencing a huge growth curve today.

Kevin Harris: Bill, it seems the main thrust of American Atheists are civil rights issues: laws, church separation issues, and things like that. Their pretty weak, in fact, they are very weak on offering arguments for atheism, but this is the largest secular atheistic organization in the world, and they really don’t deal with arguments.

Dr. Craig: I think that is quite right, Kevin. When you look at their material and their campaigns, they do tend to be more social and political. Securing for atheists a place at the table in American society. Wanting atheists to come out of the closet and confess their atheism openly and not keep it hidden. It’s really a social and political agenda that they are pushing and there is actually very little attempt to try to provide any sort of rational justification for an atheistic or secular worldview, and little criticism of substance of a theistic worldview.

Kevin Harris: David Silverman is their current president and I’ve watched a couple of his debates. Nice guy, very well spoken, always on Fox News and some of the other major news outlets, I think CNN and others, trying to put a good face on, but he is so far behind on where we are philosophically and where the debate is today. He still uses terms like “your invisible sky buddy,” “your invisible friend in the sky.”

David Silverman (Recording): “Okay, so if you want to believe in an invisible man in the sky, you can do that, but that’s not going to get me to say that’s valid” . . . “I am therefore going to posit an invisible magical man in the sky who breaks all known laws of physics, who did it for me.” . . . “The exact same thing could be used for the invisible unicorn that I just made up just now.”

Kevin Harris: Totally, apparently, unaware of the ontological status of God. He still uses the flying spaghetti monster.

Dr. Craig: You know, that is interesting, Kevin, because there you see the long shadow of Madalyn Murray O’Hair that we talked about. The pejorative, sarcastic, impertinent attitude that is utterly oblivious to the revolution in philosophy that has taken place over the last half-century. There is no appreciation or familiarity with the renaissance in Christian philosophy that has been going on over the last several decades, and so, you get these kind of cheap shots with no attempt to grapple with the work of people like Alvin Plantinga, Robert Adams, William Alston, and so forth.

Kevin Harris: I want to end today’s podcast talking about this social thrust that we hear from American Atheists organization: wanting a place at the table, wanting a new face, wanting more acceptance, wanting not to be discriminated against, and so on. I had a conversation with a man online the past couple of days ago who is going around to churches speaking about top 10 things Christians need to know about atheists and things like this. His main thing, Bill, is that he wants us to know that he is a moral man and that atheists can be moral. I said from the outset, of course, you can be highly moral, you can be a very moral person, you can recognise and act on moral values and duties; that is not the question. He interrupted and said, wait a minute, do you think that I, as an atheist, then I’m not going to go out and kill babies or anything. I said, no, of course you're not, and he said, well then what are you worried about? Why should we even have this dialogue? If I’m okay morally and you’re okay morally…

Dr. Craig: Isn’t that interesting? See for him, the truth of atheism seems irrelevant as long as the social consequences are acceptable. For us who are interested in truth it is quite the reverse. You do not judge the truth of the worldview by its social consequences, and therefore, whatever the social consequences of atheism or of Christianity, one still needs to ask the question: but is this the truth?[5]

[1] (accessed August 23, 2013).

[2] 5:08

[3] For a transcript of this debate, see (accessed August 23, 2013).

[4] 10:02

[5] Total Running Time: 15:03 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)