The United States of America in the 1960s was a time of change.
In his run for president against Richard Nixon, Senator John F. Kennedy gave a campaign speech on September 12, 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association about the role of religion in government. In the United States’ nearly two-hundred-year history, no Catholic had ever been elected President, and Kennedy knew it was necessary to assure the public that he would not be a puppet for the Pope. In his speech, he said fourteen words that would foreshadow fifty years of atheism activism, a landmark Supreme Court decision, our own mission statement, and my personal creed as President of American Atheists: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
Three years later, representing Maryland’s Murray v Curlett, consolidated with Pennsylvania’s Abington School District v Schempp, Madalyn Murray, J.D., mother, civil-rights activist, and founder of American Atheists, would stand before the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States and tell the world, in a literally monumental speech, what an atheist believes: “An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.”
Two-thousand and thirteen marks 50 years since Madalyn Murray O’Hair spoke these words. American Atheists is proud to memorialize them in stone in front of the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Florida at the unveiling of the first-ever atheist-sponsored monument on government property at the end of this month.
Today, Monday, June 17, marks the exact 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision declaring mandatory Bible readings in public schools unconstitutional, a turning point in the history of First Amendment public policy. That day, too, a Monday, separated from us by five decades of political progress, of technological transformation, of change, was a day of applause for atheists across America, a day of celebration for secularists, a triumph for truth.
Madalyn was famous for speaking her mind. She stood up for the truth. She stood up for what she knew was right, even when Americans overwhelmingly criticized her for it. She was a brave woman, a woman of the highest integrity and frankness, a woman who cared about saying what needed to be said in order to propel change. She was so despised for this that in 1964, LIFE Magazine infamously called her “the most hated woman in America,” simply because she agreed with our nation’s founders: The state must never use taxpayer resources to indoctrinate children.
Though she is tragically no longer on this Earth, Madalyn will be remembered forever. Her life played a pivotal role in the history of the United States and in the fight for civil rights for what is still America’s most-hated minority. With 50 years of hard work behind us, we can proudly say that we have seen great progress, and are continuing to see great progress. Last year’s Reason Rally in Washington D.C. was the largest gathering of atheists in the history of the world, and I wish Madalyn were here to have seen it. Americans are coming out of the closet in greater numbers than ever before. A Gallup poll showed a fivefold rise of “convinced atheist” from 1% of the US population in 2005 to 5% in August 2012, and even higher numbers according to Pew. More and more Americans—1 in 5—say they identify with no religion, and this demographic is even more pronounced, at 1 in 3, for Americans under 30.
This is a fight we will win. It’s a fight we are winning. If Madalyn could see us now, I am confident she would be not only encouraged, but exhilarated at what American Atheists is today.
We are very excited about what the future holds for atheists in this country. The law is on our side, and more and more people are recognizing it. We will prevail. We will see the day when atheists are respected as equal citizens, when religion has no presence in government, when rationality reigns in public policy, in education, in daily life in America. That day is coming, and it is coming soon. We still have work to do, but separation of religion and government will succeed: There is nothing that can stop us now.
President, American Atheists