Founded in 1963 by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, American Atheists has been fighting to protect the absolute separation of religion from government for over 50 years.
In 1959, Madalyn filed suit on behalf of her son who was forced to attend Bible readings in his school and was the victim of harassment at the hands of school employees after he declined to participate. In her opening statement before the Supreme Court, Madalyn said:
“Your petitioners are atheists and they define their beliefs as follows. An atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy. An atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it, and enjoy it. An atheist believes that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment. He seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. 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 vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life. He believes that we cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles 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.”
Murray v. Curlett case was consolidated into Abington School District v. Schempp and was decided on June 17, 1963. This landmark case held for the first time that state-mandated prayer and bible readings in public schools were a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. That year, the Society of Separationists (the precurser to American Atheists) was founded.
30 Years of Activism
For more than 30 years, Madalyn Murray O’Hair lead the fight to normalize atheism in the American cultural landscape. By protesting the use of the government to advance religion in general (and oftentimes Christianity in particular), Madalyn and American Atheists pulled atheism out from the shadows and fought to force the country to examine its “sacred” cultural artifacts.
A frequent guest on The Phil Donahue Show, popular media, and the press, Madalyn did much to shine a critical light on the privileges enjoyed by the religious. By using the courts to protect the wall of separation envisioned by our Founders, American Atheists helped to protect the rights of atheists and the religious alike.
From 1963 until 1986, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the President of American Atheists. In 1986, Jon Garth Murray, her son, became President. From 1986 until 1995, both Madalyn and Jon were tireless advocates for atheism and the absolute separation of religion from government, filing lawuits and building a nationwide atheist community.
On August 27, 1995, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray O’Hair (Madalyn’s granddaughter) disappeared from their home. After nearly 6 years, in January 2001, David Waters confessed to the kidnapping, extortion, and murder of the Murray-O’Hair family.
Following the disappearance of the Murray-O’Hair family, Ellen Johnson was appointed President of American Atheists. During her tenure, American Atheists produced The Atheist Viewpoint, a television show which continues today. In addition, Ms. Johnson created the Godless Americans Political Action Committee and helped to organize the Godless Americans March on Washington. Ms. Johnson was president of American Atheists until May 2008. From that time until September 2008, Frank R. Zindler served as interim President.
In September 2008, Dr. Ed Buckner, a native of Georgia, was elected to lead American Atheists. Dr. Buckner served as President until 2010 when David Silverman was elected President. Mr. Silverman served as president until April 2018, when Dr. Buckner was named Interim Executive Director.