Martyrdom, which, as we know, is a concept that derives from the Greek concept of paying witness, gained currency in Western civilization in the form of mostly fabricated tales of rapes, dental extractions, flaying and other acts of mayhem that were purportedly perpetrated by Roman authorities overreacting to minor acts of civil disobedience. The superficial purpose of martyrdom folklore was to somehow argue for the validity of a version of the Osiris and Krishna myths (merged with the Adonis or Adonai (Yahweh) cult of the Phoenicians) that was becoming fashionable in the Helleno-Roman cultural sphere (Why such a fluidity of cults? The reason at one level is historical and empirical, not structural. Civil rulers would often seek out points of resemblance between the cults of their subjects and merge them as a way of encouraging local civic pride and keeping the peace.) I daresay the more likely motive and the real effect was to enforce a sense of identity and an internal bond in the newly burgeoning Xtian communities by instilling and exacerbating a profound and painful persecution complex. The psycho-babblistic among us might even suspect that the church fathers were really indulging their own grotesque and mostly sexual fantasies of sadistic torture, fantasies they could act out in vivo once the Church Triumphant gained the opportunity to get down to its real mission of persecuting heretics.
The informal sense of “martyr” since those turbulent times has come to be that of a person who suffers and perhaps dies for his or her beliefs. If we set aside a requirement that suffering and death, or at least death, be consciously pursued, then Madalyn Murray O’Hair certainly qualifies as a martyr for atheism. Her murder and the subsequent desecration of her body would probably be tucked into the archives as just another example of Confederate piety had she not left behind a record – a record, written and verbal, stating and arguing for her views, and a record of judicial accomplishment that might shame some of her more polished intellectual associates.
But one cannot help but feel that atheists should not be martyrs because atheists tend not to be fanatics. (At one point (p. 296) O’Hair called herself a fanatic, but did so with some irony. She was, she said, a fanatic against violence, a fanatic in favor of human rights.) Few, or so I opine, would be inclined to seek death in vindication of a belief if the practical results of the acceptance or vindication of the belief are neutral. And some of the staunchest atheists see as little moral import in the general acceptance of the truth of atheism as in the general acceptance of the truth of the circulation of blood. It is almost essential to the objective search for truth, a search to which most atheists are committed, as opposed to the blind defense of a predetermined position, that one be dispassionate. On the flip side, if you are not willing to adjust or reverse your initial hypothesis in the face of evidence to the contrary, it can be questioned whether you are really after the truth of the matter. The scientific or atheistic mind set, however, Hume’s calm mood of reflective evaluation, is simply not the right attitude to embrace the wrathful flames. (Dennett’s comments about “secular modesty” uttered in a discussion of William James are relevant here (p. 284). One is also tempted to recall Rushdie’s rather pathetic surrender to the Mahometan goddists, but let he who is without etc. Who wouldn’t say whatever it takes to get out of the clutches of some drooling, knife wielding maniac.) Still objectivity may be offset by the psychological – or moral – inability to tell a lie. When evidence to the contrary is lacking but someone, either a mob or some mob sanctioned authority, uses force to compel the admission of an absurdity, many people simply cannot do it. This may explain the diffident martyrdom of Galileo and Hypatia of Alexandria.
So it is a fair generalization to say that atheist martyrs are martyrs despite themselves. This is doubly true for O’Hair, for as far as I know, unlike Galileo, she was never put in a position where she was asked to recant her beliefs or face some blood curdling consequences. Local harassment aside, O’Hair faced no Inquisition. On the contrary, one cannot suppress a feeling of wistful irony to read her girlish excitement over the radio stations willing to accept her broadcasts or her triumph against public school prayer.
Martyrdom crept up on O’Hair from behind, unbeknownst, in the night. She did not ask for it, but much of her behavior set the scene for her murder. Furthermore, there is no evidence of a causal relationship between her judicial triumphs and her murder. And indeed, once the indifference of the local police had been overcome, her murderers were prosecuted vigorously. In one of her radio programs, she spoke from a position of presumed security:
Atheism is here to stay in America. We can’t be burned at the stake any more. I think that when history is written, it will say that Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the last Atheist who was ever put into jail in America. I have had to make Atheism a respectable word in America. The religious community knows now that they cannot do anything but meet us face to face and have it out intellectually. The fight was easier for them when they could kill us, burn us at the stake or put us in jail. But, with the light of public opinion on them now, they cannot. (p. 222)
The martyrdom comes in the attitudes of those who would make her fate a flash point in the general phenomenon of harassment and social torture of public atheists, those who would see the events as a sort of morality play, those who would assimilate her death by implication with the deaths of martyrs for homosexuality and abortion – situations where there is a tangible relationship between religion and violence. The rhetorical juxtaposition of the circumstances of her pathetic death with the label “America’s most hated woman,” is more than enough to turn her into a martyr for atheism and civil liberty. Given her less than savory character, she became a martyr malgré soi.
The secular martyrs at whose table O”Hair so unexpectedly sits are the victims of what one might call a Vigilante Inquisition. This is the technique whereby a lone assassin or group harms or murders an individual who would probably have been executed by an entire community at a time when punishment for beliefs was not unlawful. Let me explain. There is a religion in much of rural America (though its Vatican is somewhere in the old Confederacy) I call Gooberism. It comes in many different flavors – Methodism, Baptist-ism, Evangelicalism, Snake-Kissing and so on – but the fine distinctions are visible only to those within the fold. To the outside observer they are one of a kind. Gooberism is defined not by its beliefs, which are largely vague and, where they are clear, absurd. The real essence of Gooberism is moral prohibition and the punishment of dissent. The only punishment that would really be satisfying to Goobers, namely burning or lynching, would run into certain inconveniences in a modern secular state. What to do? I speculate that the synods of Gooberism in their infinite wisdom stumbled upon a solution or rather had it thrust upon them. The source may lie in the days when the boys would go out and rough up a few uppity Negroes leaving nary a trace of evidence for the authorities to prosecute. In any event it became evident that official and overt action was unnecessary. If egregious beliefs or behavior aroused enough community disapproval, someone somewhere would heed the call for an executioner. In the best of circumstances the assassin could disappear back into the community and coach his football or eat his pig skins or whatever. But if he or she had the misfortune of being exposed and punished, he or she could welcome the prospect of an eternity of happiness up above the jet stream somewhere. He would very likely earn tacit community approval in the form of a wink and a nod. This is the irony of Jihad martyrdom. The executioner usurps the place of his victim, the true martyr. Rough justice is done and the community has the luxury of deniability. In the beginning this may have been circumstantial but I believe it would be presumptuous to ignore the fact that it has become a conscious weapon wielded by the synods of Gooberism. O’Hair I think was on the cusp. Her murder was clearly the result of a kidnapping for profit, but since then the Vigilante Inquisition has become, like the Jesuits of old, little more than the enforcement branch of Gooberism. One might call it Gooberism Militant. The various pastors, preachers, reverends and assorted oddities that make up the Goober College of Cardinals soon discovered that the Vigilante Inquisition could be manipulated. Be public enough with your resentment at some target individual and someone would duck out of Sunday school to make sure justice was done. If the appropriate atmosphere was created, you need do nothing more. You probably don’t even know the identity of the executioner, so how could you be responsible? In fact the atmosphere of vengeance does not need to arise spontaneously. A minister could create an evil almost at will and his campaign would nearly always produce the desired results, a scenario nicely illustrated in Elmer Gantry. The Vigilante Inquisition has realized its wildest success against abortion where the mere intimation that someone out there might take the law into his own hands is usually sufficient to send the average physician shrieking and squealing to the safety of sports medicine. The only notable failure I can think of was the campaign against rock & roll. The best explanation I can come up with for the success against abortion is that getting an abortion is not an actual pleasure but is usually depicted as some sort of tragic event. The actual pleasurable activity, sex, has not decreased since the anti-abortion Jihad began. The result is that trailer parks across the American prairie are bursting with the ranks of the barefoot and pregnant.
Atheism has replaced heresy as the evil of choice for Xtians. In the, one suspects, hypocritical atmosphere of sentimental hand holding fostered by ecumenism, attacks on fellow religionists have in most quarters become decidedly infra dig. The swarms of protestant sects - about as distinguishable as the members of an ant colony – no longer accuse each other of the most vile of blasphemies. Even dreaded popery, once the exemplary menace for any right thinking Anglo Saxon, has been left to stew in relative peace despite the occasional murmurs about Babylonian whores let slip in the lands of the Confederacy. The exception to the love fest is Mohammedanism, which itself staunchly refuses to take part in the ecumenical kumbaya and so earns the reciprocal wrath of the Goobers reveling in the intellectual riches of imagining sweet and most probably sexual tortures inflicted on both bearded goatherds and European intellectuals.
This is similar to child sex replacing sex in general as the evil of choice for moralists. It is critical to the Maxju religion that you have to hate something and wish to kill someone. Otherwise you’re letting down the side. When the returns on public fantasies about the torture and maiming of adulterers and popes exhibit diminishing returns, you cast about for something else. Atheists are a natural. They were cut from the fold ever since anyone learned to hate. Childhood sex is somewhat new, but oh so promising in its ability to stir violent jealousies on the part of parents. Throw in drugs and abortion and it’s like the good old days down on the plantation.
Whence the hate? you may ask. The group identity theory sees Goober Jihads as just one example of a pretty widespread phenomenon of defining who you are by specifying - despising – who you are not. Prosyletizing has something to do with this, for empirically the most hate-filled religions are precisely the evangelical Maxju sects. We don’t see – perhaps fortunately – the average Zoroastrian running around with the sword of vengeance, or at least I don’t think so. How prosyletizing leads to violence, however, remains unclear to me, foolish rationalist that I am, unless it has something to do with frustration when people don’t want to be prosyletized. This is incomplete at best for any number of groups manage to keep their self-identity within the bounds of peacability. They do not strain against those limits that, once breached, would expose vistas of distressing anarchy. The group identity theory might be supplemented by a theory that a certain threshold of power must be reached before group identity can explode into violence. Catholic immigrants to the United States have not attacked Protestants because they were a minority (as were 18th century Baptists) that could easily be extinguished without the protections of religious toleration. On this theory Goobers and Mohammedans luxuriate in violence because they can. They have the power. They control large swaths of subject territory whose most notable characteristics are intellectual inactivity and moral submission. Even this theory is imperfect (The pope holds sway over a great deal of the Third World), but it is worth some research. Another supplement, first floated by the perspicacious Hobbes, identifies sexual repression as a key factor. The energy that might have gone into the satisfaction of sexual pleasure is redirected at an enemy. On this model murdering non believers becomes an act of sadistic sexuality, an embrace of diverted love with the unfortunate victim. Perhaps herein lies an explanation for so much passion aimed at what to the outsider might appear to be trivialities.
The same diffidence that accounts for atheists’ disinclination to be martyred extends to a notable lack of atheist enthusiasm for practicing violence on others. The reason is the same. What purpose will it serve? What good will it bring about? Atheism is not a doctrine that some mountain dwelling troll told us we need to spread in order to gain some fantastic reward. It is simply a truth like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If the latter were to be seriously questioned I doubt whether bands of inflamed classical physicists would be found roaming nighttime byways looking for heretics to lynch. (A propos cf. O’Hair herself p. 119, p. 123 and passim.)
O’Hair among others saw that furthering the acceptability of atheism or, what is the same thing, rational thinking, would be much aided by the creation of atheist institutions and organizations. But by its very nature atheism does not provide a firm ground for organized groups. Atheism is not a set of beliefs. It consists simply in shining a light on falsehoods. There is no real basis for an atheist community as there is no real basis for an anti-Second Law of Thermodynamics community. Atheism by itself does not constitute an institution. In the course of recent history, however, we have found that at least one institution that can bring religion down is the institution of science with its organizations for the sharing of data, its code of observational verifiability and above all its impeccable record of producing “miracles.” Another is a social structure that can accomplish the good works (mostly aid to the poor) that religion tries to usurp. Atheism by itself is not a basis for good works or social justice. It needs something like utilitarianism to provide a secular locus for moral theory and theory of justice. In retrospect much of the cultural superstructure created in the 19th century – the hallowed triumvirate of Science, Art and the Liberal State – brought about the creation of a form of society in which religion was unnecessary. On this understanding the work of the avant-garde in severely debilitating at least one member of this triumvirate manifests a dark side that is worth consideration.
The oft trumpeted exception to the generalization that atheists are indifferent to either becoming or creating martyrs is Communism. Still the Communist pogroms against individual sects were – just as the protestant-papist hijinks in much of Western Europe - not motivated by a desire to spread some atheistic creed. The motive was political. The churches supported the ancien régime and opposed the imposition of socialism. An atheistic freemasonry in the same position would have suffered a similar fate. Nevertheless in my more frustrated moments I cannot but admit a certain nostalgia for the manliness of Communism. For all its faults it faced down Xtianity and indeed religion in general. Perhaps the only way to put religionists in their place is to give them first hand experience of, shall we say, the law of eye for eye? Of course there are alternatives. Poor benighted Western Europe as well as Canada, Australia, Japan and most of the rest of the non-Mahometan world (The United States is the problematic exception, which I think is a strong argument for the curtailment of American economic and military power and the American tendency to behave irrationally) has devised an equally powerful weapon against religion in general – indifference.
The atheist then is more often than not a rationalist and not a fanatic. Unlike Maxjus he does not seek martyrdom and would quite likely seek to avoid it if he saw it coming. I have no reason to believe that O’Hair does not fall into this category. But what motivates the atheist to speak up in the first place? Why not adopt the Man of the World strategy, much beloved of Renaissance cardinals and the more cultivated among protestant theologians, and pay lip service to an obvious falsehood so as not to rile up the peasantry, while rigorously excluding actual belief and in many cases the moral injunctions from one’s very very private life? Or else, why not be content with simply lecturing one’s immediate family like Louis Sullivan’s grandfather and not mount public campaigns to take religion away from the simple minded? In some cultural contexts the answer, at least with respect to the non-interventionist form of atheism, is that the direct threat of harm for expressing one’s opinion has disappeared, or at least very greatly diminished. But O’Hair spent much of her time in parts of the New World whose level of cultural development was roughly equivalent to that of 17th century Europe and where local vigilantes had usurped the powers of the various protestant or papist inquisitions. Still ostracism is not quite burning at the stake, and given a strong enough counter motive one could risk a little jail time or paint on the front porch. Outrage over a stubborn denial of the truth is one such motive. O’Hair said as much in her radio program (p. 43) when she remarked that religious doctrines are an insult to the intelligence. Obviously anyone without intelligence can’t appreciate this, but for the rest of us intellectual integrity screams for the correction of intellectual con jobs.
There is a fallacy at the heart of martyrdom. Or rather, since the term “fallacy” really applies to arguments and their conclusion, a self defeating quality similar to the self-defeat Descartes thought he saw in anyone who doubted his own existence. For even though someone dies for the sake of a falsehood, his death does not make it true. This self-defeat might be mitigated if we grant that the culprits, the martyr makers, do not intend to create martyrs. They want to create examples and to punish imagined transgressions. The message they want to come out of their murders is not that someone died for his beliefs, but rather that anyone and everyone who shares those beliefs will be subject to the same punishment. I suppose this is what they mean by hell on earth. The victim becomes a martyr in the eyes of some bystanders and anyone sympathetic to the victim’s beliefs. On this understanding, although O’Hair’s murderers never intended to create a martyr, much of the superficial public understanding of her death did so. No mitigation applies, however, to those that actively seek the status of martyrdom, such as all those fabulous Xtians who thrilled in anticipation of the salty tang of the lion’s jaws or who just couldn’t wait to have their breasts ripped off. Since their masochistic orgies were supposed to constitute some sort of proof of the truth of their doctrines, they really were guilty of behavioral self-defeat.
Moreover, if anyone who dies for the sake of a belief were a martyr, then every kamikaze pilot would be a martyr. The more proper definition of martyrdom is something that occurs when one party tries to impose a belief on another by torture or murder. I rather think it does not matter whether the belief imposed is true or not. The sole fact that it is imposed by force constitutes martyrdom on the part of any victims. The imposition of the belief need not necessarily be on the martyred party. The intention of the murderer could be to impose on others by demonstrating the fate that awaits anyone who does not share his own belief. Yet once the torture or murder victim is proclaimed a martyr with all the connotations we associate with the term “martyr,” the failure of the torture or the murder to reach its goals is asserted. Others have not been dissuaded; rather they feel reinforced in their conviction that the murderer is wrong in his or her beliefs. Murder can be seen as occupying a place in a continuum including social ostracization and vigorous forms of harassment commonly in use in the American prairie to impose religion on anyone unfortunate enough to reside in that territory.
O’Hair did not single handedly triumph over school prayer in the US. Edward Schempp, Vashti McCollum, the ACLU and many other individuals and institutions of exemplary sobriety deserve at least equal billing. And the ground was prepared by the progress of science and the adoption of positivistic views in the academy. Judicial theory had also come to a greater appreciation of civil liberties and the rights of the individual. The time was ripe to direct serious attention to the Enlightenment insistence on the separation of church and state – a principle long assumed but honored only in the breach.
Atheism is at least one intellectual pursuit where women have been ably represented, as Jacoby documents in her history of free thought. I suppose it takes so much intellectual energy to deny the hierarchy of the sexes that the surplus force so generated serves as a kind of propulsion to burst all bounds of intellectual and moral timidity. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the women’s movement also broadened its members’ horizons. Once you realize there could be more to life than hog slopping and diaper changing, then you might gain an inkling that this god stuff is also a pack of lies.
Indeed other atheists rarely speak of O’Hair with anything that could be described as fondness. Her conspicuous lack of organizational talent or even basic honesty is responsible for that. O’Hair’s faults were legion and in many cases borderline criminal. On the less culpable side she often cited purported evidence as fact without sufficiently checking its validity. Some of her secondary sources were weak. (Though some of this could be put down to lack of scholarly training, and indeed she did make wonderful finds like the presence of a type of empiricism in Hindu thought.) At the other extreme her personal dealings were pretty unsatisfactory. In establishing and maintaining her atheist organization she behaved like the very goddists she opposed. She created a hierarchical organization with doctrinal orthodoxy, a cult of personality and a very Gooberish mingling of organizational and personal funds. Christening herself and her offspring as The Founders gave off the whiff of a cult.
But there is a deeper issue that would have come into play even if O’Hair remained honest and empathetic and merely combined her atheism with some form of cultural liberalism. For there is nothing inconsistent about an atheist agreeing with religionists about nearly everything except the fact that there is no god. An atheist could be just as enthusiastic about some whitewashed (It is hard to see how an atheist could endorse those injunctions to kill infidels) version of Maxju morality as any imam, priest or pastor. For many atheists everything else would remain the same right down to coaching Little League. All they want is a seat at the table and that counter arguments not all be ad hominem. In fact O’Hair herself endorsed this view when she informed her radio listeners that an atheist is “…a human being, very much like you, with many of the same values, goals and ideas,” (p. 4) and subscribed to a popular view of ethics based on concepts taken from Kant (p. 49). This has parallels in the evolution of homosexuals’ attitudes – once the kingdom of Burroughs and Genet – toward a dream of bourgeois respectability, toward a point where moms and dads would refer approvingly to Jim and Jerry that nice couple at the end of the block who run the local Linens ’n Things. For those atheists who simply want an acknowledgement that god doesn’t exist and who would be content that nothing else change, for them association with the otherwise disreputable would be less than beneficial. A less charitable interpretation would class this as just another example of the Nigger complex. If you think you are the lowest of the low you feel a certain comfort at discovering someone even more despicable than you and you despise that someone as if you were the lord of the manor. (This is why some blacks need Filipinos; they are grateful for someone they can patronize.)
Feeling depressed? Let me end on a cheerful note: Think of the end of Graham Greene’s novel about the drunkard (Butt fucking altar boys was just a gleam in the eye of Pope Rattenfaenger in those days) priest. Then imagine a knock on the door of Reason and a quiet little man introducing himself as the replacement atheist. “My name is Harris, Sam Harris.”