Richard Dawkins, Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Child Abuse


In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins wrote,

“Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, London, 2006, p 317)

He was not talking about victims of sexual abuse, but every child who was raised in a Catholic family.

While I agree that many Catholics have had bad experiences with their church, to say that simply being raised Catholic is worse than sexual abuse is absurd and offensive to victims of sexual abuse. I’m sure there are a lot of sexual abuse victims who would love to have been raised in Catholic families.

If Dawkins were correct, there would be no difference between a classroom of children in a Catholic school and a classroom of children from abusive and dysfunctional backgrounds. Any teacher will tell you this is not the case.

However, Dawkins does not have a problem with only the Catholic Church. He quotes the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey saying,

“So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.” (The God Delusion, p 326)

Dawkins and Humphrey think that if Christian parents raise their children to believe the Bible is true, this is the moral equivalent of knocking their teeth out. This is intolerant demonization of those who do not share their beliefs. What is the alternative? Are they supposed to raise them according to what Richard Dawkins believes?


Apart from murder, accusing someone of child abuse is about as bad as you can get in Western society. Physical and sexual abuse of children are crimes and its perpetrators belong in jail. If Dawkins believes Christian parents, who bring up their children as Christians, are worse than paedophiles, does he think they should all be in jail? He seems to be advocating a return to the policies of the Soviet Union where it was illegal for Christian parents to teach their children “the literal truth of the Bible.” In The Delusion of DisbeliefDavid Aikman writes about the persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union,

“As happened under the rule of every single atheist regime henceforth, the grounds for arresting people of faith seldom were what they themselves believed privately; rather, they were arrested on the grounds of what they were teaching their children and others. According to Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelagounder the Soviet penal code Article 58-10, which dealt with”counter-revolutionary agitation and propaganda” and went into effect in 1927, teaching a child about religious belief was a crime, and the sentence for instructing son or daughter in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, was ten years in the gulag.” (David Aikman, The Delusion of Disbelief, Saltriver, Illinois, 2008, p 111-112)

In support of his charges of religious abuse, Dawkins cites some Catholics, the Exclusive Brethren, the Amish, Pastor Keenan Roberts and his travelling Hell House show (which I would not have heard of if it were not for Dawkins) and an Incan girl who was sacrificed 500 years ago (The God Delusion, p 319-331). I agree these examples could be called child abuse, but what about all the children who were raised by Christian parents and grew up to be happy and well-adjusted adult believers?

Dawkins used the same technique in the 2006 documentary The Root of All Evil? where he travelled around the world and found some obnoxious religious extremists to interview, as though everybody, who believed in God, was like them. These included Michael Bray, a supporter of a pro-lifer who killed an abortionist. In The God Delusion Dawkins contrasted opponents of abortion, who kill abortionists, with supporters of abortion as though they were the only two choices – nothing about the 99% of pro-lifers who think the concept of pro-lifers, who kill, is absurd (The God Delusion, p 296)


Dawkins did interview Alister McGrath for The Root of All Evil? . McGrath is an Oxford professor with qualifications in theology and science. One would think that he would have something intelligent to say on the issues which Dawkins raises.

However, McGrath does not appear in the documentary. In an article “Do stop behaving as if you are God, Professor Dawkins”, McGrath explains,

“Most of us are aware that we hold many beliefs we cannot prove to be true. It reminds us that we need to treat those who disagree with us with intellectual respect, rather than dismissing them – as Dawkins does –as liars, knaves and charlatans.

But when I debated these points with him, Dawkins seemed uncomfortable. I was not surprised to be told my contribution was to be cut.

The Root of All Evil? was subsequently panned for its blatant unfairness. Where, the critics asked, was a responsible, informed Christian response to Dawkins? The answer: on the cutting –room floor.”

Destroying the evidence which disproves your hypothesis –this is the atheist idea of science.

Someone reading The God Delusion might suspect it is really a satire, written by a Christian to send up atheism and make it appear absurd. I’m afraid not.

Dawkins was an Oxford professor. He is not stupid. Yet, when it comes to his non-belief in God, he makes absurd arguments which anyone with some common sense will be able to see through. Likewise, I admit that many atheists are of above average intelligence, but their intelligence and critical thinking seem to go out the window and Dawkins’ flawed arguments are unquestioningly accepted. Their atheism seems to turn them stupid.


Dawkins makes the point that we should not label a child a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child” just because their parents are (The God Delusion, p 327-340). I suppose there is some truth to this. One of the differences between Christianity and”other” religions is that if you are born into a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist family, it is assumed you are a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, but if you are born into a Christian family, you are not a Christian. You are dead in your sins. You have to decide to become a Christian.

In 2009 Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association ran a poster campaign “Please don’t Label Me” showing tow happy, well-adjusted children which they hoped would not be labelled, poisoned and abused by the influence of religion.


It turned out these two children Charlotte and Ollie Mason were from a Christian family. Apparently, they did not look like abuse victims to Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins’ approach of selecting some cases of religious child abuse is also flawed in that I can do the same thing and find cases of child abuse by atheists.

One of the United States’ most famous atheists was Madalyn Murray O’Hair who in 1960 brought a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Public School System because she objected to her son William Murray having to listen to Bible reading in school. In 1963 the Supreme Court ruled that Bible reading in schools was unconstitutional.

In his book My Life Without God William Murray portrayed his mother as a violent, angry sexual deviant, alcoholic, anti-Semite and Marxist who tried to defect to the Soviet Union but they did not want her. Murray described what was going on at home while their lawsuit was before the courts,

“To make things worse, the soapbox the media had built for Mother had caused her to become even more vehemently attached to her views, and she thought or spoke of little else. There were no breaks from her surging tide of ideas and hot words. All of this drew Grandfather and Mother into horrible, foul-mouthed fights. Their hatred for each other became so intense that one night she ordered Jon Garth and me never to speak to him again.

It was later that week that she hatched the plot to end my grandfather’s life. This plot has caused me much internal pain and misery to this very day.

Mother had decided that Grandfather was the root of all the problems of the family and that without him there would be peace and harmony in a home under her unquestioned rule. To this end she instructed me to murder my grandfather [Atheist wanted to kill her father; a psychologist would have a field day here, MN]. She told me that he was old and that no matter what he died of, it would be ruled old age or heart attack. She showed me the rat poison she had purchased and told me how much of it I needed to put in his coffee, “He’s just a rat anyway,” she said. “You put sick animals to sleep, and this is no different.”

“If you love me, you’ll do it,” she whispered to me.

I faced unbelievable conflict. I could not do this to an old man who represented the only stability I had in my life. Any meaningful relationship that could have ever existed between my mother and myself ended with her request that I commit murder for her.

I didn’t obey her, of course, but this incident only added to the strained atmosphere of our home.

Yet another incident ripped the family further apart. We were all sitting at the dining room table having dinner. As usual the conversation centered on the prayer issue. Grandfather got fed up. “This godless crusade you’re on is just a way to get your name in the papers, Madalyn,” he said.

Mother’s face turned red as she tried simultaneously to eat and argue. She sputtered every profane insult known to man at him.

Suddenly my disgust with this endless arguing at the table could not be restrained: “Why don’t you lay off him?” I shouted at Mother. “What do you care what he thinks? It won’t make any difference to your case in court! Why do you have to fight like this at home?”

She turned and just glared at me for a moment. Then she grabbed a cup of fruit cocktail and hurled its contents point-blank into my face. I wiped the juice from my face with my napkin and picked the larger chunks off my lap and shirt. I no longer could contain my anger and hurled a piece of fruit at her. This was one of the firs times I had defied her in a physical way, and my audacity inflamed her. She lunged at me, and as I tried to fend her off, she sank her teeth deeply into my arm. I cried out in pain, and as she recoiled, the blood began to ooze from several puncture wounds. Grandfather cursed her roundly and took me to the doctor for a tetanus shot.”(William J. Murray, My Life Without God, Harvest House, Oregon, 1992, p 79-81)

At least she did not tell him the Bible is true. That would have been as bad as knocking his teeth out.

I am not suggesting that all atheist parents are dysfunctional child abusers because of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Then I would be no better than Richard Dawkins. Nevertheless, the truth about the hero of the atheist movement must be an embarrassment to the new atheists.

William Murray does not seem to have been too committed to the atheist cause at that time. His mother was using him to promote her cause,

“All I wanted to do was merge into the teenage masses at school and do my share of girl watching and chasing. But hard as I tried, Mother would not let me be normal.” (My Life Without God, p 58)

It looks like bullying and harassment from the”Christian” students, who had forgotten Jesus’ commend to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-44), because of his mother’s crusade, turned him into a true unbeliever (My Life Without God, p 73)

After years of supporting his mother and the atheist cause, being on the run, his marriage break up and struggle with alcoholism, in 1980 Murray became a Christian. He writes,

“I drove to my apartment and read the book of the Bible written by the great physician, Luke. There I found my answer – not the book itself, but Jesus Christ. I had heard many times in various places that all one needed to do was to admit guilt and ask Jesus in. I had not made that one step, to ask Him into my heart. And I knew I must. On the morning of January 25 I got down in my knees and confessed my sins and asked Jesus into my life. God was no longer a distant “force”. I now knew Him in a personal way.

Within days my life and attitudes began to change. I read in the Bible that anything asked in Jesus’ name in prayer would be answered. My hatred began to vanish as the love of Christ took over my being. I no longer intensely hated my mother. Now I really wanted to be able to love her, whereas before I had only wanted revenge. I began to see my mother for what she truly was, a sinner, just like me. She blamed God and mankind for her personal sins and inadequacies rather than herself. She had demanded things of God, and when He had refused her demands, she fought with Him openly.

Now I looked back at the devastation. My family, and particularly my mother and myself, had left a path of ruin behind us, ruined ideals, ruined lives. We had marched over both on quest of a victory that could not be won.” (My Life Without God, p 301-302)

Atheists would point out that the reverse has happened and people, who have had abusive experiences with religious families, have become atheists. However, I have never heard of any converts to atheism being so forgiving of their abusers.

Murray wrote a letter to the Baltimore Sun,

“This story began with a letter of defiance to the editor of this paper in the fall of 1960. It is my sincere hope that the story ends with this letter of both apology and forgiveness. First, I would like to apologize to the people of the City of Baltimore for whatever part I played in removal of Bible reading and praying from the public schools of that city. I now realize the value of this great tradition and the importance it has played in the past in keeping America a moral and lawful country. I can now see the damage this removal has caused to our nation in the form of loss of faith and moral decline. Being raised as an atheist in the home of Madalyn O’Hair, I was not aware of faith or even the existence of God. As I now look back over 33 years of life wasted without faith in God, I pray only that I can, with His help, right some of the wrong and evil I have caused through my lack of faith. Our nation, our people, now face a trying time of moral chaos. It is only with a return to our traditional values and our faith in God that we will be able to survive as a people. If it were within my personal power to help return this nation to its rightful place by placing God back in the classroom, I would do so. I would also like to publicly forgive those who assaulted me and destroyed my property during those years that the case of Murray vs. Curlett moved through the courts. I do this as I know that a loving God has already forgiven them.” (My Life Without God, p 303-304)

His charming mother commented, “One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of the mother, I guess. I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times … he is beyond human forgiveness.”

In 1995 Madalyn, her son Jon Murray and William Murray’s daughter Robin Murray O’Hair disappeared. In 2001 it was learned that they had been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and dismembered by David Waters, an American Atheists employee.

Reading about Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s life, I am reminded of Paul’s warning,

“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.” (Galatians 6:7-8)

I once heard a joke, “Why doesn’t God do anything about the shootings in American schools?” “Because God isn’t allowed in schools.”

William Murray believed that the moral decline in American schools and society as a whole since the 1960s could be attributed to his mother’s campaign (My Life WithoutGod, p 303-304). Many new atheists believe that if we got rid of religion, nearly all our problems would go away and we would all be nicer people. The tragedy of Madalyn Murray O’Hair shows this is not true.


Author: Malcolm Nicholson

I am a small business owner and I live in northern Tasmania. I am a graduate of the University of Tasmania and I have a Master of Arts in Early Christian and Jewish Studies from Macquarie University. I am a member of the Churches of Christ. I have been a teacher librarian, New Testament Greek teacher, branch president and state policy committee chairman of a political party, university Christian group president. My interests include ancient history, early Christian history, the Holocaust, Bible prophecy, revival, UFOs, peak oil and science fiction.

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