For a long time now I have felt like a man with a deep, dark secret: I have believed in God.
For the elder son of America’s foremost apostle of atheism, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the statement is an agonizing declaration of conscience. William Murray, 34, had been his mother’s obedient servant for much of his life: as plaintiff of record in her 1963 Supreme Court case, which helped to outlaw prayer in public schools, and more recently as the financial brains behind her organization, the American Atheist Center (AAC). But since the late 1970s Bill Murray has harbored quiet doubts about atheism and experienced disquieting flickers of religious faith—intimations so unexpected he kept them even from his wife. Furtively he attended a few Unitarian services, and last year began drafting a repudiation of his mother’s school-prayer crusade in the form of letters to newspaper editors that he never mailed.
This May he suddenly went public. “The part I played as a teenager in removing prayer from public schools was criminal,” declared his letters to newspapers in Austin, Texas (where his mother’s organization is headquartered) and Baltimore (where the lawsuit was lodged). One of the missives added: “I swear on the altar of God that I will strive to right this wrong that I have done.” The AAC’s response was quick and cynical—”We are happy when any atheist gets some of that Christian scam money”—and his mother told the Baltimore Sun: “There’s nobody who can convince me William J. Murray is anything but an atheist. I think he’s after his mother again. But don’t ask me why.”
Bill says he stands to make not a penny on his conversion; though much sought after by evangelists for testimonial appearances, he refuses even to acknowledge that he is a Christian. “There are too many factions in the world,” he says. “I’m not jumping on anyone’s bandwagon. My faith is private, my religion is not organized. My letters were to get my own soul off the hook, not anybody else’s.” Yet he frankly admits that his conversion has brought a welcome end to a family relationship he calls “diseased—and I’m not using that term casually at all. I’m still in the process of overcoming it.”
As Murray tells it, his atheism was enforced from childhood by a tyrannical, explosive and indifferent matriarch. Growing up in a household run by his mother and maternal grandmother (his father left when he was an infant), Bill says it was clear to him that his mother wanted only girl children: “One of her favorite stories—I’ve heard her repeat it many times—is that when I was born and the doctor told her, ‘It’s a boy,’ she asked him if there wasn’t some way he could put it back.” Bill says he remembers her cruelties all too well: Once, in a fit of temper, she shattered a model airplane he had been working on for months—and another time she bit him so severely he still recalls the pain. “As a kid I won a baseball trophy,” he says. “Two years later when she came across it she asked where I had bought it. I told her I’d won it, but since she didn’t know or care that I played baseball, she didn’t believe me. Her attitude was that if she couldn’t see it or touch it or feel it, it didn’t exist.”
He traces her atheism to that self-absorption and hubris and to an aggressive antiestablishment streak that led her (with her two sons) into a variety of left-wing causes—even, he claims, to the Soviet embassy in Paris in search of exile. Rejected by Moscow, she retreated angrily back home to Baltimore where, as he puts it, “The rebel found a cause in prayer at school.”
As the pawn of her crusade, Bill was excoriated by fellow students, given extra homework by his teachers and baited into schoolyard fights; once, he remembers, some classmates tried to push him in front of a bus. “While Madalyn was busy with her rhetoric, newsletters, fund raising and publicity,” he says, “I was fighting for my life.” At 17, Murray ran afoul of the law. He eloped with a girl despite an injunction won by her parents that prohibited him from seeing her. Police intervened, and both Bill and his mother were charged with assaulting them. (The young woman left Bill and their infant daughter two years later.)
Throughout Bill’s life his mother’s reputation has been a millstone. Drafted a year after his marriage broke up, he was subjected to grueling Army interrogation about Madalyn’s activist causes—and asked to sign a statement repudiating her left-wing politics (he did). After discharge he took a series of jobs in airline management and remembers living in fear that his employers would find out who his mother was and fire him. He complains she even threatened to expose him herself when he balked at giving her discounted airplane tickets that were due him as an employee.
In 1969 he asked Madalyn for his daughter, whom she had kept while he was in the Army. She refused, they fought a custody suit and Madalyn won. Still, in 1974, when her second husband was ailing and the AAC foundering, Bill agreed to come to Austin and help out. He did so with great success—and increasing doubts. He multiplied the AAC’s annual income, which underwrote a flurry of new lawsuits—over church tax exemptions, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on coins. But Bill says he began to wonder: “Why couldn’t we buy a new X-ray machine for a hospital? Why did we have to buy a new Cadillac and mobile home for Madalyn, or sue somebody to prevent prayer in outer space? I started to think it was because my mother was basically negative and destructive.” He began to drink too much—”diving into the bottle to forget,” as he describes it. Six months after he came to Austin, Madalyn turned her animus on him once too often. “I told her to get f——-,” he recalls, “and got the hell out.”
By that time Bill was an alcoholic. He had a new marriage and a new job as an airline management consultant, but felt his life was falling apart. He quarreled with his wife one night, struck her, and when police came he fired a rifle shot through the front door. He was sentenced to five years probation for aggravated assault(he claimed the gun went off by accident).
Chastened by that, and other crises in his life, Murray turned to Alcoholics Anonymous. Combined with a volunteer job in a drug program, it was the turning point for him. “I saw some miraculous things people were able to accomplish with faith,” he says, “and I couldn’t help comparing all that with atheism.” There was no sudden acceptance of God, he says, but rather a gradual awakening to the inner tranquillity that belief evoked in him. It also gave him a sense of resolution with regard to his mother. “I don’t hate her anymore,” he says. “I pity her. I wish I could pray for her, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t do any good.”
These days the phone rings continually in the small southeast Houston apartment Murray shares with his wife, Valerie, 24, an airlines ticket agent, and Jade, their 2½-year-old daughter. The appeals for interviews, testimonials, guest sermons pile up. All the attention is plainly unnerving. Yet his sense of relief is equally obvious. Murray says he has not spoken to his mother since 1977—”and I’ll probably never speak to her again. I can’t imagine subjecting myself to that psychological abuse now.” He regrets the distance his change of heart has put between him and his first daughter, Robin, 15, who still works with Madalyn and the AAC, but feels he could have done nothing else. His theology, he admits, is so far undeveloped—”I believe there is a God, though I don’t know if He is definable in human terms”—but his concept of the afterlife seems to owe everything to his grim years with Mother. “Maybe this is Hell,” he says with a smile, “the place where bad souls come to atone for their sins.” And Heaven? “Maybe it’s nothing more than eternal peace and quiet.”