20 April, 2010

From Madalyn Murray O'Hair to Antony Flew: My own intellectual journey in unbelief

by Jorge Reyes

Browsing the internet today, I read the obituary of the British rationalist philosopher Antony Flew.

For most of his life Flew has been a consistent and strong advocate for natural philosophy, unemcumbered by belief in God or miracles. To him, he advocated a negative form of atheism, placing the burden of proof of belief in any transcendence squarely on the shoulders of theists. Since propositions of belief in God cannot be disproven, he would say, then he argued that it would be senseless to even advocate a rational marriage between belief and unbelief, like much of philosophy has tried to do. One key to understanding much of Flew's philosophy: to follow evidence wherever it leads, something also said by Socrates more than two thousand years ago.

By a strange twist of intellectual honesty (some people call it intellectual dishonesty or age-old decrepitude), in 2004 Flew changed his mind. Still denying much belief in a personal God, life after death, or the supernatural, he began to argue that discoveries into the DNA prove that an intelligent design of some sort must have brought such complex matter into existence. He went on to argue that although this proved that something-- never calling that something by a name-- had to have been involved in the first act of creation, what is called the Big Bang, the springing forth, of sentient matter from inanimate matter. What that something was, Flew didn't go into detail. It was a deism in the philosophical tradition of Thomas Jefferson.

To deists, nature's god first created the world and then let the world function with its natural laws, letting the great natural machinery of life evolve on its own, without any special assistance from this god. Life, in other words, is like a blind clockmaker created by an unknown clockmaker.

As Flew wrote, DNA had "shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved". It was not coincidental that during his lifetime, he advocated in Great Britain the teaching of creative intelligence, something that their American fundamentalist brethens have tried to push through the public schools for many decades now.

I've always had the intellectual and psychical need to know what's behind religious belief. Call me whatever you want, but to me it all hinges on whether life has or doesn't have meaning, though meaninglessness is something that troubles me because nature equipped us all to find meaning even in the most mundane, trivial acts of living. Since I was a little kid I questioned what it was most people referred to when they pray to god. Believing in the bible stories, I often glanced at the sky trying to see if I would take a sneek peek at that famous Jesus who died for our sins one day, really soon, would come back to take us back into the kingdom of heaven.

I kid you not, growing up in a communist society such as Cuba, my religious curiosity wasn't normal and it would have branded me into an anti-social element, a social deviate who should have been spending more time, instead, delving into the historical materialism of Hegel or Lenin, not Christ's second coming.

(Left to Right: Jon Garth, Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Robin Murray O'Hair)

Fast-forward my timeline and years later living in the United States as a young adult enrolled in college, I remember the day I heard the well-known American atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair calling all believers idiots, all miracles as a form of mental illusion, and anyone who disagreed with her were just suffering from mental illness. If there were any gods, as she liked to whip, all you had to do is prove it to her and the whole assorted mess would be resolved.

I fell in love with the 70 year old atheist! Unlike Flew whose writings were dense and in the best philosophical tradition, O'Hair made it popular and chic to disbelief, to question god, to grapple with ideas and bring them down to their bare essentials. Her message was not unique, she was just titilating to watch.

As some of you may remember her, during her lifetime O'Hair was demonized. At one point in the 1960's, Life magazine called her "one of the most hated women in America", and indeed she was. Her ramblings, often peppered with nuggets of intellectual insights, didn't win her any fans. It seems that she had an equally dysfunctional family. In the 1980's her eldest son, William Murray, the litigant whose Supreme Court case won them infamy by banning bible and prayer recitation in the United States, had a religious conversion and turned into his mother's worst enemy.

Murray even wrote a "mommie-dearest" sort of biographical book titled "My Life Without God," which is still in print  three decades after it was written.  O'Hair, of course, had her own book titled "An Atheist Epic."  If compared, both books tend to totally contradict one another. 

                                 Photo courtesy of Corbis

Sadly for her and for her other son Jon and granddaughter Robin (William's daughter), in 1995 they were all abducted by their office manager, held hostage for a few months in a cheap motel in Texas and forced to take out of the corporate's account more than $600,000 in gold coins. They were then slowly and brutally murdered, their bodies dismembered, and disposed of in a farm in Texas. A nationwide search led by the FBI and then the IRS found their remains in 1999, five years after their infamous disappearance.

I was often like O'Hair herself. If it couldn't proven, it must be false. I still feel that way, but I often express this in less histrionic ways than hers.

There are things unseen that the mind cannot know, that our rationalism by itself is not fit to know (or at least not evolved yet to know), and that although miracles and belief in the particular of the major religions may be forms of mental delusion and brainwashing, for all practical purposes life itself is a mystery.

It is that same Kantian unknowability, that the mind has not evolved to the point that we can know things as they are, that I think Flew hit on the nail. Still looking at most rational proofs of God as hogwash, Flew nonetheless still marvelled at the uniqueness and unlikely story of existence. His recant and intellectual postulation from outright disbelief to a form of agnosticism is not hypocritical, but I think it goes to the very core of what it is to question, to take ideas seriously, and to "follow the evidence, wherever it leads", a key element to any philosophy.

Antony Flew's and Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lives- and deaths-- were as ironic as their ideas. One died brutally murdered and still unrecanted and uncommitted to belief. The other died in peace, with all the accololades that his profession accorded him. In the end, both of them agreed more than disagreed: we just don't know. Or as O'Hair herself may have said: "just f***cking prove it."

Rummaging through my old files, I found a few letters and notes written to me by O'Hair decades ago.  I  intend to publish them one day because they are so interesting, highly intelligent, even funny.  In one of them, she ends by quoting a poem from an atheist poet named Ralph Chaplin.  The poem/note reads as follow:

" 'Mourn not the dead
But rather mourn the apathetic throng
the cowed and meek
Who see the world's great anguish
and its wrong,
and dare not speak.

Your fellow Anarchist,
Madalyn Murray O'Hair' "

Two years later after she wrote this to me, O'Hair was murdered.


Anonymous said...

I never liked Madalyn Murray. She was a loud mouth who constantly defied even common logic and died in equally bizarre circumstances.

The tragic irony in all of this is was that when she disappeared her own people didn't even bother to look for her. They simply assumed that she had taken off with money and they left it at that.

That's a tad sad.

Anonymous said...

I think Antony Flew was a bit decrepit when he changed his mind.

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Anonymous said...

O'Hair was not an easy woman. I remember her from her hey days in the 60s and 70s, but the hatred and rejection she endured was a lot. She paid for this with her life.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that Madalyn's son had become a preacher. Talk about poetic justice!

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致遠致遠 said...


Anonymous said...

Jorge, Madalyn Murray O'Hair has been credited with the removal of prayer and bible recitation from the public schools of the USA. Whether she could be blamed for all the ills that has befallen the youth of our nation, fact is that there are lots of ills in the public school which has resulted from the sort of secular humanism and moral relativism Mrs. O'Hair has "preached" since she became famous.

淑惠 said...

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odrareg said...

I propose that both atheist and theist thinkers concentrate their attention on the question what is it to prove that something exists outside man's mind, and how much of proof is needed for a human to say to himself that he has enough proof for him to believe in the existence of God.

Unless this question is settled any human can always tell himself that there is still not enough proof to assent to the existence of God, and to convince others to agree with him.