Meeting Satan Herself
On the evening of 14 September 1977, in the main auditorium of the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, "Brother Bob" Harrington and Madalyn Murray O'Hair had their thirteenth meeting in their "Fight to the Finish" tour. This tour was a series of debates concerning Christianity vs. Atheism between "The Chaplain of Bourbon Street" and "The Atheist."
I was sixteen and had been an atheist for over three years, and now I had a chance to meet the only other atheist of whom I had ever heard. My parents made my fifteen-year-old (and born-again Christian!) sister go along to keep me out of "trouble." Most of the 2,500-plus audience were Bible thumpers and snake-handling types who came to oppose "Satan's own Whore in the holy name of Geee-zus, puh-raiz-uh Gawd!" As best as I could determine, I was the only atheist. Fortunately, I didn't have a "666" tattoo on my forehead. In order to show my solitary support for our heroine, I had to applaud over my head to be seen as my clapping could not have been heard over the boos and hisses of the faithful.
"Brother Bob" started the program by decrying the dangers of both "creeping atheism" as represented by Madalyn and, more so, "complacent Christianity" that allowed the success of "creeping atheism." After warming up the crowd, "Brother Bob" introduced Madalyn to an exceedingly underwhelming "welcome." The extent of the welcome was me applauding over my head!
Madalyn played the faithful for all they were worth. She laid on the personal insults and the typical criticisms of Christianity. She worked them into a frenzy by calling Jesus a homosexual, then claiming that he never existed, and finally, calling old Jehovah a "bloodthirsty destroyer" of towns, tribes, and almost the entire human race with the Flood. I thought they were going to have to call in the cops. But Madalyn had only just started dishing out the evening's fare; blasphemy was merely an appetizer before the main course of sacrilege and desecration. As she enumerated the racier and bloodier stories of the Old Testament, she ripped out pages of a Bible and threw them towards the audience. They prayed to God, and they cried out to Jesus, and they held out their Bibles as a hex and a shield against the vile spawn of Satan in their midst. Madalyn finally threw what was left of the Bible off the podium and said, "There's what I think about your Bible! How do you like those apples!?" She scanned the audience with a glare as though she was seeking a response; getting none, she stormed off the stage.
"Brother Bob" took over to collect the offering which probably averted a riot. "Brother Bob" assured the congregation that their contributions would go to him alone and that Madalyn would get only that portion specifically indicated to go to her. "Brother Bob" said that he was paying all the bills for the tour, so they didn't have to worry about Madalyn meeting her expenses.
While the offering was being collected, I stepped behind the partition between the audience and the off-stage area to meet Madalyn and to get her autograph. Jon Garth Murray (then twenty-two) and Robin Murray-O'Hair (then twelve) were also there, as were the three or four other local atheists who had been hiding there. (Cowards! Or, maybe they weren't as foolhardy as me!) While I was waiting to get Madalyn's autograph, I listened in on Jon's conversation with the other local atheists. One of them asked Jon about the persecution and bigotry to which the O'Hair's found themselves subjected. I embarrassed myself by blurting out my own experience as though the question had been posed to me and as if anyone really cared. I really couldn't help myself. I had been an atheist and completely isolated for almost three and a half years. I had a chance to vent, and I did so reflexively. I got the autograph and returned to my seat beside my sister for the remainder of the program.
After the offering had been collected, Madalyn returned to take questions from the audience. She was even more ferocious, and the crowd reciprocated. She snarled at the faithful and snapped her answers to their questions. She denigrated Christianity as much as she denigrated the Christians in attendance. When asked what she would do if her children converted to Christianity, she replied, "Take them to a psychiatrist, and if he couldn't help them, I'd take them out and shoot them." The assembled multitude gasped in shock and horror; adequately describing the gasp would be an exercise in futility for even the finest writer. At the end of the question and answer session, after introducing Jon and Robin, she stomped off stage for the final time. The show was over.
With my sister unwillingly in tow, I joined the atheist entourage as they proceeded to the O'Hair's hotel. As we walked along the street, I asked Madalyn, "May I shake your hand so that I can say that I had done it." With a smile of delight, she agreed, and we shook hands. (I done it!) I would've liked to have gone along with them and chat, but the presence of my sister made that impossible. I took my leave, and my sister and I went home.
The next day at school in the cafeteria, I happened to sit across from two girls who had also been at the Harrington-O'Hair show. They were talking about it, and I intruded into their conversation by mentioning that I had attended as well. They asked me who I thought had "won" the "debate." Of course, I threw in with our heroine Madalyn. They were dumbfounded and asked me why. I explained to them that I was also an atheist. After they had recovered from the shock and horror of being confronted with an "honest to God" godless heathen, one of them, clapping her hands over her head as I had done, asked if that had been me. I affirmed that it was most likely me. Who else could it have been!? At least someone had noticed!
In reviewing the event after all these years, I am struck by its peculiarity, and even perverseness. Given that "Brother Bob" was paying all the bills and that the target audience was primarily fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, the "Fight to the Finish" tour was essentially an evangelical crusade. Madalyn only got that portion of the offering that was specifically indicated to go to her, and, given audience demographics, I should think that would be something less than the widow's two mites. Aside from a chance to travel the hinterlands terrorizing the faithful, I should think that she was getting some remuneration. I figure that "Brother Bob" made a deal with the Devil in order to do some heavy fund raising and that Madalyn whored herself to Jesus for similar reasons.
Madalyn was the bait to get the bumpkins into the tent. After "Brother Bob" got the crowd warmed up, Madalyn would work them into a frenzy and huff off the stage. "Brother Bob" would calm them down and collect the offering. They just had to contribute to his fight against Satan; how could they not open their wallets to do God's work after they had seen and heard Old Nick for themselves!? I wouldn't be surprised if they were clearing $10,000 or $20,000 a night, and this was over thirty years ago. Once "Brother Bob" had plucked the pigeons, Madalyn would come back on stage to take questions from the audience. This gave the believers a chance to prove their faith by facing Lucifer's Disciple and an opportunity to get their money's worth as well. It makes so much sense now! What a racket! Certainly beats working!
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