Renowned atheist is hated, murdered, revived in new Netflix film
The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. This is not just a lyric in a Lumineer’s song, but a universal truth that could be applied to love’s sister in virtue: faith. The opposite of belief in God is not in fact that long despised enemy of godly people everywhere, atheism. The enemy of belief, rather, is run of the mill indifference. This notion is given credence by Tommy O’Haver’s “The Most Hated Woman in America,” a recent film from Netflix. The film goes a long way in arguing that atheism isn’t the converse of theism, but just another shade on the color wheel of belief, with all the pageantry and chaos which that frequently entails.
The film tells the (true) story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Melissa Leo), a woman who garnered notoriety in the early 1960s for suing the Baltimore public school system—a move that ultimately led to a Supreme Court decision banning mandatory bible reading in the public school classroom. O’Hair then went on to found American Atheists, a national organization dedicated to advocating for the rights of atheists, while continuing to work toward ensuring the separation of church and state.
In the summer of 1995, O’Hair, along with her youngest son and granddaughter, was kidnapped and murdered by a former employee of American Atheist. Eventually it came to light that the murders were an attempt to seize the substantial amount of money O’Hair had laundered into offshore accounts throughout her time at American Atheists.
The film’s primary thrust is exploring the “what,” the “why” and the “how” of O’Hair’s kidnapping and murder. Outside of the Supreme Court case that first brought O’Hair to the public’s attention, O’Hair’s activism on behalf of the atheist agenda is paid little heed by the filmmakers. The audience is left with a paint-by-numbers look at the seemingly inevitable corruption that bubbles to the surface when a grassroots movement turns into an organized institution.
The film is quick to indict O’Hair as no better than the corrupt religious leaders and institutions that she rails against. As she becomes the public face of unbelief, people start donating money to her and the movement she dubs “The Cause,” and with that comes the incorporation of American Atheists. O’Hair’s rise to fame includes making the cover of Look magazine, where she was first given the film’s title phrase. We see her in the guest chair of those late 20th century cultural mainstays, Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue, talking fast and loose at a time when the public did not necessarily want its public figures to “tell it like it is.”
O’Hair quickly discovers the financial benefits that come with being the face of a belief—or non-belief movement, as it were. “Most Hated” makes a point of highlighting her collaboration with televangelist Bill Harrington, which consists primarily of their questionably authentic debates for and against religion, put forth for public consumption in the style of P. T. Barnum, and—more importantly—designed for profit.
Melissa Leo as the hard-to-love O’Hair gives integrity and complexity to a character who could have easily been played for laughs. She never condescends to O’Hair and gives authenticity to a volatile and larger-than-life woman without overplaying or veering into camp. It is unfortunate that the rest of the film cannot live up to Leo’s incredible work, as the production values are shoddy and the writing is strictly TV-movie-of-the-week. The remainder of the cast’s talent—which includes Peter Fonda, Juno Temple, Josh Lucas and Adam Scott—is wasted in a film that primarily plays like a poorly done imitation of a Coen brothers’ film.
The fundamental reality seems to be that we need some kind of hero, or vaunted ideal (be it Jesus or Never Jesus) to give some sort of shape to our existence.
O’Hair’s story does, however, raise questions worth investigating. The most significant: Can a deeply embedded commitment to unbelief avoid mirroring the very thing it opposes? It would seem that any cause worthy of faith and commitment cannot help but become organized, incorporated and hierarchical. An ideology, a faith, a movement, always begins rather formless, even chaotic, necessitating a leader to give it shape, be it Jesus, Lenin or Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
As dark a gloss as “Most Hated”tries to put on organized movements, the fundamental reality seems to be that we need some kind of hero, or vaunted ideal (be it Jesus or Never Jesus) to give some sort of shape to our existence. And we like to run in packs, or prides, groups, coteries, sects, denominations, religions, take your pick; but whatever you call them, we like to be a part of them. We like to be a part of.
The reality is that people need something to believe in, even if that very thing just happens to be unbelief.