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Atheists urged to come out of closet

America's most prominent, scrappiest atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, says many people who share her belief keep it secret to avoid the blasts.

She taunts them to come "out of the closet."

Assorted governors, mayors, senators and entertainers "have confided in me that they are atheists," she says. "One day I'm going to sit down and name them. Their hair is just going to curl."

Ms. O'Hair, who 30 years ago mounted the lawsuit that got Bible reading and group prayer banned in the public schools, said she hasn't toned down her battle against religion, adding:

"I attack the Old Testament. I attack the New Testament. I attack religious ideology. Religion has done more harm than any other idea in history. It's the major enemy of mankind."

A large, white-haired woman of 72, Ms. O'Hair appeared on the Phil Donahue show a few weeks ago. It was like a reunion of old sparring partners _ the 25th anniversary of her first appearance on his first show in 1967.

"Rockets went off," he said. "Boy, oh boy, did you light up the switchboard." Donahue has had her a dozen times since then.

"I'm still feisty," she said. The sparks still crackled. She's "full of the devil" and may go to hell, a telephone caller said. A smiling Ms. O'Hair shook her head incredulously.

"This is just exactly typical, that a Christian who is committed will rave on like this," she said.

When an audience member, Robert Stamper of Rensselaer, Ind., protested that true Christians don't hate her "no matter what you say. I don't hate you. I don't even know you. Jesus Christ loves you."

She remarked, "That's insulting. I would never say to you that I love you."

Stamper asked why there were no atheist hospitals or atheist food programs for the hungry or other help as given by churches, adding, "The Lord Jesus Christ has touched and saved tens of millions of people across this whole world."

"Saved them from what?" she asked.

"Death," he said.

"Oh, come on!"

She said religion "costs us at least a trillion dollars a year" by its tax exemptions and "billions" by allowing income tax deductions for religious contributions."

When Donahue, a Roman Catholic, remarked that he respected her, and not just for "theatrical reasons," but because "I think what you've done really strengthens religion," she said:

"Oh horrors. . . . Religion is the enemy."

Donahue commended her "very humble and honest" acknowledgement of not knowing how life began, but said to be consistent she also should acknowledge she doesn't know if there's a God _ the agnostic view.

"We're not going to find out about it by reading a book," she said, referring to the Bible, which she described as "scientifically useless."

Asked if atheism isn't a belief system _ faith in God's non-existence, just as religion is faith in God's existence, she said, "You don't have to prove a negative."