Staff Profile: Sean Mulligan, Spring Intern

This week’s Humanist Network News Staff Profile features one of our interns for the spring semester, Sean Mulligan, a first-year Master’s candidate at American University in Washington DC.

HNN: What is your educational background? 

Mulligan: I attended a Quaker preparatory school, Moorestown Friends School, outside of Philadelphia. I spent my first year of college at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, and then transferred to American University, where I took my bachelor’s degree in Justice, Law and Society. I am currently attending American University’s graduate program in Social Thought and Jurisprudence, and I hope to receive my master’s degree in 2012.

HNN: How did you first learn about humanism? 

Mulligan: My mother has always been a fairly gentle humanist. This stems from her own mother (my grandmother’s) dramatic exit from the Catholic Church in the 60s—dramatic not just for the time but also for a woman whose maiden name was Flynn. I wouldn’t say that my grandparents are atheists—their faith is a comfort to them—but my mother was somewhat primed to be a freethinker from a young age.

HNN: Did you grow up in a religious tradition? If so, what?

Mulligan: While my father is a passionate Catholic, I found my first real religious influences in my prep school’s weekly Meeting for Worship. By 18, I self-identified as a Quaker. For a couple months I was also an assistant youth pastor at an evangelical church, where I led Bible studies and helped coordinate the annual youth retreat. While in Santa Fe, I periodically attended the Santa Fe Monthly meeting.

HNN: When did you decide “I’m an atheist”?

Mulligan: I think the driving factor that led to my current atheism came from a deep knowledge of the Bible- its inconsistencies, its bizarre obsession with violence and dissipation, its risible (and manifold) contradictions. The final straw came when I read Aristotle’s “Physics” and “Metaphysics” at Saint John’s. An intrepid classmate of mine demolished the prime mover argument, asking that if God could exist outside of the bounds of time, why not—and this much simpler—the universe? I must stress however many of my friends are prominent Christians, and I enjoy a lively debate with them whenever I can get it.

HNN: What interested you most about interning for the AHA?

Mulligan: I’ve always felt a strong desire to advocate for secularism. It was actually my study of the Puritan legal systems of the 17th century that persuaded me to seek work in the field of church-state issues. The Puritans, like us, believed strongly in a church and state separation. Of course, they were more concerned that the church would be polluted by state matters, not the other way round.

HNN: Tell me about your campus freethought group and how you got involved.

Mulligan: American University Rationalists and Atheists (AURA) was founded my first year at AU. At first I was a little put off by the idea of a club of atheists: the premise is admittedly a frightening one. Atheists are by and large contentious, independent, and fond of long form conversation. I worried about captious teenagers shouting one another down in a basement somewhere. Of course, AURA sometimes does meet in a building’s basement, but the discussion never veers into the overly critical. We’re strong partners with the campus Queers and Allies group. We participate in charity work and also helped organize the recent counter-protest against the Westboro Baptist Church at American University. I’m most proud of AURA for its perennial refusal to join the campus Interfaith Council. Our first president, Matt Bulger, politely refused on the grounds that AURA is not an organization of the faithful. Upon hearing this, I found myself rather touched by such a simple reply.

HNN: Have you read any good books lately?

Mulligan: Yes, and it’s possible it could become my favorite book. I’m currently reading Livy’s history of the Second Punic War. Fellow classicists (read: nerds) will recognize this as the decade of books 21-30, charting Hannibal’s meteoric rise and fall as would-be conqueror of Rome. Livy is often derided for sloppy scholarship. My own feeling is that the human touches in the text give color to what would otherwise be a remarkably staid and banal annal. Anyway, this also misses the point: Livy wrote not as a historian but as an ethicist and educator, hoping to craft memorable examples of good conduct and right reason so that future generations of Romans would be inspired to greater efforts.

HNN: If you could have dinner with any three people (living or dead), who would they be?

Mulligan: Hannibal, the Carthaginian Suffete, Diogenes the Greek Cynic, and Christopher Hitchens. I imagine the bar tab would be rather steep.