Meet the New AHA Staff Member: Colin McNamara

Please welcome the new staff attorney of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, Colin McNamara! What is your educational and work background?

I got my bachelor’s degree from SUNY Oswego, double-majoring in creative writing and philosophy. After (remarkably) failing to find steady work in those booming industries, I worked in emergency medicine for a few years before I decided to attend law school in 2014. That summer, I made the first of several successive “big moves,” this one from New York to Virginia to attend the University of the Richmond School of Law. During law school, I interned for the attorney general of New York and the ACLU of Virginia. I also spent a semester doing pro bono trial representation for children in the Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, in addition to a brief stint in immigration practice. I graduated with my JD cum laude in 2017. I then undertook my second big move, this time from Richmond to Madison, Wisconsin, to work at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I served as FFRF’s Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow for two years. Thankfully, my fellowship ended just as AHA was hiring a new staff attorney. Serendipitous indeed… but it also meant one more big move, this time to DC. Worth it! How did you first learn about Humanism?

I suppose I was always a humanist; I just didn’t know the word. The scare tactics of religion never impressed me. I grew up in very religious family (more on that below), and talk of hell was constant. Even as a kid, I just couldn’t grasp how being threatened with eternal torment was supposed to inspire me to be nice to people—and even if it did, was that really the same as being genuinely nice? As a teenager, I went looking for a word that meant being good for goodness’ sake. When I found out there was an organization of people out there who proudly proclaimed to be “good without a god,” I knew I’d found that word: humanism. I’ve called myself a humanist ever since. Did you grow up in a traditional religious faith? How did it impact you?

I grew up in a very traditional religious family. My father’s side is a mixture of Catholics and evangelical Protestants; my Uncle Brent is a drug addiction counselor and minister who attended Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University) and Liberty University.

When I think of my religious upbringing, all I remember is the fear. I recall sitting around my grandmother’s dining room table with my cousins, leaning in with rapt attention as my uncle told us about the End Times. I don’t remember everything he said, but I’ll never forget the line “and the blood flowed up to a horse’s halter.” While I understood that Christianity seemed to do a lot of heavy lifting in the lives of my family members, all it ever did for me was make me afraid. My family would talk about prayer as having a “conversation with God” and say that they “felt the Lord’s presence,” and I just didn’t get it. I used to shut my eyes and clench my fists when I prayed, hoping that the extra exertion would force a reply from heaven, but it never came. I realized that this was all just a bunch of make-believe, but I played along until I was out of the house. I didn’t actually reveal my atheism to my father until I was twenty-two. It was rough, but he didn’t disown me.

To my knowledge I’m still the only “out” atheist in the family. I’m sure I’m surprising no one when I say that being a nonbeliever in a family of very fervent Christians can be a challenge. I still get proselytized with some regularity, mostly from my grandmother. I’m sure they believe that I’ll come “home” one day like the prodigal son, but it’s not going to happen. I’m a humanist for life because nothing else makes sense to me. What interested you most about working for the American Humanist Association?

Working to maintain the separation of church and state and defend the rights of nontheists has been my dream since before I even attended law school. Getting the chance to do it right out of law school at FFRF was a dream come true. Getting to continue doing so in one of my favorite cities in the world is a dream come true again. What book has influenced you the most?

This is a tough one. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a voracious reader. (A former colleague nicknamed me “Belle” due to my penchant for walking to work with my nose in a book.) That said, I think there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: The Magus by John Fowles. It’s a hefty tome at nearly 700 pages, but I reread it every few years just to see if the old magic is still there, and it always is. The book is about a less-than morally perfect guy who leaves England to teach on an island in Greece. There, he meets a mad old millionaire who slowly pulls him into a strange “godgame” (the original title of the book), trying to teach him lessons about the depravity of his life through one massive, elaborately staged drama. Things devolve to the point where the main character no longer can discern who is part of the godgame and who isn’t. In hindsight, The Magus probably informed some of my views on theism, albeit subconsciously at the time. For me, the book illustrates the immorality of an all-powerful being using this life as little more than a job interview for the hereafter. It’s a pretty sadistic notion, when you think about it. If you could have dinner with any three people in the world (living or dead), who would they be and why?

I started typing Stephen Fry before I even finished reading this question. Why? Because the conversation would be to die for. For my money, Fry is the single most charming human on the planet.

Next would have to be Thomas Paine. Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason are the closest things I have to sacred text. Paine’s humanism—though he didn’t call it that—is just so beautifully simple and clean. While I studied philosophy and I enjoy the occasional deep-dive into metaphysics and metaethics, Paine didn’t concern himself very much with all of that. He looked around and basically said, “Well, I don’t know much, but I know that I’m here and that other people are here as well. Stands to reason that we’ll all live better if we’re just and kind to each other.” Paine also had a biting wit, and I so would love to hear him and Fry engage in some banter.

Finally, I’d invite my Uncle Kevin. He sadly died of a drug overdose when he was thirty-eight and I was around twelve. I never really met him. He’d been around me when I was very young, but I don’t remember it. His death rocked our family to the core, and the effects reverberate to this day. It’s bittersweet to me that I really only got to know about him through his death, but what I learned I liked. We had the same taste in music, the same crass sense of humor, and a shared penchant for chasing a thrill. I don’t know how he’d get on with Fry and Paine, but I’d like to think that Uncle Kevin and I would be fast friends. It would be nice to know for sure.