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On race and atheism: An interview with Anthony Pinn

Dr. Anthony B. Pinn.
Dr. Anthony B. Pinn. Photo courtesy Pinn.
Dr. Anthony B. Pinn.

Dr. Anthony B. Pinn. Photo courtesy Pinn.

Many of atheism’s most visible public advocates are white men. So it isn’t surprising that a number of people struggle with conversations about the intersections of race, ethnicity, and nontheism—if they participate in such discussions at all.

Fortunately, some atheist organizations and individuals are working to advance these discussions, from the Blackout Secular Rally and Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers to writers like Sikivu Hutchinson.

Among those at the forefront of these efforts is Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, a leading scholar and public intellectual who has done a great deal of work on issues relating to Black nontheism. The Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, Pinn also serves as the director of research for the Institute for Humanist Studies.

The author and editor of thirty books, his latest is Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist. I spoke with him about why he wrote a memoir, discussions about race and ethnicity among nontheists and how they can improve, the priorities of the atheist community, and what he thinks of his childhood religious beliefs.

Chris Stedman: Writing God’s Obituary tells your personal story. Why did you write it in this way?

Dr. Anthony Pinn: I’ve reached a point where I feel the need to think back on my life—how I’ve gotten to where I am—and in part this look at the past is my effort to gauge my present and think through the tasks ahead of me. I wanted to take an opportunity to think more fully through my move from theism to atheism.

I think there’s something to the W. E. B. Du Bois sense that we tell the story of larger communities in part by telling the story of the human we know best. So I also decided to write my personal story as a way to get a more graphic sense of the growing African American humanist communities, and to do that in a humanizing way.

CS: This book tackles diversity issues in Unitarian Universalism, in Humanism, and among nontheists. Can you say more about these issues, and how they’re being addressed—or how they should be?

AP: As I moved deeper into my humanism I felt a need for something resembling community. I was encouraged to give the Unitarian Universalist Association some attention. While I appreciated how welcoming people were, there was great deal of ignorance regarding why African Americans are theists.

'Writing God's Obituary' by Dr. Anthony B. Pinn.

‘Writing God’s Obituary’ by Dr. Anthony B. Pinn. Courtesy Pinn.

Some of it was racism, but much of it was simply uninformed opinion that I couldn’t accept from people who considered themselves enlightened and knowledgeable. I find much of the same rhetorical commitment to diversity and difference within the humanist and atheist movement—and much of this involves a misguided assumption that difference is a problem to solve rather than seeing difference as a creative tension to nurture and maintain. People calling for diversity often want more shades of the same: we will welcome others in, but we don’t want to change anything about the range of issues we address and how we conduct our business.

It’s possible that some of what has frustrated me about responses to diversity within the humanist and atheist movement results from a lack of information concerning the history of African American humanists and atheists. And maybe there’s some merit to telling that history, one humanist and atheist at a time.

CS: Can you speak to the current state of discourse about nontheism and race, ethnicity, and social justice?

I think discourse regarding race, ethnicity, and social justice amongst nontheists too often reflect the larger national conversation. That is to say, it often lacks depth and at too many points doesn’t move beyond easy rhetoric.

There are, of course, examples of discourse pushing beyond easy exchange—but it hasn’t gone far enough. As I see it, issues of diversity for nontheistic organizations are often presented through the presentation of heroic or grand figures within “marginal” communities. So, for example, billboards celebrating heroic African American humanists combined with current African American figures.

While this speaks to the important historical presence of diversity regarding nontheistic thought, I believe more attention should be given to exposing the work done by diverse communities as opposed to just stating the presence of a diverse nontheistic community.

Within nontheistic circles, this is often a result of tunnel vision regarding what are considered the important questions and issues: science education and separation of church and state. While these are important, they don’t provide a good sense of all the other challenges and concerns that nontheists should address. For humanists a full range of social concerns ought to mark our efforts: anything related to the flourishing of life should be within our wheelhouse.

CS: What’s the significance of this book’s title?

AP: For me the title is a way of capturing the decline and eventual death of a concept—God—that had been important to me for years. I wanted the title to reflect my transition from theism to nontheistic humanism through my push away from God—God being the central category of my religious youth.

The title also reflects my effort to point out that this movement to atheism didn’t involve anger. But instead, the use of “obituary” in the title is meant to point out a more balanced and appreciate approach. I don’t hate my former life; I have simply moved beyond it.

CS: You were religious as a child. What do you think of your childhood beliefs?

AP: Thinking back on those years, I understand the type of security, place, and expression of love that my religious commitments and religious family provided me. As James Baldwin said regarding his own religious youth, you have to belong to something—and for him it was the church. For me, it was the church. It smoothed over the rough patches of life.

Now I appreciate that that smoothing over came with a price, and that it ultimately did me little good. I don’t hold to any of those old theological and religious beliefs and doctrines; but I don’t think back on them with a sense of shame. I was what I was—for many reasons—and I now am what I am for better reasons.


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  • Chris Stedman’s interview of Anthony Pinn DOES succeed in taking a rare snapshot of a very-much-neglected aspect of atheism: the world of atheism as viewed by Black American atheists. Readers must give Stedman and Dr. Pinn some serious credit for that.

    But honestly? Dr. Pinn, though quite articulate and reflective about his journey, succeeds only in proving that atheism is an equal-opportunity Mega-Disaster, a spiritual virus that slowly yet viciously munches on the soul of its victims. And there are many victims these days, of all colors and flavors.

    Atheism truly darkens (extinguishes) the light of the human heart (see Romans 1:21). Pinn’s interview — and doubtless his book, I would think — makes interesting reading, but it’s interesting in a grim, sobering way. One of those “Don’t Let This Happen To You” photographs.

    So whatever it takes, get away from atheism and turn to Jesus Christ with everything you’ve got. And if you’re already hooked up with Jesus but your kids fall into atheism, do not give up on them. Do not ever accept the defeat.

    Love and cherish them forever, but pray and fast and seek the Lord as hard as you can on their behalf. Do it as desperately as if your own soul and life were at stake. Never stop your quest, even if it looks like you’ll literally die of old age with no apparent results. YOU become the living proof that “God’s Obituary” will never be written.

  • Doc Anthony, did you maybe post in the wrong place? This is an article about how nonreligious people can be better intersectional humanists. Also, I’m an atheist and the light in my heart is in no way extinguished. It’s like, radioactive neon bright. So you don’t need to worry. 🙂

    Chris–great article, looking forward to reading more from Dr. Pinn!

  • Thank you, Doc Anthony. Your post is a perfect example of why Mr. Stedman’s mission to “build bridges” between atheists and the religious strikes me as a lost cause at best. Religion Island is not a place I want to build a bridge to. I am content to let you remain there.

  • This must be an April Fools’ joke post, or else you’re very much misinformed about atheism and what atheists believe. Most atheists that used to be Christians actually live life more fully and feel less burdened and fearful; they find freedom in letting go of comforting lies and accepting the true beauty of reality that is boundless.

  • Folks like Doc Anthony just can’t accept that other folks have considered and rejected their beliefs and in the process have chosen something better, something BRIGHTER, something more fulfilling for them! The “for them” is the most important phrase here. One size does NOT fit all when it comes to religion, spiritual development or growth of the human being. This is what many liberals (I use liberals rather than Atheists because this applies to religious liberals as well as Atheistic liberals) get wrong as is pointed out early with the statement “difference is a problem to solve”. Difference isn’t seen as a positive only a negative and attempts have been made to homogenize humanity, make us all the same. There are many paths through the woods and each of us has to find and follow the path that is best for us. AND that is what Dr. Pinn has done.

  • Oh for Pete’s sake Doc Anthony, give it a rest. Those of us who have left religion behind look at it far differently than you do. Our view is 180 degrees opposed to yours, i.e. it is religion that truly darkens (extinguishes) the light of the human mind. We revel in the freedom from the shackles of superstition and the self-empowerment of being individually responsible for our actions based on our own ethical and moral integrity. Far from being a dark and depressing thing as you allege, the journey to non-belief is instead a journey into the light of reason and self-empowerment.

  • This is a reasonable article in most ways. What I can’t get to grips with is US atheists inability to give up the identity politics of their religious past. I’m a UK atheist but I don’t think of myself as such. I have no idea what other UK atheists think in general and I wouldn’t necessarily expect to have anything, other than a lack of belief in gods, in common with them. I haven’t joined an atheist organisation. I’ve never read any books about atheism. I’ve never been to an atheist conference. I get involved in things I’m interested in not in things I don’t believe in. I find the phrase “black atheist” disconcerting. Who should care what colour their skin is or what they don’t believe in? I’m inclined to say: get a life.

  • Doc is the best endorsement for atheism out there.

    I could see why people would chose a belief that would ensure they would not have to associate with people like him. 🙂

  • GordonHide,

    In the U.S., religion is everywhere and pushy in ways someone in the UK might find hard to understand. So being and atheist or humanist here becomes part of your (sometimes secret) identity.

    To further identify as a black atheist, gay atheist, female atheist, etc. probably means that your set of experiences among the religious majority here take on a very specific flavor.

    I believe such experiences motivate people to act more publicly about their non-beliefs and attend conferences and become more knowledgeable about their position. In the U.S., we either find some culture power or eat what the religious folk feed us.

  • Atheism is modern life’s new vanity. Atheists are updated iconoclasts and iconophobes. There is nothing new about them except media attention – and this phenomenon of mass attention is currently in keeping with other counter-cultural orientations. It is interesting that atheism demonstrates or provides no social behaviors worthy of emulation. It ‘kills’ or pronounces ‘dead’. Full stop.

  • Spoken like someone who doesn’t know jack about atheism except what his pastor tells him.

    Atheism demonstrates no worthy behaviors if one really has nothing nice to say about critical thinking, reason, social justice, compassion, and humility.

    I get the impression, you are going to believe what you want to believe about atheism no matter what the actual facts are. It does not sound like you made any effort to understand atheism in any way beyond finding excuses to fling poo at them in public.

  • Thank you for your reply. It certainly illustrates my point perfectly. And as for the accusatory, knowing atheists is not a shortcoming. Modern atheism is. And be cautious in your imputations or you’ll soil the word atheist ever more. And as a proponent of critical thinking, dread errors in your ‘impressions’; they don’t reflect reality as much as they do yourself.

  • So you feel vindicated because I did not take your petty ignorant insults seriously.

    If you are going to denigrate something, it is helpful to show at least a modicum of knowledge about it. Or you can keep doing what you are doing. Making it easy to dismiss what you have to say.

  • I just finished Dr. Pinn’s latest book: Writing God’s Obituary. I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Anthony and I had many interesting conversations on religion when we shared suites at Columbia College 1984 -1986. There is always a man waiting in the wings. One jumps ship and another braves all odds to climb on board. Someone will pick up the mantle you have cast aside Anthony, and bear it with pride. Praying for you Anthony.