When Dr. Anthony Pinn Came Out as an Atheist, This Was the Reaction

Dr. Anthony Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University, has long been an advocate of the need for more racial diversity in our movement and I’m thrilled that his memoir is finally available. It’s called Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist (Prometheus Books, 2014).

In the excerpt below, Pinn writes about the aftermath of an interview with a local newspaper, in which he came out publicly as an atheist:

On Monday, some of my voice mails suggested that some people found troubling my thinking about religion. The gloves were off; Minnesota nice was done, and people were ready to speak their minds. Some condemned me to hell straightaway, while others tried to convince me to rethink my position so as to avoid hell. Within a few days, the hate mail began to arrive. It was more of the same: repent or hell, and so on. Letters condemning me for my godless life and raising questions concerning the morality of letting an atheist teach religion. Calls for my firing or at least punishment were a common rejoinder to the article.

There were no more invitations to have “hot dish.” Some Minnesotans lost their niceness over this issue. The president of the college, Michael McPherson, however, called to let me know that he supported me and would always honor academic freedom. He wanted me to feel confident that I was in no jeopardy because of the story. Calvin Roetzel also expressed his support for me and reiterated the president’s assurance that this would have no negative consequences for me, even though it was taking place around the time of my review.

At least one colleague wasn’t so generous. He had the nerve to reprimand me for the story and my opinion, and how it embarrassed him at his church. He wanted to know why I didn’t ask the religious studies department for permission to talk to the reporter. Permission? Trying to remain calm, I reminded him that I wasn’t his child but a grown man. I was his colleague, not his ward, and I didn’t need anyone’s permission to speak my mind. I would say what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted.

The college chaplain was far from happy as well; I found out that I had been the subject of several Sunday sermons. I imagine some ministers condemned me, and others encouraged prayer for my soul.

Some students were upset, not because of my personal perspective on theism but because their parents weren’t comfortable with them taking instruction from an atheist.

Not all the Minnesotans hated me as a result of my humanist stance. In fact, I met my now ex-wife because of the article. She called to see if she could buy me a soda. We were together for some years after that… until we weren’t.

There were a few calls asking me to appear on television; one was for a kind of “gotcha” national television program, which I declined. A few of the atheist and humanist organizations with which I’d tried to make contact earlier reached out to me to congratulate me on the story and to express their interest in being in communication. I’d “earned” their notice, but it would be a good number of years before I would become involved with them in any significant way. At this point, I was glad for the contact but disappointed that it took this stressful situation to get their notice.

There were also humanists and atheists in the Twin Cities who shared my struggle and perspective and wanted to celebrate what they understood as my courage and forthrightness. They were interested in hearing more of my story. I imagine they hadn’t encountered very many African American humanists, and they were curious as to what unbelief meant for African Americans, and how they, white Minnesotans, might connect with the like-minded from marginalized race groups. I received and accepted invitations to speak to their groups.

At some of these meetings, I had to field what I would call ignorant questions and assumptions regarding African Americans, one of the most offensive being the ridiculous argument that humanism and atheism were highly intellectual positions and African Americans were too emotional to appreciate and embrace either one. African Americans, some attendees said with confidence to a well-educated African American, crave the energy and rituals of the church. This came too close to the “Sing a spiritual for us, Uncle Jim,” attitude toward African Americans as objects for entertainment—childlike and highly emotional. I had expected better, but the confidence with which these statements were made, the speakers looking directly in the face of an African American, was staggering. These were for the most part well-read, informed, and educated people, but they were still saddled with backward notions concerning racial differences. I felt sad and embarrassed for those making these claims because they were so delusional and uninformed. Yet there was no good excuse for their willful ignorance, so I was also angry with them — these people who, despite considering themselves highly intellectual and dedicated to information gathering, were content with eighteenth-century ideas on race, intelligence, and civilization.

Although their understanding was flawed and lacked the depth of what I brought to the humanist table, those who reached out to me did point to the possibility of community, of relationships based on shared values. For the first time, my sense of humanist connections extended well beyond a few figures here and there or historical developments at a distance from my circumstances. It wasn’t an easy fit. I wasn’t as open to the possibility of divinity as some humanists, but I wasn’t an atheist easily placed in the “New Atheism” camp either.

As I understood it, New Atheism atheists denounced religion in a sweeping fashion and tended to be more aggressive in promoting their critiques. Any talk of ritual was met with quick resistance because they weren’t religious and rituals had everything to do with religion. They were against God and in favor of science, rejected any special status for religious organizations, and wanted to keep religion out of the public area/public policy. So many humanists held to a separation of church and state agenda, although they were also worried that commitment to science could easily turn into scientism. I believed rejection of superstition and supernatural claims wasn’t the end of the conversation but was only the beginning, a starting point that had to be followed quickly with attention to what humanists and atheists believe, and what those human values do in the world.

And while some humanists/atheists like me left theistic organizations because of their antihuman theology and supernaturalism, we continued to believe cooperation and collaboration on a shared concern with the integrity of life could bring theists and nontheists together to work on important community projects. This didn’t amount to a permanent, or even stable, connection but rather temporary practices of solidarity during which philosophical and theological disagreements remain but are bracketed for the sake of a larger agenda. This seemed to me a mature way to handle both the disagreements between theists and humanists/atheists as well as our shared need to preserve the integrity of life.

Humanists were mocked at times for being too soft on religion and too accommodating to theists; atheists were critiqued for being too single-minded with respect to religion and too lacking in concern for sociopolitical issues beyond the dominance of science and the need for religion to die away from both the public arena and private life. I can’t say that I didn’t participate in these debates, but I can say they didn’t matter that much to me. Growing a useful framing of humanism by getting my ideas out wasn’t dependent on who won the debate. Both sides were missing something.

I didn’t believe that humanists and theists couldn’t ever disagree; I simply thought their disputes should be productive with some agreed-upon ground rules. If nothing else, that type of constructive debate might help both camps better define themselves and — I would hope — recognize the overlap in their agendas. That overlap would then constitute the common vision for collaborative thinking and working. This sounded like a good idea, at least to an academic who often worked in abstractions.

My goals for solidarity weren’t based on years in the trenches of secular activism in the Midwest. My objectives were somewhat idyllic and a bit marginal. I had the right pedigree and I offered them a way into diversity, to the extent they could claim me as one of their own, but this only meant so much in terms of my ability to redirect the conversation.

Writing God’s Obituary is now available on Amazon. If you’d like to win a copy of the book, just leave a comment below with the hashtag #Pinn and I’ll select a winner next week!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.