Growing Into My Humanism: Shedding Light on the Shadow of Theism

Growing Into My Humanism: Shedding Light on the Shadow of Theism October 30, 2014

Editor’s Note: I met Tony Pinn at a Center for Inquiry talk. He is a professor at Rice University who was in Washington, DC to discuss his new book. I’m so happy that he took me up on an offer to write something from his book for the blog. Here he discusses making a new positive identity for himself after leaving theism. It is adapted fromWriting God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Anthony B. Pinn. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


small_4684713252By Anthony B. Pinn

My humanism grew from being somewhat reactionary.  It was a good move, but one that didn’t have sufficient depth.  My humanism still relied heavily on the language and conceptual clipboard of theists.

The effort to develop a humanist way of speaking about and to the world was a substantial development for me, a way of initiating a more constructive approach to being godless – to being a humanist as opposed to simply someone who doesn’t believe in god or gods. This humanist way of thinking and doing had to be about more than fighting theists. That approach gave theists too much power, made them godlike to the extent humanist approaches to the world are shaped by this ever present (but seldom encountered) force called theism. We non theists and atheists don’t believe in the power of God, but our conversations certainly suggest we believe in the power of theists – the people who believe in God. And the way we position them and discuss their influence gives them a trans-historical reality, a kind of superhuman presence. While many atheists talk about and celebrate the end of religion, they keep the theists around as the embodiment of the religion they detest.

It’s a bit strange: humanists dismiss and ridicule religion but it is a continuous component of our public and private conversations. Theism is ever present – a shadowy figure lurking in the thoughts and informing the actions of many godless people. This is a problem, and I didn’t want to give theism that type of power over me and over humanism in more general terms.

For me, deconstruction of theism had to be followed by a constructive and affirming process of community building, of services, of ritual structures for joys and sorrows and all the other structures for meaningful life within the contemporary world. This, I grew to believe, also had to involve partnerships between humanists and theists.

Cooperation with theists of various persuasions provides the numbers and the organizational structures needed to make a felt difference in the world. For the sake of that ethical obligation we will need to bracket the philosophical and theological rationale for it. This might involve work with some of the very Christians that people like me (ex-clergy) left behind.

How exactly to do this is something I’d have to work out, and I’d have to do so mindful of my growing reluctance to join.   Maybe it’s a reaction to the many years lodged within the church or maybe an extended effort to catch my breath and give full form to my humanism before becoming so heavily involved in organizations. I have no idea what to call this sometimes tense relationship with belonging to organizations.

Like it does for others, there are ways in which my godlessness frees me to be an individual , but I think of myself as an individual within the context of a web of life – tying together both human and other lives.

On one level the stakes aren’t particularly high, but that is just one way of looking at it.  And based on my journey to humanism, I like to believe there is a great deal of importance in balance.  The establishment of a reasonable world marked by theism limited to the private realm of life has a lot to say concerning global politics, economic developments, social norms and cultural trends.

I’d like to see a day when theism is just a memory.  But in the long run whether people believe in God or gods, it is a big deal in the public spheres of life. That is to say, what people believe as part of their private lives is up to them, and I have little to say although their beliefs may rub me wrong.  But those private beliefs shouldn’t impact the public arena of life and shouldn’t shape the life options of others.

I’ve come a long way – from evangelical Christian to proud humanist without God. The journey has had its twists and turns and its rough patches. But I’ve never doubted the correctness of my departure from the church. I’ve never looked back. I left one type of community in order to be true to the hard questions pressing me and to be respectful of the people who suffer injustice without life affirming responses to their pain. I left the church and ministry but not my desire to affirm life, celebrate and mourn, as well as ritualize major moments – all within the fragile arrangements of this world. I just now have a better sense of how awesome a responsibility and task this is for me and those in whose circles I move. And it’s worth noting that whether in the pulpit or behind the lectern, my theism and now my humanism have on some level involved the naming of possibilities for human thinking and doing, as well as the naming of human potential and shortcomings through words and deeds.

I don’t know that we have anything more than these, as inadequate and fragile as they are.


Pinn_in_DC_2Bio: Anthony B. Pinn is Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, where he is also the founding director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning.  In addition, he is the Director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies and he is a member of the Board of Directors for the American Humanist Association.  Pinn is the editor/author of thirty books, including Writing God’s Obituary, from which this piece is drawn.


photo credits: <a href=””>dynamosquito</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

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