New life for me and I’m feelin’ good by Anthony Pinn

Anthony Pinn, the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at Rice University, spoke at FFRF’s Los Angeles convention last fall. He has advanced degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities and is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice and research director at the Institute for Humanist Studies. His books include Why, Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (1995), The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (2011) and Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist (2014), available from

By Anthony Pinn

I am delighted to be here with you and I want to thank my new friends from FFRF for this invitation. I turned 50 this year, in May. I’ve been a bit too lazy for a midlife crisis, but it has given me opportunity to think.

My life divides fairly evenly between two diametrically opposed positions on life. I’m one who believes that there are certain elements of human existence, our movement through the world, that are best expressed through the poetic. So I’ll help you get a sense of what these two poles, these two contradictory stances entail, and tell it through song. I won’t sing the songs, but I’ll tell you what they are.

The first phase of my life is roughly summed up by the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Some of you may know this: “Amazing grace/how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me.” Written in 1779, the same year that enslaved Africans in Connecticut petitioned for their freedom.

The second phase, the second 25 years, is better summed up by this hauntingly beautiful song first published in 1964, the year of my birth, but was really given “oomph” and classic significance in 1965 when Nina Simone decided to sing it. One of the lines [from “Feeling Good”] is this: “Freedom is mine/and I know how I feel/it’s a new dawn/it’s a new day/it’s a new life for me and I’m feelin’ good.”

The second phase is marked by a certain type of lucidity or awareness, a way of recognizing and honoring what my grandmother told me as she sent me off to college. She said, “Tony, walk through the world knowing your footsteps matter.” Life is embodied in how you interact with others, and the sorts of relationships you form or don’t form have impact. You’re not in this alone; you’re not doing this simply for yourself. Move through the world knowing your footsteps matter.”

I’ve spent 50 years moving between these two poles, which is nothing anyone would have anticipated for me. My family was part of the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans into southern and northern cities after the Civil War through the mid-20th century, looking for opportunity and a way of integrating themselves into U.S. life.

My mother’s family moved from Halifax, N.C., to Buffalo, N.Y. My grandparents were college educated, but that didn’t mean much. My father’s family moved from Dinwiddie, Va., to Buffalo. They moved to Buffalo because Bethlehem Steel was in [nearby] Lackawanna, which meant opportunity, a good paycheck, a good life.

I remember as a child going to church with my grandfather in Lackawanna, to a small Baptist church. He was one of the deacons. We’d go to Sunday school, and we’d listen to Sunday school lessons that really had nothing to do with our inner-city lives. But we listened to these stories and somehow they were connected to scripture that we didn’t quite understand.

Then came the big service, the service for the adults. We had our own way of entertaining ourselves. Each child on the row got a hymnal and you’d close your eyes and open up the hymnal quickly and you’d look. The goal was to eventually land on the same hymn, and if you landed on the same hymn, it was great joy and then you moved on to the next challenge.

The final challenge was going to the restroom and staying away for an extended period and being able to explain the absence. Now sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes my grandfather would catch us. All he had to do was look. It was just that look, behind those rather thick, cloudy glasses, and you knew that was it.

We stayed at that church until my mother decided it wasn’t a proper environment. She didn’t want us growing up in a church in which women were second-class citizens, where women could clean but couldn’t preach. We started attending a small church much closer to home. This church would eventually affiliate with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but when we arrived it was independent. My mother loved it, and it made sense to the rest of us.

My mother and my sister went to service one Sunday when I didn’t go. They got home and announced they had joined the church. I’m thinking, Linda’s older, but there’s nothing she gets to do that I don’t do. Next Sunday, I’m in church; I play my games and take a little nap and then ask my mother what those people are doing walking up to the front of the church. She said, “They’re joining the church.”

I think, “Well OK, I want to do that, too.” So I walk to the front and announce my name, “I’m Anthony Bernard Pinn and I came to join this church.” And that was the beginning. We had a new family, it provided a cultural network; it provided social networks; and, it was a space in which we could breathe, a space in which we could have a bit of comfort in what seemed to be a death-dealing society.

It was a space apart, away from all of the madness. It was a space away from my grammar school teachers who really didn’t give a damn about me. As long as I stayed out of trouble, didn’t create waves, everything was good. It doesn’t matter if he’s learning anything or not. But this was a different space in which my talents were assumed, and pushed.

The minister also taught Sunday school. One Sunday after the lesson he asked a typical question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There were the typical responses: “I’m going to be president; I’m going to be a doctor; I’m going to be a lawyer.” He got to me and I said, “I’m going to be a preacher.” I’m not quite certain why I said it. I’m not sure I anticipated what his reaction was going to be, but I said it. He looked at me and said, “OK, we start next Sunday.” So the games were over for me.

In the pulpit

So, with my mother’s permission and a big smile on her face, I mounted the pulpit. I led hymns, collected the offering, said prayers, opened the church doors. I was a little minister with a very different role. I couldn’t go to the store alone. I had to be in the house when the streetlights came on, but in the context of that church I had a certain type of authority simply because I said, “I’m going to be a preacher.”

Eventually that minister left and another came, and he left, and then this young guy arrived from Philadelphia who was known for “growing” churches. This church needed to grow, because now it was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, the oldest black denomination in the country. Folks told him, “Tony has a call on his life. He’s going to be a minister.” He said, “Hmm, I’ll check this out.”

At age 12, I preached my first sermon, my trial sermon. The real test of a sermon is not how many people get happy with you. The real test of a sermon is how many people come to Christ as a result of what you’ve said. For that first sermon, all about fire and brimstone, three people came, so I was on my way.

I went through the process, meeting with church leaders, proving this calling. I can’t go to the store alone, but I’m leading people to Christ. I’m counseling people on issues I don’t really understand, on topics I couldn’t necessarily pronounce.

My grandmother told me, “Look, I’m so proud of you, but understand this. I would not make use of an attorney that didn’t have a J.D. Nor would I make use of the services of a physician without an M.D. And my grandson will not be a preacher without proper training.”

I knew education within my family had always been important and at this stage, I knew that beyond the B.A. I would have to get professionally trained for ministry. I decided, along with my mother, that it would be most beneficial for me to be in an educational environment with folks who were like-minded. The public school system was not going to cut it. I had to be in the world but not of it, and this school was not helping.

So, I transferred from City Honors, a program for gifted students, to a small Southern Baptist high school outside Buffalo. It was a feeder program for institutions like Bob Jones University and [Jerry Falwell’s] Liberty Baptist. Need I say more?

I spent three years there, unlearning critical thinking skills and embracing scripture. Now it was time for college. I knew I couldn’t stay in Buffalo because I was surrounded by folks who had limited ambition, and I needed more than that. It just so happened that my minister had been transferred to a rather large church in Brooklyn, N.Y., Bedford-Stuyvesant. I took this as a sign from the Lord to go to school in New York, so Columbia University was my place.

I arrived thinking I’m going to set this world on fire for Christ and lead people to Jesus, but I was in for a surprise. I’m taking classes in biblical studies and these folks are treating the bible as if it’s simply a piece of literature. They did not appreciate a deeper understanding of scripture.

I’m also meeting people who practice other faiths with devotion and without apology. It doesn’t matter to them that from my perspective they are going to hell. This was the thing that really got me: Some of these folks who are on their way to hell treated me consistently better than so many of the Christians I encountered. They didn’t talk about me behind my back. They weren’t looking for me to slip up and prove that I was human.

Youth pastor

Bedford-Stuyvesant wasn’t gentrified in 1982. It was an area deeply troubled by economic want and need, and people found ways to pacify that want and need. In the early ’80s, crack cocaine became a way of doing this. It’s cheap, readily available and numbs the pain.

I’m at a church in the middle of this, and we’re saying nothing that eased life for these folks. I’m working with young people who are finding it easier to plan out their deaths than to think about a bright future. They’re struggling with this in the basement of a church that believes it has “the way.” I had nothing to say that really made much of a difference, even in terms of basic life circumstances and needs like sex education.

I was the youth minister, 18 or 19 years old, so one of my responsibilities was to provide these young people with a way to think about their sexual wants and desires. I had this one statement that was going to transform life for them and make it easy to avoid sexual sin. This is what I would say, with a rather stern but caring and compassionate look on my face: “You can do whatever you want, whenever you want, [pause] knowing that Jesus is in the room with you.”

And I’m thinking, damn, this is brilliant! In reality, I had nothing to say that made a difference for their life circumstances. They were confronted with the same sort of dilemma that the writer Richard Wright describes in terms of his own life. In Black Boy he says, “Look, if I’d encountered the church before I encountered the harshness of the world, the songs and the sermons would have meant something to me.”

Wright says he encountered the world first, and the church could not fix the suffering he felt. I gave them nothing that really made a difference, Monday through Saturday, and this was becoming difficult for me because I wanted to be a person with integrity. It reached a point where I just couldn’t do it. There was a kind of dissonance that I just couldn’t deal with.

This was my solution: I was supposed to be at the 6 a.m. service every Sunday. That was not a challenge because I thrived on very little sleep. But not having anything to say that made a difference, a theology that was anemic at best and perverse at worst, just wasn’t getting the job done. On some Sundays when it was just too much, I’d get dressed in my suit, make my way to the train station at 116th Street and Broadway and let the train pass. I’d sit down and the next train would come, and I’d let it go. The third train would come and I’d let it go.

I’d get on the next train and make my way to 59th street to get on that famous A train into Brooklyn and I’d let one pass. I’d look at the clock and I’d let another one pass, and I’d look again and perhaps I’d need to let a third pass. I wouldn’t get on the train until I was fairly confident that I could get to Brooklyn late enough not to have to participate in the service. I’d make that slow walk down to the church, walk in and sit in the back. Afterward I’d tell the minister, “Doc, I’m sorry, the train.”

I was still committed to ministry, but my idea of God was changing radically. It went from the idea of a god who breaks into human history and makes things happen to a god who works by persuasion, what my mother described as that small, still voice, attempting to get us to do the right thing. I was moving from this kind of evangelical fundamentalist position to something more along the lines of the social gospel, but it still wasn’t getting it done.

I was still going to be in ministry, but I had to figure out a way to do this. My model eventually became Adam Clayton Powell Jr., for whom the church and theology were about sociopolitical and economic change.

Divinity school

My church family thought I had the answers, but I had questions, questions I couldn’t share because the minister is supposed to know the answers, or know to get them. So I had to leave, and I wanted to go to a place where my sense of ministry would not matter at all, where it was about learning and critical thinking skills, so I decided Harvard Divinity School was the place to go because they didn’t really care about Jesus.

When I told church family that I was thinking about going to Harvard Divinity School, they’d ask, “Why do you want to go to the cemetery?” They didn’t say “seminary;” it was “cemetery,” where good religious ideas go to die.

I was a youth minister at a small church in Roxbury, in Boston. They were just integrating some of the public housing there, like the Mary Ellen McCormack development. A clear marker of economic need was the park across the street from the church. It had metal nets on the basketball hoops, which cut fingers and required tetanus shots. The park was home to kids having fun but also home to drug deals and prostitution.

I asked the minister what we could do in the context of our preaching to make a difference. He told me, “Pinn, let the people get happy with you.” But I’m not happy, because I’m not making a difference. Young people from the church are literally dying. They can’t get out of gang activity because of where they live.

James Baldwin said, growing up in Harlem, that it became clear to him that you had to belong to something. You couldn’t survive in that environment without belonging to something. He said, “You could belong to the drug dealers, you could belong to the pimps, or you could belong to the church. I’ll pick the church.”

I had nothing to say that made a difference, and I beat myself up for a long time and then realized that it wasn’t me; it was this faith that had nothing to contribute to the life circumstances of these folks, nothing that would make a damn difference in how they lived Monday through Saturday. It wasn’t me; it was the faith.

I’m wrestling with this, trying desperately to hold onto something of theism, but it reached a point where I had to make a decision. Do the people matter, or is it the tradition that matters? I decided the people matter most. There were lots of things I was willing to be, but I was not going to be a hypocrite. I could no longer stand in the pulpit preaching what I did not believe.

I contacted the minister and said, “I’m done. I won’t be on the staff anymore, I just can’t do it.” I’ve got to think; I’ve got to process; I’ve got to figure out what religion is and if it can matter in any shape or form. I contacted my bishop and surrendered my ordination. I said, “I’m no longer involved in AME ministry.”

It didn’t matter to me what people thought because I had to live with integrity. It didn’t matter to me if I lost family or friends. I had to live in the world in a way that I could respect. I had to be true to what my grandmother told me, “Move through the world knowing your footsteps matter.”

I remained interested in religion. It was a force that needed to be wrestled with and understood as a cultural development that shaped world events in some profound ways. From my perspective, if we could get people to think critically about the world, we were set. If we could give them effective communication strategies, they could make some things happen. That was my next phase.

I’d finished the Ph.D. and spent time trying to understand this all and give greater attention to the ways in which humanism and atheism have influenced life in the United States beyond white folks. It was a bit of a novel thought, that you folks don’t own this. But it surprised people, so I needed to spend time understanding the nature and meaning of religion, how this functions — religion particularly, in the form of theism. I also wanted to give attention to how atheism and humanism function within the context of racial minorities.

I’d left the church, but I’d entered a much larger community, kind of nebulous in nature, but a larger community. I was convinced from that moment forward that humanists and atheists, even within my African-American communities, are legion.

Thank you. So I think we have time to chat, yes?

Audience questions

Q. I’ve often wondered why blacks seem to be interested in religion out of proportion to their numbers. Is it history, and slavery, or a feeling of hopelessness or hopefulness or what?

A. I knew this question was coming. It’s not always first, because folks typically have to kind of warm up to it, but I always get this question. There are two things I want to say on this. First, we have to think in more complex ways concerning religion. I want to make a distinction between religion, which is a kind of binding together, and theism.

From my perspective, the real problem is theism, not religion. They overlap but are not identical. There are a variety of reasons why African-Americans over time would embrace theism. One, folks with power had it, and if these folks with power had this thing, maybe this thing could get African-Americans something.

There are pragmatic reasons for embracing it, but we cannot forget that although Christianity within the context of African-American communities, and the U.S. in much larger terms, has done a lot of damage, there are ways in which, in a rather flat way, it spurred a demand for personhood.

You cannot take away from the Christian faith in African-American communities the slave revolts. Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser — all ministers. So it’s an incomplete process that forces them to surrender something of themselves, but there are ways in which it involved a push for personhood.

Let’s also think about it this way: There would be little reason for African-Americans to assume that humanism and atheism provide a softer landing place. I hear so many humanists and atheists celebrating Thomas Jefferson. “This is one of our dudes; he’s one of us.” But as soon as you say that, you have linked humanism to slavery. This is the man who says “This far, but no further,” because freeing slaves will mess up Virginia and mess up the nation. Again, as soon as you embrace him, you’ve linked humanism to slavery.

Too many humanists and atheists believe disbelief, nontheism, is a prophylactic against nonsense. Because I don’t believe in religion, I cannot be guilty of racism, classism, sexism or homophobia. This is a problem because it doesn’t allow us to take these issues seriously.

And African-American nonbelievers are in the shadows looking at you wrestling with these issues in an inadequate fashion. So give them an alternative, give racial minorities in the United States a soft landing place, which involves doing more than just critiquing the traditions they’re leaving. Give them something positive.

Q. Where can I get your reading list for any of the classes you teach? I’m really interested in what you’ve studied.

A. Email me at [email protected] and identify the conversation in the subject line. I’m much better at email and text messages than phone calls, I’m a text messaging pro.

Q. I wanted to bring up the subject that the gentlemen did earlier, about African-Americans being disproportionately religious. I was wondering about a way to get more minorities in general to come out of the closet. It seems particularly rough for minorities to come out of the closet. I’d like to to come up with a better way of recruiting.

A. It seems to me, and I think there’s evidence to support this, that the churches in the context of the United States declined numerically after the civil rights movement, and that’s not just black churches. In terms of black churches, there was an upswing in the 1980s, in part because the black middle class hit the ceiling. They played by the rules after the civil rights movement, went to the schools that they were told they needed to go to, moved into the neighborhoods they were told they needed to move to, played by the rules. Still, they couldn’t capture the American dream.

It reaches a point mid-1980s, and they say, forget this. They’ve lost cultural connections; they’ve lost social networks. So they decide they’re going to reconnect and the way to reconnect easily is to join a church. You get cultural connection and opportunities for kids to learn something about African-American culture. You get social networking. You get business networks.

Now, lots of these folks join and understand that the sermon is the price they pay for these connections, but they’re not buying what the minister is saying. We don’t really know how many African-Americans are “sure enough” theists. We know how they respond to surveys, but we don’t really know because they’re in these churches for a variety of reasons.

If we want them to come out, give them a soft place to land. That soft place has to allow more than just a critique of the traditions they’re leaving. Meet their needs, give them networks and give them a sense of community. It also means folks who dominate these organizations have to be able to give something up.

You have to recognize that you have to break free of illusions. Privilege comes in two forms — soft, and what I would reference as hard. The soft forms of privilege are the ones we typically forget, but think about it this way. When you go to buy a car, and you’re deciding on how much to spend and what model to get, do you ever take into consideration how often you’d be followed by police if you get a certain vehicle? I do. Because a luxury vehicle is going to expose me to “driving while black,” and white friends don’t always notice this.

I’m driving down Highway 45 in Houston and police officers are running the plates behind me. They don’t leave until, darn, the plates are clean. There are things that not every U.S. citizen has to take into consideration. If you go into a restaurant, and they seat you near the restrooms, what reasons go through your mind? I’ll tell you what goes through my mind!

Soft forms of privilege, things you don’t have to worry about, but things that racial minorities in the U.S., of necessity, out of survival, have to be concerned about. So recognize these forms of privilege, work through these forms of privilege and their ramifications. Understand something about the communities you want in your organizations. Humanists and atheists are people who read, so read something about Africa-Americans, and learn something about us.

And then African-Americans might be interested.

Freedom From Religion Foundation