The Humanist Hour #92: Dr. Anthony B. Pinn

THH92

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In this month’s show, Todd and Kim interview Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, a member of the American Humanist Association Board of Directors, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, and Director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies. He is a prolific author and public intellectual working at the intersections of African-American religion, constructive theology, and humanist thought.

The issues and topics covered by Dr. Pinn include his newest book, an autobiography titled Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist; redemptive suffering; the relationship between humanism, hip hop, and jazz; the concept of theodicy; the issues of diversity in the humanist movement—including suggestions to make improvements; how sex and the human body are seen as shameful by many religious adherents; and more.

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Transcript: The Humanist Hour #92: Dr. Anthony B. Pinn


Todd Stiefel:  Let’s get ready to — Welcome to The Humanist Hour.  And this month’s episode we will be talking about voyeur Jesus, the God on the throne, and you can decide which kind of throne, and complex subjectivity.

Kim Wellington:  Also on this month’s broadcast, what Jesus did with his penis, a eulogy for God, and humanism and hip-hop.  Our guest this month, Dr. Anthony B. Pinn.

Todd Stiefel:  Welcome to The Humanist Hour.  I’m Todd.

Kim Wellington:  I’m Kim.

Todd Stiefel:  So, how’s it going, Kim?  What’s going on with you and your side of the world?  You know, like a mile away from here.

Kim Wellington:  My side of the world?

Todd Stiefel:  Your side of the lake.

Kim Wellington:  Yes, that’s true, right?  My side of the lake is going pretty well.  We had the crazy snow.  I think probably everybody has seen the picture of the burning car in Raleigh, North Carolina, burning in the snow.

Todd Stiefel:  Snowpocalypse.

Kim Wellington:  Yes, the snowpocalypse.  But it was gone two days later.  This is one thing I love about the state, is — it was 70 today, so snowpocalypse is officially over, Todd, and we’re all right, we’re safe again.

Todd Stiefel:  Yehey.  We survived.  Although I did hear the Viking apocalypse is this weekend.  Just for the record, we’ve already had the Mayan missed, the Christians were wrong with the whole Harold Camping thing, but the Vikings, Thor is going to mess some stuff up this weekend, folks.

Kim Wellington:  Yes.  Everybody’s going down on Saturday.

Todd Stiefel:  Yes.

Kim Wellington:  Are you ready?

Todd Stiefel:  Everyone’s going down or just the Norse gods?

Kim Wellington:  Oh, I think just the Norse gods.  I identify with them very much apparently.

Todd Stiefel:  Indeed.

Kim Wellington:  I’m actually going to be at a summit for Camp Quest on Saturday so maybe I’ll wear my Viking helmet.

Todd Stiefel:  Nice.

Kim Wellington:  Yes.  I’m excited.

Todd Stiefel:  You should be wearing a helmet.  Because when Thor comes cracking that hammer, you need to all the protection you’re going to get.

Kim Wellington:  Yes, I do.  That’s funny.  Yes, I’m scared.

Todd Stiefel:  There’s some good news this month.  There’s actually a couple of pieces of good news but one interesting thing going on, which I guess the fact that it is going on is not good news but the fact that so far we’ve been winning is good, is there’s been a whole slew of these “right to discriminate” laws — I mean, I’m sorry, “right to religious freedom” laws going on.  What are your thoughts on this, Kim?

Kim Wellington:  Oh my goodness.  Well, the first thing — I mean, I guess probably most folks know that Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in the federal government have proposed a bill that will actually nullify any state legal same-sex marriages when they enter a state that does not have marriage equality.  Okay?  So, the funniest response I thought of is — well, funny not in the ha-ha way but funny as in, “well done, that was very clever,” was a meme that went around that said, “My civil rights shouldn’t change with my zip code.”  And I was like, you know, that is — I like that.  I wish I was clever enough to come up with that stuff on my own, but I was like, good on you.  Seriously, Ted Cruz?  But, yes, Todd, the good news is that five different states this week either polled before voting or vetoed bills allowing discrimination.  And I don’t understand, no matter what your background is, I don’t understand how you can mistake religious freedom and discrimination.

Todd Stiefel:  Because it’s useful.  So, if you’re on the side that wants to discriminate, then intentionally confusing the two is a useful strategy.  That has been working, sort of, but — as one of the articles I was reading about this topic was saying like, “You know, anybody who votes for this might want to reconsider, because if you want to get any votes from anyone under the age of 50 and a whole slew of people over 50, you’ve got to think about the demographics, because everyone in this country that’s young, just about, is opposed to legalized religious discrimination.”  And it’s true.

I mean, these are very short-term political maneuverings that I think are really just about trying to galvanize the base of religious conservatives and kind of the last throes of pushback because they’ve lost.  They’ve lost morally, they’ve lost historically — and, yes, is the gay rights movement over and in complete victory?  No.  But the reality is they know it.  I mean, I — heck, it was even a year ago I had lunch with the president from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary right over in your part of town and a couple of other people there, and they flat out admitted it, like, “Yes, we know we’ve lost,” like, all the indicator show the popular opinion has turned, it’s over.  It’s just a matter of time now.

It’s like, well — and so, I asked, “If it’s over, why are you wasting so much time and money continuing to try to strip people of their rights?  Why don’t you put the money into poverty or education or something that could actually help the world?”  “Oh, no, no.  We can’t give up that easily.”  And I think that’s what a lot of this stuff is about still, it’s just like we can’t give up, we’ve got to keep trying to nail these people and make their lives difficult.

Kim Wellington:  Well, then I’m glad that better senses prevailed.  At least Kansas was the big one this week.  That was kind of like the final, “Woo-hoo.  Okay, let’s put all this to rest.”  Now, they do keep popping up.  They pop up here and I think Arizona has one right now, but it’s like Whac-A-Mole, they pop up and hopefully — I’d like to say the constitution but — and actually it’s a has-been because they’re not going to stand up to judicial scrutiny, so we’ll Whac-A-Mole them right back down again.

Todd Stiefel:  Yes, I got an alert this morning actually from Americans United for Separation of Church and State about one of these that’s popped up in Georgia, and I was looking through the actual law itself and it’s crazy.  I mean, the law itself says basically you have the right to ignore every law as long as it’s part of your sincerely held religious belief that ignoring it is okay.  And this one, it wasn’t just like LGBT specific.  It was just kind of like broad base.  And yes, there’s like a little exemption, like if the state can prove — and with the burden on the state, by the way — that a certain law has to be followed because it’s in the best interest of the state, then, okay.  But the burden is on the state, so, I’m sure murder wouldn’t get allowed, but basically this would give people the right at the state level to violate any kind of law if there’s a religious belief.  So, up to and including it would seem — and I’m not a lawyer but from my quick reading of it, it would seem like in this state this law would allow someone to deny serving food to an atheist or a humanist if they wanted to.  Now, of course, federal law would supersede that and the Civil Rights Act of ’64 would take precedent but it’s just kind of scary that they’re passing laws that are directly contradictory to the Civil Rights Act.  This is like –

Kim Wellington:  It wasn’t that long ago.  You don’t even have to look that far back in history.  There’s some kind of understanding that people maybe don’t want to look back 100 or 200 years, but for goodness’ sake, the Civil Rights Movement was in the lifetimes of so many people that are alive right now.  You know, my parents, good gracious, they lived through the ‘60s, they fought for this stuff and here they are, we’re back at it again with these people.  But we keep fighting and we keep winning, so that’s good.

Todd Stiefel:  That is good.  And momentum is on our side, and fortunately the majority of the country is now on our side.  These people are — some people just can’t give up their hate.  And it’s sad but it’s a good thing at least these ones we’ve been winning so far, and we’ll keep Whac-A-Moling.

Kim Wellington:  Yes, smacking them down.  Well, what’s up with you?  What you’ve been working on this week?  What you seen that’s good?

Todd Stiefel:  Well, there is a big thing I’m working on, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet.  I can’t reveal that.  Maybe next month’s episode.

Kim Wellington:  Oh, a teaser.  I like it.

Todd Stiefel:  Yes, a teaser.

Kim Wellington:  You’re not even going to tell me, are you?  I can tell from your voice.  I don’t even get the inside track here, do I?

Todd Stiefel:  Okay.  I’ll tell you just the topic.  I’ve been putting a lot of effort into the OUT Campaign of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and we’re going to be dramatically increasing it this year, amplifying it and expanding it.  I can’t say anything else yet, but that’s where a lot of my energy has been going lately.

Kim Wellington:  Excellent.  Well, you and I are out, I think.

Todd Stiefel:  I think I am.

Kim Wellington:  Yes, I’m pretty sure.

Todd Stiefel:  I’m definitely out as a humanist at this point.  Hard to jump back in that closet.

Kim Wellington:  Yes.  Not that we were ever really in it.

Todd Stiefel:  No, no.  So, one big piece of news for AHA and that our listeners might be interested, because this affects this particular show, is that AHA has launched a new godless media outlet — I love the PR writing around that press release.  I’m sure that got a lot more attention to the media because of it.  But essentially AHA has launched the TheHumanist.com which is now live and offers daily original reporting, commentary on issues, articles from people like Greta Christina and Rob Boston, and all sorts of just cool information and news there, including under the multimedia section, The Humanist Hour.  So, that is our new home on the AHA’s website.  So, that’s pretty cool.

Kim Wellington:  That is very cool.  So, we can get all of our — I don’t know, godless or god-free?  I think that’s probably a debate for those who are more versed in semantics that I am, but I’m also unicorn-less and I am leprechaun-less.

Todd Stiefel:  Exactly.  So, yes, all sorts of old shows are on there, going back to Dar Williams, E.O. Wilson, Salman Rushdie, we have episodes with him on there, Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson.  So, yes, go check it out, check out some of the previous episodes and enjoy.

Kim Wellington:  Some of those even pre-date you and I, huh?  Can you imagine?

Todd Stiefel:  Yes.  As a matter of fact, the page is up right now, coincidentally, Episode 59, Introducing Todd Stiefel.

Kim Wellington:  Very nice.  Here you are.

Todd Stiefel:  So, yes, the 58 episodes before me.  I’m still like the new guy.  I feel like the old guy sometimes here.  But, yes, gosh, we’re up to episode 91 now.  I guess this current one is episode 92, how about that?

Kim Wellington:  Excellent.  Oh, that’s exciting.  Well, Todd, I have one more piece of very good news that I would like to share this week.  If anybody was following, right here in North Carolina, we had a young lady named Kalei Wilson who tried to start — she and her brother, Ben, tried to start a Secular Student Alliance in their high school, the Pisgah High School in Canton, North Carolina.  And her brother, Ben, has left the school, but she continued to fight and in spite of being told — in spite of there being, I believe, it was at least 30 other clubs in the school, she was told repeatedly that there was no place for Secular Student Alliance, that it didn’t really fit in there and that there was nobody who would sponsor it, and she kept on, and with the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Secular Student Alliance and the ACLU of North Carolina, she prevailed.  And probably with the amount of publicity that it got, it helped a little bit, but they now have a sponsor, two teachers stepped up to offer and then I guess, one actually took the job and they can have an SSA in Pisgah High School.

Todd Stiefel:  I think the good news on these kinds of things and for all the students out there listening, the law is on your side if you want to start a group.  So, my guess is the school kept saying no, and once the ACLU and FFRF sent their letter, the lawyers took a look at it and went, “Oh, yeah.  We’re going to lose really, really, really badly, and lots of legal fees, and then we’ll lose our jobs.”  So, yes, if you’re a student and you want to start a CFI On Campus Group or a Secular Student Alliance group, you are totally allowed to.  And if you can’t find a faculty sponsor, that’s tough luck for the school, they tried to use that as an excuse, but they can’t, they are required by law to assign you one, at least for my understanding of it.  So, you will win this fight.  So, if you want to fight your administration and win and get to gloat about it, that’s always something fun you can do.

Kim Wellington:  Indeed it is.  And for her work, Kalei, who has — it’s been over a year now, I believe, that they’ve been fighting this, to recognize her, Camp Quest South Carolina has awarded her a full campership to Camp Quest South Carolina this year.  So, that’s a nice — I’m sure that’s the first of many accolades coming her way.

Todd Stiefel:  Hurray for recognition and successful activism.  Cheers to you, Kalei.

Kim Wellington:  Yes.  No matter how old you are or how young you are, you can always stand up for what needs to happen in this world.

Todd Stiefel:  Speaking of students, SSA groups and activism at that level, would you like to tell our listeners a little bit about our guest this month, and somebody who does a lot of work with students actually?

Kim Wellington:  I would.  We have, very happily, Dr. Anthony B. Pinn this month.  Dr. Pinn is a Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University.  And I have seen several of his speeches, talking to SSA and other folks.  He’s an amazing speaker.  He is also the Founder and Executive Director for The Center for Research and Collaborative Learning.  And he’ll speak to us today about those things as well as being the Director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies, which is right near me in Washington, D.C.

Todd Stiefel:  Anthony Pinn who we will call Tony, welcome to the show.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Well, thank you.  It’s a delight.

Todd Stiefel:  It’s excellent to have you here.  We actually have a lot to talk about.   I was thinking we would just read the names of all of your books to our listeners but then we’d only have like a minute to do the bio because you’ve published about a hundred thousand books so far.  I think your book from this week is, or two weeks ago is your latest book — you’re on pace for what, once a month, is it?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Not quite but I appreciate that.

Todd Stiefel:  But you do have a brand new book, so I thought it would be cool to start out talking about that.  So, your newest book is Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist.  Tell our listeners a little bit about it.

Anthony B. Pinn:  It’s my intellectual autobiography to some of the highlights.  I started preaching when I was around the age of 12.  Long before I could vote, I was in the pulpit convincing people that they needed Jesus to avoid hellfire.  And so, I kind of moved folks through that early phase and give them a sense of why that no longer worked for me.  A lot of theists assume that I left the church and became an atheist because I asked for something and didn’t get it, right?  That I prayed for something and God didn’t grant it.  It’s really not that simple.  It’s more compelling than that.  It’s because it didn’t work for other people.

I’ll give you one example.  When I was a graduate student, I worked at a church in Roxbury in Boston, a rather economically challenged area.  And across from the church was a park, and in this park drug deals took place, prostitution took place, and my church had very little to say about those circumstances that was really substantive.  We prayed about it but we did nothing to help these young people.  And these were young people at the church who had an easier time thinking about their deaths and their eulogies than thinking about a bright and productive future, and that troubled me.  Here was a faith that had nothing, nothing, nothing useful to say to folks who were facing that kind of tragedy, that kind of despair, and I just had to let it go.

Kim Wellington:  It’s interesting that you said that you were preaching hellfire.  I guess, because I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire and there was actually a Methodist church there, and I don’t know if it’s just my experience but I don’t think of Methodist and hellfire together too often.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Oh, I was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and there was something that was a bit about evangelical about our approach, so hellfire was real for us.  That produced the urgency, right?  In the pulpit, you’re facing all of these folks who are in jeopardy, that if they don’t get themselves right, they will face eternal punishment, eternal damnation from a loving God.  And so, that was a big deal for us.  It was not a matter of, “I’m OK, you’re OK.”

Kim Wellington:  So, what is God’s obituary?  How did that one start?

Anthony B. Pinn:  The title or the book.

Kim Wellington:  The title.

Anthony B. Pinn:  I see my story kind of tied to the end of God’s story.  It’s a kind of eulogy for God but also a kind of celebration of new life for me and for those like me.  I kind of think about this intellectual autobiography of the way the great American thinker, W. E.B. Du Bois thought about his autobiography.  I’m in no way in his class but I think about this the same way, that for him his personal story was an example of a larger story.  And so, I see my personal story, my movement from theism to atheism as an example of a larger movement.  There are a lot of African Americans like me who’ve made this transition.  And my story just says something about their story, it says something about not only the loss of this idea of God but the gaining of a greater sense of ourselves, a greater sense of our humanity and what we do in the world.

My grandmother sent me off to college with these words, she said, “Move through the world knowing your footsteps matter.”  And for my perspective, this movement from theism to atheism made that real, that it gave me a way of recognizing my obligations and my responsibilities in the world, that there was nothing beyond human history pointing its finger at us and pulling the strings, but it was a matter of what we do to make a difference in the world.  So, what my grandmother said to me has a different weight, has a different importance now that I’m God free.

Todd Stiefel:  How much did theodicy lead you down that path?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Ah, theodicy, yes.  Theodicy has always been a prime concern for me, the issue of what can you say about God in light of human suffering in the world, the moral evil issue.  And as a theist, as a minister, I wrestled with this and argued that God is on the throne, all is well.  That at the end of the day, God is going to make a difference.  But this question kept pushing, it kept pushing.  And with time, my response that God is making a difference just had no historical evidence.  But this was a fundamental question for me, not on the personal level again, but what’s taking place with groups?  What is happening with those who suffer most in the United States and what does theism really offer them with respect to this issue of theodicy?  And I reached a conclusion that it offered them very little, if anything.

Todd Stiefel:  I’m sorry, I’ve got to take a quick aside, because you started that by saying God is on the throne, and I just got this image of a white bearded guy on the toilet.  It’s like, I don’t think you meant that throne though.

Anthony B. Pinn:  No, not that throne.  Not that throne.

Todd Stiefel:  I mean, I agree with you.  I think — it was something I struggled with back in my religious days as well.  It’s like, how do you — and I struggle with it now when I see some of these heartbreaking pictures — for example, these hurricane pictures that people whose homes were destroyed in the Philippines where their houses are just — not just their houses, their whole villages are completely wiped out by what they believe to be God’s wrath, and yet it makes their faith even stronger.  And I think it was — there was this one particular photo, one — I think it was like the AP Photo of the Year contest, and these people, behind them is just gone, there’s nothing left, and they’re carting out their most prized possessions and their religious relics.  And it’s like — it boggles my mind.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Right.

Todd Stiefel:  And so, I’m curious as to your opinion, why do those people become even more entrenched in their faith at these points rather than taking on that theodicy question of, “Wait a minute.  I’m saving these relics from the God that just nuked my house.”

Anthony B. Pinn:  Desperation and a deep fear of nihilism.  From their perspective, if there is no God who provides an overarching meaning for the world that makes sense out of the absurdity we encounter, then all is lost.  For them, all is lost.  So, there’s got to be something, there’s got to be something.  And faith becomes the Band-Aid.  It becomes a way of acknowledging that this really doesn’t make much sense to us.  This tragedy doesn’t make much sense to us.  That there’re issues of class and economics here that are in play but — and it doesn’t make sense to us but there’s God who has a different logic and will ultimately work this out.  From their perspective, it seems to me, that maintaining this faith provides a certain type of hope, it isn’t grounded, but a certain type of hope against nihilism.

I prefer to move in a different direction.  I think there’s something wonderful in a phrase by the existentialist Albert Camus, “We have to imagine Sisyphus happy.”  Here, you have this dude who’s rolling the stone up the hill knowing that it’s going to come back down.  He’s just going to keep doing this but there’s something there, we have to imagine him happy.  That is to say, rather than assuming that we have guaranteed outcomes, again, that this idea that God is on the throne and all is well, or in the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Rather than those ungrounded guarantees, we ought to be content with the idea of struggle.  We try to make a difference in the world, we confront the absurdities of life and try to make a difference, recognizing that it may not work out for us but it’s what we can do.

Kim Wellington:  I’ve watched several of your YouTube videos that are posted and one of the things I found interesting, I grew up without religion at all, so the concept of, I think you called it “redemptive suffering” has been fascinating to me.  And you had quite a few things to say about that that I thought was interesting from — and now that I know that you were a Methodist and that was the only kind of church in my town, I’m even more interested.

Anthony B. Pinn:  It goes back to this issue of theodicy.  And my argument has been within the context of theism, a dominant response has been this redemptive suffering argument, “no cross, no crown” is one way it gets phrased, that it’s through this suffering that God brings about a major difference.  And this can happen in several ways.  For theists, this redemptive suffering argument can really outline a sense of pedagogy, that we’ve done something wrong and God has to correct us so that we can be better people.  It can be justified punishment.  We really screwed up and this is what we get for really screwing up.  Or it can be a matter of thinking, “Well, this is a result of evil forces trying to keep me from getting my blessings but I’m going to stay in line because this just demonstrates, this suffering I’m encountering demonstrates that I must be in line with God’s will because evil forces are trying to distract me.”

And again, it seems to me this has been a dominant response, redemptive suffering.  It’s been a dominant response in the part of theists when they want to maintain a deep and abiding commitment to a sense of a God who is loving, kind, just, and compassionate, but they’re continuously encountering moral evil, something has to give.  And the way to hold together the major pieces of those two realities is to say something wonderful can come out of this suffering.

Todd Stiefel:  So, how do you combat that kind of mental shield?  Because that’s the way I kind of see things like that, it’s a way of shielding your mind from its own questions.  How do you help people see that and how do you combat it, if at all?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Well, there’s a difficulty here in that theology is flexible.  That you can make the Bible say whatever you want the Bible to say and theology can be manipulated to provide whatever message you’re interested in.  It’s particularly difficult for Christians because the major highlight of their story involves redemptive suffering.  Jesus the Christ coming and sacrificing self for the greater good, and Christians are supposed to be Christ-like, so the idea that suffering is redemptive is unavoidable in that context.  It seems to me one thing to do is to work to humanize Jesus and to kind of think about this differently.

So, there are theologians for example who argue that, “Well, there’s a different way to think about this Christ event, a different way to think about the cross.”  We might want to understand this as a huge indicator that people can screw up a good thing.  Here you have this guy who’s providing pretty interesting moral lessons, and what do we do?  We knock him off, right?  So, from their perspective, the lesson in the passion of Christ is not a positive lesson, nothing we need to imitate, but it’s a matter of humility, recognizing that we have to be careful because we can screw good stuff up.  It seems to me that’s a move in the right direction for folks who are going to maintain the theism, understand the Christ event is a negative lesson, not a positive lesson, nothing we need to imitate but something we need to avoid.

Todd Stiefel:  I think that makes a lot of sense.  Now, your areas of expertise in study have revolved around African American religion and African American humanism.  Do you see kind of any distinct differences in this redemptive suffering theology between African American religion versus European American religion?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Well, it seems to me there is a major difference, and this major difference is context, in that African American religion pulls from a history of enslavement and dehumanization that takes place in a particular way.  And so, it seems to me within the context of African American communities and African American humanism or African American theism, it kind of draws from this experience that is rather unique, this experience of slavery and continued dehumanization based upon a particular understanding of race.  And I think the issue for people of European descent is a bit different.  That while there might be difficulties encountered by people of European descent, by and large, this difficulty has never involved a full on questioning of their humanity.

Todd Stiefel:  Right, that makes a lot of sense.  Something else that is one of your major kind of areas of interest is theological issues involving the body.  Can you tell me more about that?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Yes.  My thing is in the study of religion and the practice of religion, the body has been missing for the most part.  That it’s been a matter of ideas without any real attention to our embodied bodies, this thing that is born, lives, and dies.  Within the context of religious communities, I see this being the case to the extent that religious communities have done such a horrible job in terms of issues of sexuality.  They’ve done a horrible job with respect to how one goes about informing young people on sex and sexuality.  And so, when I was growing up in the church, it was not uncommon for us to be told, and then as a minister, this was my first response as well, it wasn’t uncommon for young people to be told, “Look, do whatever you want to do sexually knowing that Jesus is in the room.”  Now, what kind of a response is this?

Kim Wellington:  Eew.

Todd Stiefel:  That’s creepy.

Anthony B. Pinn:  You know, what kind of a response is this?  But we did such a poor job of dealing with issues of sexuality, so it’s still uncommon in Christian circles to have healthy and productive conversations concerning masturbation, for example.  Even images of Jesus for the most part don’t represent him as having a penis, right?  So, it becomes extremely difficult then for Christians to have a conversation concerning what Jesus may have done with his penis, who may have been pleasured by this penis, or who may have pleasured him based upon this penis.  This is not a part of their iconography, it’s not a part of the conversation.  And my thing is this, if the study of religion is going to have any substance, going to have any meaning, it’s got to take seriously the fact that we move through this world as embodied beings, and that this embodied being and how it occupies time and space is the starting point and the end point for all religious and nonreligious conversations.

Todd Stiefel:  It’s alpha and omega, if you will.

Anthony B. Pinn:  There you go.

Todd Stiefel:  I do find that whole concept fascinating and disturbing, the whole idea of Jesus is watching you in the bedroom.  Is that referred to as the voyeur Jesus theology?

Anthony B. Pinn:  It should’ve been.  You know, when I was growing up, we just thought, oh, this is a clever response.  This will keep those sexual urges in check.  No one wants to be in this room with Jesus wagging his finger at them.

Kim Wellington:  Or anything else.

Anthony B. Pinn:  There you go.

Todd Stiefel:  If Jesus can watch, so can you.

Anthony B. Pinn:  But just an example of how churches misrepresent issues and don’t deal adequately with basic human urges and needs.

Kim Wellington:  Yes.  There are too many blanks to fill in.  It’s almost a childlike — you know, kids, they’re going to go figure it out on their own if you don’t give them something to work with, and without a good solid life experience worth of data, then you’re not going to figure things out right, or if you do, it’s probably going to be by chance.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Yes, yes.  And to the extent that religious communities see themselves as helping people move through the world in ways that are productive, how do you not address these sorts of basic issues?

Kim Wellington:  One of the things that you do is the director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies.  Do you find that your thoughts on that are actually 180 degrees — I’m sorry, the work that you do is at 180 degrees from what you learned as Jesus as a threesome?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Oh, yes.  Worlds apart.  Worlds apart.  But deeply consistent with what I do as a scholar of religion and humanism.  My thing is this — I study religion not because I have any personal allegiance to theistic faith claims but simply because religion has been an extremely powerful cultural development.  It has shaped how people understand themselves, how they understand the world, how they understand their interactions with the world, and we ought to know something about this.  I also believe that humanism functions in a very similar way.  It provides a life orientation, it helps us make meaning.  Now, it can do this without the overarching idea of a God but it’s a way of making life meaningful.  And the Institute for Humanist Studies provides a way of wrestling with this.  What is the nature meaning of humanism, how does it impact folks on the individual level, and how does it impact on the level of communities, what are ways in which humanism might inform our political lives, our economic lives, our cultural and social lives.  It’s a way of unpacking this alternate life orientation.  And so, I see commonalities there.  It helps me bring dimensions of who I am together.

Kim Wellington:  In one of the interviews that I listened to with you — I wish I could give the person credit, because I don’t remember which one it was — but you actually referred to, I believe, humanism as religion.

Anthony B. Pinn:  I think it can function that way.  My argument has never been that humanism or atheism has to be understood as religion.  But here is the key, that the statement when I’ve argued that humanism functions as a religion, what’s important there is how I’m defining religion.  That I don’t understand religion as being tied to institutions, doctrines, and creeds, but I simply understand religion as a quest for complex subjectivity.  That is to say I understand religion as the human effort confined to human history, the human effort to understand who, what, when, where, why we are.  And so, from my perspective, to the extent humanism and atheism help us to understand and wrestle with who, what, when, where, and why we are, one could understand them as being religious orientations.  But again, it’s premised upon a particular definition of religion.

Todd Stiefel:  I’m a little confused by this concept of quest for complex subjectivity.  You said that’s the, who, what, when, where, and why we are.  So, — help me understand that more.

Anthony B. Pinn:  [Cross-talking].  By complex subjectivity, I mean, it’s our effort to come up with a robust, deep and complex sense of who we are as individuals and individuals within the context of community.  And by that, I mean, it’s our effort to come up with rich and complex responses to the who are we, what are we, why are we, and where are we questions, the fundamental questions of life.

Todd Stiefel:  Ah, so including like how we fit into the universe and what our role is?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Yes, yes.  All of those fundamental questions.  For me, the suggestion that humanism and atheism might qualify as religious orientations was an effort to get us to think more fully and robust and creative ways about the nature and meaning of humanism and atheism, what are they outside of ways to think about separation of church and state, for example.  What does it mean to live humanism and atheism.  It was my way of getting us to think about those sorts of questions, those dimensions of humanism and atheism.

Todd Stiefel:  As research director of Institute for Humanist Studies, what is your day-to-day role with that and what is IHS is doing right now?

Anthony B. Pinn:  As a director of research for the Institute for Humanist Studies, my primary obligations are, one, to develop and manage our annual symposium.  We bring really interesting thinkers to the Rice campus to wrestle with a particular issue.  One year we wrestled with theisms impact on public policy.  Another year we wrestled with the fundamental question, what is humanism and why does humanism matter.  Those papers given during the symposium, we publish in book form, and that’s my second responsibility.  I developed and I manage our book series.  It’s with Palgrave Macmillan, academic division of St. Martin’s Press, and we are interested in publishing books that, again, explore various dimensions of humanism, what it is and how it functions in the world.  Some of those books come out of our symposium, but we also invite proposals from folks not affiliated with the institute.

I’m also consulting editor for essays in the philosophy of humanism, and in that role, my responsibility is to help think through themes for the various issues, to help secure submissions for the journal, to help publicize the journal.  Just kind of manage its intellectual profile.  So, those are the basic responsibilities for me.

Todd Stiefel:  Do you sleep at night or do you just work all the time?

Anthony B. Pinn:  No.  I sleep.  I just try to be very careful in terms of scheduling.  So, I developed as an undergraduate of a real comfort with and a deep like for multitasking, so I’m typically working on three, four, five things simultaneously, because one project, one bit of work will feed another.  I also have some really excellent help, and so that’s been vital.  I’ve got a good group of graduate students who help me with a lot of this work.  Mrs. Maya Reine, who is the assistant director for the center I run at Rice, also helps me with some of this work.  So, I’ve got a really good team here, and this team keeps me going.

Kim Wellington:  I love that you work with the young people, with the students, and I hate that I’m not considered one of them anymore.  I hate that I have to use the word “young people.”

Todd Stiefel:  You’re a student of life, Kim.

Kim Wellington:  I am.  I am.

Anthony B. Pinn:  That counts.

Kim Wellington:  Thank you so much.  You guys make me feel better.

Todd Stiefel:  Do you get a discount at the movie theater for that?

Kim Wellington:  I think I’m closer to the one on the other edge of the spectrum [indiscernible].  But one of the interviews that I watched was a speech that you had done for the SSA actually several years ago, but it was very interesting to me because what you talked about was bringing African Americans into your group and the ways to go about doing that.  I actually learned a lot from that.  I was wondering if you could give us a few words on that since we are in the month of February which is not only Black History Month but also the month of the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers.

Anthony B. Pinn:  It seems to me that there are several things because I get this question all the time, how do we diversify?  How do we get more African Americans involved?  And it seems to me it requires at least three things.  One, it requires a real interest in diversifying.  And that real interest means not only bringing people in so that you have different shades of the same, but recognizing that in bringing folks in, you are altering what this group thinks, what this group does, the kind of projects and concerns that are in the forefront, that bringing folks in fundamentally changes everything.  And people have to be comfortable with that.

Secondly, it seems to me that we have to use the same kind of inquisitiveness that we have with everything else, we have to apply that to our interactions with African Americans, for example, so that it’s insufficient, inadequate to simply say, “I don’t know very much about that community.”  Learn something.  Know something about the people you’re interested and interacting with.  Know something about them.  There are a lot of books, a lot of articles, a lot of YouTube videos.  There are a lot of ways to learn something about this community you’re interested in.

Third, approach them based upon the issues that matter to them and recognize this will take time.  Kind of approach this based upon the issues that matter to them and recognize that this sort of relationship, this sort of collaboration will take time.

Kim Wellington:  So, Tony, what do you think of the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers?  Is that a good step for local groups to start becoming more diverse if they are not already?

Anthony B. Pinn:  I think it’s fantastic.  I think that’s a way of celebrating diversity but I don’t know that it’s a way of producing diversity.  I think actually producing diversity will be a bit more difficult to achieve.  And one of my suggestions has always been this, we may not be interested in church memberships, but there may be something to learn from them, that one of the things we might want to do if we’re interested in diversifying is study some of these organizations that seem to be doing it fairly well.  We don’t have to take their theology, we don’t have to buy their doctrines, but there’s something about their organization, there’s something about their outreach and their inreach that it’s productive, and we might want to learn something from them.

But in terms of the celebration, it’s wonderful, but creating greater diversity will require more work.  And I think one of the things that’s necessary is this, that we’ve got to give, in this case African Americans, a different experience.  That for those, for African Americans like me who left the church, simply bashing religion doesn’t get us any further.  We left the church, we understand.  But the question for us becomes, what kind of alternate community is being made available and what kind of needs will this community address?  Bashing religion in it of itself is insufficient.  We’ve got to give folks alternate ways of moving through the world.  We’ve got to give them alternate communities that celebrate and enhance their sense of humanism or atheism.  And I think this is often where we’ve fallen short.

We’re pretty good when it comes to issues of economics and politics, but not as good when it comes to issues of community, how one celebrates and arranges life, how one — and here’s the bad word — “ritualizes” life.  It seems to me that’s the kind of stuff we need to give greater attention to if we’re actually interested in diversifying.

Kim Wellington:  Does your research give you any indication as to whether that needs to start in the minority communities?  Does it have to start with black folks or is there a way for non-black folks to start or to continue, I guess, some of that work?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Well, I think there’s enough work to go around.  I think African American organizations can do some of this, but the larger movement, it seems to me, needs to rethink how it approaches issues of diversity.  So, for example, one way to do this within the larger movement is to make certain that African Americans, for example, aren’t simply invited to annual meetings to talk about race but kind of recognize that we have a range of interest and capacities.  And rather than having us come and talk about race, ask [indiscernible] to talk about race, ask some of these other folks to talk about race.  Because to the extent we don’t do that, to the extent we have racial minority talking about diversity and race, it comes across as special pleading.  It’s only a concern to those people.  But we make it an issue for the larger movement and the largest group within this movement, we make it a more expansive issue if we push beyond the usual suspects speaking about these issues.

Kim Wellington:  That makes sense.

Todd Stiefel:  Yes, that does make a lot of sense.  So, we don’t have a ton of time left in this interview but I definitely wanted to hit on something that you seemed to have a bit of a passion about, and I believe even wrote an entire book about, which is this intersection between humanism and music.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Yes, particularly hip-hop.

Todd Stiefel:  Yes.  Okay, so two things I don’t usually think of together in my associative memory patterns here is humanism and hip-hop.  There are certainly certain individuals like [indiscernible] and others who I think of in that line but kind of in the popular selling substantial amounts on iTunes or getting airplay, I don’t think of those two concepts together very much.  But do you see a lot of humanism in kind of more mainstream popular hip-hop?

Anthony B. Pinn:  I see within popular platinum level hip-hop particular humanist principle.  So, for example, take Kanye West and Jay-Z’s No Church in the Wild, so that starts out with the refrain, “What is God to a non-believer who doesn’t believe anything?”  It raises questions concerning the underpinning of authority in the Western world.  It raises a profound critique concerning these underpinnings, whether it be the church, God, political authority, it raises questions concerning those in profound ways.  Or Kanye West’s I Am a God raises really interesting questions for — or even Jesus Walks.  Christians love this, but there are ways in which that song raises questions concerning some of the moral and ethical assumptions Christians make.  All of this, I think, is really important stuff for us to investigate.

But when I first mentioned hip-hop culture and humanism, my thinking was this, we’re constantly talking about being marginalized in the larger U.S. society, and this is true, and we’ve talked about wanting to grow and expand and get the word out concerning what we offer.  My thinking was this, here you have with hip-hop culture the creativity of a rather despised population, brown and black heads in economically challenged sections of Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, et cetera, a rather marginal community that has taken their creativity and made it global.  For me, there may be lessons embedded in how hip-hop culture has developed and grown, there may be lessons embedded in that that could be of use to humanists as we try to expand and grow.  So, you know, I wasn’t telling folks they needed to let their pants sag or wear their baseball caps backwards.  I was simply saying that there are some structural insights, some branding insights that hip-hop offers us and we ought to take them seriously.

Todd Stiefel:  What are some of those insights you think we might be able to leverage ourselves?

Anthony B. Pinn:  One, that our language, our vocabulary and grammar, how we talk about humanism needs to be organic.  That is to say, it needs to draw from the insights, the vocabulary, the signs, the symbols of a given community.  It’s got to be flexible enough to be able to speak to different segments of the population, whereas we tend to operate based upon a one-size-fits-all model, but it’s got to be organic, it’s got to grow out of the sensibilities and it’s got to grow out of the language of given communities.  It seems to me if we start with that, we might gain some ground.

Kim Wellington:  And I was thinking you have a great opportunity to inspire the students that you work with to use their own communities as students and then go back to wherever they are or go forward to wherever they’re going to and bring that message in words that perhaps someone my age wouldn’t be able, as flexible enough to do.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Right.  That we’ve got to speak in a way that is sensitive to the audience, and I think that’s an important lesson we can learn from hip-hop, speak in a way that makes sense to the audience.

Todd Stiefel:  I think that makes a ton of sense.  Now, did you see similar things when you’ve looked at the blues and humanism?

Anthony B. Pinn:  One of the things that I think humanists ought to take away from the blues is the earthiness.  That’s extremely important.  The kind of earthiness, a recognition that we are embodied bodies moving through the world.  I think that’s extremely important.  But even more important than that, it seems to me one of the things we ought to take away from the blues is the kind of measured realism that humanist have drawn from the enlightenment a kind of hyper-optimism with respect to human capacity and capability.  And the blues helps us to get some perspective on this, and that perspective involves the recognition that we often screw stuff up, that our progress is not inevitable, that we have the capacity to really screw things up in profound ways, and we’ve got to be sensitive to that.  That it seems to me that we often as humanists share a kind of hyper-optimism with theists.  Now, theirs is grounded in God, ours is often grounded in science, a kind of truncated sense of science.  The blues teaches us that to the extent there are people involved, we may get it wrong.  But we ought to struggle, we ought to work to make a difference, not because we have guaranteed outcomes but rather because it’s what we can do.

Todd Stiefel:  We’ve got to pay our dues.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Yes.

Kim Wellington:  And Tony, one of the things that Todd and I like to do is we usually find a good quote to end our segments with, and the one that I found that’s been sticking with me since I started finding out who you were and finding out more about you was actually my humanism comes from you this week and that is, “that the human is the measure of all things,” and I think that speaks very well to everything that you were just talking about.  So, I’m taking that with me this week [indiscernible].  Because [cross-talking].

Anthony B. Pinn:  And I actually borrowed that.

Kim Wellington:  You did?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Yes.  Yes.  I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.

Kim Wellington:  Nice.  And who would that be?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Well, with this, Corliss Lamont.

Kim Wellington:  Oh, okay.  Well, thank you, Corliss Lamont via Tony.

Todd Stiefel:  Tony, is there anything else you want to talk about before we go?

Anthony B. Pinn:  No.  I mean, I really appreciate the opportunity to chat with you both.  I really enjoyed it.

Todd Stiefel:  Yes, it’s been a fun conversation.

Kim Wellington:  Yes, we did too.  Yes.  I can’t wait to get into your books.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Well, you’re very kind.  Thank you.

Todd Stiefel:  Next time we bump into each other at a conference or something, we’ll have to get a drink and listen to some music together.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Oh, that sounds great.  We’ll have to do that.

Kim Wellington:  I love the blues.  Me too, can I come?

Anthony B. Pinn:  Of course.

Todd Stiefel:  Absolutely.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Of course.

Todd Stiefel:  And Jesus will be watching.  Thanks so much for being on the show, Tony.

Anthony B. Pinn:  Oh, my pleasure.  Thank you.

Todd Stiefel:  That was great.  Thank you to Tony Pinn for being on the show this month.  I thought that was an interesting interview.  As a matter of fact, I had like 10 or 12 more questions written down that I didn’t get to, but I kind of suspected that once I started doing my research and my question list got massive because he’s a busy man.

Kim Wellington:  He really is.  If you go to Amazon.com and look at his list of books or also on his website which is — oh, I forgot to write it down.

Todd Stiefel:  His website is anthonypinn.com which actually is a great and very thorough website.  If you click on “publications and books,” it goes for a long way.  The man is a prolific writer.

Kim Wellington:  He’s a prolific writer and his titles are very enticing.  Yes, I’m ready to read.  I’m actually flying out to LA.  I’ve got a couple of hours, so I’m grabbing a couple of those before I go.

Todd Stiefel:  Fantastic, yes.  And you know what, he’s just a great good guy.  I’ve gotten the opportunity to spend a little time with him at different events and he’s just a really nice, down-to-earth man.  I dig him.  So, awesome.

Listeners, also, please be sure, if you are on Facebook, to like us there, it’s The Humanist Hour.  And also, if you have any comments or questions or just want to speak randomly into Google which will botch it and send us that, feel free to call us at our listener comment line (202) 618-1371.  And of course, you can check us out at thehumanisthour.org as part of thehumanist.com new website for those previous episodes, show notes, links to people we’ve talked about and talked to on the show, all sorts of great interesting things you can find there.

Kim Ellington:  Excellent.  I think that wraps it up.  That was great.  I loved meeting him today and as always, Todd, I love talking with you.

Todd Stiefel:  Indeed.  I’m sure I will be seeing you soon.  So, thanks a lot, listeners.  It’s been a great month and we look forward to talking to you next month.

Kim Ellington:  Thanks all.

Todd Stiefel:  Stay tuned for the blooper reel.

Kim Ellington:  Not that Todd and I ever blooped.  Never.

Todd Stiefel:  Never.  But I hear as we get older, you get more bloopey.

Kim Ellington:  Poor Brian.  He had to hear me belch because I forgot I wasn’t supposed to do that in public.

Todd Stiefel:  She’ll fart too if you’re here for long enough.

Kim Ellington:  I’ve never farted intentionally in front of you, I don’t think.

Todd Stiefel:  Intentionally.  What about all the accidental times?

Kim Ellington:  Girls don’t fart, they toot.

Kim Ellington:  Now, we — you — want to — sorry, Brian.  If you could edit out that stuttering.  [Indiscernible].  And then I forgot exactly where I was going with that.  Sorry, Brian, again.  As you were, Todd.

I don’t know what happened with my audacity.  Okay.

Todd Stiefel:  It probably got angry with people dropping in and out.

Kim Ellington:  Yes.

Todd Stiefel:  I want to blame it on Time Warner Cable.

Kim Ellington:  I blame it on Obama.  [Indiscernible] fault.

[End of transcript]

Close Transcript

  • Erica Gewirtz

    Dr. Pinn’s observations on the importance of appealing to diversity were not only insightful but pragmatic. I believe we should ask our theist friends how their place of worship does it.

  • Walrus

    How do I direct download? maybe I am being a little slow …

    • MH

      More and more sites are making direct download more difficult. I don’t know if that is the case here, but I haven’t seen the link either. Many sites now assume everyone has a solid internet connection everywhere they might be with the computer. I have to download the show in its entirety and then move the computer to the room I want to listen in, so YouTube doesn’t work, for example. I don’t get it.

      • Walrus

        Blargh, it’s been some time since I had a reliable ‘base station’ to use to set up auto-download of things like podcasts on so I could move them onto my blackberry. I don’t have a data plan on my phone so streaming is not an option. It’s kind of trying to force people into things. Meh
        Without a direct download, I will probably have to give up this podcast. ahhh well.

  • Joe G.

    I see that Dr. Pinn has a new book to promote but, I wondered if one of the reasons that he was invited on the podcast was because February is Black History month and well, he’s black. Does the AHA desire diversification so that it can appear more diverse? Or is its desire for diversification because it is honestly concerned/interested in the sometimes unique issues/concerns of the various communities of color that the AHA is trying to reach out to?

    I’m so happy that Dr. Pinn was invited on the podcast. I was not aware of his work or involvement with the AHA. I hope that the podcast will have a greater variety of guests, including people of color, in the future. I hope that the podcast will likewise cover a greater range of issues that may be of interest to people of color (e.g. race, class, immigration, etc.).

    PS: I agree with Dr. Pinn. Folks of color who are guests don’t have to be invited to only speak about issues specific to their communities. Whites can also be invited to talk about issues that communities of color have traditionally focused on (e.g. race, class, immigration, etc.).

    • MH

      As to guests with specific attributes not only talking about those atttributes – yes! I live abroad and it is annoying to always be the assumed expert on my home or my foreign status, but sometimes being ignored on other things. Stewart makes fun of this phenomenon with his “Official black correspondent.” Neil DeGrasse Tyson speaks eloquently about being the first black he ever noticed speaking on TV about something other being black (or sports).

    • wolftimber

      “I see that Dr. Pinn has a new book to promote but, I wondered if one of
      the reasons that he was invited on the podcast was because February is
      Black History month and well, he’s black.”

      Gee, he doesn’t SOUND black on the podcast… are you serious??? you actually think he was invited because he’s black and it’s black history months and the AHA wants to “appear” more diverse??
      I thought he was great in the podcast.

  • Tampa Bri

    “The WORLD is divided into people who think they a right. Feel free to believe or not believe in whatever you want.

    When you die, you’ll have proof positive of ?