Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist

Since the mid-1990s, Anthony Pinn has been known to many humanists as a major humanist scholar. He is the author or editor of twenty-eight books, including Why Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (1995), By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (2001), and The End of God Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (2012).

In his first book (Why Lord?) Pinn discussed theodicy from an African-American perspective. How, he asked, can black theists, particularly black theologians, make sense of a perfectly good God in light of African-American suffering? (In 1973, African-American humanist William Jones raised the same question in Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology.)

This question seems to be one of the central questions in Pinn’s life. Indeed, it was largely responsible for his personal path from minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to full-fledged atheist.

Pinn isn’t the first person to write a memoir about going from being a spiritual minister to an atheist. Former preacher Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote Losing Faith in Faith, for example. Nor is Pinn the first African-American author to write a memoir about his personal journey from theism to non-theism. (See fellow Houstonian and former Baptist Deacon Donald R. Wright’s The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go.) However, Pinn might be the only former African-American minister to write such a book.

What makes Pinn’s journey so amazing is that he was a child preacher. He placed pressures upon himself and had pressures placed upon him by others that most children never have to endure. He was constantly aware that he had to be a sterling example for others. Though he was only a child, he had to deliver messages of hope to the adult faithful that would resonate with them. He had to make sure that his recreational activities were not of a “sinful” nature.

The young Pinn handled the challenges admirably. He saw himself as an instrument of God and felt that he was called to lead at an early age. He also had a great role model in the young minister of his church.

Pinn’s life was much like that of the African-American writer James Baldwin, also a child preacher who was renowned throughout Harlem for his impressive oratory skills. He could drive believers into a religious frenzy. However, Baldwin realized it was all a sham. He eventually became an atheist and a harsh critic of black Christianity, and a somewhat less harsh critic of the Nation of Islam. Pinn acknowledges Baldwin as one of his greatest influences today.

As a preacher, Pinn writes that he became aware at a very early age of male privilege within the church; ministers were supposed to be male and women had no serious leadership roles in the church. Worst of all, their identity often hinged on their willingness to be seen as long-suffering, which often meant enduring the sexism and mistreatment of their husbands.

Pinn eventually left his inner-city public school and attended the predominantly white West Seneca Christian School in Western New York, near his hometown of Buffalo. It was there he noticed differences in black and white religious styles. He recalls being very uncomfortable there and was regarded as an oddity by his classmates.

Some of the leaders and teachers of his school were graduates of the notorious Bob Jones University:

Being a feeder school for institutions like Bob Jones University meant it embraced a compatible theology of race that privileged whiteness and sought to control the interaction between races. The university admitted blacks by the time I was in high school, but the school’s ban on interracial relationships, for example, remained in place until long after I was out of school—out of graduate school and working as a full professor at a major university…

Bob Jones University, from my vantage point, provided theological cover for a culture of racism. With a smile and a song, representatives of this perspective—to differing degrees—at my school felt religiously obligated and authorized to see me as different and to invest that difference with real meaning.

Pinn was sometimes called “nigger” and he was discouraged from dating white girls at the school. Moreover, there were theological differences on the subject and role of race between Pinn’s black church and his predominantly white school.

Ironically, and apparently unbeknownst to the author, he was growing up in the midst of a hotbed of secular humanism and skepticism. The late Paul Kurtz was a philosophy professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. While there, he was editor of the Humanist and a leader of the American Humanist Association. Later, he would found what would become the Center for Inquiry, housing the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publishers of Free Inquiry and The Skeptical Inquirer, respectively. In 1988, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) held their congress at SUNY. One can only wonder what kind of an influence such organizations and publications might have had on Pinn back then had he been exposed to them.

Pinn went on to earn his undergraduate degree at Columbia University and his MDiv and PhD from Harvard. Along the way, he learned much that would change his mind about becoming an ordained adult minister. While teaching at Harvard and preaching at a church in Roxbury, a black section of Boston, Pinn recalls a nearby playground that came to represent for him decay and the numerous challenges faced by poor African Americans. This line of thought helped to advance his thinking about black people and the problem of evil, and helped accelerate his move toward atheism.

Another aspect of Pinn’s character detailed in Writing God’s Obituary is his vast musical interest. Pinn has long been a fan of hip-hop and rap music, as well as the blues, which he says provides him mental relaxation and encouragement. He also points out that the blues is a secular—sometimes atheistic—African-American art form.

Blues figures and church figures both encountered injustices and adverse circumstances, but, while church figures seek assistance from God or find a way to make their predicament a source of inspiration and even joy, blues figures “keep on keeping on.” The blues sees nothing special, no cosmic plan expressed in human misery. It’s just the shit we encounter and that we have to move through.

The dire need for a sense of community among African-American humanists is among Pinn’s primary concerns. However, he isn’t interested in a church model, like that of the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does he identify strongly with the New Atheists. Incidentally, it’s my contention that African-American humanists won’t be able form a solid community until significant numbers of full-time African-American humanist activists come to the fore.

In Writing God’s Obituary, Pinn shows that people can abandon their theistic illusions and still lead happy, moral, productive lives. Rather than being in awe of God, one can be in awe of the cosmos and concerned with humanity, while excitedly trying to figure out where human beings of various backgrounds and ethnic experiences fit into a modern secular society.