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Convention speech: Anthony B. Pinn — Atheists have a responsibility for social justice

Professor Anthony B. Pinn speaks at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 19, 2019, in Madison, Wis. (Photo by Ingrid Lass)
Anthony Pinn shows off his Emperor Has No Clothes Award.
(Photo by Ingrid Lass)
Anthony B. Pinn listens to a convention attendee during a conversation after his speech.
(Photo by Chris Line)
FFRF Life Member and State Representative Kevin Gough chats with Anthony Pinn after Pinn signed a copy of his book, “When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer.”
(Photo by Chris Line)

This is an edited version of the speech given by Professor Anthony B. Pinn at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 19, 2019, in Madison, Wis. He was introduced by Stephen Hirtle, chair of FFRF’s Executive Board:

It is my pleasure today to introduce our Emperor Has No Clothes Award recipient, Professor Anthony B. Pinn. Anthony grew up in the African-American church and was on his way to becoming a minister, but today is a leading humanist and freethinker, serving as the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University. Professor Pinn, who earned a B.A. from Columbia and a Master of Divinity and Ph.D. in the study of religion from Harvard, is the founding director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning at Rice University. In addition, he is director of research for the Institute of Humanist Studies, which is a Washington, D.C., think tank. Professor Pinn has authored or edited more than 35 books, including his most recent, When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer.

Representing the American Humanist Association at the 2016 Reason Rally in D.C., Professor Pinn noted that America “is a country that too often dismisses people who don’t believe in ghosts, who don’t reject evolution, who don’t pray for change, rather than rolling up their sleeves and doing what they can do through creativity, compassion and hard work.” Very inspiring words from a man who does embody the small child in the fairy tale who “tells it like it is” about religion. Please come up, Tony, and get your award.

By Anthony B. Pinn

am delighted to be here with you. I’m deeply honored and grateful to be a part of this outstanding group of honorees. I don’t know that I deserve it, but I’ll take it. The work being done by the Freedom From Religion Foundation is extremely important. I am by disposition an atheist and by practice a humanist, but also an odd creature in that I study religion. I study religion not to belittle it, but to take it seriously.

Why? Because it is a cultural force that over the course of centuries has determined how we understand life, what we appreciate as meaningful. And I appreciate the work done by this foundation because it takes to task the type of influence theism tries to demonstrate within the public arena.

Think about it this way: There are ways in which theism is a parasite. It infects and it influences. We have recent examples of this. We live within the context of a social world in which truth no longer matters, facts are irrelevant and, for people who look like me, there is something extra pernicious in the “make America great again” claim.

But we’ve heard this before. We’ve felt this before. It is a thin veil for rabid populism and a bizarre sense of whiteness that masquerades as nationalism that does extreme harm. It understands difference as a problem, a problem that has to be addressed. And religion works to safeguard this. Theism works in a way that provides a moral and ethical rationale for this sort of behavior. But this is not new.

Public harm of theism

This work of religion allowed a justification of the slave trade. It provided a justification for the wiping out of native populations. It provides a rationale and a justification for keeping small brown children in cages and arguing that toothbrushes and showers are luxuries. It provides a rationale or justification for assuming that we live within the context of a nation that has to be protected through strong barriers that amount to a physical disregard for difference. This is not new.

And, again, religion undergirds this theism, provides a justification for this sort of behavior and it needs to be tackled. It has to be recognized and called to task. So, on one level, I understand what I say, what I do and what I write as an effort to decrease the public harm that theism does.

I’m not trying to close churches, mosques and synagogues. What you want to do on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, that is your personal business. But the public arena should not be restricted, should not be strangled by the theological claims and wishes of any particular population. It’s bigger than that. It’s more robust than that.

It requires a grammar and a language of life that allows us to live out our best ideals. It requires a grammar and language of life that allows us to take seriously what Thoreau tried to teach us to do — to live deliberately, so that at the end we know that we have lived. We need a grammar, we need a vocabulary of public life that allows us, in the vein of Thoreau, to suck the marrow out of life, to take all that we can out of life, to allow for a robust existence that is available to all. 

It, the public arena, allows us this grammar, this vocabulary that shapes our moral and ethical vision, allows us to stand with Thoreau, who said, “I will not support through my finances a country that belittles and enslaves.” And, so, from his jail cell, he looks out at his friend Emerson, and Emerson wants to know “What are you doing in there?” and Thoreau’s response is the better question: “What are you doing out there?”

To live life deliberately, we need a vocabulary, a language of life that will allow us to honor what my grandmother told me before she sent me to New York, to college: “Walk through the world knowing your footsteps matter.” For my grandmother, this wasn’t a way of telling little Tony that you have to get all that you can. It wasn’t her way of saying that this education is about your personal well-being. This was not her way of saying that this education is about securing a middle-class existence. For my grandmother, Annie Hargrave, it was bigger than that. The idea was simply this: You have an obligation to do beyond yourself; that you measure your success not through your own acquisition, but the ways in which your efforts, your conversation, your doing, helps even a little bit, helps someone else have a healthier existence. Walk through the world knowing your footsteps matter.

Vocabulary of life

We need a vocabulary of life that will allow us to achieve this. Maintaining, critiquing, being dedicated to making certain that theism doesn’t rule the public arena is a huge element of that. 

But here’s the catch. While separation of state-church is vital — and I will always applaud that work — I’m not quite convinced that even a more perfect application of state-church separation would have kept Trayvon Martin alive. Or would’ve kept Sandra Bland alive. Or would have changed the life options and reduce the violence that trans folks encounter.

For me, it’s a recognition that theism needs to be challenged when it enters the public arena. But the other half of my obligation and what I say, what I do and what I write, is to decrease the harm that freethought, humanism and atheism do in the world.

I have not encountered very many freethinkers, humanists or atheists who don’t embrace Thomas Jefferson. But here’s the catch: In embracing Thomas Jefferson, you are also embracing a legacy of sexual violence and racial disregard.

So, the question is this: Does humanism, does atheism, does freethought matter in the 21st century? Does it provide a way forward? Does it provide a moral and ethical posture toward the world that allows us to advance life, to celebrate its beauty and all of its diversity? I will today and always say it cannot and it does not if it doesn’t understand, as central to its mission, social justice.

Look at me and see someone who comes from a long legacy of folks for whom the challenges of existence, the demonizing of life, extends well beyond separation of church and state and science education. It has something to do with a deep disregard for blackness and the ever-present celebration of whiteness.

So, from this day forward, I encourage you, don’t say “people of color” anymore. That category “people of color” leaves unchallenged whiteness as normative because the implication is that there is white and there is everybody else. If you can’t get rid of that language all together, then perhaps a slight modification — “people of a despised color.”

Social justice obligation

Part of our obligation is to rethink ourselves on the individual level, on the level of our community, on the level of our organization, so that our ethical impulse, the mission of our organizations, is so tied to social justice that if we are not doing something about social justice, we have failed as organizations. That this is not an add-on, this is central to who we are and what we do. It says something about our humanism. It says something about those we are thinking about in our freethought. If we’re not doing this, we have failed. Social justice has to be central.

But how do we get there? I just want to highlight a few things. One: It requires recognizing that simply because you are new to the presence of black and brown humanists, freethinkers and atheists, doesn’t mean that we have just come on the scene. You’ve just been slow. When you think about humanism, freethought, atheism within the context of the United States, you cannot understand it properly if you are not taking into consideration how these traditions live within communities that are brown and black. You are missing something. Because we’ve been here. We’ve been doing this.

Another thing to keep in mind is there are some complexities in terms of black and brown folks who remain within theistic communities. Rather than asking me and other folks like me, “Why are black people still in the church? Why are brown people still in the church?,” the better question is this: “Why haven’t we done something that is so compelling that they want to be with us?”

I will quickly give you a sense of why so many African-Americans remain in church. It has nothing to do with buying the theology provided by that pastor. For the black middle class, after the civil rights movement, theism within the United States begins to decline. This is not simply black churches, but churches by and large experienced a decline. It’s not until the 1980s that black folks began to come back to these churches in large numbers. Why? They played by the rules. You told us: Don’t code switch, speak like us and you’ll do better. You said go to these schools and you’ll have opportunities. You said live in these neighborhoods and you’ll have opportunities. 

And we played by those rules and still hit racism. And not only did we hit racism, but in this process, we had given up something of our cultural heritage, our connections. So, 1980s folks began to go back to these black churches. Again, not because they did not necessarily buy the theology, they weren’t looking for soul salvation, but social networking, cultural connections, economic opportunities, a space in which they could catch their breath and not have to explain to anybody why they were angry.

When you talk in terms of the black church, you also have to talk in terms of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Henry McNeal Turner, Jarena Lee, Ida B. Wells. Henry McNeal Turner argues in 1895 in Atlanta that God is a Negro. I don’t imagine that’s the black religion you have in mind, is it?

Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser argued that the worth of blacks, the deep value of blacks, is such that if it requires the slaughter of whites in order to celebrate it, so be it. That’s probably not the kind of black church you’re critiquing, is it?

I’m simply saying it’s complex, and rather than pointing the finger at the folks in the church, we need to point the finger at ourselves and ask, “Why aren’t we doing something that is so compelling they can’t help but join us?”

Next, do some homework. We are a community that prides itself on being informed.  We read, but when it comes to issues of diversity, we want to rely on ignorance and the goodwill of those who don’t look like us. Pick up a book. Read. Learn.

Finally, if you’re really interested in diversity, if we’re going to do the social justice thing right and we are going to do it in a way that fundamentally changes our communities, then it requires discomfort. You can’t make change and be comfortable. So, rather than understanding discomfort as a problem that has to be solved, that you’ve got to reach equilibrium again, understand discomfort as an opportunity. Your mind being opened up for new ways of thinking, new ways of doing, new ways of communicating.

It seems to me this is our obligation if we are convinced that the only thing that can alter the circumstances of life in the United States and beyond, if we are convinced that it requires the material effort of those like us, let’s recognize a deeper obligation to appreciate, to celebrate, to be uncomfortable in our effort to secure a type of diversity that represents us and defines a new type of possibility for living. Thank you.


Q&A with Anthony Pinn

Professor Anthony Pinn answered several questions from FFRF members following his talk. Here is an edited version of that discussion.

What is your opinion of a black judge offering forgiveness to a white cop who gunned down a black man in cold blood? 

I understand why, but it points to a problem. Forgiveness, from my vantage point, requires a recognition of wrongdoing and an effort to correct that wrongdoing. I did not sense that, and so it cheapens forgiveness. Forgiveness ought to be premised upon a demonstration of accountability and responsibility, and I did not see that.

Can you give me a legislation suggestion that I can take to my congressperson and say, “Here, bring about this legislative change” that will help us move one step in the direction that you’re suggesting?

I’ll go back to something that was in Jeremiah Camara’s movie, “Contradiction.” There are lots of religious organizations with which I’m familiar that understand themselves to be concerned with poverty and the transformation of communities. It seems to me one way to get at that is not to ask for extra money, but for the proper use of existing money. So, [churches], pay your property taxes.

Black churches that are committed to rethinking the economic plight of their communities could do this by saying: “We don’t care what the federal government is saying. We have an obligation to make a difference. And this money that we would give in property taxes within the county, we are going to use to challenge poverty. We may not be legally obligated to do it, but we understand that this is our responsibility.” And rather than trying to determine politics in the public space, use this money to transform the neighborhoods in which your churches reside.

Can you speak about recognizing white privilege?

The first order of business, and this is not guesswork, is that if you are recognized as white within the context of the United States, you have privilege. Period. I could drop the mic with that.

If you are white in the United States, you have privilege. It comes across in a variety of ways. One, white privilege authorizes you to feel comfortable and confident that you are right in occupying time and space. That being in your living room, enjoying your living room, will not result in your death. That walking down the street will not result in your death.

Think about it in simple ways. I’ll give you one example. If you go to a restaurant and they seat you near the restroom and you’re thinking, “What the hell? Why did they put me here?,” then you probably have a form of privilege. If you go and buy a car and the consideration is simply “What can I afford to drive?” and you don’t have to consider what kind of police interest the vehicle might get, you have privilege.

How do we talk and listen in a way that leads to productive discussion?

First, we have to attempt to recognize why people hold positions. We have to appreciate their context, appreciate the dynamics of their life experience, try to understand where they are. 

Second, and for me this is fundamental, rather than outcome-driven strategies, we ought to have process-driven strategies because we cannot guarantee anything will improve. We are not saying God is on the throne and all is well. Or that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We don’t know this. But we know that we can try.

So, rather than outcome-driven strategies, we ought to follow what Albert Camus outlines when he talks about Sisyphus. You’re familiar with Sisyphus, right? This is the dude who’s being punished by the gods and this punishment involves rolling this rock up a hill. And once he gets it to the top, it comes rolling back down. And what Camus wants us to understand is that perpetual effort doesn’t have to break you. Rather than fixating on the end, the outcome, one should celebrate and recognize the importance and the value in the struggle. Recognize that there is something freeing, something liberating in saying “no” to injustice. Perhaps all we can hope for, all we can do, is make certain that we are loud and persistent in saying “no.”