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



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 titledWriting 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.

Links from this month’s episode:

Music from this month’s episode (in order of appearance):

  • Theme Song: “Flow” by Words Such as Burn
Book:  Atheism, Meaning, and the Absurdity of It All

Book: Atheism, Meaning, and the Absurdity of It All


One of the most common criticisms of atheism is that life can have no meaning without God-belief. I’ve always found this argument puzzling, because even if true it does absolutely nothing to prove the existence of God. What the believer is saying is that God-belief gives him or her the feeling that life has meaning. Well, that’s great, but your feelings don’t prove anything.

In fact, while believing in God helps some find meaning, thanks to a fine new book called A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God, believers and nonbelievers alike have strong evidence that the godless can and do enjoy lives of rich meaning. The author, Chris Johnson, is also a marvelous photographer, so his numerous interviews and profiles are accompanied by high-quality photographs that make the book a perfect coffee-table conversation piece. (Full disclosure: yours truly is one of Johnson’s subjects.)

A common theme emanating from the book is that atheists have little trouble finding purpose in their lives. Having rejected myth and ancient texts as authorities for defining life’s purpose, nonbelievers get meaning and joy from family, friends, loved ones, nature, art and music, and their work. “My life would be nothing if not for love, laughter and learning,” says Washington journalist Jamila Bey, one of the book’s subjects (p. 33). “There is absolutely nothing supernatural required.”

Actress and comic Julia Sweeney (p. 25) expresses similar sentiments. Coming from a religious background, Sweeney says she found atheism to be an adjustment at first. “But after a while, the understanding of my particularly small place in the natural order of life deepened, and my appreciation for this short stint – to be alive and aware – was activated.”

This awareness of our limited time, with no eternity tagged on the end, can makes atheists alert to the importance of living a full life, says Rice University Professor Anthony Pinn (p. 172): “You have to drain from every moment as much as you can so at the end of life you can say you’ve lived.”


Musician Shelley Segal from A Better Life

One could argue that religious believers somehow attach more meaning to life than do atheists, but such claims are highly suspect. A believer can claim that his life is part of God’s plan, that this connection to the divine bestows a grand meaning on life, but in reality this is often empty rhetoric. After all, if God’s message is truly the driving force that gives meaning to the believer, why is not that message the defining factor in the believer’s actions? Why are not believers fully throwing themselves into the religious message of the Bible: evangelizing constantly, abandoning material life and focusing on the spiritual, working for charity and doing little else? If eternal salvation hinges on these things, and if the religious message of the Bible is what gives their lives meaning, wouldn’t this be visibly reflected in what they do?


Instead, most believers spend their days and hours just as most nonbelievers do: working, paying bills, driving kids to soccer practice, socializing, catching a movie, shopping, etc. Meaning? Yes, they find it, or more accurately they create it, just as atheists do. But it takes some imagination, or cognitive dissonance, to attach biblical “meaning” to the modern western lifestyle.

There is a school of thought, called absurdism, that focuses on how humans naturally seek to attach meaning to a world that offers none. If you’ve ever enjoyed a good Kurt Vonnegut novel you may appreciate how absurdism can effectively blend humor and profundity. We struggle through life, try to make sense of it all, experience joys and sorrows along the way, only to ultimately make our exit. In the end, no matter what your philosophical outlook, there is an element of absurdity in it all.

That said, as some believers claim their ancient books convey absolute truth from an all-powerful and all-knowing divinity, it’s hard to conclude that the atheist is any more absurd than the theist.

Nonbeliever Nation on Amazon

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Atheist, Humanist, Secular: Why Fight Over Labels?

Atheist, Humanist, Secular: Why Fight Over Labels?


By Roy Speckhardt

Executive Director, American Humanist Association

No matter how you look at it, the nontheist movement in the U.S. is experiencing momentous growth. According to a Harris poll, those who profess no belief in a god is at the highest percentage ever recorded. Atheism as an identity is also becoming more mainstream and even politically acceptable, as seen by the fact that most Americans would now vote for an atheist running for president (something that would not have been possible even a few years ago).

As any movement expands and incorporates the views of individuals who are new, it makes sense that its members are likely to diversify. Such expansion among those who reject ancient texts and divine revelation as sources of knowledge has led to people identifying in many ways while still seeing themselves as part of the nontheist movement. They use labels like humanist, atheist, agnostic, deist, nonbeliever, nonreligious, freethinker, bright, nontheist, skeptic, secularist and more. There are even millions of Americans who retain labels from traditional faith traditions, like Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist, but also state that they don’t believe in an intervening god — as first clearly revealed in the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, doesn’t seem to appreciate the value of this type of diversity in nontheistic labels, as interviewer Rachel Silberstein reports in a recent article in The Tablet. “Some call themselves secular humanists, and many call themselves Jews,” says Silverman, and according to Silberstien, this is “a term he argues is particularly damaging to the cause. When atheists call themselves Jews, it implies theism, he says, which ‘makes atheists look small and negates a learning opportunity.'” Silberstein also mentions that Silverman feels “that only the word ‘atheist’ accurately conveys the proper meaning” of disbelief.

I spoke to Silverman for this article to make sure I correctly understood his viewpoint. He responded that, “Some fight the battle to get humanism (or some other label) better recognized, but this battle is counterproductive, as there are very few people who know what humanism is — as opposed to atheism — and fighting that fight completely distracts from the equality fight, which is far more important. The humanism battle is nuanced; the atheism battle is basic and foundational.”

If we were to follow Silverman’s advice and limit the movement to those who are willing to only identify as atheists, the nontheist movement would look small indeed. And what’s more, that smallness would make it all the harder to achieve our shared aim of equality for all who are good without a god. It shouldn’t be required for people to give up their other identities and claim only atheism, as people can and do identify with aspects of a particular religion that they agree with while still choosing not to believe in a god.

That being said, I do think people should still aim to be open about their lack of belief in a god or the supernatural, regardless of how they choose to identify and which religious traditions they may continue to keep. Those that pretend to be theistic, as I mentioned in an earlier article for The Huffington Post, may be acting unethically by misleading others about their beliefs. Of course, it helps when people use words that communicate clearly who they are and what they stand for. For those who know, or take the time to learn what words like humanist, skeptic and freethinker really mean, such identifiers can actually convey more than the atheist identity.

By definition, identifying as atheist indicates that one doesn’t have a belief system that includes a god, nothing more. It doesn’t encompass all the views that a person has when it comes to personal values, which is why terms like “humanist” and “secular Jew” are so important. Nonreligious Jews might not believe in a god, but they may base their ethics or culture on elements of Judaism that they find to be meaningful. The same goes for humanists who find that a simple negation of belief in a deity is not enough to live life ethically and fully, and that the progressive values of humanism complement their skepticism. Demanding that people identify only as atheist limits the ability of individuals to truly express not only what they don’t believe in, but what they do believe in.

After speaking before dozens of groups with nearly all attendees happy to use multiple freethought identifiers, it’s obvious to me that any search for purity of name for members of the nonreligious movement is a losing battle that could unnecessarily constrain the movement in the long term and prevent people who don’t believe in a god, even if they still ascribe to religious traditions, from joining. At the end of the day, as long as people aren’t expecting divine intervention in their lives, they are already acting as an atheist, no matter what self-identifying term(s) they use.

If the nontheist movement is willing to accept people from all identities who are also not theistic, the movement will grow by leaps and bounds. Not only will this expanded pool build numbers, those who are still participating in faith institutions will help, from the inside, to make them more rational and humanistic than they are today. Their rejection of supernatural and dogmatic authoritarianism will also make the world a better place. We should respect humanist-leaning religious people who do not like the atheist label. Even though they may choose to identify and participate in a particular faith tradition, either because of their culture, their family, or some other societal reason, they also should be invited to identify as nontheistic humanists. Let’s not create a schism where it is not needed, and instead be welcoming to those who wish to learn more about humanism and how to live a good life without a belief in a god.

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