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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The American Atheists 2011 Convention

The American Atheists 2011 Convention


By Naima Cabelle

I tend to dislike conventions, large conferences, etc., as opposed to smaller groups where there’s a greater possibility for more individual interaction. Had I not understood that an unprecedented number of people of color and women were invited as convention speakers at the April 2011 American Atheists convention, there would have been no incentive for me to go. Even so, I had to justify my attendance after considering the expense and time commitment. I decided to go because I certainly wanted to be present as well as support other women and people of color. However, I also wanted to do more than just passively listen to the convention speakers or endlessly bump shoulders with hundreds of strangers. Since I’m a member of AA, I decided to distribute a statement [DC Atheist Advocate] expressing my concerns as well as expectations about the organization. I also added another paper [Ideas for Expanding the Secular Community]. Because I am also a member of the Washington Area Secular Humanists, I thought it would be good to let others know about our work by distributing back issues of WASH’s newsletter, the WASHLine as well. I also decided to meet as many people as I could, have a little conversation with them and tell them a little bit about WASH before finally asking if they’d like a copy of the newsletter. Generally, I’d rather stay in the background, and I was clearly stepping out of my comfort zone, but I needed to shun the easy route. I took over 50 copies of all of the materials with me, and after 2-1/2 days, I returned to DC with very light travel bag and laryngitis!

I tried to meet every African American present and I think there were approximately 15 in attendance. As I recall, they came from Lincoln, NE: Atlanta and Macon, GA; Sterling, VA; St. Louis, MO; Chapel Hill, NC, and Washington, DC. I also met several people from India as well as a few Hispanics. From what I could gather, there were approximately 30 people of color at the convention.

Approximately 5-7 people protested the presence of American Atheists outside of the hotel, including one person who was “hell-bent” on being confrontational. On Friday, the mayor of Des Moines was one of the speakers who offered opening remarks at the convention. He enthusiastically welcomed American Atheists to the city of Des Moines, let us know how much they appreciated our business, and asked that we try to see as much of the city as possible. He said he hoped that we would return as a group as well as individuals. For a very Christian city, 5-7 protesters represented a poor showing especially since the convention has received a considerable amount of advanced coverage in newspapers along with TV and radio coverage. Our presence wasn’t a secret however the god-fearing in Des Moines apparently realized that they had nothing to fear from the godless!MORE@

Report from the Field: Humanist Charities and Children of the Border

Report from the Field: Humanist Charities and Children of the Border

by Sebastian Velez

Last December, Children of the Border, a non-governmental organization, asked members of the American Humanist Association and Humanist Charities for their support. Children of the Border works to provide pre- and post-natal health care of Haitian women working as sharecroppers in the Dominican Republic, and our core principles are well grounded in humanism. The women and their children we serve live in the most appalling poverty seen in the Western hemisphere, with entire families living from less than two dollars a day.

AHA’s membership donated over $7,000, which will be matched by a very generous anonymous donor, and will bring over $14,000 in services to Haitians and Dominicans living along the border between the two countries! We received the news from AHA development director Maggie Ardiente while we were in Haiti doing field work, and it brought a jubilant cheer from everyone.

We returned from the field just a couple of weeks ago, and here is a brief report of what these new funds will continue to support:

Contraception: On random visits to homes, every woman we interviewed said that she was either on the pill, taking the injection, or had her husband using condoms. When one of our male staff members had a motorcycle accident and missed checking in with women for a few months, we were surprised to see so many men in the community requesting condoms. Also, our collaboration with the ministry of health provides oral contraceptives and Pap smear supplies. The humanist clinic now concentrates on maternal health, the 3-month injection pill, and condoms. We are planning to distribute our stock of oral contraceptives to a town near the border on the Haitian side.

Health Services: Dozens of women line up every Thursday for our doctor to do health checks, perform Pap smears, give contraceptive injections, and check children and dispense the nutritional food packets. We’re now able to increase the amount of ultrasounds to three during each woman’s pregnancy.

One of our staff, a woman who three years ago was illiterate and living in a thatch hut with her eight children, is now the doctor’s assistant. She is learning how to read and write, gives talks about contraception, and manages the logistics of the clinic.

Our preventive programs have worked so well, that we might be closing our boarding house in town, Casa de Salud—opened when emergencies where common—and use the resources for the clinic in the village of Las Mercedes.

Sustainability and Entrepreneurship: In the field, all of the problems we try to solve are because people cannot make a living out of two dollars a day. In the United States, we are inundated with ideas from people who want to volunteer, many of whom bring a project idea. These ideas range from water collection systems, solar power generation, to new ways of producing cooking fuel, ideas for schools and curricula, and reforestation projects. The problem with bringing these two together—the communities in need and the energetic volunteers wanting to do something—has always been one of logistics.

This year we are developing an idea by a Harvard undergraduate, Annie Ryu, to use the enthusiasm and energy of U.S. volunteers, together with their ideas, into an integrated program ( that centers on their ideas and experience. The community will benefit with direct employment brought by the implementation of projects, from services to the volunteers (food, lodging, etc.), and of course from the projects the volunteers will implement.

We still have many problems to solve. The community water pump we installed is working, but houses are so far from each other that people can carry only just enough water to drink, but not to keep minimum sanitary conditions. Most people still need latrines, an urgent matter since contact between feces and drinking water is the main threat to a cholera outbreak. We’ve barely touched the issue of adult education. Children are still given away, many ending in prostitution or child slavery, but we have no way of accepting them. Our clinic, while well managed by our doctor and one of our employers, still needs a lot of work with patient data collecting and management. This data problem is compounded by a population where people have no documentation, don’t know their birth date, and where many women can’t recall how many children they’ve had, much less their medical history. Our clinic still has no electricity, and of course no phone and no Internet.

From all of us that work on this project, we want to give our most heartfelt thank you from the people we serve, to you, our donors. It is always a delight to explain to community members that the people paying for all of this do it out of love and concern, not because they believe in God. Unrestricted donations also allow us to operate with great freedom. We opened our clinic in the forest when our collaboration with a group of nuns broke down. They used to provide the space, some medicines, and part of the doctor’s salary, while we paid for the other half of the doctor’s salary, his expenses, and medicines. When the nuns said they would not accept contraceptives there (the doctor, nonreligious himself, was not happy for other reasons), we just opened our own clinic, hired the doctor in full, and stocked the clinic with medicines and contraceptives. This freedom is a privilege granted by our generous donors. Thank you!

Humanist Charities is continuing to accept donations on behalf of Sebastian Velez’s Children of the Border project. Learn more or make a donation now.

Sebastian Velez is the director of Children of the Border and evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. He received the 2010 Humanist Distinguished Service Award from the American Humanist Association for his work in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

(reposted from Humanist Network News

Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars

Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars


The ideological complexity of African American communities and the connections in that community between secular belief and social justice are rich.  Sadly, there is still a fair amount of ignorance and bigotry toward black non-believers in African American communities due to the stereotype that atheists are immoral, rudderless, and not authentically black. This belief is especially insidious for black women. Mainstream African American culture places a high premium on black female caregiving, piety, and sacrifice. The patriarchal traditions of the Black Church, with their emphasis on charismatic black male leadership and biblical literalism, play a key role in socializing black women to be subservient and self-sacrificing.

Black female churchgoing and religious belief are the highest in the nation — making African American communities the most unwaveringly religious in the U.S. At the same time, African American communities are among the most economically and racially disenfranchised; in the U.S., African Americans are still disproportionately poor, under-educated and over-incarcerated. Black incarceration rates and black homelessness parallel each other. And for all of the sound and fury of black religiosity, black women experience the highest rates of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and HIV/AIDS contraction.

So the book tries to make sense of these relationships vis-à-vis the paradox of black downward mobility in the so-called post-racial post-affirmative action era. It also attempts to show the immense benefits of radical/progressive humanism for African American women given the religious underpinnings of patriarchy and sexism. Finally, the book makes practical connections between racial justice, gender justice, humanism and the myriad health and educational challenges that African Americans face.

Read the rest of this interview here.