Dr. Anthony Pinn’s autobiography, Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist, stands out among stories of becoming an atheist. In spite of the confrontational title, Dr. Pinn tells his story in a gentle way, sharing his thought-provoking experiences as a former minister, as a professor of religion, and as someone confronting the challenges of racism and poverty in our society.
Like many atheists, Dr. Pinn was raised as a Christian. He got actively involved in his church and began preaching at twelve years old. Intending to more solidly prepare for work as a minister, Dr. Pinn went on to study religion at Columbia University. While at Columbia, he met the black theologian James Cone. Cone said that studying sociology would give a more practical background for being an agent of social change. Dr. Pinn began studying sociology and later went to Harvard for advanced degrees in religion.
Going through college presented many challenges to Dr. Pinn’s earlier faith. His early faith focused on saving sinners who “got to keep their sexist and homophobic opinions as long as they learned to express them through…the grammar of church tradition–‘the Bible says it and I believe it.’” At Harvard, “[n]othing about biblical theology arguments was understood as being beyond questioning, and the Bible wasn’t assumed to be more reliable than science and reason.” Over time, condemning outsiders became more difficult. In working with others, Dr. Pinn found that “[t]he secular world needed verification of that which the church was willing to assume.”
Dr. Pinn’s focus shifted from saving souls to “social transformation-a real response to people’s pressing needs.” Trying to meet the needs of families who used a playground in a decaying Boston neighborhood with drugs called into question what Christianity had to offer that would meet people’s real world needs. Wrestling with private doubts and the demands for public proclamations encouraged Dr. Pinn to further develop his own ideas.
Dr. Pinn explains, “I know firsthand the harm religion can do, but…” we need to respect our “shared humanity while acknowledging our differences” with theists. Dr. Pinn recommends that after “deconstructing theism,” we should help people build “all the other structures for a meaningful life.” Among those structures are communities where nonbelievers can find shelter from bad reactions and the “loss of family and friends.” Those communities should be spaces that do not “hold the threat of a negative statement about race or gender,” and that “offer a response to issues of diversity and…social justice issues.”
By sharing our stories, we can build good will and understanding toward Humanists. We’re especially fortunate that Dr. Anthony Pinn, as a former minister and now Professor of Humanities and religious studies, has chosen to share his story.