Pinn, growing up outside Buffalo NY, became a preacher in his local church at the ripe young age of 12. Now, there’s nothing an audience of atheists likes better than a story of someone who was devoutly religious and later does an about-face to embrace atheism. (Not an uncommon path, with many possible twists, as you can read in Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola’s Caught in the Pulpit.) And Pinn gives it to us, hitting all the best notes: being in love with Jesus but also with thinking critically, being surprised to meet theologians who read the Bible as literature rather than as The Word, and ultimately losing his faith entirely while studying at Harvard Divinity School.
But there’s a lot more to his message than a congratulatory triumph of rationality over superstition. Through his life, Pinn has been concerned with the effect that ideas and actions have on real people, especially the African-American community. His mother always reminded him to “move through the world knowing your footsteps matter,” valuable advice no matter what your ontological orientation might be.
This comes out in the Q&A period — often not worth listening to, but in this case it’s the highlight of the presentation. The audience of atheists are looking for yet more self-affirmation, demanding to know why more Blacks haven’t accepted the truth of a secular worldview. Pinn is very frank: naturalism hasn’t yet offered African-Americans a “soft landing.” Too many atheists, he points out, spend a lot of time critiquing religious traditions, and a lot of time patting themselves on the back for being rational and fair-minded, and not nearly enough time constructing something positive, a system of networks and support structures free of the spiritual trappings. It’s a good message for us to hear.
It would have been fantastic to have Anthony at Moving Naturalism Forward. Next time! (Not that there are currently any plans for a next time.)