From Child Preacher to Adult Humanist

One of the best experiences I had at last year’s Freedom From Religion Foundation convention was listening to this wonderful talk by Anthony Pinn. (Talk begins at 5:40.)

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.)

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40 Responses to From Child Preacher to Adult Humanist

  1. Ichigo says:

    I like this quotation:
    “I think before, I wanted a closer relationship to God,
    and today I just want a closer relationship with reality,”

  2. Joan Hendricks says:

    And, Sean, congratulations to you for winning “The Emperor Has No Clothes” award at that convention! As a long time member of FFRF, I wished I would have been able to attend when I found out you were going to be there for the award.

  3. Raphael Santore says:

    So beautifully done. I went to a seminary as a young person. When I left, I was not sure why I left. This so explains it. Thank you Drs. Pinn and Carroll.

  4. Roman says:

    Many atheists convert to religious faith. Just watch EWTN on Monday night (East Cost).

  5. bostontola says:

    As an atheist, I realize that no number of converts validates my position.

  6. edward hessler says:

    Thank you for posting this.

    The way he ended his remarks caught me unaware but it was perfect. Perhaps I was listening so carefully that it seemed abrupt. If there had been time and had I been there, I would have liked 5 minutes or so, to think, reflect about my footprints. This is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. I do make and leave them and I need to face that fact. They should count and also be footprints which I challenge…to stop and ask questions, then seek answers but always with a wee (sometimes a considerable) bit of doubt about what I think I know and the evidence for it. That idea of soft landings resonates with me. And this is where the hard work of naturalism begins, at least for me.

    I once corresponded with a social psychologist at Michigan who’d invented a game for a course he taught. It was titled “The Helping Hand Stikes A/gain.” The idea was to make that hand help a gain. I never saw the game but the idea has stuck with me.

    I hope the two of you have a chance to share a platform or a panel sometime or to have a public conversation or….

    This is lovely as was your talk which I’ve viewed several times, including one of the best parts, the Q and A no matter my enjoyment of the talk.

  7. Simon Packer says:

    Theology seminaries often teach cynicism towards the Bible. That has not undermined its accord with archaeology and human history or the power and penetration of its revelation into the human condition which for me is utterly compelling.

    If you want a digestible reality datum look at the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. It has converted many, me included. I was studying physics when it happened. ‘For by him (Christ in his deity) all things were created Col 1v16.’ I’ve settled for that as my ‘origins’ answer. Want to transcend time? ‘Before Abraham was I am John 8v58’

  8. paul hughes says:

    Humanists just don’t seem to know much about humans if they think the significance of religion is in its theological content. If one were to look at the maladjustment that causes people who don’t believe in any god to become fixated on the subject, one might discern something about the function it serves in other people.

    I personally suspect that an anthropomorphic god is less dangerous than a deified humankind. I know the crimes of which humans are capable.

  9. Larry says:

    He’s rational, so he doesn’t believe in the many worlds interpretation, correct?

  10. Michael says:

    Why would adult human beings go to church and listen to a 12 year old kid preaching hellfire and damnation at them (15’20” mark in the video)?

    My guess is that they were so intellectually lazy that they’d rather have a child make decisions for them, than to take responsibility for their own decisions. It’s as if they intended to use the boy as an excuse for their own failures. “Do what the kid says and if it goes wrong it’s not our fault; it’s the kid’s fault.”

  11. David Park says:

    For some reason the videos on your site will not play on my computer. I obtain the message: “An error occurred. Try later.” I have no trouble with videos on other sites.

  12. Ed says:

    I’ve met reality. I want a closer relationship to fantasy.

  13. And, Sean, congratulations to you for winning “The Emperor Has No Clothes” award at that convention!

    That would be part of the “Moving Naturism Forward” session. 🙂

  14. BilB says:

    They were 2 awesome talks.

    I totally take on Anthony Pinn’s comment, give black people a fair go, and they will be like everyone else. Why is that so hard? I had a young guy deliver something to my factory, he was obviously central European so I asked him, after we had talked for a bit, what he thought of the goings on in the Crimea and the Ukraine? He might have been 24, he thought for a while then said with a perplexed expression, “we realyl all ought to be able to just get along together”. It is as simple as that.

    During your talk I was thinking that, Ahaa, I believe that a person’s consciousness can be transferred to an electro mechanical form and stored in a structured crystal. Gotcha. Then you turned out the lights, and crushed every thing into a Black Hole. Damn. Then Steven Hawking evaporated black holes into the ether. What the…? ( So information is not preserved after all?)

    So with everything gone I am left me with just questions. Does Dark Matter get consumed by Black Holes? What is the relationship between Black Hole evaporate and the Higgs Field, and what part does dark energy play in the final google state?

    For what it is worth I think that life after death is in the minds of people, how they think and feel about your life. As you said lead a good life and influence others by your thoughts and deeds. For after death longevity Albert Einstein is doing rally well, but so also is Vlad the Impaler.

  15. Raphael Santore says:

    Religion is not lazy. It is clever. Dr. Pinn was a victim and he figured it out and is better for it. He shared his growth curve with us in a very dignified way.

  16. Simon Packer says:


    If religion is false and of no real value, then it is not clever so much as evil, surely. It is false hope. Personally I believe Jesus is true hope and science ultimately will be a false hope though obviously with uses. Organised religion, rather than true faith, is also often misleading or worse, even organised christian organisations and denominations at times.

  17. Tom Clark says:

    Edward Hessler: “That idea of soft landings resonates with me. And this is where the hard work of naturalism begins, at least for me.”

    Naturalism can’t offer *too* soft a landing, since it doesn’t satisfy the desires for certainty and easy answers. It doesn’t have immediate surface appeal, at least as judged from the perspective of our current culture. Rather it has explicit ambitions to objectivity that try to minimize the biasing effects of preconceptions and wishful thinking that supernatural religions so often cater to. If a worldview is primarily, although not exclusively, a cognitive tool, then its first order of business is to get the world right according to some reliable ways of knowing.

    Part of the hard work is getting a rough consensus among naturalists on basic empirical and normative issues such as those addressed at the Moving Naturalism Forward conference (complete consensus isn’t necessary or likely possible). Another part is coming up with a livable, coherent naturalistic philosophy that answers what Ron Aronson in his book Living Without God calls “life’s vital questions,” some of which overlap those addressed at the conference. These might include:

    How do we know what we know, and why are we justified in thinking it’s true? How do we know what’s real? (epistemology and cognition)

    What exists, what is real, according to this way of knowing? (metaphysics and ontology)

    Who are we, essentially? (selfhood, personhood, agency)

    How can we best live, as individuals and as a society? (ethics, moral responsibility, government, social policy)

    How can this worldview help with the practical problems of life? What’s in it for me, for those I love, for my culture, for my planet? (practical benefits)

    What’s it all about? (meaning and existential concerns)

    Is the worldview on offer livable and coherent? (viability)

    We’ll be able to answer yes to the last question, posed to naturalism, if we can come up with positive, satisfying answers for the others that are consistent with science. Piece of cake!

  18. darrelle says:

    “. . . and not nearly enough time constructing something positive, a system of networks and support structures free of the spiritual trappings.”

    This point is not rarely made in my experience. I understand that many people think this way, and that it therefore is a valid concern that should be addressed. But I disagree with it. I think it is an illusion in the sense that while there is something real there, I don’t think it is what people are claiming it is.

    Systems of networks and support structures that are not reliant in any philosophical, methodological or material way on religions already exist and have for a long time. That our culture in the US and other places still consists of a majority of religious believers, and that therefore the majority of those providing for and receiving from those networks & support structures does not make those networks and support structures dependent on religion. When people lose their religious beliefs, or never had them, their capacity for empathy and caring is not diminished. Despite what believers often believe, non-believers ethics are not diminished by their lack of faith.

    The systems of networks and support structures that already exist can continue doing what they do without the people participating in them holding religious beliefs. A belief in unevidenced magical tales doesn’t add anything, and in fact often gets in the way. It seems clearly evident to me, as in “no shit,” that leaving religion out of it all would enable us to improve our existing systems of networks and support structures to be more effective both results wise and scope wise.

    It is also clearly evident to me that religious belief is a self fulfilling prophecy in that a central part of the belief system is that you need it and you can’t get what you need from it anywhere else. Getting believers to realize that that is false is what is needed. Not the construction of novel systems of networks and support structures from the ground up.

    As has been pointed out many times, in many places, there are already societies where religious belief is a minority position and religious influence of secular matters is very low. Common examples are places like Sweden and Norway. By any metric used in economics, sociology, etc., typically used to measure and compare societies these countries are the leaders in providing effective systems of networks and support structures, and yet they are also among the least religious. And they achieved this not by devising novel systems to sway believers over to atheism, but by a more mundane progression of changes, and some additions, to existing systems over a period of time in which religious belief also trended down.

  19. Simon Packer says:


    All good points and the inference is that faith in a God of love, able and willing to invade a fallen creation, meets human felt needs. Or that evolution throws up a lot of sometimes painful but meaningless longings as emotional by-products. Treatable to some degree in the short term with distractions and chemicals. I have a comment awaiting moderation, but frankly it is too late to convince me that the supernatural does not happen. I have seen supernatural structural healing of bodies in response to prayer and faith. It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does. I have no idea how God does it in terms of physical mechanism.

  20. Peter says:

    Is it me or generally speaking, people attending to “atheist” talks behave similarly than people attending to theist talks? And I don’t mean it just for this guy, I saw the same kind of “crowd” behavior with R. Dawkins, or a certain Sean Carroll. So why is that?

    It feels to me that most people are just “followers.” They come to listen people talking about critical thinking, but they don’t exercise or practice critical thinking by their own.

    I find it kind of worry, in the sense that such crowd could easily change their mind according to the direction of the wind.

    One possible explanation is that these people are connected to their suffering and are trying to find a place/community where they can vent their suffering and kind of justify it at the same time by blaming something external. Don’t no, just a hunch…

    In the light of what I am saying, assuming my feelings are not too wrong, maybe “we” should do more than just talk about critical thinking, it’s time to teach them how to fish and stop just feeding them with delicious well prepared and appetizing fishes. How to effectively teach people to practice critical thinking, rather than having a bunch of people following a leading charismatic figure without being able to think by themselves? How to teach a crowd to stop being a crowd and start to be a collection of individuals who are able to come to their own conclusions by themselves? Maybe…

  21. Tom Clark says:

    Simon: “it is too late to convince me that the supernatural does not happen. I have seen supernatural structural healing of bodies in response to prayer and faith.”

    If nothing would change your mind about the supernatural, then so be it. The difference between us is, perhaps, that something would change my mind about naturalism, namely evidence to support the existence of the supernatural (one definition of which is at ).

    Then the argument becomes one of what constitutes good evidence. You’re satisfied, on the basis of your experience, that you’ve seen supernatural healing take place. But naturalists won’t accept that as good evidence; they want intersubjective confirmation of the facts independent of any particular experiencer, including you. Is this an irrational bias in favor empiricism, or just good, worldview-neutral epistemic practice that we generally apply to any factual question? I think the latter: In building a worldview, we have to put epistemology first.

  22. Raphael Santore says:

    I am giving these comments complete respect. I make no claims to knowing the truth. I am in awe of Dr. Carroll’s willingness to share so much of his work with us and I was fascinated by Dr Pinn’s journey. I have already stolen many of his phrases like a “a soft place to land” because it perfectly explains a simple way to connect tribes.

  23. FrankL says:

    paul hughes said “I personally suspect that an anthropomorphic god is less dangerous than a deified humankind.”


    What do atheists propose as a substitute for the idea that moral and ethical behavior is not defined as the conclusions of some committee of humans somewhere? The idea of what is right and wrong is a political football, sure, but it is the height of cynicism to say that it deserves to be. Is genocide immoral? Gee, I don’t know, lets ask the committee.

    Please, someone tell me, how do we know what is right and wrong in an atheist world?

  24. BilB says:

    The realty is, FrankL, that all moral codes are the result of inspired thought and etched in stone, and put forward as being the word of some deity. As far as committees go, I don’t think that you need look further than Emporor Constantine.

    My favourite such arbiter of right ad wrong is Alfred of Wessex, King Alfred the Great, who did an amazing job of pulling Brittain together. Good to the extent that there is much of the structure that he laid down in hix short time as ruler in a troubled time.

    And that is very much the point. This work has already been done, and undone, and redone again. We don’t need to go over this every generation. I think though that you are really thinking about the process of teaching, passing on the tradition, of what is right and wrong, and doing it with gravity.

  25. Raphael Santore says:

    Thank you for your thoughts.