A “Soft Place to Land” for African-American Humanists: Interview w Dr. Anthony Pinn

As the Humanist community strives to become more inclusive, many African-Americans find themselves asking: where do we fit into this all? Although religious and political life is nuanced within any group, African-American Humanists struggle to figure out what it means to function in a society that assumes they do not exist. That is, there does not appear to be a space for them in the Humanist community and from American society’s perception at large, they are assumed to be theistic.

In the public sphere, African-American religious life is often associated with theism, so much so that it is almost unheard of to whisper the words atheist, agnostic, or Humanist for fear of being reprimanded, or discriminated against. While the African-American Humanist community is growing, the community is still quite taboo in most spaces.

anthonypinnheadshot-0x500Anthony Pinn, Agnes Cullen Arnold professor of Humanities and Professor of Religion at Rice University, recently spoke at the Yale Humanist Community’s Humanist Haven about this tension. Pinn’s talk consisted mostly of sharing his personal journey from Christianity to Humanism. From boyhood until adulthood, Pinn was drawn to working in the church—often taking on roles that allowed him to work with people in need. Pinn found, however, that theism did not give him the framework necessary to help members of his congregations. He felt that his job was less about making real change in the lives of those around him, and more about “keeping the congregation happy.”

Pinn’s decision to leave was complicated by the fact that he did not see Humanist communities as particularly welcoming to people, specifically African-Americans, who may be struggling to put together a new communal identity without theism. It is clear from his talk that Pinn understands how leaving a faith community can be hard on any person but he wants to say that for African-Americans it’s larger than simply leaving a tradition; it is leaving a tradition that for hundreds of years has helped your people make sense of their space in the United States.

One of Pinn’s most notable ideas during his talk was his notion of creating a “soft place to land” for African-Americans moving towards Humanism.  Humanist communities, according to Pinn, must be aware that moving into a space of Humanism is not as simple as calling yourself a “Humanist” or moving away from religious ways of thinking.  African-Americans leaving theistic traditions, and specifically Christianity, are leaving cultural support systems.

This soft place to land, at least in my opinion, consists of a community’s ability to understand and work with people leaving theistic traditions and learning how to create a space for them within said communities. In other words, it does not mean simply fostering diversity for the sake of diversity, but understanding what it means to leave a tradition that may result in losing a major part their identity.

As Pinn’s talk came to a close, it was clear that many in the audience were not quite sure how to begin creating a “soft place to land.” “What if the Humanist community just isn’t meant to be this sort of space?” one person in the audience asked.  “Wouldn’t this be more suitable for groups like Unitarian Universalists?” another person asked. The questions, regardless of what they were, all seemed to imply that race is not something that is talked about widely in the Humanist community and this could serve as a challenge to Humanist communities to be more culturally and religiously literate.

After his talk, I had the opportunity to ask Pinn to expound upon many of the things he talked about:

(Mesha Arant) How is race talked about in the Humanist community?

(Anthony Pinn) From my perspective, deep and complex engagement with race is still a weakness within Humanist community conversation and dialogue.  One of the significant challenges within the Humanist Movement involves substantial movement away from difference as a problem to solve, and toward an understanding of diversity as an opportunity, as a potential strength of the movement.

MA: What are some difficulties for African-Americans leaving organized religion?

AP: Because of the general perception (inside and outside African-American communities) that African-Americans, almost by nature, are religious and that without a God-base one is hard pressed to be moral and ethical, African-Americans living theistic traditions face ridicule, as well as loss of family and friends.  There is also the very real possibility of financial consequences.  This produced triple jeopardy for black men – racial bias, class bias, and bias against non theists; and, it amount to quadruple jeopardy for black women – racial bias, gender bias, class bias, and bias against non theists.

MA: You said that African-Americans thinking about joining the Humanist community need a “soft place to land.” What would this look like in a community?

AP: The “look of a soft place to land” has to be determined within the context of local communities because it has to take into consideration the situation of people within a particular locale.  In general, however, it would involve providing the support – emotional, social, and so on – people need as they transition away from theism.  This would need to be mindful of what I said in response to your second question.

MA: Any last advice for African-Americans who are thinking of leaving a theistic outlook, and who are maybe considering Humanism?

AP: It’s important to be true to one’s perspective, to embrace the “truth” of one’s take on life.  This, however, should include an openness to conversation with those who disagree as well as a commitment to work for the general enhancement of life despite points of philosophical or theological disagreement.  As Thoreau notes, live deliberately and with intentionality.  Or, as my grandmother advised:  move through the world knowing your footsteps matter.

Mesha Arant (Yale University)

Mesha ArantMesha received her B.A. in Religious Studies from Wofford College in 2012 and is currently a Masters of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School, where she studies Christian theology, ethics, and African-American religious traditions. During her undergrad she traveled to India to study art, music, and dance. While there, she lived with Benedictine monks who combined Christian doctrine with Hindu rituals—a trip that began her interest in inter-religious dialogue. Her current interests include African-American humanism and creating dialogue between humanists and theists. In her free time she enjoys working on her art and music. Follow her on twitter @meshaarant

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