Anthony Pinn talks with author and sociologist PHIL ZUCKERMAN about the winding path that led him to secular studies and his serious concerns about the future of higher education.


PHIL ZUCKERMAN: At the University of Oregon, there used to be preachers in the main quad. And I mean, I was just dumbfounded, riveted. And I would, I would channel my inner actor. I would mock them. Every time they’d say something, when there was a pause, I’d say “How hot is hell? Tell us how hot hell is.” And this used to kill the crowd.

So I didn’t see religion as, I didn’t just shrug my shoulders a walk on, I felt like I had to engage it and had to debunk it, for better or for ill. And I wrote the atheist column in The Student Insurgent, the kind of radical paper on campus, and I covered the atheist beat. So I guess I was always filtering stuff through that framework of sort of secular humanism, for sure.

ANTHONY PINN: You were doing the damn thing! And, you know, it sounds like as an undergraduate, you reached a point where you thought “This world is for me. I’m an academic.” And I’m wondering, when you reached a point where secular humanism wasn’t simply your family stance, where was the point at which you said, This is me? I’m a secular humanist.

PHIL Z: I remember my first serious girlfriend, I was in 10th grade, she was in 11th grade. And we were in the same classes at school. We had the same social circles. She was smart, she was kind. I was madly in love with her. And her father was an Evangelical, nondenominational preacher from Kansas, or Oklahoma, I can’t remember, who had come out to Santa Monica to save the heathen. I was at her house all the time. Her parents were so nice. Her dad actually was not my, my stereotypical version of the kind of preacher I thought he was not. He was a calm, bookish man with little glasses. There was nothing about him that was fire and brimstone.

But they finally invited me to church one day, and I don’t know if I’d ever been to church, and I was 15. And it was this big, huge warehouse that they had converted into a church. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing and I don’t…it makes me sound like an asshole or something. Like I understood the power of the community. But I was just like, what is happening? I remember, for example, very clearly, at one point in the service, they call up this young couple very young, crying, holding a newborn baby. And I remember my girlfriend’s dad saying, Well, this is so and so and so and so. Their baby was born, you know, 16 days ago with a terrible heart defect. Let’s all pray and beg God to cure this baby’s heart. I’m thinking, here’s a newborn couple in their early 20s, their first child who’s alive now but is about to die because it’s born with a defective heart. And my girlfriend’s dad is asking everybody to pray for this baby. My heart went out to this couple. I was devastated. And I thought how wonderful that they’re surrounded by so much love, so much care…but I was also like, what is happening? These people think that through the magic of mental emails, there’s a magical invisible being that will cure this baby? And even if they did, what does that say? If they didn’t pray, God wouldn’t save the baby? The whole thing was just crazy to me.

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Anthony Pinn is one of the foremost scholars of African American humanism, author of more than 20 books, and the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University.