Interview with Professor Anthony Pinn – Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities, Rice University

by | June 6, 2018

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Anthony Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University.  He earned his B.A. from Columbia University, and M.Div. and Ph.D. in the study of religion from Harvard University. He is an author, humanist, and public speaker. Also, and this is in no way a complete listing of titles or accomplishments, Pinn is the Founding Director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning (CERCL) at Rice University.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g. geography, culture, language, and religion/irreligion?

Professor Anthony B. Pinn: I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and in a fairly religious family (particularly my mother’s side of the family).  Church was a major cultural and social force in my early years – so much so that I moved into ministry at a relative young age.  We’d moved from a Baptist church to an independent church that eventually affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church denomination, and it was within that denomination I received ordination and worked as a youth pastor through much of my years in school – high school, college, and some of graduate school.

Jacobsen: When did the humanist ethic and aesthetic first come to you? What was the first explicit mention of yourself as a humanist?

Pinn: I grew into humanism as my theology and religious sensibilities did not line up with my experience and the conditions of life in a more general sense.  This process started while I was a college student at Columbia University, and it was completed during my early years in the PhD program at Harvard University.  My theology didn’t address the circumstances of collective life — e.g., racism, class discrimination and so on.  Rather, my theology and religious setting required surrender of these existential questions and a somewhat blind adherence to doctrine.  With time, that approach created a dissonance that I couldn’t maintain.  I had to either comfort myself as a safeguard of the “Tradition”, or I would have to leave theism (because the problem was larger than my church and denomination).  I decided to leave theism.

I can’t recall the first time I was called a humanism, or labelled myself a humanist.

Jacobsen: How did these inform your research work and educational pursuits and attainments over time? Some from the most prestigious and authoritative post-secondary institutions in the world. 

Pinn: My interests in religion as both academic subject and personal concern motivated my early study of religion.  However, I came to realize only my academic study of religion – as a cultural force in the world – could be justified.  Much of my work now involves an effort to better understand the nature and meaning of humanism.

Jacobsen: What is the importance of having the moral authority and community solidarity in times of strife, tribulation, trial, moral ambiguity, political instability, economic uncertainty, and fundamentalist (religion, Islamism and Christian Dominionism, and non-religion, e.g., ethnic nationalism and supremacism)?

Pinn: I’m not certain I understand the question. Moral authority is subjective and community solidarity is conditional.  I would say, however, that community remains important across various challenges.  There is a need for connection, for the presence of the likeminded, who confirm one’s life choices and understand one’s life challenges.  Religion serves to accomplish this for some, but humanism also serves this function as well.

Jacobsen: What seems like the next steps for the non-religious movements in North America over the 2018/2019 period?

Pinn: There is no one answer to that question in that there is no consensus related to concerns or context for non-religious “movements” in North America.  The next steps?  That depends on what these various organizations and the “movements” they constitute under and as their goals and objectives.  I’m not certain there is consistent related to goals and objectives.  I, however, would argue that non-religious movements will only be relevant moving forward IF they concern themselves with various dimensions of social justice work.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Pinn: Nothing comes to mind.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Pinn.

Image Credit: Rice University.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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One thought on “Interview with Professor Anthony Pinn – Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities, Rice University

  1. Nsajigwa Nsa'Sam

    Good one, i happened to have read about him years ago either through free inquiry magazine, if not then via Norm Allens book The black humanist experience…
    Aluta continua…its for the lifetime, and legacy behind..!


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