Where would African-Americans be without black churches? Many chained by slavery were sustained by belief in a better world awaiting God's people. A century later, gentle armies of the churched, led by a Christian minister named Martin Luther King Jr., forced the national conscience to confront the gap between its ideals and the reality of segregation.
Yet in the month when Christians of all colors celebrate the birth of the man whose teachings inspired King, a professor of religion argued, counterintuitively, to a Harvard audience that blacks who don't believe in God offer his fellow African-Americans a more realistic worldview.
Anthony B. Pinn of Rice University in Texas has been on both sides of the is-there-a-God divide. Once an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he now evangelizes for African-American humanism (atheism to those outside the ivory tower).
"Religion is not confined to the institutional structures that dot the landscape," he told a crowd of 30 last week in a talk sponsored by Harvard's humanist chaplaincy. Humanism, in his view, is a religious system that, while rejecting supernatural agency in the universe, nonetheless offers a "thick and robust existence" through an appreciation of the connections between all living things with ritual rooted in the mundane pleasures of life such as sharing a meal or walking in the woods.
Pinn's belief in the divine foundered on a reef that has shipwrecked many a believer's faith, an inability to reconcile human misery with the existence of a loving God. He felt a call to ministry very early in life and preached for the first time when he was just 10. Ordained after college, he served an African Methodist Episcopal church in Brooklyn. But his religious certainty bled away in the light of what he could see out his window in his drug-riddled neighborhood.
"It became increasingly difficult to preach 'Jesus saves' when young men across the street were dying in the park over a vial of crack," he said. "The theology didn't work for me. . . . I was willing to be a lot of things, but I was not going to be a hypocrite."
His streetwise disillusionment blossomed into an intellectual critique of religion after he earned a degree at Harvard Divinity School. In constructing this critique, Pinn acknowledged a debt, ironically, to the late Howard Thurman, the Christian theologian and Boston University dean, as well as to author Richard Wright, who rejected religion in some of his work.
Pinn's theology parts ways with the black church over such issues as the latter's view of the human body. White racists historically mocked black bodies, saying, for instance, that they naturally smelled bad, Pinn said. The black church rescued the body from this condemnation, regarding it as "a vessel for the divine" and practicing a physical, ecstatic form of worship. Pinn recalled from his ministry days that church mothers didn't consider him to have really preached on a Sunday unless his shirt was soaked with sweat.
Rejecting supernatural explanations and the body-soul divide, Pinn said humanists like himself see salvation as "a means to a fuller sense of self in relationship to others and the larger world," in a word, community.
An African Methodist Episcopal minister and friend of Pinn's in the audience applauded his intellectual performance.
"In an imperfect world -- for me, with a perfect God -- I love to hear viewpoints that provoke honest thought, and he certainly did that," said the woman, who requested anonymity because her comments had not been approved by her bishop.
Pinn made clear that he's not attempting a hostile takeover of America's dominant religious mindset. "I am not trying to close down churches," he assured the audience.
Questioned by a young woman as to why black people would accept religion, which she denigrated as a system handed to them by white people, Pinn replied that "black churches have done a wonderful job of helping African-Americans survive in an absurd world," providing psychological support against such torments as slavery. "That is a very good thing," he said.
The appeal of black churches is not a relic of antebellum history, he added, as the last two decades saw middle-class American blacks, disillusioned with secular life, migrating back to church. Moreover, in get-ahead America, the so-called megachurches, whether you love or loathe them, have a pitch-perfect message, which he summed up as, "Jesus wants you to be successful."
"That's appealing," Pinn said. "It's better than a lottery ticket."