Why Are Secular Humanists So Afraid of Other People’s Identity Politics?

Debbie Goddard

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In the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of handwringing and lamentation from thinkers ostensibly “on my side”—individuals who identify as sitting primarily on the left half of the political line, especially nonreligious liberal public intellectuals—around the problem of “identity politics.” Many words have been spilled, online debates had, panels hosted, and books written attacking a powerful and terrifying ideology of “identity” that has been colonizing impressionable otherwise-liberal minds on college campuses and within the Democratic Party. This bogeyman is blamed for political correctness, for no-platforming, and even for actively undermining the Enlightenment Project, and it’s charged with driving some people (particularly white men) to react by affiliating themselves with the alt-right and white nationalism or by voting for Donald Trump.

Simultaneously, I see “our side”—and sometimes the same thinkers—giving talks about how important it is that secular people “come out” and identify themselves as Atheists-with-a-capital-A, writing op-eds encouraging people to “join our tribe,” and celebrating the new Congressional Freethought Caucus, a group created to represent the increasing number of nonreligious people in America and to better give a voice to our concerns in the political arena. (That caucus, I’d say, is about as definitive an example of “identity politics” as can be conceived.)

What gives? Is the problem actually “identity politics” as a whole? Or is there a line that can be drawn to separate the good from the bad? Does the confusion stem from different understandings of the term? Or are opponents creating some specter to attack, a strawman built from social changes they’re uncomfortable with?

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