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

Debbie Goddard

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?

Discussions in the public arena usually don’t allow much time to unpack complex ideas, and the conversations around identity politics, a term often used as shorthand, suffer as a result. When the idea is criticized in interviews and discussions by respected intellectuals, including Steven Pinker and Sam Harris, reactions are predictably polarized because the term is so loaded. I’d like to investigate a few different understandings of “identity politics” in the public arena and address some of the criticisms raised recently by Harris, Pinker, and others in hopes of reducing confusion in the debate.

Identity Politics: What Is It?

The term identity politics was used sparingly in academic, political, and activist discourse for most of the past four or five decades. Its popularity increased in the 1990s, then surged in the past two years, particularly in public discussions around campus activists and other subjects such as Democratic Party strategy and the attitudes of the electorate that resulted in the election of President Trump. My perception is that it’s the critics on the Right and the Left who use the term most, rather than the activists who may be using the frame to organize.

Identity politics can be understood in different ways. Most simply, it refers to the fact that our political positions and interests are often informed by, or grounded in, aspects of our identity and experiences. So, atheists and other nonreligious people may organize based on that shared identity, and we are likely to be interested in issues including church/state separation and challenging religious privilege. Individuals may be motivated to join groups, and identities may be adopted, because they are in a minority that can experience discrimination, prejudice, oppression (another loaded term), marginalization, and a lack of representation related to their group “membership.” As Steven Pinker said in a recent interview, “Jews really did have a reason to form the Anti-Defamation League.”

Interest and identity groups may form to seek increased political power or to promote social change. Individuals may organize around their status as members of a racialized minority, as African Americans did during the Civil Rights movement. They may organize around gender and fight for reproductive rights. Of course, the list of identities that people organize around is as long as a list of social categories: veterans, Catholics, senior citizens, ex-Muslims, farm workers, members of the LGBTQ community, young mothers, college students, and so on.

An interest group may have enough in common that it is considered a voting bloc. For example, the 2012 Reason Rally attempted to marshal the “reality-based community” as a secular voting bloc with enough strength to be taken seriously by politicians. The “identity politics” strategy can be an effective way to organize.

A second facet is that identity politics recognizes that individuals who share an identity are likely to have commonalities of experience related to that identity, because our identities and “membership” in social categories shape our experiences. And as mentioned, our experiences often influence our political interests and positions. Senior citizens and older adults pay more attention to policies relating to Medicare funding and social security, while LGBTQ people are more likely to be concerned with issues that affect that community.

These two parts of identity politics—that our political positions are often informed by our identities and experiences and that people who share an identity are likely to have some commonalities of experience that can lead to similar attitudes about relevant issues—seem uncontroversial to me. Of course we care about issues that affect us! (This is not to say that everyone only cares about issues that affect them, but surely we recognize that being affected personally often motivates a person to care about an issue.)

Is there more to it? Let’s consider recent criticism.

Critiques from Steven Pinker and Sam Harris

Steven Pinker has come out swinging against identity politics, saying the following in a recent interview:

Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status. Its signature is the tic of preceding a statement with “As a,” as if that bore on the cogency of what was to follow. Identity politics originated with the fact that members of certain groups really were disadvantaged by their group membership, which forged them into a coalition with common interests … .But when it spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values, including, ironically, the pursuit of justice for oppressed groups.

In a recent podcast discussion with Ezra Klein, Sam Harris gave the following description:

[W]hat I mean by identity politics is that you are reasoning on the basis of skin color, or religion, or gender, or some particular trait, which you have by accident, which you can’t change—you fell into that bin through no process of reasoning on your own, you couldn’t be convinced to be white or black—and to reason from that place as though, because you’re you, because you have the skin color you have, certain things are true and very likely incommunicable to other people who don’t share your identity.

Epistemological Concerns: Pinker and Harris share the fear that “identity politics” means that some groups have special knowledge that can’t be accessed by others. I acknowledge that many proponents assert, to different degrees, that those who aren’t part of a group are likely to lack subjective knowledge about the experience of being a member of that group.

I agree with the concern on some level. Although it’s clear that a veteran is likely more capable of speaking about the experience of being a veteran than is a non-veteran, it’s also true that there is not one experience of being a veteran. Whether a vet was in the Air Force or the Marines, whether he or she was drafted for Vietnam or signed up for Iraq, the experiences of individuals within a group are often very different. For that reason, the affiliations and commonalities between members may be tenuous at best. A white ex-Catholic atheist living in Boston may have some experiences and interests in common with a black ex-Baptist atheist in Memphis and a Pakistani ex-Muslim atheist in Detroit, but it’s a mistake to think that their political attitudes should be similar because they’re atheists or to assume that one of them can speak for all atheists by virtue of their individual atheist identity. There is not a singular atheist experience.

I’ll mention that as a secular organizer, as a former Center for Inquiry campus outreach coordinator, and as the director of African Americans for Humanism (if Pinker would accept this speaking from experience), I support the existence of “interest groups,” including students, African Americans, and ex-Muslims, within the secular community, because it’s clear that secular people with different backgrounds and experiences do have different needs and interests.

So although I sympathize with the epistemological concern, the perspective does have utility in practice. Let’s say you’re investigating the rumors that a local businessman treats women inappropriately in his store. It’s more reasonable to speak with women customers than with men because the women are more likely to have subjective knowledge of the businessman’s behavior toward women. Although there are activists who may take this perspective further, I’m not convinced it’s harmful to recognize that subjective experiences related to our identities and positionality give us information that others might not have, as is true for others and their experiences. I believe that understanding this can help increase our empathy and our political morality.

Organizing around Immutable Characteristics or Innate Traits: Harris and others are critical of basing political attitudes on characteristics we’re born with or into, including skin color and gender, because we end up in these categories through no fault of our own.

To be frank, I disagree. How can one applaud the nonreligious for organizing but criticize racial minorities for doing the same? Unlike one’s atheism, we have almost no option to hide our race (or gender, or many other characteristics) when we show up to a job interview, run for political office, apply for a loan, or interact with the police. There’s no Race Closet for us to go back into.

If Harris and others know that there is prejudice and bias against racial minorities (a fact that is well-supported), if we know that black people, people who “look Muslim,” and other minorities suffer from bias and bigotry, then why disagree with those groups’ efforts to organize and combat that discrimination? It seems to me that our “immutable characteristics” and the social identities we may be born into that put us into marginalized categories are important to organize around precisely because we can’t change or hide those identities.

Recall that Pinker said, “Jews really did have a reason to form the Anti-Defamation League.” Perhaps we disagree about whether black people really do have a reason to organize to challenge prejudice. My experiences of racism as a black person inform my perspective on this issue, and the social sciences show us that there is plenty of racial prejudice in our society. I can’t help but wonder whether critics lack that knowledge because they don’t have similar experiences.

Mark Lilla: Movement versus Institutional Politics

Ten days after Trump was elected, political scientist Mark Lilla wrote a controversial op-ed in The New York Times titled “The End of Identity Liberalism” that put some of the blame for Trump’s win on recent identity politics. Although the argument suffered from the limitations of the medium, Lilla was able to expound on his thesis in subsequent interviews, in talks, and eventually in the book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.

Lilla draws a distinction between “institutional politics,” or electoral politics and “movement politics” focused on social change. He criticizes Hillary Clinton’s “strategic mistake” of slipping into the “rhetoric of diversity” at campaign stops because it made the white working class and those with strong religious convictions feel excluded and turn to Trump. College students’ concerns about gender pronouns and other “campus craziness” are also harmful because … well, because it pushes more “average voters” to vote for Trump.

Lilla is clear that his primary focus is on political strategy and winning elections. He argues that his “side”—liberals, Democrats, or the Left, depending—must come together as Democrats and do what it takes to gain political power because “institutional politics will trump movement politics all the time.” On the other hand, his calls for unity that are followed by potshots at student activists, and his ambivalence toward movement politics over the past four decades, bring up more questions.

For example, might social change need to come before political power? Consider that attitudes about members of the LGBTQ community needed to shift before laws could pass in favor of same-sex marriage and against gender discrimination.

And if Trump voters perceive themselves as losing status in an increasingly diverse country, as recent studies show, can Democrats craft a platform that’s relevant to its diverse constituency while appealing to voting blocs that fear status loss? In this polarized climate, how do controversial identity groups such as the nonreligious advocate for ourselves without inviting a religious backlash?

Considering Lilla’s concern about the political attitudes of the white working class, the religious, and the “average voter,” I wonder whether his issue isn’t primarily with liberal “identity politics” but instead is with the increasing demographic diversity of our political body, the perceived empowerment of minority groups, and the conservative backlash against these. In other words, it’s not about our side’s pronouns as much as it’s about their side’s fears of minority power.


The more I see the term identity politics in current discourse, the more evident it is that people have vastly different ideas in mind and are talking past each other. For a number of professors and conservatives, “identity politics” summons an image of student protesters who spend too much time on Tumblr or vocal social media activists. Others may think of the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for marriage equality. We should be aware of this and strive for clarity when we participate in public conversations around such topics.

Personally, I’d like to see concerned writers spend more time digging into the historical causes of the perceived problems to make grounded recommendations for action and spend less time chiding people for getting involved in issues that affect them. I’d be interested to see more information out there about the following: Why have identity affiliations increased on the Right and the Left? Could there be a connection with the increase in news media for targeted constituencies and the growth of social media “walled gardens” such as Facebook? It seems obvious that these new tools to connect us with like-minded people can strengthen our affiliations and identities. (I wonder how different Civil Rights activism would have looked if Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were on Twitter.)

Secular humanists should keep in mind that the secular community also engages in identity politics, whether it’s forming a Congressional Freethought Caucus, marching at the Reason Rally, or participating in the Openly Secular campaign. It seems hypocritical for secular humanists to decry identity politics yet happily engage in and defend them when they involve identities that we ourselves have.

Recognizing that political interests are often informed by our identities, and that people with similar identities are likely to have similar experiences, is reasonable. I only wish the conversation around this topic was more so.


Further Reading

  1. Klein, Ezra. “The Sam Harris Debate: Ezra and Sam Harris Debate Race, IQ, Identity Politics, and Much More.” Vox, April 9, 2018. Available online at https://www.vox.com/2018/4/9/17210248/sam-harris-ezra-klein-charles-murray-transcript-podcast.
  2. Lilla, Mark. “The End of Identity Liberalism.” New York Times, November 18, 2016.
  3. Pinker, Steven. “Steven Pinker: Identity Politics Is ‘An Enemy of Reason and Enlightenment Values.’” Weekly Standard, February 15, 2018.
  4. Remnick, David. “A Conversation with Mark Lilla on His Critique of Identity Politics.” New Yorker, August 25, 2017.

Debbie Goddard

Debbie Goddard is the Vice President and Director of Campus and Community Programs as well as the Director of African Americans for Humanism at the Center for Inquiry.

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 …

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