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I had never thought about the way my own identities collide to create the person I am until I learned the term intersectionality. First coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a US American lawyer and civil rights activist, intersectionality describes how race, class, gender, and other identities “intersect” or overlap, each interacting with the others to create our entirely unique experiences.

I am a humanist. I am also white, a woman, a non-monogamist, a queer person, a digital nomad with Missouri origins, a person with mental health issues, and a writer. Each of my identities interacts with the others, coming together to create my own unique identity “fingerprint.” And like a fingerprint, no two will be exactly alike.

Intersectionality is often used to describe systems of oppression and how different groups of people are affected by those systems. We can establish a rudimentary scale for measuring the human experience in the context of identities to understand how marginalized or privileged a person is based on systemic factors outside of their control.

If you want a general idea of where you fall on the spectrum of privilege, IDR labs has a quick quiz. I scored 66.7% on this scale, which places me between “somewhat privileged” and “very privileged.”

Note that this quiz is very basic and only takes a handful of identities into account to give you a general understanding of the concept. It is not even close to comprehensive.

Intersectionality in atheism

Many folks who like to listen to what I have to say share the unique identity of being both “US American” and “atheist and/or humanist.” First, let’s focus on the intersection of these two identities: US American and atheist.

While atheist US Americans certainly have many shared experiences, being a Black atheist, for example, is very different from being a white atheist. White atheists have to navigate a US society biased towards Christians. Black atheists have to navigate that plus institutional racism— in the justice system, in education, in healthcare, and in everyday life.

If we zoom in and focus on the various identities of Black atheists, we see even more divergent experiences. Being a Black atheist man is different from being a Black atheist woman. Black atheist women have to navigate the same thing as Black atheist men plus institutional sexism – in the professional world, in healthcare, in the home, and in the justice system.

Being a Black atheist is different from being a white atheist. White atheists have to navigate a US society biased towards Christians. Black atheists have to navigate that plus institutional racism.

Then when we factor in class or income, age, ability, sexuality, and myriad other identities that make people unique, these interacting systems become vastly more complex. Our identities can’t be neatly boxed in atheist US communities, but especially in our more extensive and more diverse global humanist community.

Understanding this is intersectionality.

What role does intersectionality play in secular communities?

Crenshaw notes that intersectionality was a necessary development to push law and society towards egalitarianism. She observed that US courts viewed race and discrimination as a universal experience among Black people and gender discrimination as a universal experience among women. She argued that racism is experienced differently for men and women and different minority groups, and sexism is experienced differently for Black women than for white women. And so on.

Intersectionality provides a basis for understanding the nuance of human experience as it relates to our institutions. When we can recognize the nuanced oppression of systems on various identities, we can better identify how to allocate resources and support to create a more equitable human experience. In other words, it’s a basis for social progress.

As humanists, we want everyone to live a life of dignity in a world where universal human rights are respected and states uphold secularism. We simply cannot work towards these goals effectively without intersectionality.

Many folks in the global humanist community—particularly those who insist on limiting themselves to atheism as an identity—make the mistake of focusing disproportionately on secularism while lacking focus on human rights. 

But what good are secular societies that uphold the values of science, reason, freethought, and free speech without a healthy investment in the human rights of the most disadvantaged and oppressed?

Secular communities struggle with the same intersectionality issues as everybody else

Both the atheist and humanist movements have been historically dominated by folks whose identities intersected to create some of the most significant advantages in the human experience. What I mean is non-disabled, financially stable, white, Western, heterosexual, cisgender men.

These men have had the privilege of not experiencing sexism, racism, discrimination against their sexual orientation, or their ability. The worst discrimination many of them have had to deal with is against their lack of belief in a god – and unlike many other identities, you generally can’t recognize an atheist just by looking at them.

For many of us in secular communities, discrimination against our lack of belief in a god is par for the course, but we also have a myriad of other systems of discrimination to contend with.

In early 2021, the American Humanist Association revoked the “Humanist of the Year” award from Richard Dawkins for his history of public statements that “use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups.” The AHA was referring to numerous tweets and other comments in which Dawkins waded into discussions of transgender identity and race in an insensitive, ignorant, and intentionally provocative manner.

This decision divided the global humanist community. I participated in many intense discussions myself. Many defended Dawkins, saying he was “just asking questions” and that people were trying to “cancel” and censor him.

But here’s the thing: Despite everything Dawkins has done for the humanist and atheist movements—and he has done a lot—he, as a white Western heterosexual cisgender able-bodied and more than financially stable man, is incredibly inept at speaking about the human experience with a lens of intersectionality.

He failed, and continues to fail, at engaging in discussions about human rights in good faith. He cried “censorship” not because he was being censored, but because his insensitive words were being rightfully criticized by those in the community who have a greater insight into the transgender experience. He cried “cancel culture” rather than taking up the challenge to put on a pair of intersectional glasses and more closely examine the intersection between the humanist and transgender identities.

This is not good humanism. And whether or not you support Dawkins, we can all recognize that he made the conversation about transgender identity—an identity which he does not hold—into an abstract thought exercise, rather than yielding the lead of the conversation to transgender folks with very real, non-theoretical experiences.

As we continue to make social progress using intersectionality, more atheist leaders who won the identity lottery—like Dawkins—will say insensitive things and then cry “cancel culture” when their lacking intersectional perspective is criticized.

We have no obligation to continue revering these leaders if they make no effort to take our criticism. Progressive movements are constantly evolving, and sometimes what’s best for the movement is leaving behind leaders who are unwilling to grow with it.

If we genuinely want to grow, humanists have an obligation to make our movement more inclusive, welcoming, and diverse. 

Intersectionality is how we do this.

How can humanists be more intersectional?

At some point, we all have to recognize that winning the identity lottery makes it very difficult to understand what it’s like to not win that lottery. And when people don’t feel understood, they feel like there isn’t space for them to be there.

The only way to create that space in the humanist movement – or in any context – is by handing the proverbial microphone to those who do understand. People who hold identities that intersect with humanism and create an experience that’s unlike, say, the Richard Dawkins experience. These intersections lack representation and need more opportunities to have their experiences validated.

Humanists and other nonreligious folk need to recognize that we need to take the lead on discussions around complex human rights issues. Many self-identifying atheists will tell you that this isn’t our responsibility. Those individuals should and will be left behind. They do not have the capacity to carry secularism forward into the future.

anya overmann

Anya Overmann is a digital nomad, writer, activist, and lifelong Humanist. As former President of Young Humanists International, she continues to work to advocate for inclusive young humanist communities...