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On May 21, 2022, Pitzer College in Claremont, California – home of the nation’s only Secular Studies Program – featured Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson as its graduation speaker for the Class of 2020.

It was a momentous occasion, not only because the Class of 2020—thanks to COVID—had to wait two years for their in-person graduation ceremony, but because Dr. Hutchinson may be the first open, out, and unabashed atheist to fulfill the honorable role of graduation speaker at a top-tier liberal arts college. And her secularity was front and center: in her introduction by Dean Allen Omoto, she was described as, among other things, “the author of Humanists in the Hood…and Moral Combat…which was the first book on atheism to be written by an African American woman…she founded Black Skeptics Los Angeles…in 2020, Harvard University named her Humanist of the Year…”

In her speech, Dr. Hutchinson did not hold back or downplay her atheism or humanism, but made them central pillars of her powerfully brilliant speech.

The speech

YouTube video
(Starts at 43:36)

Dr. Hutchinson’s speech was an acknowledgment of the suffering the Class of 2020 has gone through given the pandemic, a searing critique of the regressive state of “AmeriKKKa,” and an inspiring, intersectional call for social justice to be at the forefront of a progressive, secular agenda.

The speech touched on so many timely, pressing issues. Dr. Hutchinson honored the recently slain African Americans in Buffalo, as well as so many others whose violent end inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. She critiqued institutional homophobia and transphobia. She addressed climate crisis. She condemned MAGA cowardice, racist terrorism, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism, as well as the growing inequalities and egregious excesses of reining capitalism, specifically: “those fortunate son oligarch parasites who can man luxury missions to the moon on the backs of full-time, nonunionized Amazon workers dining at foodbanks and living in shelters.”

As she honored teen members of the LBGTQI community—particularly those of color—Dr. Hutchinson made specific mention of the “insidious role that organized religion” plays in bullying such people. She condemned the ways in which organized religion often victim-blames, shames, or gaslights those who do not conform to standard gender norms or Biblical sex roles. She lambasted those who sanctimoniously insist that “all you need is prayer” or “all you need is to get good with God” as ways to navigate and overcome the struggles of the day. Reflecting on her own abortions, Dr. Hutchinson pointed her middle finger at the powerful “theocrats” in our nation, noting that we as a nation are being “held hostage by five Supreme Court Christian fascists who are a pitchfork away from hacking up Roe”—which would be “an act of political, economic, and religious warfare on our bodies and communities.”

“How will y’all shut that shit down?” she demanded of the Class of 2020. “Don’t make me come back here as a sabertooth gnat to hound you,” she chided. “Just kidding. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the woo-woo.”

Concluding her speech by emphasizing the need for empathy, compassion, justice—and quoting the moving poetry of Lucille Clifton—Dr. Hutchinson was met with a rousing standing ovation (and perhaps a few offended grandparents from Orange County).

While some may have found the speech too controversial, too radical, or too woke, so be it. Dr. Hutchinson proudly embodies the spirit of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the agitator”—that rare, heroic individual who insists on speaking social truths that others don’t want to hear; who demands equality for all though such demands make the comfortable uncomfortable; who calls us to admit that “this is a world where things are not right;” and who—though stigmatized and derided by many—is necessary to battle injustice.

Finally, Dr. Hutchinson’s 2020 graduation speech provides us all with an inspirational view of what progressive secular humanism looks like, what radical atheism looks like. It is multi-racial, multi-sexual, multi-gendered, fiercely democratic, and needfully aligned with the oppressed.

It is, thankfully, our future.

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...