Navigating Critical Thinking, Intersectionality, and Identity Politics in the Secular Movement

Author Sincere Kirabo speaks on the "Intersection of Humanism and Social Justice Work" panel at the AHA's Annual Conference in Chicago

Living is easy with eyes closed
misunderstanding all you see.
–John Lennon

Doing the work I’m actively engaged in leads me to frequently network with an ever-growing segment of the secular community who want to apply their humanist values in practical ways to promote equality and challenge various cultural prejudices.

I take this for granted. I sometimes forget that not everyone is on the same wavelength when it comes to critiquing dubious conventional wisdom.

Some don’t like change. Some are smugly incurious. Some are eager to dismiss matters that don’t directly impact their lives. Some have no desire to explore the vastness and layered nuance of the world beyond carefully curated comfort zones.

Within atheist and secular humanist circles, there’s a high tendency to revere the idea of certain labels and terms and, at the same time, have a fervent distaste for what one imagines is meant by other specific labels and terms.

Because I have neither the patience nor time to continually retread these matters, I’ve etched out a brief reference guide that explains what is and isn’t meant by these often misunderstood and misused words.


Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a means of data acquisition and rational assessment that focuses on ferreting out the undue influence of bias, self-deception, and propaganda in decision-making. It’s a tool meant to produce more intellectually honest introspection as well as facilitate more judicious reflection about routine assumptions, messages, and claims we encounter in everyday life. In short, critical thinking is a reality testing filter.

Critical thinking is a way to exhibit executive control over our more primitive parts of the brain that prefer to rely on passion and lazy thinking. Because we are fallible beings, the pursuit of critical thinking is a lifelong endeavor rather than some imagined static, objective mindset one can obtain.

Contrary to what some wish to believe, humans are very emotional creatures by nature—and I mean all of us. There isn’t anything inherently bad about this; however, emotions can potentially warp our perceptions in adverse ways. We also have a penchant for mentally heeding the path of least resistance. This includes intuition and cultural attitudes, two modes of thought that sometimes run counter to reason, experience, and science.

When it comes to this learned skill we describe as critical thinking, some choose to ignore two facts. One, included in this appeal to science are the social sciences, as natural science isn’t the only means of life interpretation and inquiry. Two, some humanists and atheists have a hard time understanding that the process of critical thinking isn’t limited to the domain of scrutinizing religious faith, supernaturalism, or paranormal claims. Critical thinking must also be applied to other forms of social phenomena within society that preserve harmful prejudices.



Intersectionality theory was conceived by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the experience of Black women, and the understanding that being Black and being a woman can’t be examined independently but must be considered in their interactions as the two marginalized identities reinforce one another. For Black women, sexism is racialized. At the same time, the racism they encounter is influenced by gender. The word describes a facet of reality commonly overlooked—the fact that modes of discrimination overlap.

Crenshaw explained it as “The idea that we experience life—sometimes discrimination, sometimes benefits—based on a number of different identities that we have.” And as author Sikivu Hutchinson writes:

Intersectionality means respecting and validating the full nexus of difference that makes up our identities, experiences, and world views. Intersectionality for me means that my personhood and subjectivity are shaped by being an African American middle class, straight, female cisgendered, able-bodied, college educated, Standard English-speaking sexual assault survivor who lives in a highly segregated, overpoliced, underserviced predominantly African American and Latino community with few living wage jobs.

It’s the intellectual understanding of the fact that we all inhabit multiple states of being, each fashioned with a distinct set of characteristics. It’s also the descriptive articulation of the way we are subject to the simultaneous and interacting (“intersectional”) effect of various oppressive systems (this includes sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, racism, cisgenderism, ageism, nativism, etc.). People are granted a surplus or shortfall of value within each system based upon certain qualities they do or don’t possess. Yes, these are systems that exist around us—we operate within certain modes of social order and personal belief or intent doesn’t mean we’re disqualified from still benefitting from or actively participating in these oppressive systems. This is why oppression isn’t about intent—it’s about impact.

When we lack an intersectional assessment of complex social positions, what results are conspicuous blind spots in our observation, attitude, and response to any issue related to any act of oppression.

Take for example the conflation of class and race. Or Black men who decry respectability politics but police Black women’s class, language, and sexuality. Or academic research that ignores subjects who don’t match the archetype of their “primary” social group. Or, more relative to secular circles, atheists—particularly cis-hetero white men who experience nontheist discrimination—who believe atheists are the most oppressed group in the US.

These things are the result of not internalizing an intersectional lens. When we refuse to incorporate this approach into our worldview, we end up with fairly one-dimensional ideas of the way others experience reality. We see this play out in the secular community all the time.

Village atheism, among other things, refers to those who prefer to see all nonbelievers as an undifferentiated category and thus fail to realize the problem with prioritizing the experiences and voices of dominant group representation to the marginalization of those existing beyond this narrow spectrum.

This segment of atheists keenly detects nontheist discrimination yet tends to denigrate or devalue such an analysis of other forms of prejudice. And then, after an established tradition of failing to adequately recognize the variation of life experiences, they react with bewilderment and animus when spaces are created to take on more diverse issues.

Critical thinking is wedded to intersectionality in that intersectional critiques conceptualize, synthesize, evaluates, and applies information collected by observation, experience, reasoning, and reflection. By incorporating an inclusive lens that regards intersectionality, one is able to better discern and challenge overlapping systems of bigotry and exclusion.


Identity Politics

The term “identity politics” refers to a form of political engagement that emphasizes issues and perspectives relevant to shared aspects of an identity. “Identity” is based on cultural context, social history, and lived experiences.

We’re all familiar with the maxim, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” Identity politics is a means of seeking, demanding, negotiating, and acquiring increased agency, self-determination, and social power currently not being distributed in an equal or just manner.

When we think of identity politics, people usually consider movements such as Black Lives Matter, feminism, and LGBTQIA+ activism. The purpose of these causes is to redress specific types of discrimination and injustice that disproportionately impacts the lives of certain groups.

Critical thinking entails the examination of structures or elements related to common assumptions and what we consider evidence. Activism based on identity politics arises from enduring, contemplating, and investigating pervasive and systematic inconsistencies in numerous patterns of cultural attitudes, government oversight, and social systems.

You can’t seek justice until you detect injustice, and it takes a critical appraisal of reality to achieve this clarity. Just as some are unable to identity all the ways atheists are discriminated against on a daily basis, so it is the case with other forms of inequality. We are only able to tease out and quantify these things through diligence and rebuking conventional views that demand we pay no mind to the man behind the curtain.


Intersectionality isn’t woo—it’s social science based on empirical research. And when it comes to identity politics, intellectual dishonesty often accompanies those who rail against its existence.

Positions or movements that deviate from widely accepted thought and practice are labeled “identity politics” with a strict pejorative inference. At the same time, special interests that jive with cis-hetero white male mainstream narratives tend to be exempt from such uncharitable critique.

I have yet to hear anyone complain about the identity politics necessarily bound up in the atheism movement. New Atheism is literally a sociopolitical movement mainly based on a single variable identity. Vocal atheists demanding social liberation from religious bigotry and an end to discriminatory legislative policies that preference religious hegemony is textbook identity politics in action.

Intertwined with this qualified disapproval of identity politics is the condemnation of “political correctness.” Political correctness is a concept conceived, uncritically accepted, and exploited by the privileged to parody the mere implication of basic respect for others. It’s a way to warp increased social awareness and consideration into something extraneous and political, and therefore controversial. I won’t gild the lily and parse this subject here, as writer Greta Christina has already done an excellent job doing just that.

You don’t get to denounce identity politics when your monomaniacal depreciation of all things religious is literally grounded in homage to the politics of your most treasured identity: atheism. Or, if you insist on doing this, at least be honest. Don’t say you “detest identity politics.” It’s self-defeating and you only belittle your own cause. Instead, say what you really mean: I disapprove of any attempt to decenter the mainstream narratives I favor.

We ignore the utility of intersectionality and an inclusive (or at least a more understanding) outlook regarding identity politics at our own peril.