As atheists, we frequently find ourselves explaining the harm that can be done by religion. There’s certainly ample evidence of as much, though the faithful often have excuses for why that doesn’t matter. This is particularly true when examining “newer” religions, like Scientology. It seems the closer a faith is to the modern age, the more likely they are to be even more absurd than their predecessors.
So when we see a journalist discussing a “new” religion, there’s good reason to sit up a little straighter and listen a little more closely. Imagine my surprise when the new religion in question was called “intersectionality.”
Writing for New York Magazine and using the recent violence against noted racist and misogynist social “scientist” Charles Murray as proof positive of his own theory, conservative author Andrew Sullivan explains:
Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.
Sullivan contends that incidents like the one at Middlebury College — where protesters prevented Murray from speaking and “injured a Middlebury professor who was with him” — are representative of intersectional advocacy efforts, and that they represent a direct threat to free speech and democracy itself. He argues that the left has become one of the intolerant political forces in history.
He’s absolutely wrong.
For starters, let’s be clear on what intersectionality is. Rooted in cultural studies, intersectionality contends that oppression is complex, with different attributes in one’s identity often compounding experiences in oppression.
For instance, as a woman, I have experienced sexism in the workplace and in interpersonal relationships. As a neurodiverse woman, I have also been discriminated against because my brain is wired differently than other people’s. But as a white woman, I have not experienced racism. A black woman who is neurodiverse will most likely have experienced far more discrimination than I have.
Intersectionality calls on us to acknowledge those differences and work together to combat all forms of discrimination, as it’s the best chance we’ve got at stopping any of it. It’s also just a more compassionate way to live your life.
While some of the jargon gets mocked even by liberals as symptomatic of the “regressive left,” the idea behind it is no more complicated than having some empathy for people whose struggles we may not have experienced ourselves.
That’s what Sullivan is complaining about. That’s what Sullivan is comparing to Trumpism.
Second, what happened at Middlebury College was not the result of intersectional advocates or even progressive protesters. The acts (which have been grossly overstated) were a result of a protest movement known as “antifa” which is short for anti-fascist. I’m not even going to get into a conversation about whether or not antifa resistance is merited at this juncture in history, but suffice it to say that they are not representative of most intersectional advocates. To use the actions of one group to demonize a much larger group of people makes as much sense as calling out evangelist Franklin Graham as a representative of how all Christians think.
Third, intersectional beliefs are no more a “religion” than feminism, or anti-racism, or a political party, or any other cultural ideology. There is no deity being praised. There are no churches. There are no sacraments. These ideologies don’t stem from books written thousands of years ago with centuries of suspect revisions and politicized interpretations. It stems from actual modern lived experiences.
Contrary to his assertion, there are no saints; leadership in intersectional movements openly admit they are flawed and work to better themselves. There is no “controlling” of language; there is encouragement for respect of human beings. This isn’t about virtue. It’s about basic dignity.
Fourth, Sullivan’s thesis, despite his insistence that he’s a fan of facts, is woefully ignorant of history. Not only does he dismiss, without any actual contemplation of the subject’s literature, the history that informs intersectional advocacy, but he mocks intersectional criticism as being anti-reality. At one point he writes:
Then this: “Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact.’” This, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the question — not that the students shut down a speech, but why they did. I do not doubt their good intentions. But, in a strange echo of the Trumpian right, they are insisting on the superiority of their orthodoxy to “facts.” They are hostile, like all fundamentalists, to science, because it might counter doctrine.
As atheists, we tend to be fans of science. I know I am. But I also know that science has, throughout history, indeed been used to this end. From phrenology, to the psychological characterization of women as inferior, to the centuries of treating people with any sort of mental illness as inherent invalids, to the description of homosexuality as an illness, science has gotten it wrong a lot. That doesn’t mean we give up on science. It means we push for progress.
Which, by the way, is the whole point of intersectional advocacy. Criticism isn’t damnation; it’s an opportunity for growth. If Sullivan responded this way to ideas he disagreed with in the realm of politics, as he so often did as a blogger, he’d be called arrogant and childish. And yes, Charles Murray’s career hasn’t been all bad. But he refuses to apologize for (or back off of) other work that is a lot more akin to the science of the past we’d rather forget. That’s why the non-antifa students were peacefully protesting. It’s about not elevating people who advance cruel and unfounded ideas under the inappropriate banner of science. As atheists, that’s something we should probably support.
But Sullivan isn’t interested in history or context or any of the real details in the Middlebury story. What he’s interested in with this article is demonizing a movement that is growing in strength and volume as they work to defend those who are most frequently marginalized by society. I suppose he can write whatever he likes without much consequence outside of articles like this one. In the meantime, those in the movement are interested in making discrimination and mistreatment of these populations socially unacceptable.
And they are far from the first to rally behind such causes. I wonder, would Sullivan have spoken similar words about the Civil Rights Era leaders who protested and marched to defend black dignity? Would he have chastised Coretta Scott King for her letter about Jeff Sessions‘ racist speech and history for attempting to “control language” or “enforce manners”? Would he like to side with those who bully gay and trans children throughout much of their childhood because schools are supposed to be a place for debating important issues? Just asking.
Sullivan, it should be noted, has been a longtime advocate for civil rights, racial justice, and LGBT equality. He also, as editor of The New Republic, dedicated a highly controversial issue of the magazine to Murray’s book The Bell Curve. He has long said he wants to debate ideas out in the open, which sounds like a worthy goal, but to what end when one side of the argument is so beyond the pale?
The point is that intersectionality is not a religion. It’s an empathetic approach to living. Sullivan could learn a thing or two from it.
(Image via Shutterstock)