Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc (Twitter & Facebook). One of the largest, if the not the largest, organization for African-American or black nonbelievers & atheists in the United States.
The organization is intended to give secular fellowship, provide nurturance and support for nonbelievers, encourage a sense of pride in irreligion, and promote charity in the non-religious community.
I reached out to begin an educational series with one of the, and again if not the, most prominent African-American woman nonbeliever grassroots activists in the United States.
Here, we talk about helping versus saving.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the difference between helping and saving? Why is one approach more respectful and efficacious within the nonbelieving community?
Mandisa Thomas: To me, the difference between helping and saving: when you help people, help is an action verb. It is something that you do, for one. You are, hopefully, helping people to help themselves, where they can are physically, mentally, and emotionally able to have a sense of at-ease.
They can have a sense of stability and happiness in their lives. It is to carry on in a way that is helpful to themselves and others around them. We have members, and those who have encountered us, saying that we have saved their lives.
But it has always been within them. To save someone, it means they are looking for drastic help. It implies a sense of urgency, and that you have to completely go in and pull them out of a dire situation. Which isn’t a bad thing if it’s absolutely necessary.
However, there is an overall implication of chronic co-dependency. I try to stay away from that, simply because of one aspect of helping is encouraging people to do more for themselves. Saving implies someone doing this for you, whether it’s on behalf of the individual or the institution/entity.
Jacobsen: What are some ways in which this plays out in the non-religious community?
Thomas: When people leave, many, they may let go of the god concept and the religious institutions. But there are so many other characteristics and aspects that people bring with them. For example, this sense of male dominance.
There are many religions and religious leaderships based on male dominance. It is based on controlling and subjugating women. So, many cultural and societal norms are similar. When people come out of religion per se, as well as the secular community being male-dominated, there are many still holding the men as the go-to’s and leaders within the community.
Much of this tends to obscure the role of women. The fact that we have created organizations. We have been the backbone as far as community work. When people bring this mentality of these harmful notions, which can be very harmful, there is still an aspect of seeing women as inferior or the ones who can be controlled in some way.
It’s as if women are the ones needing saving. It is very harmful, especially where we see how women have been treated, how our voices have been silenced and ignored, especially with regard to how some men have treated us.
Jacobsen: Some will respond with the naturalistic fallacy. They will point to hierarchies of men in dominating positions in religions across societies. Then they imply a similar argument for the secular community.
That is, it is men at the top. Therefore, it must be men at the top, where you’re noticing this carryover. What would be the response for you?
Thomas: First of all, the response would be that it’s not true. We can also point to times during the Middle Ages in Europe, where the Church sanctioned the torture and murder of midwives. They branded them as witches because they were so powerful during that time.
We can also point to a time in Egyptian history, where the bloodline went through the women. It was matrilineal rather than patrilineal. Some cultures and societies are still that way today. Women are very powerful and very able to carry the bloodline.
There’s historic documentation of queens ruling as leaders throughout the world. So that assertion is simply not true. The idea of men as only the ones who can rule is based on this very religious, very misogynistic, way of thinking – and unfortunately, actions.
I think that it shows that there are many people who are ignorant of not just historical facts, but also misconceptions of gender roles. They have fallen into binary ways of thinking.
It can be very, very harmful. And to be clear, women can be just as evil as men. It is the general idea that men are the ones who rule everything that is very archaic and problematic. It is extremely toxic to our movement, especially when we pride ourselves on education and progression.
When we try to help people and try to explain or show the previous way of thinking was wrong, we can only do so much. If they are unrelenting, then this means that they do not belong in the community. It is that plain and simple.
Jacobsen: What would be an example of a way of talking and speaking by a man in which a man believes he has power over the woman to “save them”?
Thomas: The worst way to continue to do this in my opinion, is to continue to talk about equality and women’s rights, but keep men at the forefront, and women at their side doing the grunt work.
The men are the ones doing most of the talking. The women are the ones doing. That says a lot about the leadership and the hypocrisy of this dynamic.
We see this happen quite a lot in many movements, and it has previously been ignored. But now, it must be called out as much as possible. We have an opportunity to set a better example as a community.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.
Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.