Ask Mandisa 33 – Interfaith and Interbelief Panels, and (Non-)Religious Literacy

by | July 29, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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 interfaith and interbelief panels, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You attended an event recently. It was entitled Disrupt the Narrative: Centering African American Perspectives on Religious Freedom. What was the event? Why were you invited?

Mandisa Thomas: Yes, I participated in this event on the Community Practitioners panel. The event was to center African American perspectives on religious freedom. It’s a three-year project that is presented by the  Freedom Forum Institute in partnership with the Henry Luce Foundation, that focuses on religious freedom in the black community, and as it pertains to racial justice, and the perspective of underrepresented communities and underrepresented voices.

I was invited because I specifically represent a voice that has been marginalized and seldom heard from within this discussion, which was the atheist perspective. I also have the pleasure of serving on the advisory board for the Religious Freedom Center’s Georgia 3Rs Project, which focuses on comprehensive religious literacy among Georgia educators.

At a previous event, I met other directors at the Religious Freedom Center. They asked me be a part of the discussion, especially as it pertains to the black community and religious freedom – how it is understood, and how it should be understood within a context of not just the United States, but also the world.

Jacobsen: How many other secular individuals attended the event? How many other secular individuals spoke at the event, either as an individual or on a panel?

Thomas: There were about five of us, total, that were in attendance. There were more scheduled, but time and life got in the way. I was the lone participant that represented the secular perspective, or rather, the nonreligious perspective, altogether. 

Jacobsen: What would be one of the main takeaways about the culture of interfaith panels? What would be the main takeaway about the expansion of the discussion to more secular people in the African American community, or the black community, in America?

Thomas: I think the takeaway was that the black community still has a very high representation of the religious perspective, which is due to historical and institutional reasons. That is to be expected, especially within our community.

But what is happening now is that there is a shift, and there are efforts being put forth into exploring the voices of the nonreligious perspective, and incorporating us into interfaith discussions. This is also leading to better dialogue about issues that affect our community, and that affect us almost equally but that we can perhaps work on together while putting our varied religious perspectives aside. There was one point that I was sure to make during the discussion – that if someone from the atheist or humanist perspective is sitting at the table, there is usually a tendency for the other side to either shut down or push their religious identity even more. It’s good for them to know and respect our existence, and to actually see us and hear us participate in the discussions. To know that we are doing this work is probably a reality check for them, which is okay.

If it’s going to do anything, it’s going to broaden the scope of the African American voice, show how diverse we are, and what we’re willing to bring to the table in order to help our community as a whole.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.

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:

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.

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