Ask Mandisa 36 – Monofaith, Interfaith, and Mixed Belief Partnerships

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas, a native of New York City, is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Although never formally indoctrinated into belief, Mandisa was heavily exposed to Christianity, Black Nationalism, and Islam. As a child she loved reading, and enjoyed various tales of Gods from different cultures, including Greek and Ghanaian. “Through reading these stories and being taught about other cultures at an early age, I quickly noticed that there were similarities and differences between those deities and the God of the Christian Bible. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this God so special that he warrants such prevalence today,” she recalls.

Mandisa has many media appearances to her credit, including CBS Sunday MorningCNN.com, and Playboy, The Humanist, and JET magazines. She has been a guest on podcasts such as The Humanist Hour and Ask an Atheist, as well as the documentaries Contradiction and My Week in Atheism. Mandisa currently serves on the Board for American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, and previously for Foundation Beyond Belief, the 2016 Reason Rally Coalition, and the Secular Coalition for America. She is also an active speaker and has presented at conferences/conventions for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Student Alliance, and many others.

In 2019, Mandisa was the recipient of the Secular Student Alliance’s Backbone Award and named the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s Freethought Heroine. She was also the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association’s Person of the Year 2018.

As the president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc., Mandisa encourages more Blacks to come out and stand strong with their nonbelief in the face of such strong religious overtones.

“The more we make our presence known, the better our chances of working together to turn around some of the disparities we face. We are NOT alone.”

Here, we talk about complications of interfaith and secular partnerships, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If we’re looking at a number of contexts of partnerships, it can be complicated. One can be a secular person with a secular person and another can be the common one of a religious person with a religious person. There can be complications of interfaith partnerships. There can also be the complications of a secular person with a religious person.

The complications might not necessarily be between them. It might be between those two individuals of those who they love but who have misgivings about either religion or about atheism, agnosticism, or secular thought and people in general. How do you navigate that context?

Thomas: Wow. It’s interesting because these types of scenarios are on a case-by-case basis. You do have some successful relationships that are interfaith. One partner may be religious, and the other a nonbeliever. There are many instances where these identities were known upfront or at the beginning. So if partners come to an understanding and it isn’t an issue, then that’s great.

However, in my engagement with many BN members, the couples start off religious, and then one partner starts questioning, and eventually transition away from the beliefs. And then that becomes an issue, especially when there are kids involved. There’s often tough discussions about whether or not the children should still attend church. Also, there’s pressure from the religious partner to maintain appearances, which can definitely be an issue.

In the cases where both partners are non-religious, they still face family pressure. That was certainly the case with one of our former organizers whose husband passed away. We found out later that her husband was agnostic. Apparently, they were surrounding herself with religious family members and friends on both sides – which in itself, isn’t objectionable. However, once a person steps up to a leadership role in a secular organization, volunteer or not, there’s an expectation that they will stand up for themselves in some way, and command respect for their position. There’s more that I can say about this particular situation, but I will refrain for the sake of my sanity. 

It’s always up to the individual to what they can withstand or put up with. I do not encourage anyone to cave in to pressure, but I do understand how maintaining a cohesive family unit can be important.

So, the individuals and the partners involved really need to communicate. This is very important.

Jacobsen: What about when things go wrong? How do you break the glass, get the fire extinguisher, and cool things down?

Thomas: Speaking of cooling, the first thing…

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Thomas: …is to make sure that cooler heads prevail. There may be times where things get so tense and may become volatile, but it’s always important that the people involved are speaking objectively, and that they are listening to each other as opposed to just yelling or responding out of sheer anger. That tends to make the situation more difficult.

What I also suggest, if possible, is therapy or clinical help. Preferably with a secular therapist, someone who’s not just gonna tell them to pray on it or give it to God.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Thomas: In these situations, I always contend that the problems are a buildup. The fallout doesn’t just occur overnight. It will take the individuals not only being honest with each other, but also themselves about what the concerns are, and how to resolve them.

Because there’s never a problem that is resolved with repetition of the same tactics. It really takes an honest assessment, and the ability to be vulnerable and open to new options.

This can determine whether the problems are solvable or not, and how to move forward from whatever point. Again, it’s different for everyone. They may have similar outcomes but not the same. Again, it all depends on the people, as well as the support system around them.

That’s a lot to take into consideration, but when the relationship is at a crisis point, then it’s important to make sure all of that is at hand.

Jacobsen: What if someone can’t afford a therapist?

Thomas: That’s a very real and good question, because that is very much the case for people. There are many online resources, especially Recovering from Religion, which has a hotline for people to call when they are in need of help – at no chargeThey also facilitate the Secular Therapy Project, an online network of secular therapists. One can always check to see if these professionals are in their insurance network too, which may help tremendously.

So, I highly recommend people seeking them out. Also, they can look into their local secular organization to find a leader or organizer. They may have referrals to other resources that are either free or low-cost. But starting with an organization like Recovering from Religion would be a great start.

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

Thomas: Thank you. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Canadian Atheist 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 AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.

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