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 Morning, CNN.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 music and the sacred.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How do secular, free-thought folk listen to music in a way just like religious people, simply without religious content, typically, or without the same belief behind it?
Thomas: For me, music is very sacred. I grew up with a classically trained singer. I always had an ear for jazz and music – and always had a deep feel to it. I actually appreciate the musical artistry that a lot of artists put into it.
But I know as an atheist there has been some black music that I’ve had to listen to with a different ear because of the lyrics. I’m all about the expression, but, at the same time, I do listen with a cautious ear now because many of the lyrics can be pretty degrading.
Music tends to tell the time of its era. The story of its era, so there’s lots of music that would be considered very, very degrading or very objectionable. Now, that wouldn’t have been done before. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyed, depending on what type of music you’re listening to.
But I enjoy music with lots of positive messages. There’s a lot out there that has nothing to do with God and beliefs. In fact, Gospel and Christian music are one of my least favourite genres.
Thomas: Having been very secular, I’ve been able to enjoy and officiate all kinds of music, which I appreciate. I know that not everyone has that same background. They have to find their own musical journey after they became adults. I’m fortunate.
Having been raised a musician, a classically trained singer as well as having parents who had a very, very eclectic taste in music, I had a very mature ear way before my adult ears.
Jacobsen: You’re going to see a concert. Why this particular artist?
Thomas: The artist that I’m going to see at this recording is Roy Ayers, who is a legendary R&B black jazz artist. One of his famous or notable songs is “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” which debuted in 1976. What’s significant is that that is the year I was born and actually, a lot of good music that was made that year, Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” was also made in 1976 or debuted in 1976.
But Roy Ayers music has been taken by quite a few rap artists, a few R&B artists, he’s collaborated with musicians that would’ve been bored at the time. He was very, very active, but they still appreciate his music. They appreciate the sound. He’s timeless.
That is what I appreciate about his music. This is the first time I’ll be seeing him live. I’m very much looking forward to it. He’s been very influential to a lot of artists, so I definitely appreciate that.
Jacobsen: How can secular artists take note?
Thomas: Well, for secular artists, and there are quite a few, I think they should be aware of the different people who might be listening to their music. There isn’t just one type of genre that they can hold from.
There are some atheist rappers. There are some other atheist artists. I think some of them do a very good job of incorporating the heart, especially of hip hop, which is one of my favourite. That’s near and dear to me, but I think other secular artists should be able to appreciate that there is beauty and talent in all of the genres.
We can incorporate them into our messages simply by doing what is already there. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It also doesn’t have to mimic a certain type of religious music, but we can let the artistry flow and let it go where it may.
Jacobsen: Who would probably be the most prominent secular artist today?
Thomas: As far as secular, that’s kinda tough. I would say probably within the community would be Greydon Square, who’s a rapper. I know there are other secular artists that are in the music industry. There are many songs that have been made, which have no type of religious overtone. It’s just positive music.
So it’s kinda hard to say, because again, I think there’s kind of a shortfall, if you will. I don’t think any of the artists have really come out or individual musicians have not come out as an atheist per se. It’s unfortunate because our community really does not put that much value on the artists as we should, but hopefully that will change in the future.
Jacobsen: Two people come to mind, off the top. One produces little tunes, but hasn’t necessarily gained prominence because of the music but for other reasons. This individual would probably be Dan Barker from the Freedom from Religion Foundation as a pianist.
Jacobsen: Another person who’s young, up-and-coming, and can be seen in some presentations and performances in the secular community on tour would be Shelley Segal.
Thomas: Yes. How could I forget her? [Laughing].
Jacobsen: So, there are members of the community around, with the talent to do it.
Thomas: You are absolutely right. I totally forgot about Shelley. I would say that she’s the most prominent at this time. She’s the most popular, most prominent secular atheist musician. So, I retract my previous statement.
[Laughing] Yes, Dan Barker is an accomplished musician. He’s an accomplished pianist. We often say that at the Freedom From Religion Foundation conventions, which I do think has helped with the flavour, if you will, of those conventions.
Jacobsen: It adds colour.
Thomas: Yes, he incorporates his art in with the message. I think that it is gonna be important for people to understand that that’s what it’s gonna take in order to reach a wider audience. We can appreciate it.
We can learn to incorporate our views, our musical values, and musical love in our messaging and what we’re trying to get across.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Thomas.
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-books, free 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 Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.