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 the decade in review.
*Interview conducted in early 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, this is ambiguous because this is a little bit after because we’re working through a lot of material. But this is the Decade in Review or the 10-year review of Black Nonbelievers Inc. Let’s do some highlights, what have been those developments and successes of Black Nonbelievers Inc. over the last almost decade, from 2011 to 2019 end?
Mandisa Thomas: I remember my youngest son, Miles, was still an infant. He was about nine months old. my other children were much younger. I was completing the first year of my job. I completed it. I was successful in reducing the overtime that was a problem at the job.
I remember my boss at the time saying that; I was able to accomplish something that the other managers before me couldn’t. I remember during that time. I wasn’t a believer, but I was still spiritual if you will. But I simply remember within that decade, from 2009 to 2010 onwards; it was when I simply started strengthening my non-belief and my descent with religion.
That was in 2010. I formally identified or re-identified as an atheist in 2010, in the end, Christmas Day. It was within that time that my atheism was reaffirmed. My desire to become more involved with the secular movement increased. When I discovered that there was work that was still needed, regarding the black community and atheism, that was when the Black Nonbelievers was born. Our official 10-year anniversary will be in 2021.
But within this decade, the 2010s, I think we’ve accomplished a lot. I know that in between that time. I have left that job because developing the organization became a full-time responsibility. It was my family as well. Certainly, there are dynamic, better changes. My daughter graduated from college. She is now in Shanghai teaching English as a second language.
So, my youngest son, who was still a baby, Ken. He’s in the 5th grade. He’s competing in the Georgia State Technology competition. My youngest son is now a teenager at 14. It’s simply amazing to see not simply my family grow, and spouse, if you will, but the organization and within the decade how things had turned out.
Jacobsen: What about organizational milestones? What are those been?
Thomas: So for Black Nonbelievers, we started in 2011. We officially became a 501©3 nonprofit organization in 2014 and that’s when we became a member organization of the Secular Coalition for America. So, we started expanding our organization the same year we were founded.
All of our milestone features in the media. We were on CNN twice, CBS Sunday Morning, Humanist Magazine, NPR, National Geographic, Playboy, and many others. Those have been major for us. That’s when we launched our Change of Life Campaign, in which we started sharing the testimony of our members. So, there has been a lot that we’ve done. We’ve expanded the organization now to multiple cities, double digits.
Those are what I consider big milestones for us because of the visibility and, of course, the community building and support have always been important to our mission, has been crucial. In the past few decades, I’m happy that we were able to reach not simply ordinary people, but simply a number of outlets that can become more connected and acquainted with our work.
Jacobsen: Has it been changing some of the conversations within the black community and the United States?
Thomas: I mean, it has. Even in 2009, even before then, I’ve always known folks in the black community to challenge religion. We talked about that, how religion was challenged through black comedy and literature, but over the decade, there is definitely part of this whole conversation surrounding the institution of the church, the black church in particular, how relevant it is to our community and to people’s lives.
There have been more critics over the years and the things that you are more are open, not only to expressing their discontent but to become one understanding and tolerance of atheism. Even if we don’t always agree and they remain believers.
One thing we understand that not all atheists are bad or, as a matter of fact, most of us tend to be good. Even though, there is still a huge negative stigma. There are more people who are getting a better understanding of the opposition. In fact, there are a lot of things that we could probably work on, as opposed to simply being an enemy.
Jacobsen: Have any particular stories stood out of an ordinary American who was part or became a part of Black Nonbelievers who went through a hard time coming out as a non-believer?
Thomas: Yes. One of our featured testimonies was from a member who came from a family that was full of vegans and church leaders. She was molested. It was often like a family secret. She had to keep that silent. She had suicidal thoughts. Of course, we always encourage people in those situations to seek clinical help. But it was finding Black Nonbelievers. That was so validating to her position about the non-existence of God.
That helped to reaffirm and help bring her from that dark place. We always have peer support and support from those who understand and know where they’re coming from. This is hugely important, in addition to clinical help. So, yes, this person has said that we saved their life.
This was what prompted us to launch that campaign because we have heard this from people that it wasn’t simply life-changing or life-saving. To know that we were a part of that world and that process, it confirmed that what we do is needed because simply our presence as non-believers, atheists, etc., can simply be very polarising. They can simply be ostracising.
We want to make sure that we continue to do it. Not simply those who are atheists or those who have faith, but again, for those who are looking for information for those who are questioning and for good engagement with the community.
Jacobsen: How has this been observed and commented on by religious leaders, pastors, ministers, deacons, bishops, etc.?
Thomas: It’s interesting because we haven’t had much push back from many religious leaders. So, I now have a good friend that is a pastor who spoke at our fifth-anniversary celebration in 2015. I do recall when he first reached out and wanted to interview me. I remember being so skeptical, “Why do you want to talk to me if you’re a pastor?”
He has shown himself to be such an ally. Even though, he is still very much a believer and those are the types of connections that we want to maintain and develop. But I will say something about the members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which was formed in 2017. I had the opportunity along with other secular leaders to meet with them, probably this year, in February.
When I spoke, I introduced myself and to open for the organization that I was representing. The members were like, “Wow, you have a huge five-minute view.” They understood the challenges that we face within our community, to see us and to see our organization represented like, “Wow. Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you’re here,” because it’s definitely needed.
I would consider that to be one of the most monumental reactions to us. We have religious folks try us. They call us, telling us that we’re wrong and such, but it’s good when we have a representative understand our mission and the work that we do. Because, oftentimes, we need to get push back from within the secular community about liability for Black nonbelievers.
No matter how hard time gets, no matter how they become, we know that we have support because of the visibility and representation supports the advocacy, which has simply all played a huge part in what we do.
Jacobsen: In spite of the name-calling or past traumas that are coming to you, personally, how do you stand tall?
Thomas: There are times that it becomes very, very difficult. There were times when I would feel, with my previous job, that I thought about quitting and simply staying at work because it felt like at the time that job allowed me more stability with my family and travel schedules and such I was able to have some flexibility when I became involved in the movement.
But there are times where I wish I could have simply hung it up because for the people who say they need us, they don’t necessarily support us the way they should. But it is through the steady participation, we’ve been able to get involved in other leadership roles and simply the camaraderie and the friendship and bond that I have formed in this community have simply kept me going.
It’s been engaging people on the ground in person, and knowing what they go through and realizing that seeing those transitions, seeing those changes in folks have simply been inspirational to me. Because of the fact that you don’t know when people are in simply because we don’t see success right away.
Most of the time, human beings, we want things to be spontaneous, we want things to come to us almost immediately and the work comes in where- when you least expect it, the reward. I had to remind me that this isn’t an overnight process, it isn’t an overnight process for people to overcome their beliefs and to leave to those communities behind.
It isn’t an overnight process to get people to understand why supporting us, especially financially, is important. Because I know, I can only speak for myself when I say that this isn’t something that I’m trying to get rich off. Sure, should it get to a point where it can be completely paid for, absolutely, but I know that there is a service that is being provided for the people who need us and that is worth supporting.
I know that we will eventually get there. It has been coming because the more we persevered, the more support we have generated I know we will continue to generate support in the future. that is what keeps me going, in addition to all the people that we have engaged and held in one way or another.
Jacobsen: When 2021 comes around and you’re looking forward from this standpoint, what do you see as most needed for the non-belief community in the United States amongst African Americans in particular or black Americans in general (the diaspora in the United States) who, again, simply it doesn’t take for them?
Thomas: It’s definitely more visibility, more exposure, more opportunities for us to sufficiently engage the communities and folks that we’re trying to reach. This is starting to happen through a number of projects and one of them I mentioned previously, was the project with the National Museum of African American Culture and the fact that we now have institutions that are looking to us because we have provided that visibility and community.
I think that once it is placed on almost this national platform, I think that we will be able to generate the support that we need to sufficiently become that institution that people automatically see or recognized. Not that it isn’t happening now but it will be on a much wider scale and that is what is needed for the future. There is simply no one grand design or one big thing that will happen. It will happen through consistency and maintaining the organization and continuing to do what we do.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your service, 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-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.