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 getting flack.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have gotten some flack. In getting some of that flack, it has been around people or commentaries looking at one small output of BN. Something as simple as a pamphlet or poster. Then there is a taking of this, a conflation with the seeing of the entire organization in a negative way. How should this be corrected? What is a more responsible form of commentating even if someone is critical and views BN negatively? What would be a fair analysis?
Mandisa Thomas: As with any organization that has been around for a few years or more, I always think there’s room for improvement. We take suggestions into consideration, and we always try to keep the well being of our members in mind. But one thing that we always hold true as an organization is the liberation of multiple kinds, especially sexually. We’ve always been pro bodily expression, and for people to tap into that sexier side – within themselves, and with others. With the consent of course, I’ve also led by example with said expression. In 2012, I took some sexy pictures for a calendar project. It never came to fruition, so I ended up posting them on my Facebook page. There were a few people who criticized me for doing this – basically saying, “How dare you expose your body like that?!” But most of the feedback was positive, especially from other women.
Now, I understand that people will not always agree with the things that we do, and that public criticism is a given. However, if the commentary is abusive and overly judgmental, then that’s where we draw the line. I also take other important factors into consideration – such as regular participation and support. And I’m happy to say that most who fall into that category agree with our approach. Over the years, we’ve refined our approach to those who disagree with us. We try to establish reasonable dialogue, and also find common ground. But again, If it’s determined that anyone is being unfair in their initial approach and/or in their responses, then we will cut the conversation short and say, “Buh-bye.”
Jacobsen: When is it appropriate when they are doing a broad-based negative critique against black non-believers or even BN? Maybe, it’s a church group that doesn’t like it. They don’t like the representation of African American non-believers. They don’t like sexy photos on posters that are used for some of the advertisements as a means of expression of the group in terms of some of the women of the group, being self-expressive. They disagree on the principle of the matter, but you can respect them in the sense of taking a wider view.
Mandisa: First and foremost, I always recommend that people view our website as well as research other information about us, so that they’ll (hopefully) understand our mission and work better. I’d like to think that we outline this very clearly, and that there are no misunderstandings. However, that isn’t always the case. Religious groups, of course, may not like us because we clearly represent atheism, especially in the black community.
I have personally told some religious folks where to go and not necessarily in the nicest way. Because they don’t have the right to come at us in a disrespectful manner. As for fellow nonbelievers who may be critique us, I may challenge them on the origins of their viewpoints to see if they may be valid. I’ve made a practice of looking at the social media accounts of said folks before deciding to respond. It helps with understanding where they’re coming from, and why they may say such things. I also try to be as diplomatic as possible. However, sometimes the way people come at us, it’s hard not to respond in kind. Again, we understand that people might not like what we do, or certain aspects at least – which is fine. But it is NOT okay for anyone to knock us over in the head with a hammer. Because we may swing that hammer right back. We always hope for the best possible outcome when it comes to disagreements and differences. However, we prepare and respond accordingly, with self care in mind.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.
Mandisa: 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.