Ask Mandisa 59 – Americans and Autonomy

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.

*This was conducted May 25, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Some points to cover today. One of those would be values differences in America that can lead to far more negative outcomes compared to a lot of other countries in the world. There can be outliers in some countries with other values.

In generally, though, if we are looking at trends, the high value Americans place on autonomy can lead to negative outcomes for the population compared to other countries that have an emphasis on equity. What is the feel?

What is the sensibility of Americans around the value of autonomy? How does this not prepare Americans, when everything is privatized, when a calamity, a catastrophe, or a pandemic make the God concept something people lean on more heavily?

Mandisa Thomas: There are a lot of people who are still struggling. There are people who are either completely out of work, or their places of employment are at decreased capacity. Also, you have many whose jobs are deemed essential, and are still engaging the general public – which is stressful at this time. Sadly, there are quite a few people who, in typical American fashion, only care about what is best for themselves. And with little to no regard for the safety and social distancing measures.

What is important to them is being able to get the things they want at their convenience – which puts the rest of the population significantly at risk. Because we are still in a state of emergency when it comes to the pandemic, these folks don’t take into consideration that there are other people whose lives are at stake.How it plays into religion and the God concept: it is the sense of being superior, and that this being made these individuals so special that they will not be affected by this epidemic. So, it gives this overinflated sense of importance.

Considering the number of religious folks who have succumbed to this virus, this notion proves false.  And it definitely compels a general lack of disregard for other people’s lives.It is unfortunate that there isn’t more of a community based mindset. It’s like we’re dealing with a sink-or-swim as a mentality, which accounts for why the United States, in addition to not taking proactive measures, is seeing among the highest numbers of COVID-19  in the world.

Jacobsen: What is some of the commentary from members of the public? Are there any news clippings, quotes, or stories that tend to come across more often than not?

Thomas: Well, the New York Times ran a story of the 100,000+ people who have died from the virus in the United States. While it seems like a small number compared to the rest of the population, it’s still a lot of preventable deaths.

It is impactful because we see the current administration ONLY looking at numbers. And these are actual people. Whether they went through the healthcare system or not, contracted the virus, and didn’t make it, these are family members and friends. They still mattered at the end of the day. 

These are people who deserve to not be viewed simply as a statistic because of either the administration and/or the general public’s limited scope. We can take lessons from certain officials, like the Governor Cuomo of New York, who wants the spread of the virus curtailed, and is actively taking the steps to do so.He says, ‘God didn’t do this. The people did it.’ We are also ironically seeing a number of religious organizations taking to online platforms to host services. The pandemic has impacted their fundraising, as is the case with most organizations.

However, it is important for most of them to understand that safety is the primary issue here. Also, they need to consider that those few bad apple ministers and churches not following the safety guidelines makes them ALL look bad.

If they were a little more conscious of that, then they would, and should, be speaking out against them too.

Jacobsen: Now, there is an argument if we’re taking a several centuries long view. That livelihoods have improved for most people. I think that’s a valid argument. At the same time, there’s another argument looking at ethnic disparities and sex and gender disparities, in the access to resources, job opportunities, and quality of life from cradle to grave.

If we look at both of those narratives together in this context as well, we know in the African American community, in the black community; there are disparities, critical disparities compared to other subpopulations in the United States.

Now, religion, as you noted to me, is a big part, in particular Christian religion, is a big part of the black community, the African American community. How is that conversation amplified in that subpopulation, especially the subpopulation who are Christian impacted by deaths and despair by the coronavirus?

Thomas: So, I HAVE noticed a lot of organizations catering to the religious population, and are now trying to tailor their products to state, “Hey, God wants us to be saved”, and similar phrases. There’s an unfortunate irony here when we’re dealing with an institution so prevalent within the black community, and an increase in the COVID-19 related deaths.

It is as you mentioned before. It is due to a lack of resources and inequities in the healthcare system, along with many people’s mistrust of the medical field, and wanting to pray the problems away. This type of change cannot happen overnight.

What we’re seeing are attempts to catch up with technology in such a short amount of time. If this had been the focus for churches at least ten years ago, then perhaps it may not have been so severe. And there is a lot to be said about how they could have definitely availed themselves to technology way before then. But this means possibly having to admit that their God is not as powerful as they once thought.I DO want to be mindful about shaming people about what they may not have know before. Because when you’re dealing with populations and people who are highly religious, which is common among white populations as well, you’re dealing with the concept of change being difficult. It is best to take objective steps and showing care, empathy, and concern, and framing it in a way that is best for the entire community as opposed to a few individuals.

The churches are going to have to set the the divine intervention premise to the side for the moment, and say “Hey, safety first.” Even if you want to believe or pray to God,  your personal safety and the safety of your families and the general public are crucial, and should be prioritized.

Jacobsen: Mandisa, as always, thank you.

Thomas: Thank you.

*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*

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 AtheistsAmerican 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.

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Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.

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