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.
Here we talk about religious identities and privileges brought into the secular communities from those who have left religion in 2020.
*This was conducted October 19, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Ok, so, let’s focus today on difficulties, personal and professional, individuals or organizations, who have not invested in you or your own organization hoping to get some kind of support, financial, media, volunteer, expertise, you name it. Yet, they have had no history prior to that of helping you in any way. I think that’s a really powerful topic. So, you can relate personal experiences if you want, or you can simply speak in general terms. What are the feelings that come up? What do you do? How do you sort boundaries if you need them?
Mandisa Thomas: There is a certain expectation for people to ask for help when establishing a community-based organization. And even though BN provides mostly networking and peer support, because we are a nonprofit, there are opportunities for people to get involved and volunteer. And it’s definitely important to donate so that we can expand our resources. However, because we are an organization that focuses on black people, we get a lot of folks coming from religious backgrounds, still maintaining a religious mindset and a patriarchal mindset, which leaves us at an imbalance of working harder to sustain ourselves.
Recently, I had an experience with someone who is coming out of religious leadership as a pastor. They are still trying to keep their pastor’s status, but now in the secular community. They have never financially contributed to us (though they do have their own source of income), yet they’re looking to the organization – me in particular – to boost their profile for their own personal gain. And this has always been very difficult and exhausting, because we often have to do deal with people who ask for more than what we can provide and definitely more than what they’ve invested in us. And I completely understand that everyone isn’t able to contribute financially. But what needs to known is that in order for us to provide these resources and support, we also need it in return. And even the smallest financial donations help a lot. Also, we often ask for our members who have benefitted from us to give back so that we can continue to help others in the same way. In fact, that’s how many organizations frame their fundraising efforts. It can be a tough because again, we want to provide that support. But we must also consider some individuals’ motivations and their intentions carefully.
Jacobsen: What about if it’s hard to discern that motivation?
Thomas: Sometimes, it can be difficult because the approaches are very subtle. It starts with those individuals asking how can they help, and say what they think are the right things. But I discern by actions, or lack thereof. If people are constantly asking this question with no follow up, that is a red flag. Also, when people lead with the “how can I be ‘put on'” questions, and requiring all of the labor from you, that is suspicious as well.
And, I feel bad at times, because again, we want to help as many people as possible. However, it is necessary, but as someone in leadership full time, we have to eliminate those who don’t have the best intentions. There are a lot of things that we can take from the religious community when it comes to engagement, but something that we can do differently is set important boundaries and limits. We can be as welcoming as possible, but if people are not reciprocating, and adding more to your workload than absolutely necessary, then letting them go is the right decision.
Jacobsen: When people give up the God concept, especially as traditionally defined, they’re giving up a supernatural helper that leaves them vulnerable to other influences. But it also can empower them if they take that responsibility on board. But by taking on the responsibility, they have all that extra uncertainty too. Do you think that might be both a loss and a strength of the secular communities when that happens? So, they give up the magical thinking, the childish thinking, and the ‘support’ that didn’t really support while having to take on that extra responsibility individually to gain that experience, and trust their kinds of observation and critical thinking skills, for people to discern those who have good motivations. Those who don’t, and where mutual benefit might lie in the one that’s reaching out for some kind of support.
Thomas: Indeed, there are many people who leave religion, yet still carry that with notion of divine intervention with them. And as a result, they still look for others to solve their problems, instead of either doing it for themselves, or even meeting people halfway. On the flip side, compels some to feel as if they have to be one leading people to that “promised land” and therefore, being a god themselves. It’s unfortunate, because it is a byproduct of the conditioning, and there are certainly those who don’t want to let that go. And I think the secular community sometimes models this unintentionally; when it comes to having “holy” figures who are incapable of being and doing any wrong. Or there’s still very little accountability for these individuals. We have indeed come a long way with correcting that, but we still have a long way to go. Also, it’s an learning/unlearning and healing process for people overcoming religious trauma. Which can be hard, but carrying that baggage can actually be harmful to others.
So, it’s important that we offer a caring and nurturing environment, while also holding people accountable to work on themselves. There are no magic solutions; it takes work. The most important thing is to let those people know that they have support, and that they don’t need to go at it alone.
Jacobsen: Mandisa, thank you so much for your time today.
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 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.
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Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.