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 personal issues and realistic dealing with them, in 2020.
*This was conducted November 16, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, you took a trip to New York. You went to kind of deal with some personal issues. And one of the things that are important about the way you are living your new life is one in which you’re just taking the moments as they are, owning them, and then dealing with them head on, as opposed to kind of a lot of North Americans, which is referring to some higher order power to just offset any of their troubles, to keep it off their mind. In other words, they don’t deal with it. So, what are the things you were dealing with in New York in more general terms? How are you dealing with those head on?
Mandisa Thomas: Yes, I was asked by one of my aunts to accompany her for a visit with my mother (her sister), after one of their brothers recently passed away. Apparently at the funeral, my mother approached my aunt, gave her a hug, said she was sorry and finally invited my aunt over to her house. Now, this is significant because there has been a 30-year “feud” between them, mostly on behalf of my mother to work. And so while my aunt was pleasantly surprised by this, she wanted said invitation to be a sit down so that she could ask my mother some questions, and possibly iron out their differences. The main questions being, what exactly is she sorry for, and why did she feel all of this hatred towards her sister for all these years? Since this aunt and I are very close and remained so against my mother’s wishes, She reminded me that I promised to accompany her if that moment of reckoning ever came.
When she brought that up, I asked myself, did I REALLY agreed to this??? But I decide to go through with it. We scheduled this past weekend because that was my best availability. In addition to supporting my aunt, this trip gave me an opportunity to see how I would interact with my mother after all of the work that I have done for myself to overcome the trauma that I endured growing up. Finally, I wanted to see, along with my aunt, if my mother would take responsibility for the mistreatment. Because for years, she has blamed my aunt for the bad relationship between her and I, and we wanted to se if she would own up to any of it.
So, this was a good way to help my aunt get closure. And if there was also an opportunity for them to rebound as sisters, that was even better. I also had a chance hone my leadership skills, and be there as somewhat a neutral party as a mediator. I wasn’t there to bringing my issues with my mother to the forefront, because I wasn’t there for me; I was there for my aunt. So, it was a good opportunity to see if there was truly some change on all of our parts, demonstrate how I’ve been able to move forward in my life, and also how I can help my aunt and other family members.
Jacobsen: And nowhere in the explanation there did you point to a higher order power. You didn’t pray, you didn’t reference some God concept to kind of get you out of it. How do you notice this in the membership, Black Nonbelievers? And we’ve talked about issues of people bringing patriarchal ideas from the religious traditions as attitudes and expectations into Black Nonbelievers. What about the more subtle and soft areas of emotional life that can be tender, hard to get through as you’re going through right now? What do you notice and others who are going through similar circumstances, when they’re still bringing those kind of religious sensibilities into community?
Thomas: What’s happening is there are simply too many people refusing to do that work and take accountability for their actions. Even among many nonbelievers, somehow all of their problems are someone else’s fault. This tends to go hand in hand with religious indoctrination, where there is little to no resolution for that sort of trauma. One of the reasons why I organize around the support aspect and what people go through personally is because, these institutions shape our outlook. They shape our actions. And trying to recover from them is a LOT of work.
So, it can be a challenge for people to recognize when they are projecting and avoiding accountability. And it is hard for many to say, “I was wrong. I acknowledge that I played a part in this,” because it can be seen as a sign of weakness. But I was actually learned at an early age that this was something that I needed to change; that I had to be the one to do it (with the help of me peers and licensed professionals). But this not an example that was set by my mother. She was quick to tell me and my brothers to take responsibility for our actions, but didn’t do it herself. So as an adult with a family, and still overcoming childhood trauma while taking responsibility, I strongly advocate for all parties in any disagreements to do the same. I don’t sit on a pedestal trying to preach to someone about what they should do. I try to help because I’ve been through it. And I’m still going through it, so that peer to peer experience does help.
And again, we don’t encourage looking to divine intervention, because it’s never that simple. Constantly looking to a god, and projecting and placing the blame onto someone else leads to a vicious cycle, and nothing gets better. But when you actually confront the issues head on, get help through other people and other clinical means, it is much more meaningful and rewarding.
And that once you accomplish that, it it hard to go back to accepting the harmful actions of others. I know that my own patience with people like that is now extremely short. You are allowed to remove people from your life who will not do that work, and are not trying to make things better. And sometimes, that can be very difficult. But once you discard the notion that god will heal and put the people in place to do that work, you can actually make sufficient changes to improve your life, and also the lives of people around 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.