Black Nonbelievers, Inc. founder Mandisa Thomas on black atheism, how sexism hurts activist communities, and empowering the next generation.
On Black Women As Nonbelievers
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I want to ask a more personal line of questions around being a black woman in America who is a nonbeliever. I know Maryam Namazie uses the phrase “minority within a minority” to describe ex-Muslims within the Muslim community within the United Kingdom. What are some of the more emotionally difficult circumstances you have had to overcome in that positions?
Thomas: One is the idea that all black women are believers. The culture of black community, particularly the black church, even though it is misogynistic; women have been the backbone of the church.
Women are the ones who organize, but the men are the ones who get the credit. We see the same within the atheist community. As for myself, I started Black Nonbelievers. I am the face of the organization. There has been a significant amount of coverage.
Jacobsen: Do you feel there is a lot of sexism for women who are atheists and want to propagate their message to overcome?
Thomas: Men are viewed as the spokespersons. Our views are obscured as well as our work. I still battle that. Somehow, my voice isn’t as valuable as a black pastor who may have left church, even if they do not identify as an atheist.
You see some men who are detracting from Christianity, pastors leaving religion, but, yet, people are looking into these default spokespersons for atheism.
Their journey out of religion seems more amplified than a black women atheist founder of a national organization.
Jacobsen: What are some other barriers?
Thomas: Some are openly identifying, trying to get people together. So many people have gotten used to this sense of social ostracism. You are afraid to venture out and meet others. We understand that life gets in the way, but it is still a matter of getting people together, as well as help out and volunteer.
The idea of getting people comfortable with that open identification. That is where the open support comes in.
Jacobsen: Are there social tools or epithets in place to derogate or prevent open identification?
Thomas: I wouldn’t say there’s anything in particular. That is, there is nothing in place that inherently prevents people from doing it. There is a lot implied. The fear of the ostracism. The fear of alienation, the fear of people abandoning them.
That is more prevalent. It is a matter of making people comfortable with not simply speaking out, but also finding likeminded individuals and connecting with them. It is overcoming the fear.
Jacobsen: How does being a mother of three influence your long-term thoughts about the prospects for the nonbelieving movement in the future? We are noticing a broad phenomenon of religiosity on the wane in America, but also more open fundamentalism in some respects.
Thomas: Right, I want my children and other children to know that they have choices. This isn’t something that they should have to fight as they get older. Open identification as an atheist shouldn’t be stigmatizing for them.
They shouldn’t have to fight with their peers or other adults if they or their parents openly identify as an atheist or have a different point of view. They shouldn’t have to worry about religious ideals being imposed in a public setting or in their schools.
They have the power to fight that. For me, the purpose of doing this is that whatever they become passionate about, they should have the right to speak up. No one should have the right to silence them. I try to be an example for them.
Jacobsen: Recently, you transitioned from full-time work to full-time activism. You also have a Patreon page to support you in this effort. Where can we find this Patreon page?
Mandisa Thomas: The Patreon website is as follows: www.patreon.com/mandisalateefah. It isn’t a searchable link or a searchable page because it contains adult content.
You can also reach me by email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach me at our website www.blacknonbelievers.org for more information. I decided to resign from my full-time job to pursue activism full-time because there was a need to continue to grow the organization as well as grow my activism to a new level.
Jacobsen: How can people donate funds? How can they provide exposure to your new full-time activism?
Thomas: The most important thing would be to support Black Nonbelievers. We are a 501(c)3 organization. The more you donate, then the more we are able to create full-time positions. In the meantime, Patreon is a donation website where you can pledge as little as dollar a month to support my activism. Or you can do both! [Laughing]
Jacobsen: With the funds people will no doubt be giving or donating to you, what would you hope to do with it in the next 12 months?
Thomas: In the next 12 months, we will be supporting Black Nonbelievers as an organization. We recently launched a chapter in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. We look to establish, on the ground, chapters, where people are hosting meetups, hosting in-person events, and collaborating offline wherever we are needed.
We are always looking for people who are willing to work and volunteer with us. Those dollars would, of course, go to supporting myself and the work that I do.
Black Nonbelievers, myself included, donate to other secular organizations and entities, as well as our members, that need help. There is the potential to support a podcast for us. Also, it will allow me to be able to travel to places where I am requested because I get a lot of requests to speak.
That would keep overhead low. Also, when these presentations are recorded, they are made available for later viewing and for information. There is a lot. I have, hopefully, covered some in that response.
Jacobsen: Also, you are part of a radio program. That should be something people should take note of because you have experience with audio presentation of news of the day and conversation topics, which would make the podcast a natural transition.
Thomas: Absolutely, oh yes.
Jacobsen: What are other ways people can get to know you?
Thomas: You can find me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mandisalateefah. Patreon really is the place to get to know me a lot better. I shared a lot of unfiltered thoughts, and unfiltered guidance and advice on leadership and community building.
These come from a more practical standpoint. At my previous job, I was an event services manager, which plays a lot into why Black Nonbelievers has been successful – particularly with interacting with people in person.
I have experience engaging with people extensively. This is something people in the atheist community can benefit from considering a lot of the problems that we’re seeing now with regards to interactions with others, particularly women.
There is a lot of people can learn about basic human interactions, which they are not learning from the regular activism and the intellectual aspect. I bring that to the table.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.
Thomas: No Problem! Thank you.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.