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Black Non-Believers of Atlanta: Interview with Mandisa L. Thomas

Mandisa Thomas is a co-founder and current President of the Black
Nonbelievers of Atlanta
.  Although never formally indoctrinated into belief, Mandisa was heavily exposed to Christianity, Black
Nationalism and a bit of 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 in today’s
society.” she recalls. She has been a guest on programs including The Critical Eye, Ask
an Atheist and the Black Freethinkers blogtalk radio show (of which she is now
a co-host with Kimberly Veal of the Black Non-Believers of Chicago).

BS: What led you to create the Black
Non-Believers of Atlanta group?  What are
some of the initiatives the group has undertaken and what has been the response
of the local community?

Mandisa: Benjamin Burchall and I founded
Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta to reach other African Americans who are either
questioning their religious beliefs, or whom are nonbelievers that are still in
the closet. Because religion is so prevalent in the lives of many in our
communities, we understood how difficult it could be to express an opposing
view. We also realized that there are serious consequences for many that do so,
(including ostracism from many social circles) and we knew that there needed to
be a support system created. The initiatives we’ve taken include conducting
General Meetings once a month, sponsoring a Recovering from Religion support
group, and participating in community cleanup projects.

BS: Atlanta seems to be a relative hub of
black non-theist activity. Why do you think that is?

Mandisa: The Metro Atlanta area has a huge
Black population – many come from other cities and have been exposed to diverse
educational and cultural opportunities. We have been fortunate to connect with
many nonbelievers here. Although there is still a heavily religious market here,
I think scandals such as the one involving Bishop Eddie Long have made it more
empowering for many to openly question these beliefs – and for us to be more
readily available for those seeking fellowship amongst other nonbelievers.

BS: What are some of the unique challenges
that you personally have encountered as a black female non-believer?

Mandisa: Surprisingly, there haven’t been that many. I have always been outspoken, so my family members and friends expect
this. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from experiencing the same ostracism
that many other nonbelievers face. I would have to say that the most unique
encounter is other Blacks assuming that I’m a Christian, and being asked which
Church do I attend. I’ve also encountered very shocked looks on people’s faces
when I tell them that I’m an atheist – as if I’m expected to look different
from everyone else.

BS: Some of the most outspoken black atheist
humanist activists and thinkers are female. What do you think accounts for this
dynamic?

Mandisa: We seem to recognize that our voices
need to be heard – especially in the face of the predominantly Black religious
community, and a White Male dominated freethought community. There is only so
much that we can ask them to do – we MUST take initiative to speak for
OURSELVES – and on behalf of those that cannot speak freely about their
nonbelief.

BS: If you identify as a feminist/womanist
what is the connection between black feminism/womanism/gender justice activism
and humanist atheist activism?

Mandisa: Admittedly, I am not as well versed
in the history of both movements as I should be, but I think the connection
between the two is that they both challenge religious and political ideals and call
for eradication of practices that have kept women and men in an oppressed and
deluded state for so long. When one is expected to “stay in their place”, faces
ostracism and ridicule for inquiring about the validity of such archaic
principles or even discriminated against due to their race, gender or
philosophical point of view, their human rights are being violated. Both the
Civil and Women’s Rights movements of the 20th century were
instrumental in fighting for equality for ALL people, which has paved the way
for the atheist/humanist movement to gain momentum to help galvanize and
support nonbelievers everywhere.

BS: I recently traveled to Houston for the Texas Freethought Convention.  I could
count the number of African Americans on two hands.  What are some of the major obstacles to
making issues that communities of color care about visible in the white-dominated
secular movement?

Mandisa: The main problem as I see it is that many of the leaders seem to think that the same solution can be applied to
different problems. This should not be a cookie cutter movement, and asking the
question of how can we increase diversity without any follow through is not
helping at all. There hasn’t been enough outreach from the major organizations
to minority communities, and while I will hold us accountable for our lack of
research into these events, there needs to be a better effort to genuinely
reach out to either the people directly, or support organizations like Black
Nonbelievers, Black Skeptics and Black Atheists of America so that we can reach
out and offer the support in our communities. We are not expecting them to
fully relate to what we experience, but we DO expect for them to be aware and
not act like there are no disparities that need to be addressed.

BS: The Black Freethinker’s show has developed a loyal following amongst black non-believers searching for an outlet
for their issues and concerns.  What are your future plans for the show?

Mandisa: We plan on featuring more freethinking groups, artists and professionals that specialize in clinical
problems with religion and the Black community and we will also be promoting
more events – some of which we will be helping to coordinate in the near
future.

BS: What kinds of collaborations would you like to see
amongst black non-theist groups on a national level?

Mandisa: I would love for us to collaborate on outreach
events that are based in the communities we’re trying to help – such as
meetings/conventions, mentoring programs, community development from a secular
worldview and a broader support system for those that are still overcoming
religious beliefs. Even though our groups may have specific purposes, there is
no reason why we cannot work together in order to become a force to be reckoned
with in the face of religiosity.

Listen to The Black Freethinkers podcast at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/blackfreethinkers

Comments

  1. P Smith says

    As I said in reponse to a recent post on “Crommunist Manifesto”, we need more non-white atheists speaking out. People are always more willing to listen and think when the words and ideas come from their own people. Welcome to every atheist who does.

    European imperialism over 500 years spread religion everywhere, overrunning cultures and pre-existing beliefs. Because of past actions (militarily, social, cultural), people in such countries today aren’t willing to listen to whites, even when their policies and ideas are flat out wrong and atheists are right (re: Ghana and Uganda’s ridiculous attitudes toward gays). Who can blame people for an unwillingness to listen, given the fact of history and their experience? To them, Dawkins and Hitchens look no different than Columbus or Cook.

    It’s not just one case. In Canada, many First Nations people who had religion forced onto them by whites over hundreds of years now don’t want to listen to atheists who are predominantly white. And I’ve seen it in the Philippines, where catholicism is so predominant (~90%), there is the same unwillingness to listen. Even Filipino atheists find it hard to get their own people to listen.

    Ahem. Excuse the length of the comment.

    .

    • blackskeptics says

      “To them, Dawkins and Hitchens look no different than Columbus or Cook”

      Exactly. It’s impossible to consider secular humanism from a person of color perspective without some critical consciousness of the legacy of colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy. The folly of many prominent European and Euro-American non-believers is that they descend with an ahistorical mindset that is not in the least anti-racist, presuming that simply eschewing religious dogma magically transforms them into anti-racists.

  2. says

    Great to know you exsist! Please check out my blog post on this:
    Black-Religion or lack there of http://wp.me/p3XsDb-11

    Greetings…

    As an black woman I can tell you that there is difficultly with being a non religious person. Yes you can be one but it is not easy to live and express openly with the community. There is mostly feelings of being ostracized and looked down on as if you are the poor hell bound individual. First I would like to say that I don’t care what a persons religion or lack of religion is. There are times when I really do drown out my own expression not to be an outsider. There are times when I may want to comment to diffuse ignorant information and I withhold it. To say it means that they will look at me differently, maybe no respect or disrespect. It really is something to think about. Most religious people to me can be the most intolerant human beings on earth even with all the love and God they supposedly have in their hearts.

    So first I should say that I believe spirituality belong to that individual. Second, I am usually not argumentative with people on WHY they believe what they believe but if I feel up to it I will answer questions on why I don’t believe what you believe. What typically happens is the good ole Christian bulling – “how fast are you going to hell?” There are a few times I have had to become very basic and really bring out the claws on a few folks. I try not to go there because I believe that spirituality is personal no matter how wrong, right, or strange it maybe. As humans in this experience, we have the right to evolve or devolve for that matter.

    So the real issues is WHY are blacks so reluctant and insensitive to the spiritual matters of another? After all of the segregation and discrimination-Why? We should gleam in the personal liberties of another, something that we have seen taken away at heart beat. The freedom to live that cost real lives? Is the pull pit the only pit that we can see ourselves on and maybe that we have fear will be taken away? I can say if this is the case we still have a lot to learn about freedom and liberty and furthermore the human spirit.

    See hell, I am under an alias- Sigh… It is not been good for me to hold this back. I am coming up with solutions. Im “coming out”

    Please feel free to comment!

    RP-

    Breath of Fresh Air!

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