Mandisa Thomas on Black Nonbelievers and the Atheist Community

April 23, 2020

On this week’s episode, Leighann Lord speaks with Mandisa Thomas, president of Black Nonbelievers. Black Nonbelievers connect with other Black folks and allies who have chosen to live without religion. They serve as a community for those who have been otherwise shunned by family and friends. From the Black Nonbelievers’ website, “Instead of accepting dogma, we seek to determine truth and morality through reason and evidence.”

Leighann and Mandisa have a frank and honest discussion about their shared experience of what it’s like to exist in the atheist community as women of color and how things they’ve seen and witnessed may be holding the atheist community back from growing. They also discuss the importance of critical thinking and introspection and how growing up as a New Yorker has helped Mandisa navigate a world as an atheist women of color running a national organization. You can follow what Mandisa and Black Nonbelievers are up to on twitter @mandy0904 and @BNonbelievers.

You can follow Leighann on twitter @LeighannLord

 

This Week’s Music

“Cold” by Pictures of the Floating World / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

“Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

My name is Leighann Lord. Your new co-host for Point of Inquiry, my guest today is the one and only Mount Isa Thomas. She is the co-founder and president of Black Nonbeliever’s. She is the host of Parenting Beyond Belief. 

In 2018, she was named Person of the Year by the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association. In 2019, the Secular Student Alliance presented her with its Backbone Award. In this interview, we talked about how in eleven years Black Nonbeliever’s has grown and spread across the country and why it’s an important safe space and not just of people of color. She shares what motivates and keeps her focused as a leader in the secular community and how she navigates the intersections of being an atheist woman of color and where the blind spots are for all of us. 

Larry ABody, my name is Leighann Lord and I am the new co-host for a Point of Inquiry, the podcast that engages guests and conversations about the big questions in science, skepticism, religion, politics, law and culture. My guest today is the one and only Manza Thomas. She is the co-founder and president of Black Nonbeliever’s. She is the host of Parenting Beyond Belief. In 2018, she was named the Person of the Year by the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association. And in twenty nineteen, the Secular Student Alliance presented her with its Backbone Award. I love that. And what listeners may not know is that Mandisa and I are both native New Yorkers. 

Dare I say round the way Girls and DL welcomes a point of inquiry. Thank you so much for agreeing to be my guest today. I really appreciate it. 

Thank you so much, Liane. I know we have shared the same space over the years. Yeah, it’s it’s awesome to be interviewed by you or point of inquiry. 

I feel like it’s not a party till you get there. 

Oh, it’s this space specifically in terms of the goings on for folks of color, in particular in the atheist and secular space. But let’s get started off and let folks know about your organization, black nonbelievers, you know, sort of how it started and and where you’re going. 

Black Nonbeliever’s is a we’re a nonprofit. I’ve always thought the organization that works to build up community for black folks who are questioning religious belief and favorite of believing, as well as build up those the community for those for black folks who are identifies atheists or other similar identify as second relabel who did not know that there were others out there because we all. I get that a lot. Yes. Yeah. When you leave religion behind and due to, you know, the still overwhelming presence of the church in the black community, it can be difficult to find others who identify as a nonbeliever or secular. We find folks who question and challenge religion, religious beliefs. But the a word is still considered very dirty. Yes. And also to find more of us out there is still almost equate it to like finding a needle in a haystack. As an organization, we sought to bring more of us out because we know that there are more of us out there. But it’s a matter of having that bridge net connection to show that, yes, there are more of us out here, and also that there is a need to build in person and online, offline community, as well as to show that there is activism among the black atheist demographic in. And that takes various forms, for example, because I think what you do as a comedian is still activism within our community. Thank you. We try to showcase the various forms of that through our organization. 

This is not just in Atlanta. You know, your organization has grown. And I’m happy to say that you’re even here in New York. Your rep here in New York. Can I have my CVI? I don’t know where he finds the time to hustle the way he does. 

He’s always putting together social events, which I think is very important, because when we can come out and not just have heavy conversations, but to have fun, to congregate together because we have something similar, you know, or we’re coming from or escaping from, say, a religious background and to be able to congregate socially. But it’s now but again, not just Atlanta, not just New York City, where if you guys where we also expand it, too. 

So, yes, of course, we were started. Our flagship is Atlanta, Georgia. That’s where we’re headquartered. The second Philly, it was established in the metro Orlando area and Florida. So we and but we also have affiliate groups in Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon, and Louisville. Now, our most recent affiliate was established in the Columbus, Ohio area. We’re also in Detroit. So we’re about fifteen cities nationwide. Now we’re also in St. Louis as well. So there’s the yet where we have definitely expanded the organization in the almost 10 years that we we’ve been in existence. And, you know, that just basically is a testament to a lack of a better word or maybe a perfect word, right? Yes. No, there are more people who are seeking out that community. Right. And they also want to connect with people. Who not just look like them, but can also identify because as atheists and nonbelievers and people who are secular, they are a lot of thing. There are a lot of similarities that we share with people from all backgrounds. Yes, but when you’re coming specifically from a more module, large community, then there are then there are certain things that can read that resonate with us and that there are spaces needed for us to discuss the issues that surround the challenges we face coming from that particular community. 

I’m so proud of you and I’m proud of the growth of the organization because I feel like when I came out and you probably felt the same way and I don’t even feel was coming out. I was just being myself to now find other people felt this way. 

And even at first, it didn’t even matter. The color. I was like, oh, my God, you don’t believe either. Hold my hand. What are we doing? You know, there’s a camaraderie. It is unity. And that I had no idea. 

And it’s it’s wonderful to be able to avail myself of that and then to have it be culturally specific as well. But I’ve heard you say several times that just because it’s called black nonbelievers, you do not have to be black in order to or the organization will not know. 

You don’t have to you don’t even have to be black to participate with us. Right. Because, again, we are a five I seat the organization. Our or our events are open primarily to the public. We do set guidelines, though, for those who are nonblack or who are non p.l.c. is that this is not your space to center yourself. There are plenty of spaces for, you know, for the majority of atheists who are represented, you know, and that’s totally fine. But yes, we have been asked previously, you may have gotten this, too, Lee-Anne, about, you know, why is there, you know, a lack of diversity? Where are all the people of color? Where the black folks? Where the women. Yet when we give these answers there there are these there are these institutional thoughts and practices within certain organizations that keep people of color from, you know, from consistently participating. Yes. This was also another focus of the organization, was to, again, try to build those bridges and form collaboration’s and to show that, yes, if this is something that if diversity and inclusion and wanting to hear from a variety of voices that include more people of color, then it’s important to look to show it, to contribute a support to the organizations like black nonbelievers and others that are dedicated to doing this work. 

The atheist community is once again a microcosm of the wider right, a culture. We need to be raise our voices and be seen. I kind of see you as as you sort of embody for me Europe. You are literally being the change you want to see. 

Yes, I appreciate that. 

You could have just done not black nonbelievers in St.. Just been in Atlanta, you know, and done your own thing. But you made sure to do that outreach. But even more than that, you are an an integral part of the community. There are other organizations that that you are a member of. Can you. Can you talk about. 

I am a member of both American Atheists and the American Humanist Association. I serve on both of those boards as well. I’ve previously served on the boards for a foundation beyond belief. And the Secular Coalition for America. I have consulted with a number of secular organizations on different practices. So it isn’t just about what it means to be a black atheist. I’ve also consulted on how organizations and leaders can better improve their efforts for outreach and also on how to improve their diversity and inclusion efforts. And so and I like to say that I do that from a more practical standpoint, because my my career background is in hospitality. So I’ve engaged a lot of people during the course of my my career and being able to manage people as well. There’s a lot of intellectual wisdom in our community. There’s a lot of folks who pride themselves on how many books they’ve read and how smart they are, which there’s nothing wrong with. No. But to be quite honest, the people’s skills are lacking. They are absolutely horrible because it’s like you’re talking at folks and not to them. And that has become a serious problem. And even in looking into religious communities, even though the texts are completely horror, they are hard. Reason to bond these communities together. 

They have certain social practices in place that are keeping that or sustaining them. And there’s nothing wrong with it. And they don’t own that. They don’t own this idea that you have to be religious nor to be good, that you have to be religious in order to be nice and to care about people. And I know this is something that has been a focus of the community in the past few years on improving, but it definitely needs to improve a whole lot more. 

Oh, we have stories. Yes. 

And I have heard you speak on this and you managed to do so both directly and eloquently, because unfortunately, in and I fall prey to this as well, because I like to think that I’m smart and I like to think that I’m well read. But if you are unable to. How shall I say communicate that if you’re if you’re unable to have those practical skills that you talk about, then we’re not going to advance collectively if I am paraphrasing you. Yes, absolutely. I know that that one of the things, at least from on my end, as it’s come up, you know, when I say you’ve seen me, you know, M.C. it at various conferences. And the question is always, you know, are we going to do a Q&A? And everybody starts wringing their hands like, oh, that’s not a good idea because it’s understood that someone will get up and ten minutes of their question will be their resumé. 

Yes. Like, why they sort of have the background at educational fortitude to ask this question. And it’s like anybody get on top of that. 

And one thing I found, too, is that during the Q&A portions, some of the questions will be centered around something that is completely irrelevant. Oh, yes. To the conversation or to the presentation. And it often centers a point of view that does not reflect the presenter. Right. And so it’s always about, well, what about or have you considered this person? And it’s just like, oh, gosh, can we can we please not do that? You know, can it can it please not be that you’re veering away from the subject at hand or even the person at hand? Because that to me is an indicator that you weren’t really listening, weren’t really listening to me. You were listening only to respond and try to, you know, and try to get your point of view out there that you weren’t really taking in the information. 

I want to say that is a delightful human failing across the board. You know, not just our community. I think our community is particularly susceptible to it because we’re so freakin smart. It’s like we are we’re too smart for the room. 

And so I think one of the things, again, and as you said, that we can all work on and would improve the community, are those core listening skills like just truly active listening so that you can really have a good question? What’s something honestly challenges you and not just as a as an exhibition of your knowledge? You know, because I was one of I I go to a conference. I’m assuming if you’re in the room, it’s because you want to be here. I think this this leads me to something I wanted to talk to you about, which is, I guess, the intersection of of being black and female and atheist. And if you could just tell me how easy that’s been for you. 

I mean, just a breeze, right? You just get make out a trick question. 

Yes, absolutely. A trick question. Yeah. Because it’s not easy. I mean, this will be an atheist. Not. Not none of these things on their own by themselves are easy, you know? And we have the audacity to step into the world and be three. You might as well throw in lefthanded. Right. Or the extra bonus challenge. But you seem to and maybe this is me looking from the outside and being bit of a fangirl of you. You seem to navigate this well. And I’m not saying it is effortless. I’m not saying that. But you you get behind the wheel and you’re driving. 

So I think what has helped is my upbringing as a New Yorker. I think that help Yathrib endlessly, because when you’re from New York and I’m from the hood in New York. Right. There are certain there are certain characteristics, a certain strengths that you have to develop along with. What I have learned as far as education and an experience in my experiences, but I will tell you what it has been like. It is it is to constantly be bombarded. And to for people to either inadvertently or even overtly remind you that your experience somehow is to be diminished. Because you’re either not a male or you’re not white. And we get this from. We get this from other people of color, too. We get this from other black folks in the the ones who challenge the overall system and institutions of white supremacy and the representation. But ultimately, the underlying support still lies with them. 

And somehow that, you know, my existence, as, you know, a black atheist woman who has become a leader and someone who has been more recognized in this community is to still be diminished and still not to receive the support that I know is needed. And that is almost a constant reminder in these spaces. I didn’t get into this community to just boost myself up. I didn’t get in this community to be as recognized as I am now. I do appreciate that. I appreciate all of the recognition that has come with the work. 

However, look, this work has not been to just, you know, boost myself up. It is because there are folks who need us. There are folks who need to know that our organization exists. They need to know that there is a leader who will communicate and talk with them and not at them. And to know that there is support and care for that, that comes from us. And there’s something that there there is something that we provide in a way that some other organizations don’t. And I’m unapologetic about that. 

So having to keep that focus and our mission in mind has been difficult at times because there are some folks who will actually blatantly act like they can do this so much better than you or they they can do. They can do so much better than me. And you know what I say, hey, be my guest, because this this takes work and it takes a team effort to, you know, to to continue to maintain these spaces that are, you know, these community building spaces. 

But to constantly have that reminder or, you know, if we aren’t being you know, if we aren’t being objectified in some way, if, you know as women, you know, if we can’t you know, if we if we can’t if we don’t respond to that, then we’re being ridiculed. Right. It’s amazing how you can go from being a queen to a bee in a matter of sad because cause you don’t do something in a way that someone wants you to. And so that has just been an ongoing that that has just been so ongoing. So we do it with a whole bunch of still societal stigmas that even though people have let go of religion and the God concept, there’s other baggage that people still bring with them and they still hold on to it. And when you try to tell them that this is a bad thing to do, they will fight you like they will. They will fight you tooth and nail within the community. 

We still bring our very human baggage and we haven’t thought our way out of it. 

It’s not like, yes, there are some things that people have not thought their way out of. They will again try to. They will fight it and they will argue other people. They will project whatever flaws and insecurities they have onto other people. And like you said, that is a very human thing that people do. But where I hold our community accountable is people. They’ll put themselves on a higher level than believers because they don’t believe in. They don’t know. We don’t believe in God anymore. Right. However, if you are still carrying those, if you are still carrying those those characteristics with you that are harmful to others, when you let go of these concepts, you’re supposed to be reconsidering everything that comes along with them. And sometimes that takes some reflection. That takes some introspection overall. We are supposed to be taking information into consideration and reconsidering them. And if they’re hurting other people, then you change it, because that is that’s supposed to be what we’re about, especially if you identify as humanist as well as atheist. 

Yes. Yes. And we haven’t even touched on that, that there’s atheist humanists, free thinkers, and perhaps this is my bias. But when you identify that way, I think the responsibility for self development and self scrutiny is even higher. 

It is because it’s up to us. You know, there is a lot that we know. I think most people who have subscribed to some form or religion, they’ve put their faith and trust into this entity outside of themselves so that there are people who may feel powerless. They may not. They may think that doing certain things and and making certain changes is beyond their control, which it isn’t. But you’ve been conditioned to think that way. Right. And to always look for either and a divine answer or someone else to give you that answer. And you don’t always need that. 

There is a lot of empowerment that we can find within ourselves to where we don’t need to be fostering this savior mentality anymore. I always contend that it should be more about team efforts and team building because everyone has an important part to play. Right. But yes, there are. But it but again, that is that can be a very, very long road for some. Some for some of us. Not as long. But for others, it can be very it can be very time consuming. And it also can be very painful, depending on your life’s experiences and whether there was trauma involved. And it’s okay to admit that it’s okay to admit that there was something you didn’t know before and that you may have been wrong. That’s just part Banti, right? 

What are you saying? Clutch the pearls. Wrong. What? Well, that’s that’s the other thing. Oh, gosh. This is so much rather be a Vulcan because being a human is exhausting. Yes. But, you know, it gets harder as you get older to admit when you’re wrong because you think you’ve figured it out now. Now, mind you, I’m in the midst of a full blown midlife crisis. So it’s all wrong. I hope you’re wrong about everything. So I’m willing to to sit back and question and learn. One has to be of that that mindset. We did the most courageous thing ever. We got rid of God and and we’re like, OK, that’s it. No, no. I’m getting. 

Yes, it is only it is just the beginning. Absolutely. 

You know, there’s a lot to unpack here at Apelike from the very beginning when you were talking about privilege. 

And I wanted to come back and mention that there’s a lot of unconscious bias here on all sides. You know, people will will defer because they’re used to deferring culturally as opposed to going. No, I have as much expertize people have really approached you or and let you know either consciously or subconsciously or overtly or or or not that they can do your job better than you. 

Oh, yes, absolutely. That even as an organization that is focused on community building and yes, many of our events are socially based because that is an important piece to community building as well as movement building. Yes, there were four. There have been folks who have basically scoffed at the mission about organization. They tell us we’re not doing enough. And yeah, we get a whole bunch of suggestions, but not much in execution. And people who you know, there are people who always sit on the side, you know, that call the armchair quarterbacks, the ones who sit back and say, well, you know, they think this stuff is easier because some of us make it look easy is. 

Yes. Yes. 

From where I sit or maybe from where another person sits. What you do, some people may think is easy. And I mean, as a as a writer, as someone who writes and who presents it is not as easy as people think it is. 

Not at all. Not at all. You impress me as somebody who you don’t just talk about it. You’d be about it, in essence, to put a little urban phrasing in there. I don’t think that’s easy at all. And I’ve heard you speak about this. I want to say it was that American Atheists in twenty seventeen and you were laying out some really, really great examples about how you sort of sedulously sort of guard the integrity of your organization. But but you expanded it. It’s not just none of no nonbelievers. It you you made the case that this is what all organizations should be thinking about, you know, in terms of cultivating and vetting their membership and and making sure you don’t have those folks who were just dictating and not participating in how you set those expectations. I mean, I thought that was such a wonderful guideline that other that you that you laid out for what you’re doing now in other organizations can do the same. 

Yes. And I appreciate that. And it doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. No, no. We don’t pride ourselves on being this this this very holier than thou organization. I mean, life. No, I was absolutely not. But yes, it really is about making sure that you have people who volunteer because, yes, based on the volunteer basis, that they share the same goals and dedication or similar to that that the organization does and that that I do. I don’t expect people to do exactly as me. But yes, I hope that whatever leadership and guidance that I offer and provide is being taken into consideration seriously. And yes, it is a matter of managing and it doesn’t mean that we can’t take on different focuses at times or different missions. And because if it’s relevant to our movement, then we should definitely be discussing it. At the very least, there should be and also how we discuss it. It’s also about the how and how we engage and civilly is always the best way to go. It doesn’t mean we have to agree. But, you know, we we can have different points of view and it doesn’t have to turn or devolve into a fight. 

Wait. Mindy, so this sounds like crazy talk. Are you saying that as adults, we can actually agree to disagree? I don’t know. 

I think that might be grasping at straws there. 

You’ve you’ve been in the movement for a while. You’ve seen people come and go and come in with enthusiasm and leave and exhaustion. I don’t understand how you maintain it’s easy for people as they get more passionate about this to get even more discouraged. What has helped you not pick up your toys and go home? And you kind of answered that a little bit because you actually have a goal. You have a bigger goal than just yourself. You know, it’s not just personality, but community. But for you personally, what do you do? 

I, I will curse. I will cry when I have to. I will do all of the things that I need to do to be, you know, when I am when I am very frustrated. I’m very honest with myself about it. I try not to hold anything back. But when you when I have established it, because this is basically my baby. Right. This is this is something that I’m growing. And just like with children, you don’t give up. You know, you have to you have to acknowledge that there are things that will go wrong. There are there are going to be people who will come against you. But in the course of developing the organization and constantly reevaluating myself, even I tend to do I’m very, very hard on myself when it comes to how I do things, because even times there are times where I feel like I’m not doing enough. And as it is women, we don’t put that pressure on ourselves already. Yeah. 

But what keeps me going is, again, the people who I have met because there have been there are a lot of wonderful people in this community that I have come to know and love, and that has been, you know, a result of me going to different organa, you know, different spaces and actually getting to know the people involved and the work that they do. And it’s all very, very important. At the end of the day, and knowing that I’m not the only one who is going through this. They have been able to be more comfortable in their expression, in their nonbelief, whether they fully identify as atheists. And the fact that we have connected so many people together. There are a number of people who have found longer lasting connections as a result of our organization existing and not just existing, but also being that that that go to for a number of people. And that has been what? Because there have been more good things that have come from this then challenges. And for me to be challenged at acts, it actually makes me a better person because I look to see what kind of obstacles I can overcome. 

And again, I think that goes back to The New Yorker in me, because sometimes we have to go into survival mode. And when you know what it’s like to have to do so much with so little, you learn how to work it. You know, we’ve had to do that within our communities. We have to do that historically. And so some of us know what that’s like when when you when when we don’t come from privilege, we we know how to work this. So there is a part of me that never gets so comfortable in feeling like, well, I made it to a point. So now I can just coast or everything is OK. There’s always going to be something more that I have to do. And even though I do have to take time to, you know, kind of sit back and re prioritize myself. 

There’s always the work that needs to be done and it’s always going to be that, hey, if I say that this is something that needs to be done, then I’m going to have to be prepared to do it. Like you said, I don’t just talk about it. I’ll be about it. 

Right. I think that’s valuable advice and inspiring for any organization, this community and life in general. 

I mean, I think these lessons are applicable. I don’t want to let you go without asking you to talk a little bit about your new conference coming up. This is the be the second year for women of color beyond belief. Yes. 

Yes, it is. And it’s a collaborative event between black nonbelievers, black skeptics, Los Angeles and the Women’s Leadership Project with the Keibel, Hutchinson and myself. So Qihoo and Breea Bridget Crutchfield are the three organizers for the conference. And last year, 2019 was the first one we did. 

And it’s the only conference that has featured all speakers who are women of color, who are either nonbelievers or nonreligious in some way. Or secular in some way. And if he if you weren’t there, then this is speaking to everyone. It was really it was such an amazing experience to see not just the speakers, but also the number of women of color who were in attendance, because at most at most atheists, secular, non-religious conferences, the audience is decidedly different. Yes. Which there. Hey, people support what is important to them. You know, I give respect to that. However, it is different. There is a different vibe, is a different experience when you have certain organizations organizing certain events. And it’s also it was a validating space, not just for women of color, but also everyone who was there because everyone felt like it was a safe space to not just learn because it was a lot of education involved. There was also a lot of information as well. There was also just a lot of camaraderie. It was a lot of love in the rooms. It was just there was just so much that there was so much in value that people got being in that space. It was worth doing again, for sure. And it’s certainly worth repeating in the future because we haven’t featured all of the women of color yet. I know we haven’t had you there yet. There are so many women of color who are active in this movement, but yet people are still asking, well, where are they? And that shouldn’t even be a question. 

Same thing happens in my industry. It’s like where all the black female comics are. Mike, are you serious? Right. You’re everywhere. But I can only imagine when you talk about the vibe and the camaraderie. I mean, I know how I felt when I met just one other black atheist or a black female atheist. I was like, oh, it was such a feeling. And then so I can only imagine how good this must have felt and how it combats the stereotype. Because, you know, you’ve written about this that the assumption and I guess by the numbers correctly so that all black women are religious, too, to be in a space where that is so not the case, right? Absolutely. It sounds like it can be life changing. 

It is. And even for the number of other black women of the women of color who didn’t know that there were others in these spaces, I said I consider myself very fortunate to have been to have engaged a number of people in this movement. And I said this before, and quite a few of them are women of color who are very active in their work. This is not as well recognized as it should be. And so why not have that space, that concentrated space? That shows that even if other women of color didn’t know about these other women. Now you do. You do. You know, now you you you have that space. You all can connect more with each other, which is what the goal has always been. Not just for black nonbelievers, but also for some of us who are still organizers in these spaces. 

Now, when is the conference and when is it and where is it going to be in Chicago once again? 

The Mariotte Chicago Midway Hotel from the dates of September 25th to the twenty seventh of this year. 

I’m assuming you do not just have to be a black woman to attend. Once again, this is about ally ship and building community and in the best possible way. What Manti said. Thank you. This flew by. 

I don’t know where I’m going to see you, Dags. I’m thinking Dragon Con, if you’re. I certainly am hoping, Dre. Yeah. Yes. He will definitely be there. 

I am, too. But I really want to thank you for taking the time to be a guest for Port Macquarie, because you are a popular guest. I did my research I by. 

Everybody has interviewed these. I wake up in your late fifties, actually. 

Exactly. But no, thank you for for coming and speaking to the point of inquiry audience. 

Thank you very much. And once again, I appreciate you having me. It is an honor to have you interview me, Liane. And I really do appreciate it. Thank you. Antitheft. 

Thank you for listening. Point of Inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry TFI is a five one C three charitable nonprofit organization whose vision is a world in which evidence, science and compassion rather than superstition, pseudoscience or prejudice guide public policy. Do you care about science and skepticism? Then please do share this episode to help spread the word about Puli and the topics we discussed today. You can visit us at point of inquiry at O R.G.. There you can listen to all of the past Pouye episodes dating back to 2005 and support the show and to advise nonprofit advocacy work by clicking on the support button on the site. 

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