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Dialogue with Mandisa Thomas: Founder, Black Nonbelievers, Inc.


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/10/29

Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. One of, if not the, largest organization for African-American or black nonbelievers or atheists in America. The organization is intended to give secular fellowship, provide nurturance and support for nonbelievers, encourage a sense of pride in irreligion, and promote charity in the non-religious community. Here we talk about the recent transition from full-time work to full-time activism for Thomas and building community.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If you look at the American context of religion and the level of religiosity, how seriously people take their faith, and if you look at the South African case on similar factors, what do you see as similarities in terms of the state of religion and the level of religiosity?

Mandisa Thomas: Unfortunately, through colonialism and the indoctrination and imposing of religion among the people of color, particularly black folks and Africans on the continent, it is similar.

Colonialism and Christianity was a force among the Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, it has taken on a life of its own in both areas, where many African-Americans are highly religious due to the historical nature of the church and the role it played during and after slavery and before and after the Civil Rights movement.

I also think Evangelical Christianity has taken over the continent of Africa as well. Certainly, in the eastern part of Africa Islam dominates there. But there is certainly a similarity in the way it was imposed on blacks in Americ and Africa.

Jacobsen: Regarding the effects of the ways in which religion is represented on the continent of Africa and in southern Africa in particular, how does this lead to human rights violations, whether wittingly or unwittingly used to enact violations of human rights?

Thomas: It has been a tool to get the oppressed to accept their oppression. That God or Jesus will deliver you from oppression, will come and save you. We will go to heaven once we die.

Unfortunately, it has allowed many people to accept this idea of suffering or oppression as [Laughing] something like God’s Will.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] Do you think that culture of “accept your suffering, take it, and you will have a better life in the hereafter” is taken seriously by most people who identify as Christian or Muslim in the continent of Africa?

Or do you think they take it more as a marginal belief that doesn’t necessarily influence their day-to-day lives?

Thomas: I think it is a mixture. I think people have been conditioned to believe that because there are many believers who live their lives like everyone else, except when it comes to going to church on Sunday.

Or if they go to church, they just don’t believe, but a huge factor of that is fear. Many are scared to not believe. It is an insurance policy. They may not know for sure that it is real, but, just in case, they will err on the side of belief because they do not want to be wrong and end up on that wrong side once they die.

So, fear is often a huge factor when it comes to espousing the belief or truly believing it.

Jacobsen: When it comes to the case of South Africa or southern Africa generally, it is not only fear about a hereafter as an insurance policy motivation. It is a fear of being socially unaccepted. You are cast out of the group simply by not taking on the label of “Christian” or “Muslim” or attending mosque or church on a particular holy day.

Thomas: Absolutely, people do have this fear, ostracism. I think in the Muslim faith or the secular Muslim faith. You are considered an apostate, and the punishment is death. So, many people fear for their lives.

If they break away from the religion or the temple and such, in Christianity, there might be the sense of exorcism. In the continent of Africa, I think people fear more for their lives. People definitely face social outcasting from their churches or their communities if they stop believing.

Unfortunately, it does lead to a sense of alienation because you feel that you cannot relate to the people that you once socialized with. It is very uncomfortable for many who break away.

Jacobsen: Not only on the personal and social aspects, what about professional life? Does this make potential professional life difficult? Could these impact promotion opportunities, the ability to get certain types of employment, if you do not hold a particular faith, whether in the United States or in other places?

Thomas: I do absolutely believe that to be true. There are many nonbelievers here in the United States who are business owners or entrepreneurs. They absolutely cannot say they are atheists or nonbelievers because they would alienate their Christian clients.

I have seen a shift in our members, where they are speaking about it more. But they still do fear that loss of livelihood. They also feel the loss of families, but also in the professional world; it could possibly hinder progression if you come out and speak openly about your non-belief.

In the US, there are employment discrimination laws that should prevent that, but I am not sure about the continent of Africa. Certainly, in the US on paper, there are laws to prevent that. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.

Thomas: No problem! Thank you.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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