“The most encouraging moment of the (American Atheist 2018 Convention) comes when I introduce myself to Mandisa Thomas, President and founder of Black Nonbelievers, an organization dedicated to support and visibility or black atheists.”
Playboy Magazine, July/August 2018
As much as I enjoy that reference – it’s fun to say, “Hey, I was in Playboy!” – this isn’t where our story begins and certainly not where it ends. Allow me to introduce you to Black Nonbelievers – the organization, and the people.
First, let’s define the word atheist. It means a lack of belief in gods, spirits and supernatural beings. How one comes to this identity varies – many atheists were once religious, while some never were. What’s important to know is that atheism isn’t evil and that many believers may have encountered more of us than they may think.
I was born and raised in New York City in a very non-religious household. In fact, my earliest memories of secularism in my family were of my maternal grandmother, who celebrated holidays, yet there was never any family prayer before meals. Some of my relatives on that side of the family are religious; however, it was a choice they could make for themselves.
I realize that my experience is rare. While there has always been diversity in perspectives within our community, the most recent Pew research numbers show that 87 percent of Blacks in the United States identify as religious, even though the overall number of “nones” has increased to 25 percent. This highly religious influence (due to historical and institutional factors) often obscures the presence of atheism, and religion is so connected to identity that to reject God and the church is also viewed as rejecting your Blackness, which is considered a betrayal to the community.
Black Nonbelievers was created in 2011 to build community and support for black atheists as well as those who are questioning their beliefs. It can often be difficult and isolating to express these views with religious family members and friends, so we provide a foundation for those seeking likeminded engagement and advice. In addition, we encourage members to be open with their atheism or other secular identities (agnostic, humanist, etc.) if possible. This is how we combat stigma, connect with others, and gain more respect and understanding.
Our activities include social gatherings, community service projects, and contributing to content about atheism in the Black community. We have been featured in several media publications, including CBS Sunday Morning, CNN.com , The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and NPR. In 2017, we launched our #BNchangeslives campaign, which features of testimonies about our organization from members and allies. (Persons can be anonymous if necessary).
Reactions to us have been interesting. They range from kudos and expressions of thanks, to people trying to “save our souls” and telling us to repent. In 2015, a woman said that I had a slave mentality, and that she couldn’t believe that as a fellow black woman I had the nerve to identify as an atheist in front of “White Devils”. When we table and wear our apparel at various events, we encounter curiosity, and sometimes shock that there are black folks who are atheist. No matter who or what we encounter, we’ve remained objective and friendly, which has also helped turn around perceptions.
2019 will be an exciting year. Black Nonbelievers will be hosting the first ever Women of Color Beyond Belief conference in Chicago, as well as 2019 BN SeaCon – our third cruise event. We are also looking to expand to as many cities as possible – we started in Atlanta, and now have a total of 13 affiliate groups nationwide. We are always seeking dedicated volunteers who will help to carry out our mission and amplify those voices who are silenced.
As Black Nonbelievers and the number of black atheists and nonreligious continues to grow, others will begin to see us for who we are – everyday people. I contend that we must be unapologetic. We are just as human as everyone else. Many of us are hardworking, yet fun loving, and are also passionate about things that affect humanity. We care very much about the state of the Black community. We are not telling people what to think and do, but that they should think for themselves. And we are a reminder that the black community has always been diverse. Atheist, humanists, agnostics, and freethinkers have always been part of the community – in fact, some have made significate contributions. This information is nothing to fear. Black Nonbelievers – the organization and the people – will be a part of our communities’ progress for years to come.
For more information on Black Nonbelievers Inc.
visit them at the following: