Thomas in 2017
1976 (age 41–42)|
Jamaica, Queens, New York
|Alma mater||Queens College, City University of New York|
Mandisa Lateefah Thomas (born 1976) is the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers Inc. She has spoken at secular conferences and events and has promoted the group's message in a variety of media outlets.
Early life and background
Thomas' upbringing was in a nonreligious, single-parent household, but she describes her grandmother as "staunchly religious". Although Thomas sang in a church choir as a child, she considered the singing to be "just performing". She describes learning, during her many "difficult conversations" with others in black society, that her own family includes more atheists than she first expected. She considers religion, and Christianity in particular, to have been ingrained into the African-American identity by force. She credits her upbringing with enabling her to see and understand this aspect of the historical ties between religion and the black identity in the United States. Within the African-American community, Thomas says that discussing this problematic history is often perceived as a form of betrayal.
At the age of twenty-one, Thomas moved with her husband to Atlanta, where cultural factors made it difficult to lead a secular life. Among broader secular circles, where black Americans are underrepresented, Thomas' experience has ranged from feeling welcomed, to isolated, to ignored. This experience led her to found Black Nonbelievers.
Founding principles and motivation
Thomas founded Black Nonbelievers, Inc. in 2011 as a secular fellowship. Its goals include eliminating the stigma surrounding non-belief in the African-American community and providing a support system and networking opportunities to members. She believes it is important to expand diversity within the black community to include people who challenge the effectiveness of the church and its doctrine, and who advocate for "more tangible, evidence-based solutions" to the challenges facing the community. Black Nonbelievers is a non-profit organization.
The organization's local chapters organize events in each of ten U.S. cities. Besides group discussions, the group's regular meetings have included poetry readings, singing, bowling nights, holiday dinners, and community volunteerism including highway litter cleanup. In November 2017, Thomas was a speaker at Black Nonbelievers' first annual Convention at Sea, a shipboard gathering and lecture series. She is also scheduled to speak during the second iteration of this event, planned for November 2018. In addition to speaking, she is a primary organizer for this event.
Outreach and cooperation
Thomas says that Black Nonbelievers has seen increasing interest from individuals, media outlets, and other organizations interested in working together. The organization partners with other secular organizations including African Americans for Humanism, which ran a 2012 billboard campaign depicting Thomas alongside Langston Hughes. Other partner organizations include Openly Secular and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Thomas spoke at the 2013 National Convention of American Atheists. That same year she organized the Blackout Secular Rally in New York, which was the United States' first outdoor event headlined by nontheists of color and the first secular rally celebrating racial diversity. She credits Ayanna Watson with helping develop the idea after the success of the 2012 Reason Rally.
In 2017, Thomas was recognized by name in a bill (SCR-79) introduced by state Senator Richard Pan, and adopted by the California State Senate, proclaiming October 15, 2017 as the 16th annual celebration of California Freethought Day.
Thomas has said that Black Nonbelievers is willing to set aside differences in ideology and work with faith-based organizations to address problems facing the African-American community. She describes how disclosing one's non-belief can present a barrier when approaching such organizations, but adds that this need not be the case. She has commented that no monopoly exists on fellowship and community, while also stating that the church has a considerable advantage in that area.
Move to full-time activism
In March 2018, Thomas resigned from her full-time position as Event Services Coordinator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's conference center in order to devote herself full-time to activism within Black Nonbelievers and the broader secular community.
Thomas has made interview appearances in media outlets including CBS News, WABE FM 90.1's Closer Look,, NPR's Code Switch podcast, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Freethought Radio program. She has been profiled in publications including Jet magazine and has written opinion pieces for outlets including CNN.
Thomas and her husband, who is also atheist, are raising their three children as freethinkers and encouraging them to make their own choices regarding religion. The eldest of her children self-identifies as atheist. Thomas and her family reside in suburban Atlanta, Georgia.
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