Better believe it: There are black humanists

Mandisa Thomas delivered this speech May 3 at FFRF’s and the Triangle Freethought Society’s regional gathering in Raleigh, N.C. For more information, go to The speech was edited for space.

By Mandisa Thomas

I am one of the founders and president of a growing organization called Black Nonbelievers Inc. I want to talk about a segment of the population that tends to be overlooked by the major organizations. That is changing, but we still have a way to go.

I was born and raised in New York City. I was actually not raised religious, which is a rarity in our community. But I was exposed to Christianity, Islam and different forms of supernaturalism rampant in our community.

I moved to Atlanta at the end of 1997. One of the first questions normally asked by the black folks is, “What church do you go to?” By the end of 2010, the scandal with Eddie Long was in the news, and I was really at a point where I was deciding where I stood with religion. I have pretty much always despised it. I really came back to identifying as an atheist/nonbeliever and thought it was time to start getting out and meeting other people. Speaking with other black atheists online, I often heard there was a sense of intimidation and apprehension upon attending predominantly white freethought events. We would often be the only black atheists in the room. There was a sense of “I’ve never met a black atheist” or a sense of being condescended to about issues that we face, especially being a part of a mostly religious black community.

We decided to do something about it and in January 2011 started Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta. There were 15 people at our first general meeting. That is more that the number of black atheists in this room. We can laugh about it, but it actually isn’t very funny, because when people say they cannot “see” color, they’re absolutely right. You have to ask yourself: Have you really, really thought about this dynamic? It’s OK if you haven’t, but this is what we are here to help with.

In November 2011 we increased our scope and shortened our name to just Black Nonbelievers because we wanted to establish a base to help groups become established in other cities. We are continuing in the tradition of historic black humanists and freethinkers such as Langston Hughes, who wrote a noble poem called “Goodbye Christ,” Hubert Henry Harrison, who was very, very notable at the time of the Black Renaissance, Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote “A Raisin in the Sun,” and Asa Philip Randolph, who was the organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. I’d also like to acknowledge Butterfly McQueen, whom Dan and I talked about this morning and whom FFRF often acknowledges.

For historical reasons related to legal separation and discrimination in this country, and other injustices, the church and the doctrine imposed up slaves upon arriving in America, played a social and supportive role in the community at a time when government did not. Most black leaders and public figures are religious. When you hear of some of the prominent names in the black community, they often do identify with some religious institution, and so therefore it is assumed that the majority, if not all blacks do as well.

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The question comes up a lot — why black or gender-specific groups? We have received some rather nasty feedback saying that we are racist or don’t understand why there is a need for our groups. We care that there are so many religious people that do not get the help that they need for the problems that they have. I wouldn’t say that religion is the primary problem in our community, even though it plays a big part. But it does tend to mask a lot of issues that people don’t get practical help for.

We tend to specific issues that larger groups do not have time to address. I love that FFRF and similar organizations challenge separation of church and state violations. We have groups that focus on education, and science education in particular. We also have groups that focus on support and socialization aspects. All of these are important, There’s nothing to be ashamed of if a group only focuses on one area.

It encourages minorities to openly identify as atheist or some similar freethought label. People have told me that they were glad they found a group like ours because it helps bridge that gap.
Finally, it is the best way to increase diversity. That has become such a buzzword in our community. Sometimes I think it has just been “said” to death, but how many people are actually serious about it? How often do you talk to other people of color at these events? Or just in general, how many black atheists do you know? How many of you can Here is some correspondence that I have received over these past few years. The first one I had to clean up quite a bit, grammatically. “What is this, a war against God? I can’t believe you have the audacity to try to erase the one who created Heaven and Earth and all things in it including you and me.”

They go on to say, “Please change the name of ‘Black Nonbelievers’ to ‘Believers.’ Our race has suffered enough.”

Actually, most of our correspondence has been really good. One writer says that there is nothing in black history that indicates a god is good. One popular phrase in the community and a popular song is “We’ve Come This Far By Faith.” When you look at the struggles in the black community, it has taken more than faith to overcome them. But it is largely attributed to belief in God, which is really sad.

Black Nonbelievers are employees, students, entrepreneurs, etc., pretty much the same as other groups. Many fear backlash from their families and friends, as well as loss of business from clients. There are many events in the Atlanta area that are considered leadership. There are a lot of women’s leadership events, but many of them end up being big church services.

In Atlanta it is definitely a status symbol to be affiliated with some form of church. I am sure every community experiences it, but it takes on a whole new life form in ours. We are seeking better ways to connect and communicate with nonbelievers and believers about atheism and life as a nonbeliever. We know there are many misconceptions about atheists. We seek to dispel those.

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We have a service component and are part of Adopt-a-Highway in the Atlanta area. We had a day of solidarity in 2012, co-sponsored the Blackout Secular Rally and have general meetings with speakers such as Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat and Godless Americana.

We have been featured in documentaries, including “Atheists in the Bible Belt,” which was put on by Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters, and “Contradiction” by Jeremiah Camara, which Dan and Annie Laurie were featured in as well. It speaks extensively to the problem of the church in our community.

We have been involved in focus groups. There was a professor who traveled to Nashville to speak to one of the groups in the area. She asked if we would participate so I made the four-hour drive with a few of our members. We are willing to come to you if you would like to talk to us.

I was featured in Jet magazine in the April 30, 2012, edition which had [megachurch pastor] T.D. Jakes on the cover. It was supposed to have been a well-rounded edition about religion and spirituality as it pertained to blacks, but it talked mostly about Christianity. But in all fairness, they did a very good job on the article.

We participated in the African Americans for Humanism billboard campaign, which had a billboard in Raleigh featuring [Triangle chapter member] Veronique Matthews. We also take part in the Atlanta Pride Festival with the Atlanta Freethought Society and the annual New Year’s Eve party with Black Atheists of America.

Our affiliated organizations include the Black Nonbelievers of Dallas with Alex Jewels, who happened to be featured in Ebony magazine in 2011. He was also the face of the Dallas billboard campaign. We have the Black Nonbelievers of Detroit with Bridget Crutchfield, who has become an integral part of our organization. She is also the founder of Minority Atheists of Michigan. We’re affiliated with Black Nonbelievers of Orlando with Richard Peacock.

Our future goals: Get used to this name — New Turn, an original concept by one of our board members. This program will focus on combating recidivism, and that is the name of the revolving door of the correctional facility with ex-offenders.

More often than not, they end up back in the system within three years due to lack of opportunity and lack of support. So this is something we will be taking on in the future, including short-term financial assistance for those in need. Many of our members have spouses and are going through issues with their spouses due to their nonbelief, and we all know that has broken up families, sadly.

Last but not least, I love to say, “Ain’t no stopping us now.” The demographics, the times are changing, the faces of the movement are changing, and we must be ready for it. I appreciate that the level of support that we have been given. We are going to keep growing, and we will keep moving. Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation