Atheist in Appalachia

An interview with Kayla Bowen.

Posted Jun 14, 2017

Being an atheist in Burlington, Vermont, is one thing. Being an atheist in Amory, Mississippi, is quite another. For example, according to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, only 41 percent or people in Vermont believe in God with absolute certainty and a remarkable 21 percent don’t believe in God at all, but in Mississippi, a full 82 percent of people believe in God with absolute certainty, while only 4 percent don’t believe in God at all. In other words, atheists in Vermont are likely to feel much safer, more understood, and more accepted than atheists in Mississippi, who are likely to feel quite alienated.

The southern states contain the most religious populations in the country. Morehead State University sociologist Bernadette Barton, author of Pray the Gay Away, describes much of the Bible Belt as being characterized by a sort of “compulsory Christianity” which entails “communicative exchanges that involve presenting one’s Christian identity to others in routine social interactions. Not only is this an easily observable norm, but religious leaders explicitly tell parishioners to spread Christ’s message.” Additionally, in places like small-town Kentucky, “regardless of any individual’s actual church attendance, most people self-identity as ‘Christian’ (meaning conservative Protestant)…and are suspicious of and deem inferior anyone who is not Christian.”

Once such non-Christian resident of Kentucky is Kayla Bowen. Kayla is an atheist and the founder of the Secular Student Alliance at Morehead State University. She is also an active member in the newly launched Brighter Brains initiative to help homeless youth in Appalachia (full disclosure: I’m on the board of directors of Brighter Brains).

I was interested in Kayla’s situation and activism as an atheist in Appalachia, and interviewed her recently.

Phil: First off, tell me a little bit about yourself. What do you do? Where did you grow up? Were you raised in a religious family?

Kayla: I’m from Hazard, Kentucky. My parents divorced early, and I lived with my mother, who is very religious, until I went to college. I’m currently a student at Morehead State University, and I live in Morehead now. I’m a board member for the Secular Student Alliance, and co-program director of the Appalachia project with the Brighter Brains Institute. I’m also on the Morehead Pride committee, which is an LGBTQ* Pride festival where I live.

Phil: Were you ever religious yourself? A true believer? If so, how did you lose your faith?

Kayla: I was in fact a creationist at one point. A christian evidences pastor found me and recruited me for his meetings. There we talked about how evolution was bogus, and how the bible was truly the word of God. If i had to pin my awakening down to one moment though, it’d have to be when we all watched the Ken Ham versus Bill Nye debate. After watching Bill Nye obliterate Ken Ham, I knew that all of the things the pastor was saying was wrong. That started my journey into atheism.

Phil: What's it like living in such a religious part of the country?

Kayla: Oh, geez. It’s difficult. My local SSA group tries really hard to recruit nonreligious students, but the numbers just aren’t there. We look at other SSA groups longing to have as many members as they do, but we can’t seem to have over 15 people at one time. It’s because everyone is either religious, or doesn’t care enough to join. 

Phil: Have you ever experienced any alienation or discrimination as a secular person in Appalachia?

Kayla: Many times! Every time I table for SSA we get dirty looks, and when we hand out flyers people rip them up, or when we put them on bulletin boards they tear them down. I’m also skeptical that I might’ve been denied a job because my status as an atheist. When I explained to them what the Secular Student Alliance was on my resumé my potential employer visibly scowled. 

Phil: I often wonder what life must be like in Appalachia for secular people, but also for homosexuals. Is it hard for gay men and lesbians? And I know it is a hard question to address, but can you contrast/compare the dislike/disapproval of atheists with the dislike/disapproval of queer people? 

Kayla: Being a lesbian, it was harder to come out to my own mother as an atheist than it was to come out as gay. At that point, I realized that secular people have it just as hard as people of the LGBTQ* community. That doesn’t mean our suffering is greater, but simply comparable. People here in Appalachia scowl and complain at atheist bumperstickers the same way they would with seeing me, a visibly queer person out in public. 

 Phil: How do you identify today in terms of your secular identity? What labels do you use, and why?

Kayla: I’m an atheist. When I’m talking to religious people on campus though, I usually use a lighter term like humanist. It’s not exactly ideal, but it’s necessary. Atheist is a bad name to most people here. 

Phil: Tell me about your involvement with the Secular Student Alliance at Morehead. 

Kayla: I’m the founder and current president. It started as an abstract idea from me and an old friend of mine, Steven Evans. We talked about it, but it didn’t become a reality until Kim Davis started denying marriage licenses to gay couples after the supreme court ruling for same sex marriage nationwide. At that point we said there isn’t a better time than now, and off we went!

Phil: What specifically prompted you to start the SSA? Was there an event that spurred it? Or you just felt like it?

Kayla: Kim Davis, the county clerk who denied marriage licenses to gay couples after the supreme court ruling that legalized it nationwide. She lives in Morehead. In fact, her office is walking distance from our campus. When the media swarmed campus interviewing every student in site, I had an epiphany. What better time to start this than now? That was my first semester at Morehead State University. 

Phil: Tell me about your involvement with Brighter Brains and helping homeless youth in Appalachia.

Kayla: I just recently got involved. I’m so glad that Brighter Brains is wanting to help Appalachia! This is the first Appalachia will see of a humanist charity so I’m very excited! I want these kids to have some sort of help that’s not coming directly from a church. It’s a form on indoctrination, really. It’s almost like you can only get help in Appalachia if you believe in a deity. I hope to see BBI change that. 

Phil: What exactly is BBI seeking to do in Appalachia? Can you explain what the charity specifically does?

Kayla: We have a couple different ideas. Since Jackson, KY is the poorest area of Appalachia, we’ve mainly looked at starting a homeless shelter for teens since Jackson, KY has an oddly large number of homeless teens. We’ve also talked about having an event where we give out food to the people there. 

Phil: Do you only help those who are secular? Do you help those who are religious believers?

Kayla: Of course not! SSA at Morehead has actually volunteered for a Christian organization before. It’s very important to me that we help all people who need it, regardless of their religion. Otherwise, we’d be just like a lot of religious institutions in Appalachia. 

Phil: Clearly you don't expect to get into heaven as a reward for the help you are offering those in need. So what is it that motivates you?

Kayla: That’s all the more reason to care about injustice isn’t it? People won’t just go to heaven and be compensated for their suffering experienced here on Earth. If we only have life on this Earth then that’s what matters. I want to leave this world better than I found it. My reward? Knowing that there is less suffering among us.