Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background — culture, education, geography, language, and religiosity/irreligiosity?
Kayla Bowen: I grew up very poor. My high school was at one point ranked one of the worst in the state of Kentucky. I attend Morehead State University now as a Psychology and Philosophy double major. I’m also a board member for the national Secular Student Alliance as well as my local chapter President and Founder. I’m from Hazard, Kentucky. It’s in the middle of the bible belt in rural Appalachia. Luckily I got out. My mother is very religious. I lived primarily with her until I went to college where I have my own place. She took me to church as a child, and indoctrinated me. When I told her I was an atheist she reacted worse than when I told her I was gay. My father doesn’t really care much about that sort of thing, so he was supportive when I came out as an atheist. For a lot of secular people, however, they don’t have as much support.
Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?
Bowen: For most of my life I was inwardly agnostic, meaning I wasn’t open about it. On the outside I believed. When I was in high school, this creationist evidences pastor recruited me for his meetings, and I briefly became a creationist. The breaking point for me had to be when we all watched the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate. That triggered my dissent into atheism.
Jacobsen: You are an president of the SSA at Morehead State University. What tasks and responsibilities comes with this position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?
Bowen: I delegate tasks to our other leadership. The biggest responsibility is knowing how to do everything so I can know what to tell others to do. It’s a work in progress. This line of volunteering is important to me because secularism has become my life. I want to make life easier than it was for me being an atheist in a religious world.
Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?
Bowen: Knowing that these once misplaced nonreligious students now have a community, and a safe place to go when they have questions or concerns, or feel ostracized.
Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for campus secularist activism?
Bowen: Be on social media. It’s the 21st century. Most college students are involved in it. Have a website. You will need a central hub to send people wanting information to. Don’t be hostile to your campus religious groups. You don’t want a bad reputation to where no one wants to cooperate with you. However, don’t back down. Don’t be afraid to express your identity. Be proud, but diplomatic.
Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations?
Bowen: The campus clinic used to send pregnant women to the HOPE center off campus, which is a religious pro-life place. They’re not even a qualified medical institution. SAGE, our local feminist group started a petition to stop this, and talked to the administration of the University and eventually got it changed. They now give out legitimate resources to women seeking information about pregnancy, and safe sex.
Jacobsen: What are the main areas of need regarding secularists on campus?
Bowen: Funding. I see all these religious groups on campus that have entire buildings dedicated to worship, while secular groups sometimes don’t even have as much as a broom closet. We need space. It’s not like we’re 2 people on a campus of thousands. We’re 25% of the population. If people saw that we had a space I feel like not only would we be taken more seriously, but we’d attract more secular people.
Jacobsen: What is your main concern for secularism on campus moving forward for the next few months, even years?
Bowen: That people will look over us, and not realize how difficult it can be to be nonreligious especially now that Mike Pence is our Vice President.
Jacobsen: What are the current biggest threats to secularism on campus?
Bowen: I’d say religious campus administration’s lack of cooperation. On a wider scale though, we should be concerned about religious freedom legislation. That’s where the major set backs are going to stem from.
Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to secularism on campus?
Bowen: Being outnumbered by religious groups, and as a result not being considered.
Jacobsen: What are the main social and political activist, and educational, initiatives on campus for secularists?
Bowen: Right now, reproductive justice, racial justice, fighting Islamophobia, and LGBTQ rights. These aren’t just problems that people affected by them should work on. It’s our problem, and our duty to fight back against all forms of prejudices because we face them in the secular community every day.
Jacobsen: What are the main events and topics of group discussions for the alliance on campus?
Bowen: Our group, the Secular Student Alliance at Morehead State University does service projects, panels, and we make sure we discuss intersectionality in our meetings. Our main goal I think is to create awareness of our cause on campus, and within our community as well. We’re working on having a debate right now this coming October. It’ll be a basic creationism vs. atheism debate, to address the group’s controversy on campus in a respectable manner.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved and maintain the secular student alliance ties on campus?
Bowen: You can go to secularstudents.org and find the group nearest to you. If there isn’t one, start one! The Secular Student Alliance is there to make it as easy as possible to start a group. They have tons of resources available. Without them, Morehead’s wouldn’t exist. Once you have a group you can host events, go on field trips, or help the community. SSA allows you to network with people in the secular movement you never would’ve met otherwise. You have the potential to make life long connections. There’s an infinite amount of ways one can stay involved with the secular movement with an SSA chapter.
You can even stay involved with your local group, and on a national level after you graduate by becoming an alumni member.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Bowen: Check out my local group, the Secular Student Alliance at Morehead State University at msussa.com. Thanks so much for the opportunity!
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Kayla.
Original Publication in Humanist Voices.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.