I think some would say I had a unique experience growing up as a queer Appalachian atheist in rural Kentucky. I’ve always presented masculine of center despite being born a biological female. I’m a textbook transgender man, but my relationship with religion is undeniably intertwined with my identity just as much, if not more, than my LGBT status.
A lot of the cynicism I display that people attribute to my atheism really comes from my lived experiences, and particularly, my proximity to death. I was raised in the back of a funeral home because my stepdad was a mortician—yet somehow I never saw one damn ghost the entire time we lived there! Trust me, I went looking, too. I’ve also watched so many family members pass away from cancer. My home county ranks #22 for highest cancer rates in the nation. My father struggled with suicidality for most of his life. A few times, I even witnessed his attempts on his life. All of this has made for a very complex relationship with death – and thus, religion.
Religion arose to help us cope with our mortality. People have prayed to gods for centuries for the promise of Heaven, or everlasting life after death. As an atheist, there’s not a day that goes by I don’t wish I could believe in something to give me comfort in knowing my life would go on after death.
I don’t believe de-conversion, or the loss of faith in a religion, is an event we always have control over. I think it happens to us. A lot of people have asked me, “What would it take to make you believe?” And at some point in my atheism, I accepted that nothing could convince me. Perhaps I haven’t hallucinated enough to be sure of my position.
Another way I battle with this idea is that I’m aware I’m free from divine persecution for being queer, but I will never get a chance to experience everlasting life. I’ve seen so much suffering occur before my eyes, yet I can still see an inherent preciousness about life that I can’t quite explain. I cling onto life from the sheer unlikelihood of it, yet sometimes being aware seems like a burden I didn’t ask for. For these reasons, my atheism comforts and terrifies me in the same breath.
There are pros and cons to being both theistic and not. All that aside, theism affects us all differently. I’d say my journey was a bit off the beaten path. Though my stepfather was a Cherokee native, he still believed in a deity. After his death, my mother, a lifelong Southern Baptist, was roped into the Pentecostal church, which is very popular in my neck of the woods. Though they have some very charming features, their services can be a bit intense and jarring to some. To 11-year-old me, it was just another Tuesday. Once I got away from Eastern Kentucky, I learned how outsiders see them.
While I was in the throes of God’s wrath, my relationship with religion was shaped by my queerness. I hit puberty around the time my mother really got into God. She would often mail off her last dollar to a televangelist who promised blessings that would never come. Even as a child, it infuriated me that someone would profit from someone else’s grief and hopelessness. These experiences, oddly enough, gave me a sense of empathy for the vulnerability that fundamentalists prey on. I understand why my mother flocked to it. Her husband had just died, and we were in financial ruin—about to lose everything. She was reaching up for hope because she couldn’t find it by reaching out.
In the midst of all this, we were all discovering Something Wasn’t Right about me. I was increasingly masculine acting and presenting. I remember my older sister telling my mother once that she thought I was gay, and my mom scolded her for the suggestion. I remember being so attached to the idea of being a man. I often dreamt about it and woke up sorely disappointed. For a period, the Pentecostal church managed to stomp that out of me with the fire-and-brimstone mantra. I often wish there was more I could do to stop this religious trauma from occurring.
Unfortunately some things we can’t change, but I want to change what I can. I do that by stepping out of my comfort zone with my activism. I’m generally not a very extroverted individual, but if telling my story helps someone relate to growing up queer in the South, I think I can say I’ve done something.
When I think of the atheist experience in relation to queerness, it’s not some hyper-intellectual explanation that I think of. My perspective comes from a place of resilience, and I think a lot of queer folks can relate to that. Rejecting the popular notion that we should hate who we are is a radical act. Sometimes this gets overlooked when we focus on the falsehood of religion rather than the actual harm it creates.
Between giving the poverty-ridden hillbillies of Appalachia false hope and preaching the young into conformity, religion made my environment toxic. Leaving it behind is liberating beyond comprehension when you come from a place of oppression. Once I traded the lies for real hope, it really changed things for me. I was able to propel myself forward while I watched everyone around me being held back.
That’s why I think it’s so important that we reach into these rural communities and give them the tools and resources they need to create space for these stories to be told, for these conversations to be had. I started a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance at my college, Morehead State University. It was distinctly different from other groups by being more of a support group than an academic or activist group. A lot of the people who came to our meetings were healing from a lifetime of religious trauma. This created a tight bond among us that I didn’t really see in more urban groups.
The differences in experiences among queer atheists are stark and deserve to be acknowledged. It can never hurt to spread a sense of empathy in our communities whether it be for one group or another. I think if I had to have a goal in writing this, it would be that. I know I’m always hungry for a new perspective, and atheists are typically curious individuals. All this to say it’s a changing world. Let’s make it change for the better.
Killian Bowen is a Grant Accountant at the only HBCU in Kentucky. They became involved with American Atheists in 2017 while organizing against the homophobic Kim Davis with the Secular Student Alliance in Morehead, Kentucky. In 2019, he was awarded Diversity Program of the Year at Morehead State University. He continues to be involved in local activism with Lexington Atheists, and Frontrunners Lex, an LGBTQ+ run/walk group.
This article was featured in the 2022 Q3 edition of American Atheists magazine. All rights reserved.