An Interview with Kevin Bolling — Executive Director, Secular Student Alliance — Session 1
Kevin and I are making this an ongoing series to discuss secularism at large, especially for the youth. Stay tuned!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So what was the family background, culture, geography, religion, irreligion?
Kevin Bolling: Well, that’s a long question. My family was a military family, so my father was in the navy. I didn’t have like most people the home town. I don’t. It was wherever we lived. So we moved around a lot when I was young. Probably not as much as other military families. Most military families move every three years, we did it about every four and five years, but I’ve lived up and down the east coast.
We lived in Puerto Rico where my brother was born and lived in Spain for four years, mainly during my high school. And then at that point, we came back to the United States and I did college and my master’s in the southeast, including around Everson. Growing up, I’ve come from a very Catholic based family. I remember my grandparents going to church every single day, so my family was very involved in the Catholic church,
My mother was extremely involved in all the stuff she did. I was an altar boy for years. So I always think my mother was very outspoken with the church as far as with regard to their treatment and inequality for women within the church. I think that very much, my brother and I definitely learned that from her to speak out and that equality should be the part for everybody. So we can see how that lesson is played out through our lives. We’ve gotten involved with different things, and so I think a lot of it comes from my mother.
Jacobsen: I think that’s a fabulous foundation. And the personal background, so by that I mean, I meant more specifically, the pivotal moments or even the seminal moments in your trajectory to a more secular outlook. You hinted at some of those before.
Bolling: For me, of course, I think growing up in a strong religious background, my mother’s approach to religion was very different, probably very different from the rest of my family. So she really applied us more to evaluate what the church was telling us.
So sermons with stories on how to do better. What was in the bible was, these would not be her words, but were dated and old. They were written at the time they were written and they were for that time. So, you had to look at them and just remember how things were these days. You didn’t take the stories in the bible at face value, or the sermon at face value; you had to translate them to today’s world and what you would do with them now, but they were stories on what was supposed to be good or how you were supposed to be a good person.
So I don’t think she intended it. But she very much allowed us to question that, and we examined in different ways. She didn’t take it as truth, an absolute truth. My aunt believes the Bible is absolute truth, even today she believes that men physically have one less rib than women because, of course, God took the rib from Adam to make Eve. I was like you can just count and that is really easy to disprove. But she doesn’t.
She is very hard in having that belief system and that is how she runs her life. I’m fortunate that my family does not. So, I think out of another pivotal moment for me was I think my very slow and gradual process to coming out as gay. I finally came out in graduate school. And so you know, I hadn’t thought about this before from my father where the family is more important than religion. So, of course, I’m going to accept you. You are more important to me than what the Bible says.
For my family, that was a very easy transition. I think it’s where their priorities were and family things are first. So I think we always had that; we had that nurturing environment from our family, but also, it was okay to question the things that were sometimes presented as absolute. So there was a strong belief, I think one from my father’s background as far as the military, that service to the country was always important.
So we were always doing things when we were young about being involved in volunteering and those sorts of things. Because a large part of what we did was growing up on naval bases, I think we were introduced to a lot of different cultures and then living outside of the United States is a very different perspective of a very Americentric world. All you hear about is the United States and that’s the only thing that’s important.
Being outside the United States, you see things differently in the world and recognize that’s not true, where it’s not always the same experience in the United States. So I think all of those things were pivotal. I’ve always remembered volunteering with something. I continued that on through my personal life, so you were always giving back in a way and that was just important for us to do.
Personally, it gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, so I’ve always done things that I have continued. I do remember history class in college and talking about world religion, and coming up with the Catholic church, which is, of course, the paradigm I associated with at the time. The professor really going in and talking about the church more as a corporation and why we’re doing all these things historically to make itself survive. So it gave me a very different perspective on the church and allowed me to question communion, and just the different practices of the church.
I do remember my first stances against religion: “I’m not going to confession anymore.” And then coming out gay, the church does not have a great relationship, especially the Catholic church for a long time, and not much is better, of not being very accepting of LGBT people. So there were times when unfortunately I never went through this, but you weren’t allowed to take communion, and being very negative. So I separated from the church a little bit more, and then I don’t believe in God anymore. I do remember having conversations with people; I don’t think there was anything specific that was a definite moment for me.
It was generalization, “That’s how I feel and I’m okay with that.”