- Tim Mathis
How Islamic punk rock helped me lose my Christian faith.
Artists who helped me lose my religion, Part 1: Michael Muhammad Knight.
Here's a short 1 hour informational video for you, if you're hungry for more about of Islamic punk rock after this post.
My book, I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation, tells my story about leaving religion, and it was released in its original form in 2010 as an announcement to family and friends that I was doing so. Behind the scenes there were a lot of funny, interesting, and memorable experiences that surrounded that release, and I want to share some of them as a way to pay respects to the people and art that helped me through the process. This was one of the most personally important.
I was a #deconstructing #exvangelical when it was still called emerging church I lost my religion in 2010, and decided to quit the church at a time when I was working as a minister, midway through the process of becoming officially ordained as an Episcopal priest. In recent years the internet has spawned a small but influential community of church leavers and religious refugees. There are active Facebook groups for apostates, and insightful, funny podcasts focused on the topic like Dirty Rotten Church Kids and The Exvangelical Podcast. The Trumpification of American religion has pushed them together into coherent communities, and Covid-19 accelerated the process of church leaving in ways that we still don't fully understand. Journalists like Chrissy Stroop are writing brilliant cultural analyses of the trend, and pastors and priests around the United States are anxious about it. However, at the risk of exposing my inner crotchety old man, back in my day none of that existed - at least that I was aware of. During my own process of leaving the church, my wife Angel was a reliable support, and I had a few friends who had gone through a similar transition, but generally speaking the decision I made was a lonely one. As a minister at the time, I hadn't seen other church leaders go through the process of leaving the faith, so I felt alone in my struggles and I wasn't sure, practically, how to shift from my role as a public figure in my religious community to an apostate. Even if I didn't have personal connections with other apostate ministers though, during the late Aughties, when I was starting my deconversion, there were portents of things to come bubbling up in culture, and I latched on to them where I could. One of my favorite formerly Christian musicians, David Bazan, had just released his post-religious masterpiece Curse Your Branches, and I listened to that and Frank Turner's Glory Hallelujah on repeat for months. Authors in the "Emerging Church" were basically writing about losing faith and forming the groundwork for the modern post-evangelical community, even if most of them were maintaining formal connections with religion at the time. But maybe my most important role model for how to lose faith was a white American Muslim writer named Michael Muhammad Knight. Impossible Man I came across Knight accidentally in 2009, when I picked up a copy of his newly released memoir Impossible Man while I was browsing the Capitol Hill library in Seattle. I can't remember why it hooked me initially, but it was brilliant - the book is a criminally underrated story about a genuinely strange life. It tells Knight's story, as the son of an absentee white supremacist schizophrenic father, who converted to Islam as a teenager in Upstate New York and somehow convinced his mother to allow him to study in a madrassa in Pakistan before he'd graduated from high school. He described himself as having come close to joining a militant wing of Islam to fight the Russians in Chechnya in the years just before 9/11, but eventually grew disillusioned with the faith before returning home and becoming an amateur professional wrestler. Just your normal coming of age tale. Knight has been a prolific writer, and after Impossible Man I looked more into his story. The rest of his life has been just as fascinating as his upbringing, and the story of how he got his start as an author stuck with me through my deconversion process. He was deeply immersed in Islam, but he wrote a novel called The Taqwacores, in part, as a means to draw attention to problems in the faith and facilitate his own departure. The book centers on a conservative young man who moves into a fictitious Muslim punk house in Buffalo, NY, and is confronted by the shocking, provocative behavior of the inhabitants. It's a brilliant novel that wrestles with complex questions around faith and identity, but it is also deeply (and I'm guessing intentionally) offensive. Knight printed and hand-bound the book himself, and distributed copies outside of mosques and Islamic conferences, expecting it to be a means of saying goodbye to his community. Eventually the book found an audience and was picked up for traditional publication and turned into a film. It also had the unintended consequences of spawning a real life Taqwacore punk movement, and helping Knight to find a new, peripheral place within the Islamic community. He went on to study religion at Harvard, has carved out a career as an influential academic and writer, and is one of the most interesting voices in progressive American Islam. The only punk rock thing I've ever done My own upbringing was a lot more khaki than Knight's. I was drinking milk with my stable family in Ohio while he was considering becoming John Walker Lindh in Pakistan. But people are pretty much all the same and there was a lot that I could relate to in his story. I'd dabbled in the punk rock scene in Cincinnati before I fully embraced evangelical faith as a teenager (my first concert was a Circle Jerks reunion tour), and even when I did convert, part of the bridge was discovering the mid-90s Christian punk music being propagated by Tooth and Nail Records. The first well-received piece of writing I ever produced was an essay that I wrote for a community college course in Middletown, Ohio about the overlap between the way that punk rock made me feel and my experiences with evangelical religion. Encountering Knight's books at a time when I was moving through the process of deciding to leave, and looking for a model for how to do so brought me back to those roots, and his path of using a piece of writing as a means of facilitating his departure inspired my own decision making. Around 2007, I'd started writing my own religious story, which I had expected to turn into a book about moving from fundamentalism into a progressive form of Christianity. I thought that the story would conclude with me being ordained as a priest, and I imagined marketing it among Episcopalians and liberals interested in converting young evangelicals like my former self. By the end of 2010, I had written most of the story, but it had become clear that the ending wasn't going to be what I expected. The book was going to be about losing faith rather than a liberal conversion experience. During the period when I was leaving, I was writing about the events as they were happening, and processing the way that the factors which had initially led me from fundamentalism into progressive faith eventually pushed me all of the way out of the church. The dilemma I faced was that I was a public figure in my community. I was a leader both in my local congregation and in the region in Western Washington, and had been part of national conversations around evangelism and the future direction of the Episcopal Church. If I just left and ghosted, it would raise a lot of questions. I could have made up excuses about why I was leaving, but I couldn't stomach that thought, because my most important motivation for quitting church was to be able to be honest about who I was and what I thought. I was a public person with a public problem which required a public solution. So, I decided to do the only real punk rock thing I've ever done. I finished a version of my book, and while I didn't give out copies outside of church, I followed The Taqwacores spirit by notifying my friends, family and community, posting the story online on a blog called "Apostasy for the Modern Christian," and pushing it on social media to everyone I knew. Across the next year, I went through the process of burning down my religious identity and offering the book as a public explanation. It was never a book meant to shock like The Taqwacores, but the personal goals were similar - I wanted to use it to say my piece, and to make a decisive break with my community, so I could move forward with building a new identity. While Knight had a lot more vision and guts than I did, and The Taqwacores found a wider readership and influence than my own book, I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation did accomplish my personal goals. A decade on, Knight is still an important critical voice within the Islamic community, but I encountered his work when it seemed that he was shifting away from religion. I admire him for having the constitution to stay and keep fighting, but he gave me a model of how to use writing as a means to get myself out of a religious situation that was eating me alive. It was an uncharacteristically dramatic move for me, but it was the healthiest decision I could have made at the time.
While my book didn't inspire the creation of a religious counterculture like The Taqwacores, it did receive a range of responses from unexpected places, and helped me connect with other people who were leaving the Christian faith, or had thought seriously about doing so. It drew out ministers who were disillusioned and trying to figure out how to escape, and friends who were on the cusp of leaving themselves. Even if the book led to the breakdown of a lot of my previous relationships, exposing my issues also helped develop a community of people going through a similar process. Those experiences, I think, foreshadowed the wider post-Christian community that has developed in the last several years, and they have been my most important motivation as I revised the book into a form that is both more professional and more intentionally structured to be helpful for other people moving through the process of leaving faith. I'm no Michael Muhammad Knight, and my book is no Taqwacores, but it's part of the same tradition, aimed at trying to figure out what the hell to do with religion in the modern world. Click here to buy the second, thoroughly revised version of I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation: An Absolutely True Memoir.
And check out Michael Muhammad Knight's brilliant work while you're at it.