- Tim Mathis
I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation: A free preview
This is the introduction to my memoir about figuring out why and how to leave my faith. If you like it, buy the book.
The last time I quit a religion my decision was triggered by a room full of angry priests. The first time, I’m embarrassed to admit, it was because of internet pornography.
The turning point in that particular apostasy began in 2002 when I was a Biblical Studies major at a deeply conservative Christian university in central Kentucky called Asbury College. One day, near the end of my senior year, I was called into the office of the Dean of Men because I’d hit too many internet sites blocked by Websense. Websense, for non-Christian college graduates, was a computer program intended to prevent access to internet sites that display pictures of women’s bosoms and other sordid parts. At my college, when the Dean of Men was alerted that a young male had hit a high number of Websenses during the month, he would take a closer look at what exactly you were trying to view. If the evidence was sufficiently compelling that you were a dirty bird, he would place an index-card-sized yellow sheet in your mailbox instructing you to set an appointment to see him.
Students picked up their yellow sheets from the campus post office, which was located in a nondescript but heavily trafficked hallway in a building full of classrooms and offices. In those days, checking mail was a daily social event because it was where professors would return graded assignments and families would send wholesome care packages full of home-baked cookies and new leather Bibles. This meant that people who received the yellow Websense notifications usually did so during a busy social hour between classes, while they were courting a potential marriage partner or reviewing a term paper about Christian sexual morality with a passing professor. The documents were of course anonymous, so no one would be able to identify what they meant unless they too were a pervert, or had talked to one, or hadn’t been born yesterday. The day that I discovered one in my own mailbox, I quietly stuffed it into my pocket hoping that no one had witnessed my shame and hurried back to my apartment on the other side of campus. When I divulged to my roommates what had happened, I found out that the Dean of Men had been on the prowl that week, because two of my friends had also been flagged. It was one month before I was set to graduate from college with a Bible degree (magna cum laude) and marry the girl who I’d been dating for the previous four years and still had not slept with.
Ironically, I hit the bulk of that month’s Websenses when I was shopping online for lingerie for my fiancé, Angel, for our honeymoon. Prior to this I’d probably never hit a Websense while doing something that the administration would label as wholesome and chaste.
After I got the sheet, I had to set up an appointment with the Dean of Men by calling his grey-haired, middle-aged, Southern-belle assistant. I then had to go to his office and tell this nice lady that I was there to see him, detecting from her lack of eye contact that she knew exactly what I’d been up to. Then I had to slink uncomfortably into his office – standard administrative fare, grey carpet, small window, central-air hum, metal and fake wood desk fronted by two Office Depot chairs, upholstered in burgundy polyester.
As I sat, the Dean was merciful and spared me any small talk, holding up a printed list of the flagged sites that I had hit during the month. ‘You know why we’re here. Do we need to go over what you’ve been looking at?’
No. Of course not. Eyeing the pictures of his wife and children that were placed prominently on his desk (matching polos and khakis all around), I couldn’t help but cave under the shame and confess that I thought I had an addiction to the damned pornography (which wasn’t true). He asked me to meet with a counselor (who told me that I definitely didn’t have an actual addiction) and disconnect the internet in my dorm room for the duration of my college career (I didn’t get a rebate on the money I paid for internet access, by the way). Symbolically, he had me hand over my internet cord to him and wear a scarlet ‘A’ on my lapel (I made that last part up).
As luck would have it, my unexpected meeting with the Dean of Men made me late to a date with my future wife, and being completely unable to lie convincingly I had to tearfully explain the situation to her. It’s only weird if you make it weird. I made it super weird, and discussing my pornography viewing habits completely ruined the evening.
(Nowadays she wants you to know that she thinks this is all hilarious, by the way.)
This whole experience was of course deeply humiliating for a young evangelical like myself who was under the mistaken impression that most 22 year old Christian men have firm control over their sexual urges. It would be possible to assume that a year later, when I found myself stepping away from the evangelicalism of my youth, it was because I didn’t want to have to confront my shame. Looking back now though, I think it’s actually more likely that the experience finally helped me to realize that you should never sign up for a religion which pays people to regulate the internet viewing habits of college boys. It’s creepy and if nothing else, an obvious sign that they’ll spend your tithe money on lost causes.
I’ll eventually get to the story about leaving religion for the second time, but I want to start by letting you know that quitting church wasn’t the topic at all when I started writing this book. This was supposed to be a story about how I began life as an evangelical Christian and ended up as a hip, innovative liberal, and it was supposed to conclude with me being ordained as an Episcopal priest. Honestly, I started writing this because I harbored fantasies about positioning myself as a leading voice in the conversation about what it means to be a post-evangelical Christian in the 21st century. There’s a lot of money in that these days, and the publishers seem to be excited to print that kind of work. I thought it would resonate. By the time I finished the book, it was quite clear that things weren’t panning out that way. I hope that you find what I’m about to share to be an acceptable alternative.
In fact, I did most of the writing while I was working for the Church in a variety of capacities, and I didn’t change much of the narrative after I decided that the story would end in my departure from the Christian faith. This book hasn’t become an argument against religion, exactly. I’ll talk about the incorrect things that religion insists that you believe, and about the way that involvement with religious institutions can screw you up, but it really isn’t my goal here to complain about how bad religion is. I wrote throughout as a reasonably educated person committed to science and common sense, and it’s not exactly that I spent my life as a brainwashed fundamentalist and suddenly came to realize how horrible it all was (although something like that process is a part of my story). I don’t even really know whether to define what I’ve done as apostasy, because the spiritual line between what I was as a practicing Christian, employed as a minister in God’s church, and what I am now as an a-religious agnostic is so thin.
But this is a story about quitting church after moving through a variety of versions of Christian faith, after spending thousands of dollars on religious education, after travelling the world on pilgrimage and after allowing Christianity to define my identity for 30 years. So, even if this isn’t an argument for leaving religion behind, it is an explanation of why I have. I didn’t set out to present a story about losing faith, but that’s how it ended up.