Thursday, October 27, 2016

Joe Omundson

my deconversion letter

I sent this email on May 6, 2009. I never looked at it again until last night and I wasn't sure what I would find. It was really interesting to revisit my thoughts from 7 years ago, and I realized that I can't really explain my loss of faith any better than I already did here -- so here's my letter, now that I'm out to the whole world. [Sometimes I'll add notes and they'll be formatted like this. Also I edited the formatting to break up some walls of text. Otherwise it's completely unedited.]

Hello beloved Mom, Dad, and Wife.

I'm not really sure how to write this, because I'm not sure how much of it you expect/know already, or how much it will shock you.
But I guess I can say that if you want to keep your image of me being a committed and contented Christian, you should probably close this right away.

I've spent quite a bit of time on this so please read carefully.

Please, don't talk to anyone about this email. You can share it with your spouses if you wish but please impress upon them that it shouldn't be talked about with other people, especially people like Grammy who would probably excommunicate me and/or discuss it with every living relative I have. [I'm surprised I cared so much who they told, or what my family would think. But that's probably because I've now had the experience of 7 years out of the faith with nobody in the family mentioning it, which wasn't what I expected.]

What it comes down to is this: I'm not sure if I believe in God anymore. This isn't some stupid thing like I went to college and none of my friends were doing it so I lost interest. This is something that has been happening since the first months at Bible school [a 9 month program I did after high school]. You know me, and you know that if I have a conviction about the truth and merit of something, I don't lose that conviction because of peer pressure or because I'm tired of a church or whatever. No, this is something that has been on my mind probably every day for the last two or three years, and I need to finally tell someone about it or I'll go crazy.

I guess it started like this: I was so excited to go to Bible school, and finally learn some amazing things about the Bible, and learn all about its origins and all the fascinating facts that prove absolutely that it is the real deal, and how incredibly the OT prophets revealed the NT truths about Christ, and all kinds of things about words in the ancient languages and their meanings.

Instead of learning all the fascinating information about the Bible, most of the lecturers just did life-application stuff. They went through books of the Bible and applied the stories to our lives. That's nice, but you can do that with any book. Instead of learning convincingly about how perfect the prophecies were and how it MUST be the case that Christ fulfilled them, I was given a this suspicious philosophy: any given section of prophecy in the OT was either talking about: 1. the present day of the author, 2. Jesus, or 3. the end times. Isn't that convenient? So, if the prophet said something that seems like what was happening to Israel at that time, that's the first category of prophecy! If the prophet said something that looks like it relates to Jesus, it was prophecy about Jesus! If the prophecy was none of the above, in other words if the words are complete nonsense, it was just prophecy about what's yet to come! So there's no way for a prophet to be proven wrong....

Anyway, even if that was frustrating, obviously somebody else's failure to meet my expectations didn't really cause me to doubt. Basically this is what happened. Often throughout high school I would have the horrifying thought, what if there really is no God? What if this is all just playing out in my head? Why don't I ever feel God? How can I follow God when I never hear him? How can I know that just because I feel “convicted” about a passage in the Bible (this book that must be perfect), it's a living God communicating with me? [I totally forgot I felt that way so much in high school!] And maybe for a while I would pray about it, and it would concern me, and I would question. After a while, I would give up on the questioning, succumb to my desire to have a straightforward definition of my purpose in life, tell myself “who are you to ask these questions?”, and “you just have to have faith”, and with such self-brainwashing I would go back to what I had always known. Well, that's just some background, read the next [2] paragraph[s] and then I'll get back to this train of thought.

Christianity is either 100% real or it is another religion humans invented. What Christianity says is that there is a powerful, involved, loving God. If you believe it is the real deal, you believe it 100%, which means that God becomes your very breath, your reality that is more real than this world, your greatest desire and pleasure. The Holy Spirit makes all sin unpalatable to you, and rather than watch trashy TV shows and movies and youtube videos, you want to spend time praying and reading the Bible. You take Christ literally when he says that we shouldn't be like the Pharisees, whitewashed tombs who care about money and appearance, but rather be like the woman who pours perfume on Jesus' feet, despising her public image for a moment of intimacy with God. You despise the worldliness of the world. You despise sin. Compared to the the greatness of the love you have for your God, your feelings for your parents, children, spouse, are like hatred. God guides you. God loves you. You listen for God's direction, and then you let God's smallest whisper that you hear completely turn around the biggest parts of your life and plans, like the Lockes do, who we all love to laugh about [my "extreme" youth pastors who actually took faith literally]. You would kneel down in the street or sing to God in the square if he led you to it. You would take joy in being tortured for God's name in every way, and you'd bless your tormentors.

If your life as a Christian isn't like that, or at least becoming more that way every day via the movement and working of the Holy Spirit, why the hell would you want to be a Christian? I have absolutely no desire for a halfway lived Christian life. I don't believe in superstition or rituals or mysticism or tradition, which is all you're doing if you don't do it all the way, if you don't really believe it. And you don't really believe it unless you take what the Bible says about loving God seriously. Some people are afraid of hell, so they become “Christians” just in case hell is real, like it's some kind of an insurance policy; not sure if you'll need it, but you'll sure be glad if it turns out that you do. Some people become Christians so they can have a nice weekly concert and a nice group of friends and nice programs to attend. Some people grow up Christians and never question it. These people are simply seeking comfort and assurance and steadiness. I think that's bullshit. All I want is the absolute truth. If that truth is Christianity, really, that's awesome. If the truth is that there is no God, and Christianity is another invented religion, I have no desire to waste my time in it.

Anyway, at some point in Bible school I came to the questioning again. I so badly wanted to reinvest my life in Christ and his promises, but I just had to know if it was all real. How can you dedicate your life to something if you're not sure that it's real? We learned there that Christianity isn't about what we do, but what God does through us. It isn't something we can try to do, of our own effort, but something God leads us into. We don't get close to him because we tried so hard, but because he takes charge and draws us to him and fights for us. We don't follow his will and please him because we're good at it, but because we can't help it, because it feels so good to love him.

Well, where was that? If that's all true, where is it? Where? “Your love is a mountain, firm beneath my feet”, uhh, where? “Your love makes me sing,” well, not really? How do you experience God's love? You can't hug him. Yeah, sometimes when I'd pray on my bed I'd get a warm and fuzzy and loving feeling, when I tried to feel it. Kind of the same feeling as when I was in middle school and I would hug a pillow and imagine it was a girl I liked. So, I just started waiting for God to show up in my life and make me move. Earnestly, I did. I prayed a lot of nights, to the point of tears, “God, please show me your love, am I yours? Do you love me? I can't just make myself feel you and believe you anymore, I need you to drive my faith, not me. Please come in and do it. I need you”. Stuff like that. I went for a walk at night and knelt down weeping and begging and crying out in a ditch by the side of the road. All I wanted was a taste of his presence, a tangible knowledge that he was with me. Nothing! Not a sound, not a whisper. Did I do something wrong? Does God fulfill his promises, but not to me? So I kept waiting. And nothing happened.

Once again I tried to swallow my questions. This was about the time when I went to Austria [for the last 2 months of my 9 month bible program]. I thought, well, maybe it's just not my place to demand that from God. Maybe I can't expect that. Maybe I just have to be the type of Christian that does it all in his head, knows a lot about the Bible, puts the emphasis on the Greatness of God rather than his love. Maybe it's just my place to be subservient to him because I'm just a little speck and he's as big as the universe. And I tried it for a while, but in the end my brain still kept telling me that it was nonsense. I came to Antioch [a Christian guys' co-op where I lived for my freshman year of college] and tried again, but it wouldn't work.

And basically since then it's just been a kind of decay. I kept waiting to hear something from God but nothing ever came, and I became less certain of what I had believed my whole life, and I became more and more able to see Christianity as another religion, to explain a lot of the phenomenons [phenomena!] I had attributed to faith before. And I guess that's where I still am today, waiting to hear something... I refuse to ignore my questions and push onward again, because I know that a Christianity initiated and led by me goes nowhere satisfying.

“But Joe, you can't just sit there and wait to hear from God... you should read your Bible, and pray, and draw near to him and he will draw near to you.” Well, isn't that kind of true in any religion? If you want to maintain your Buddhism, maybe you should meditate more, and read the holy texts. Maybe if you want to feel better about Islam, you should pray 5 times per day and recite that Allah is God and Mohammad is his prophet and rid yourself of any non-Muslim influences. I mean, of course if you meditate on the “truths” in the Bible, and pray for hours to God, you might start to believe it's really true, and you might “feel” the things you're supposed to feel. If you think it doesn't happen that way, how do you suggest that the billions of non-Christians stick to their faiths all around the world?

Think about this one: imagine you were born in Saudi Arabia to a typical Muslim family, and you were raised reciting over and over that Allah is God and Mohammad is his prophet, and your parents believed it with all their hearts, and your friends did, and it was all you ever knew. Can you honestly say that you'd reject Islam when you heard the Christian gospel? Every faith has its experts, its scholars, its amazing pastors, the people who will convince you that your faith is THE faith, and disprove all other faiths, and give you utmost confidence in the accuracy of your holy text. Even the Mormons have that [LOL, "even the Mormons"! like they're so different]. Every religion has people willing to die for their beliefs. Every religion has people who are convinced beyond ANY shadow of a doubt that they're right. Therefore, I can't say “I KNOW that my Christian faith was the right thing, so I'll force myself to believe it again.”

Let me get one thing straight. It isn't my desire to lose my faith. I don't like it. It's not fun. I would rather it had gone differently; I wish I had been convinced by what I heard at Bible school, and by what I read in the Bible, and I wish I had heard God's voice assuring me that I'm his and that he's real, and I wish that right now I was on track with what I always wanted to do, living passionately for God and completely giving my life to him. I still honestly hope that this happens. I hope that God shows up in my life and moves me. I've been waiting for it for a long time. But I am not moving until he does. Way too many times in my life have I come up against my doubts, and swallowed them, and been unsatisfied, and there is no way I'm doing it again. If God really wants me, he'll draw me to him.

So, I guess if you want a positive look on it, you can see it this way: God is just putting me through an extended desert time, trying to mold me to be usable for him, stretching my faith to the breaking point so that he can use it, or something. Maybe that's really the case. I hope so.

To be honest, I'm scared. What if nothing ever happens, and I have to become an Agnostic or something? [Oh the horror.] What if I'm wrong, or stupid, and I die and go to hell? What are you guys going to think when you read this? I've bared my soul in this letter, and I'm not done yet.

Ginny, I love you. I'm so scared for you to read this. I don't know what to expect. My worst fear is that you
will find this unacceptable, and divorce me. I so, so don't want that. Maybe you think that the only reason I wanted to marry you was because you love God so much, and now that's all gone or something, and I don't like you anymore. That's not true. Even if I lose my faith completely, and you keep going strong with yours, I want to be with you if you will have me. I might not know how to experience God's love, but I know your love, and it means everything to me. I love you for who you are, for your sharp mind, your sweetness, because you understand me, and because you want to do something with your life. I'm really sorry for this. I know the deal was that we would get married and serve God forever. But I can't hide this from you any longer, and I don't think I've hidden it very well anyway.

Mom, I'm mostly afraid that I'm going to hurt you with this. I know what God means to you. I know how proud you were of me. I'm afraid that you'll cry for me, that you'll worry about me, maybe even be ashamed of me. I'm afraid that you're going to try to talk me back into it with arguments that I've heard dozens of times already. I want you to know that this isn't something I take lightly. But I have to be honest with myself about what I've experienced.

Dad, I'm scared to disappoint you. I don't want you to think I'm bad. I don't want to upset the Omundson Christian tradition, especially if Grammy has to know about it. Honestly I think you will understand it the most, and be the least upset with me. But I'm afraid of what you'll think about me. I'm scared of what everyone will think about me. I also want you to know that this isn't something I take lightly, and I don't want to be insensitive to the damage I can cause.

You guys can write back whatever you want, or if you want, we can talk in person. Please be as blunt as I have been. I'll take your anger and your hurt or whatever else you want to tell me. Feel free to pray for me, not that I could have stopped it. Again, I am sorry to be different from what you expected and hoped from me. I hope at least now you will understand why I haven't wanted to pray at meals, or go to church, or talk about God.

I love you and I hope you will always accept me.

I'm kind of stunned by how much fear I felt going through this process. It took years for a strong-minded person like me, with loved ones who accepted me fully after deconverting, to muster up the strength to come out like this. No wonder so many people feel trapped for life.

I hope that if you're going through something similar, this will be an encouragement that you are not alone, and maybe give you an idea how you could communicate your reality. And I hope that if you never were religious and have a hard time understanding why people don't leave, this will give you some insight into the mind of someone who is leaving a faith which corrals its followers within fences made of fear and shame.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Joe Omundson

Nuclear family vs. community upbringing

Few ideas in our society are held on a higher pedestal than Family. If you're a red-blooded American, your default goals are expected to include marriage, kids, and a house. The nuclear family is regarded as the most legitimate lifestyle structure.

There's nothing inherently bad about being in a nuclear family. Sometimes people fall in love for a long time, have kids, and go through life together as a unit. That's natural and it can be very healthy. But, there are also ways this arrangement can turn into something truly horrible, especially for the children.

Here's the thing: as children, our perception of the world is created by our early experience. Whatever we experience during our childhood becomes our reality. It can only be changed later with a good deal of work, if we're lucky. Children are extremely malleable.

A nuclear family living alone in a house is very isolated. They interact with others during the day to an extent, but otherwise they're separate from the rest of society, walled off and private. Their patterns of interaction are unique to the family, the parents alone decide how to treat the kids, and the kids are completely dependent on the parents to provide for their needs.

Inside a family, the parents play an enormous role in defining a new human being's entire universe. They essentially own that child as property for the next 18 years.

If this arrangement is to work well, parents should be confident, competent, loving people, who understand the ways in which children need to be loved and supported. Those kids usually come to know the world as a stable place where success is attainable and love is natural. But other parents will be insecure, fearful, hateful, and unempathetic people. They might neglect or abuse their kids. They might blame the kids for their own problems. Those kids learn that they aren't good enough, that life is pain, that they can't trust anyone. Children who grow up in abusive situations are usually at a huge disadvantage to those who grow up in loving and stable environments.

If you are an unlucky child and your parents happen to be abusive, sick, and destructive, you're going to be subjected to a lot of agony, and you're basically stuck there. It's luck of the draw. Parents who use physical violence, or emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse, are likely to get away with it because it's behind closed doors and it's justifiable in any number of ways ("Spare the rod, spoil the child! Kids need tough love to prepare them for the real world!").

Society often sides with the parents when a child is suffering. Like owning a dog, a child is considered property, so by default they don't get much of a say in how they're treated. Plus, they "probably deserved it"; they were acting up; they were throwing a tantrum; they were being annoying; they needed to be taught a lesson. The deeper reasons that a child "acts up" are often ignored, and abuse goes unrecognized and unreported. When it is reported, the solutions are often just as bad as the problem (foster care). As a result, many children grow up to become adults who are traumatized, fearful, dysfunctional, depressed, and who then transfer the exact same set of problems onto their own children because they don't realize that there are other options available.

Since the nuclear family is presented as a noble, status-giving, life-legitimizing paradigm, it sets up an unrealistic expectation that starting a family will automatically provide happiness. People pledge their eternal love to a partner, move in together, and start having children just because they assume it will be the right thing to do or because they think it's their only option. It results in a lot of scenarios where people who are unhappy and unfulfilled start a family hoping it will make life feel better, and when it doesn't feel better they become more miserable than ever -- and now they have kids in the equation who are totally at their mercy.

When the number of adults responsible for a child's upbringing is so low, parents run out of energy to satisfy their kids' endless curiosity. Children want to understand things, so they repeatedly ask "why?", and when parents lose patience they eventually answer "because I said so." When children are forced to accept this as an answer, part of their curiosity dies, and instead of being encouraged to understand the complexities of reality, they learn to rely on someone else to tell them what is real and what is right, without questioning why. This leads to adults who unhappily try to live their lives according to what other people have told them is right rather than following their own internal guidance.

Because family is so idealized, there is a lot of social pressure to stay in contact with our close relatives as an adult even if it is unhealthy. Society tells us that we owe our parents something for creating us, even though it was completely their choice . Manipulative behaviors are written off because "that's just how parents are"; while it may be descriptively true that family members commonly use abusive tactics on each other, that doesn't mean human interaction is inherently that way and that it needs to be tolerated. Parents can use this social pressure to coerce even their adult children into accepting situations that are emotionally destructive, for the rest of their lives.

Everyone deserves to be surrounded by loved ones who support them and care for them in healthy ways. The unfortunate reality is that our blood relatives do not always provide this. While we should strive to honor our families and those who poured love into us, we should also be under no obligation to yoke our lives to theirs when doing so is destructive. In cases where our families do us more harm than good, we should feel free to find new groups of people to prioritize in our lives, people who have common goals and values, who accept and understand us. These people show us the real meaning of family and provide us the safe, nurturing, loving care that we need to grow strong in ourselves.

If you are someone who has had a bad experience with family: I believe you. I'm sorry it happened. That sucks. I support you in getting space from them and cutting ties to whatever extent you need.

What if instead of the single-family, single-house, nuclear family paradigm, we became more open to other options?

In my opinion, if children grew up in living spaces that included a larger community of people rather than a strict nuclear family, the odds of them having positive adult influences would balance out greatly. If the parents were absent or incompetent, there would be other stable adults around to help them. There would be other adults to hold the parents accountable if they treated the kids unfairly. This would also be easier on the parents because the community could share the responsibility of watching the kids when the parents want to spend some time doing their own thing.

When kids have more adults to turn to for their questions, they receive more thoughtful and varied responses that encourage them to explore the world and maintain curiosity. They learn more balanced and nuanced views of the world, different perspectives, and they learn to love people with a wider variety of strengths and weaknesses. And they're more likely to hear, at least some time in their lives, "you're OK just the way you are. I love you."

If raised in a community, the attitude toward children might be less that they are property, and more that they are equal members of the group; that they are everyone's future, and everyone's responsibility. This is more along the lines of how human tribes operated for tens and hundreds of thousands of years before recent developments of civilization made it possible for families to live in isolation.

Think of how 1000 fish live in a lake. They can all explore wherever they need to; the amount of available oxygen and nutrients is distributed across the whole community. Their ecosystem develops naturally with the other organisms in the lake. This is like how socialization would work if we still lived as tribal communities. What if you took those fish and put them into 200 different small tanks, and changed the composition of each of the tanks so that none of them was the same? Fed them artificially, starved some of them for oxygen, put fertilizer in some of the tanks, and kept them from interacting freely? You'd get a lot of sick fish. To some extent this is what we've done by creating the expectation that nuclear families should live alone in houses.

As always, topics like this are extremely complicated, and the sad reality of abusive homes can't be blamed completely on any one factor. But to me, our embrace of the nuclear family is an interesting one to explore because it hides in broad daylight. People don't tend to consider it as a possible problem. I think we need to examine all of our ideas, even the ones that feel the most ingrained, because sometimes it's the assumptions we've held the longest that do us the most damage.

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Joe Omundson

The questions that killed my faith

These were some of the most difficult questions that I encountered when I was doubting my belief in Jesus. I thought about them for quite a long time and despite the multitude of explanations I heard, I never found answers within Christianity that held any water.

1) Guidance of the Holy Spirit

The premise: Once you accept Jesus as your personal savior, the Holy Spirit (who is also God/Jesus) comes to live inside of you. The Spirit guides you and directs your heart. The Spirit reveals to you the true meaning of the Bible, God's living word, when you read it. Despite the fact that the Bible was written by fallible humans, you can trust that it is a perfect message from God, because the same Spirit who inspired the authors is dwelling in your heart and helps you to understand the meaning of their words.

The question: Why, then, are there so many groups of Christians who interpret the same Bible in such dramatically different ways? Shouldn't the Holy Spirit be the great unifier that easily clears up differences in interpretation, especially since that's supposed to be the mechanism at work which provides believers accurate information from the Bible despite its human authors and the difficulties of translation? How can it be that each group is convinced that they possess the true version of salvation, and that the other groups are heretics, based on the guidance of the same Holy Spirit?

An analogy: If Christianity is like Starbucks, the Holy Spirit is like the regulatory system that ensures that all of its stores are following the same recipes and creating a consistent product company-wide. You can go to any Starbucks in the world and they make the drinks the same way, because the employees have been clearly instructed on the protocol. If a human corporation can succeed at this, should not the divine speaker-of-hearts be even more capable of directing its members to the same One Truth? Yet there are endless divisions and contentions among the church, with each group believing that the Spirit is telling them their own understanding is the perfect truth and the others are disturbingly misled.

The answer that satisfied me: There is no unification of believers because the Holy Spirit does not in fact clarify scripture to those who read it. People confuse their own thoughts and beliefs with divine guidance. The Christian organism works just like you would expect it to work if you had a 1700 year old text that had been compiled and translated in different ways and understood independently by people of many different cultures and eras. The tenets of Christianity are just as varied as the people who believe in it, which points to it being a human creation and not a divine one.

2) Bondage to sin

The premise: The Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. The works of the Flesh include adultery, uncleanness, lewdness, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, envy, drunkenness, and the like. Humans, by default, are in bondage to sin from birth. They cannot overcome it. But with the saving power of Jesus and the indwelling of the Spirit, believers are liberated from sin, finally having the power to overcome any sinful pattern. Since they love God, they are motivated to avoid sinful actions which offend him -- and they have the power to do so.

The question: If all Christians possess the Spirit, and the Spirit is the only thing that has the power to change a person's actions from the works of the Flesh to the fruit of the Spirit, then shouldn't we see clear evidence of this reality in the lives of Christians compared to the rest of the world? Christians should be far and away the most loving, joyful, peaceful, kind people on the planet; and everyone else should be suffering a life of wretched sinfulness because they have no power to break away from it. This should be a clear and undeniable distinction. How do you explain the fact that Christians are just like every other group -- the most well-adjusted and healthy ones are happy, while the struggling and hurt ones are unhappy? The same is true of atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, anyone really. If the Holy Spirit is not the main determinant of who displays the Fruit of the Spirit, what is? Why do Christians remain trapped in fear, sin, and turmoil if they have been set free indeed?

An analogy: Imagine if someone taught you as a child that birds cannot fly by nature, but once they eat a specific kind of fish, they are suddenly able to fly and are not obligated to stay on the ground any longer. You grow up believing this explanation, but someday you realize that different birds have all kinds of different diets; that many non-fish-eating birds are flying, and many fish-eating birds are grounded. At this point would you not discard the dietary hypothesis and accept that what really determines a bird's ability to fly is its anatomical structure, weight, wing surface area, and the laws of physics?

The answer that satisfied me: Love, joy, peace, patience, etc. are not imparted upon human beings by the Holy Spirit. Those qualities are a part of our natural human capacity just as much as hatred, jealousy, and envy. Different qualities are cultivated in different people depending on a lot of factors, like the quality of your childhood, your mental and emotional health, and how strong and loving your community is. Exhibiting virtuous behavior has nothing to do with believing one set of ancient scriptures over another. These claims regarding the Holy Spirit's role in providing freedom from sin are a hoax. Anyone has the power to overcome destructive habits on their own, with the right understanding.

3) Creation of a broken world

The premise: God created the world according to the creation story told in Genesis. Humans were his crowning work, his children, the most beloved and significant of his creatures. He loved them and intended to live in harmony with them forever, without pain, suffering, or death. It was therefore to his great displeasure that Adam & Eve fell into sin after being tempted by Satan. Their nature was then sinful and all of their descendants would be born inherently sinful, and because sin is so reprehensible to God, they would have to be cleansed by symbolic sacrifices to be acceptable enough for his presence. The alternative, sadly, was to be sentenced to an eternity of separation from God, in Hell.

The question: Why did a loving God, who knows all things before they happen, create a world full of sin and suffering, and an eternal torment for unbelievers? Why did he allow the reality to be that only a small minority of humans who will ever exist on Earth will have access to heaven, and the rest will suffer eternally, if he loves all humans as his own children?

Maybe you've heard it's because humans had to have a choice to love him or not, otherwise it wouldn't be love. But why should that be the case? If God created love, surely he is not bound by some obligation to give humans the kind of choice that results in such chaos. He could have made the concept of love work in such a way that everyone is secure in it without needing to teeter on the edge of eternal punishment. If I can imagine that, so can God. And even if humans were to have the choice between loving him or not, why should choosing against God result in such a drastic punishment -- eternal damnation -- especially when many people on Earth never had the chance to learn about God in their brief lifespans, or were turned off to the idea of religion by very traumatic experiences which would cause our fallible minds to possibly reject God for reasons other than malicious rebellion?

Aren't there more likely explanations for the human condition other than the creation story -- that God made humans perfect but much to his chagrin a fallen angel turned into a serpent and tricked the humans away from God's perfect plan? How could he have allowed that to happen? Certainly he was aware of what Satan was doing as he did it. Certainly Adam and Eve were not the first beings to sin and rebel against God, if Lucifer already existed in his fallen state. If humans were to have any chance at a pure existence without sin, why would he allow his fallen minion to come in contact with them? If human nature was to be curious and drawn to the words of a tempter, why did God create them with that nature, instead of a nature where they would see deception for what it was and reject it? If they had refused Lucifer's attempt at corruption the first time, how many times would God have required them to be tempted? Just once, or every day until they succumbed? Then wasn't it his plan all along to end up with the miserable state of things we have now?

An analogy: I adopt a new puppy. I love this puppy, and I look forward to our companionship. I begin to train it to make good choices that will help it to stay safe and happy. But one day, I leave my puppy alone in the house, and on my way out I hold the door open to let in a rabid raccoon who is waiting outside. At the end of the day I return home and my puppy has been attacked and infected with rabies, and the raccoon fled out the window. Instead of using the power of medicine to do my best to heal the puppy and return to our original plan of a long happy existence together, I condemn it for being repulsive to me and I throw it out into the yard to suffer a protracted death, ignoring its cries of pain. Am I a good dog owner? Have I done what is fair? Is the dog to blame?

The answer that satisfied me: The creation story is a myth just like all the other creation stories that different primitive tribes believed in all around the world. It does not align with the idea that God the Creator is sovereign, benevolent, and all-knowing. It fits much more logically into the explanation that creation myths are human-invented stories to explain the origin of things they don't understand.


I never found good answers to these questions in Christianity. Maybe you haven't either (if you did, please tell me in the comments). How does that make you feel? Maybe your response is to say "God works in mysterious ways" or "we cannot fathom God with our logic, so your attempts to rationalize are invalid". If that is the case, how do you distinguish between something that is incomprehensible because it is so far above our level of consciousness, and something that is incomprehensible because it is a complete lie used to control you? If you aren't allowed to use your own human faculty of reason, your own instinct, logic, and senses, to determine what is true -- what do you have left? How do you know who to trust? If you'd grown up in Saudi Arabia or India, your same acceptance of religious authority would have undoubtedly turned you into a Muslim or a Hindu, and you would believe in it as adamantly as you do Christianity today.

If God is flawless and all-knowing, shouldn't the signature of his actions be that they are easy to understand -- because they are completely perfect, pure, and in tune with reality? Sick people are the ones who do confusing, chaotic, hurtful things. The actions of people who are intelligent, compassionate, and loving are the most easy to understand, because they have the ability to put themselves in your perspective and communicate in such a way that the important points come across clearly.

(You can find three more questions that killed my faith in this blog post.)

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Joe Omundson

how to get to know yourself better

In a previous post I explained why getting to know ourselves is so important, but how can we do that, practically? It's a pretty broad question. I can't answer that with specific instructions as the path to self-discovery is different for everyone. But there are a few things that seem to be universally important.

1) Take some space from society, spend some time truly alone. Many of us are like people who can only fall asleep with the TV blaring. We rely on the constant noise, constant input, and it feels normal. Learning to break away from it is hard. But once we become accustomed to the quiet, to being able to hear our own thoughts, returning to the TV is a shocking experience. The messages seem aggressive, intrusive, absurd. The same is true for civilized life in general. Our existence is not just who we are, it's who we are in relation to other people, and when we remove that input from other people we have more of a chance to realize what's unique about ourselves. It's like if someone only ever played bass in rehearsal with their band and never practiced alone. They might know how to mesh well with others, but taking the time to hear themselves play might reveal a lot more information that could make them a better musician.

2) Accept that you are in whatever state you are in, and that it's OK. It's not perfect and there is growing to do. But it doesn't help anything to pretend we are something we are not. We all have strengths and weaknesses, trauma and joy. Let yours be whatever they are and accept that you are still a worthy human being. Don't try to change everything all at once.

3) Learn how to notice your feelings, your body, your sensations, your thoughts; develop the capacity to gain awareness of the mind and body. There are so many different ways to do this. Is there something in your life that quiets your racing thoughts, brings your attention into the present moment, and makes you aware of your body? Make more time for that activity in your life. For me, it's been things like hiking, yoga, meditation, marijuana, psychedelics, and music. For you it might be something totally different.

4) Meet a variety of people and find the ones who have traveled down a road similar to the one you're on, and learn from their experience. We will naturally meet more of these like-minded folks as we spend more time doing activities that are specialized to our personal interests. When we have spent time on 1) - 3) we will better understand which people we want to emulate and why.

These things all require time and energy. If you are constantly in a state of exhaustion from your busy life, you won't have time for this work. Ask yourself why you are so busy and what you can do to make more time for yourself. Some people stay busy because they have no other choice, as they have people depending on them and if they slack off there will be consequences. To be honest I'm not very familiar with that situation and I don't have good advice for how to work around that. But other people stay busy either by choice, or out of fear, or precisely because it keeps them from having time for the steps I mentioned. If you are one of those people you have to decide that your own happiness and well-being are important, and are worth the discomfort of spending time in a space where you don't know exactly what you will learn about yourself.

Through this process you might realize that you truly dread some aspect of your life, that it takes the spirit out of you and defeats you. Maybe it's a relationship, a job, a religion, a place. If you really want to find fulfillment you have to be willing to make difficult changes to major parts of your life. How bad do you want it?

I wanted it really bad. Between the ages of 21-26 I left my Christian faith which had been so important to me growing up, I left a marriage with an excellent woman, and I quit a stable engineering career, because through all the time I'd spent examining myself I knew what I really wanted was to travel alone and see the world for myself and make my own judgments about life. I'm glad I trusted my gut because even though these were hard decisions (OK -- the faith-leaving and the divorce were hard decision, quitting my job was an easy one), they freed up so much space to explore and grow in new directions.

I prioritized my own instinctual well-being over the fears that would have held me back. I don't regret leaving those things behind because the things I gained were so much more me. My priorities, my interests. Sounds selfish, right? It was. But without a period of self-motivated exploration I don't see how someone can lay a strong foundation for the rest of their life. We do our best work when we are working on something that we are passionate about, obsessed. We love best when we know our own boundaries, limitations, and desires. It's worth taking the time to customize our lifestyles to meet our own needs, so that we can understand ourselves and then give back in the greatest way possible.
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Friday, October 7, 2016

Joe Omundson


On Tuesday morning I woke up, had breakfast, went to the donation-based 10AM gentle yoga class, and then drove straight to my favorite camping area in the desert. Along for the ride in my glove compartment were 2 hits of LSD. The forecast was sunny and clear.

This was my 4th LSD trip, and my first time taking more than 1 hit. I ingested them just before noon, and I smoked a bit of cannabis as I was waiting for the effects to come on.

Having a solar panel on my car to power my stereo was brilliant. There was nobody around for a considerable distance, so I turned up the volume and my car became my reference point for the rest of my trip; no matter where I went I would hear the music and know where to return, not that it was difficult to find my car but it was an extra bit of insurance.

I started to feel the acid after maybe 45 minutes or an hour. I was lying in my car when the altered state of consciousness brought about by LSD distinguished itself from the THC I was already feeling. I am not sure how to describe this sensation for anyone who has not tried psychedelics; I think it would be like trying to describe the experience of dreaming or dying. The best way I can describe it is that it overrides a lot of the habitual neural networks your brain likes to use. When something comes to mind, you don't think about it in the typical way... you see more options, your filters are removed, you make connections with other ideas that didn't seem related before. Things you never noticed jump out at you. And your normal logical pathways for navigating the world don't make sense anymore. For me, music triggers certain emotions more directly, details become fascinating, and thoughts that I normally repress float to the surface.

I spent the next 5 hours within the general vicinity of my car. I had my music library on shuffle and noticed my emotions being highly affected by the kind of song that was being played. A metal song would play and I would connect with my grief and more intense feelings; a house song would come on and I'd want to dance. I would go in cycles where I would want to be walking around looking at things and vibing with the music, and then I would want to withdraw into my car and turn the volume down and relax and comfort myself.

I had stronger visual alterations than on any trip I've previously taken. I would look out over the rocks and trees, and all of them would be shifting, moving around like ocean swells. At the peak of it, my vision had a time delay. If I moved my arm in front of my face, I would see trails behind it. This was pretty entertaining. My vision was constantly blurring and unblurring, especially when I tried to do things like change the song on my phone. I didn't really see enhanced colors or geometric shapes or anything like that though.

I saw my life from more of a zoomed out perspective. There were cycles of many different timescales circling around; life and death, birth and rebirth, cause and effect and cause again. I thought about people, love, feelings, possibilities.

At one point I was on my mattress and was feeling very withdrawn, almost guilty for having music playing. I realized I was feeling something like shame simply for taking up space with my life in general. It was helpful to notice this because I recognized how absurd it was. I got up to move around and I felt more motivated to find my niche and fill it well, to become more responsible with my duties, to learn how to meet my needs abundantly and pour over into other people. I thought a lot about a certain woman and realized the depth of my desire to form a new relationship.

An interesting thing happened where I felt like there were other personalities inside my mind. I was interacting with them, or becoming them. One of them was like a young girl, quiet gentle and playful, whispering secrets and laughing. Another was like a young woman warrior who has been through some painful trauma but is learning to be strong and proud again. I thought this was interesting but didn't think much of it, until the next day I happened upon this page about tulpas.  I'm going to explore this idea more fully before I write any more about it, but I am very intrigued by it and might start working on creating a tulpa!

At my mom's house, she has one of those picture frames where there's a photo from each of my school pictures from kindergarten through high school. Between 4th and 5th grade, there is a shift that happens in my smile where it goes from being a warm natural thing to something I clearly had to force myself to do. I think that was the end of my "childhood", when my parents separated, and somehow feeling free to be happy stopped being a part of my character. I couldn't produce a natural smile because I didn't feel that way on a base level. It was further compounded when my parents were frustrated with me for not taking good smiling pictures anymore; I felt like, really, I'm hurting like this and you're upset that my photos don't look as happy as you want? Is the appearance all that matters? And I think after that, hiding my full smile became a matter of determination. I felt like to reveal my full smile was pandering to their unfair wishes. Like if I learned to take that kind of photo I would be in danger of forgetting my true feelings just to make them happy.

As the sun got lower in the sky, the lighting was perfect, I had a nice camera, and I figured I would try some self portraits. I felt anxiety as I held the camera in front of my face and the familiar urge to panic or make a forced smile. But I took a series of shots, focused on feeling my full warmth and letting it show. I'm 29... why should I have this irrational fear of appearing happy in photos? Do I still need to get back at my parents by limiting my joy in this way? Isn't it time I accepted my own happiness and allowed others to enjoy it too?

The weather was beautiful. There was no haze in the sky at all. I was looking at the La Sal mountain range on the horizon and it was totally clear. As the sun lowered and the light became golden, I grabbed my camera and ran around for an hour snapping photos.

Soon, it was 8PM. It was dark and growing colder. I knew I still had a few more hours before I'd be able to fall asleep, so I pulled my mattress out onto the slickrock, put on a favorite album, got under my down quilt and watched the stars. I also brought out my computer and started looking through some of the photos I'd taken. Sometimes I got up to take more photos.

Eventually, probably around midnight, I fell asleep. In the morning I woke up at first light and started driving the 25-30 miles back home. I stopped a couple times to take photos of the morning golden hour. I reflected on my experience and felt grateful. I returned to town with a greater sense of self-acceptance and a renewed desire to work on my life to build it in the direction I want to go.

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Joe Omundson

A note for my Christian friends and relatives

I created a Facebook page to promote this blog recently. I sent invites to as many friends as I could.

Most of my Facebook friends are people I've met in the last 8 years, after graduating college. But I also have a fair number of friends who I met before that, including many of my relatives.

The biggest difference in my mind between these two groups of people is that the ones who have met me in the last 7 years know that I'm not religious. They are all people who know what I believe and what my lifestyle is like, and who accept my choices. I can say whatever I want in their presence and I know they will not attack me for saying it. They may not agree, but they at least accept that disagreement is OK.

It's kind of strange interacting with the other group sometimes. Most of them know that I was a devout Christian in my youth, and unless I've had a conversation with them about it specifically they might not know that I left that ideology 7 years ago, and am working toward very different goals than what they might assume. Many of them have invested a lot in Christianity, in making sure I believed in it, and undoubtedly see my rejection of the faith as a very wrong choice.

When I came out as an unbeliever in 2009, I only told my parents, wife, and close friends. Eventually I started sharing my thoughts more openly on social media but I never sat down with my relatives individually and explicitly told them, "I don't believe the same way as you anymore". I can only assume that some of my relatives have noticed changes in me, heard rumors from other family members, or have taken some time to read my thoughts online.

Yet I have not had any uncomfortable conversations pressuring me to believe again. I've been bracing myself for 7 years. It's always been confusing to me; do they know I'm not a Christian anymore? If they know, aren't they concerned? Is it just too hard to bring up? What do they think about me? Could they ever accept me if they knew I was never coming back? Do they avoid questioning me because they have doubts themselves? Because of this I have not always felt fully free to express myself publicly.

As I saw my friends responding to my invitation to like my new Facebook page, some of my conservative Christian family members were in the mix. Now they are my audience for all of the personal thoughts that I share on this blog. There is a conflict between my desire to be completely transparent, and my desire to write a blog that everyone can read. I think some of the most interesting topics to write about are very un-Christian; I want to explore ideas relating to atheism and spirituality, gender and sexuality, drugs and the psychedelic experience, etc.

I'm also realizing that ex-Christian topics are an area I want to keep exploring. It's been an interesting journey: when I first left my faith, I felt more resentful, scared, angry, and sad. I craved getting into debates about it so I could express my outrage. Eventually, as my life strengthened and I became more confident in myself, I lost interest in those kinds of debates. I realized I wasn't going to change anyone's mind and I wanted to focus more on my newfound happiness rather than my old pain.

More recently, though, I have been reaching out to communities of ex-Christians again to offer my support. Now that a lot of the trauma has fallen away, I feel I'm left with a greater capacity to wade back into the sea of Christianity and help people who are struggling to find the shore. Because of my own past I have an acute understanding for the impact of growing up in an authoritarian religious system and a lot of compassion for those who are having difficulty making sense of things. I feel that this is an area where I can combine my personal experience, empathy, and ability to explain complex ideas clearly, in an effort to help people accept themselves and make healthy choices to grow into strong, happy people.

As I spend more time writing, learning, and traveling, I'm going to be figuring out my specialties as a writer. I don't know if there's any one topic I want to write about full time, but I know Christianity is a big one for my life, so it's going to remain a focus at times. In the process of this, I'm going to be speaking out about the problems I experienced within Christianity, and I'm not going to sugar coat it. I believe many people are traumatized by a Christian upbringing and there is much healing to be done.

So, to my dear family members who are believers: I am sorry if this feels scary to you, or like an attack. I am doing my best to oppose the system of beliefs itself, and the mechanisms of social control, rather than confront individuals who adhere to the religion. It's not you I'm angry at. Yet my writing may very well offend you, and if you don't like it, I won't blame you for un-liking my page or ignoring my blog. I remember how uncomfortable it made me as a Christian when people expressed critical views, so I know how it feels. You are welcome to email me or reply in the comments with any questions or thoughts you have and we can talk about things.
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