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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Write comments
October 28, 2016 at 12:05 PM delete

Thanks for sharing. I remember how scared I was back in high school, when I was first starting to doubt Catholicism. Worse even than my near-constant state of mortal sin (I was a teenage boy with access to a computer; of course I spent several nights a week damning myself) was the fear that I didn't really believe the Eucharist transformed into literal flesh and blood. I saw it, felt it, tasted it, and it was very definitely a wafer and some wine.

But my mom, and my best friend's mom, and all my teachers and friends seemed to be perfectly happy and to believe everything we were taught, so I stayed quiet and went through with my confirmation, and some Boy Scout religious medals to boot. I wish I had asked more questions back then, but the only difference would have been that I had concrete answers to disagree with.

I do hope to come out to my parents as atheist someday, but don't think I'll ever tell my grandmother outright. She's only got a few years left, and I'd hate to take away her belief that we'll see each other again after she dies.

Alex Wall
October 28, 2016 at 3:07 PM delete


So impressed by your continuing openness. It is so refreshing, Joe. I really get into learning about your life.

I was raised a Congregationalist, here in Maine. It is VERY liberal compared to what you describe. You were in deep, bro. I dumped Christianity too.

But there was never a time when I haven't believed in a Creator. I've always felt a presence in my mind absolutely separate from all social religion. It made me laugh at them. It told me that I am my own church. My life is my religion.

I dumped my childhood church, all churches and social religions, because they distracted me from inner personal spiritual growth. AND, I felt that that was what the God inside me - transmitted through what I call the Spark - wanted.

Only when I began to live by thinking for myself did I (though rarely) literally hear that "still-small voice" from within the sanctuary of my own mind. Its influence had been blocked by ministers and intercessors. It tells me things and confirms realizations in a nonverbal way. And one of the things it "told" me was that it doesn't require me grovel around, constantly filling my head with God-based thinking, or burying my head in a Bible.

I thank God only when I am moved to do so. I pray when I am moved to do so. I don't have any kind of social pressure. Social religion makes you feel guilty all the time, doesn't explain the personal spiritual experience (since only each of us can have that for ourselves), makes you question your own ability to even think straight, makes you hate yourself for doing things that you've been told were "wrong" when God doesn't care about behavior (as long as you're not hurting other people or yourself). Social religion is a poison, imo.

I guess I am confused though why God is thrown out along with the church? Just because social (purely human) religion insists on the idiocy of rituals that don't do anything, or holy books that are erroneously fetishized as "perfect" (having all the answers), things that are then proven by the good sense of a clear-minded person (like yourself) to be imperfect, doesn't mean that there isn't a creator who *is* perfect--maybe one who is desperate to get humanity away from peer-pressure religion.

Alex Wall
October 28, 2016 at 3:07 PM delete


Couldn't it be that we are still an evolving species who is learning to discard the childish reliance on cults (like the churches) and things (like the Bible) and useless *behaviors* (like rituals)? Couldn't it be that the future of religion is entirely personal? Could there be a day yet to come when one builds a belief system from the things that make *sense* to him/her as an individual; never accepting the intercession of other self-appointed humans (preachers, ministers, priests, imams, gurus, etc.) on one hand, while never stooping to push one's own spiritual system on any other person? What if EVERYONE were to use that method of spiritual growth?

What confuses me is why you don't instead see the rejection of the church as God's will for you. That you *wanted* so badly to believe, means you are already more than God could hope for in a human being. That you searched so tenaciously for God, shows that he had already found you.

In my opinion, it seems that what you are doing with your life is the greatest possible thing that God would want for you (despite all the line-towing that your family may hold over your head). You are finding happiness and peace of mind in your own unique way! I am tempted to look at you (and others who are doing similar alternatives to the "game") as a new breed of prophet.

Well, I didn't mean to write an essay, nor to be pushy about it all. Even if you remain agnostic or become fully an atheist, I will continue to think your life is a novel revelation about how others who are trapped by religion or social convention can break those chains and truly LIVE. By being that example you are truly revealing new form of divine love; by helping others to escape from traps like Christianity. The the seriously updated-God in me affirms this notion very strongly.

Joe Omundson
October 31, 2016 at 3:42 PM delete

Hey Alex, thanks for your thoughtful input and awesome questions.

I think the most basic answer I can give to all of your questions is something you've pointed out already: I was much deeper in Christianity than you were. So, I have a different association with the word "God".

I find that a lot of people are willing to use the word "God" to refer to that mystical, spiritual, transcendent majesty they experience in their life. And that's fine if it works for them. You call it the Spark and honestly I like that name better. For me personally, "God" is too closely tied with a lot of personal fear, trauma, disappointment, frustration, etc. to represent the positive feelings that I get from my own form of spirituality. Also, it represents a concept that just seems inaccurate to me: some supreme spiritual being that exists independently from our physical universe as described by certain monotheistic traditions. So it just doesn't have any useful role in my vocabulary. My experience of the "Spark" is something internal to myself, yet something that I share with all of the rest of life and the universe, and really it's the feeling I get when I recognize that I can rest in the fact that there is nothing separating me from everything else. Why would I want to call that experience "God"?

"But there was never a time when I haven't believed in a Creator. I've always felt a presence in my mind absolutely separate from all social religion." This is another difference between us. I have never felt another presence in my mind that I could attribute to God. As I described in detail in my letter, this is a major reason I had to let go. Imagine if you never experienced it? Do you think you'd still believe?

"Couldn't it be that we are still an evolving species who is learning to discard the childish reliance on cults (like the churches) and things (like the Bible) and useless *behaviors* (like rituals)? Couldn't it be that the future of religion is entirely personal? Could there be a day yet to come when one builds a belief system from the things that make *sense* to him/her as an individual; never accepting the intercession of other self-appointed humans (preachers, ministers, priests, imams, gurus, etc.) on one hand, while never stooping to push one's own spiritual system on any other person? What if EVERYONE were to use that method of spiritual growth?"

Yeah, that could be! And I certainly hope so because it sounds beautiful.
In my opinion the idea of "God" is more of a hindrance to that process, than a vital ingredient. Without all the silly man-made cults and destructive social patterns that come with them, where would our conception of God have even come from? God is a limited view of spirituality, one that does not usually allow people to "build a belief system from the things that make *sense* to him/her as an individual".

One of the main things I was trying to communicate in my letter was that I wasn't actually motivated to leave Christianity for social reasons. It was because of my problem with the idea/experience of God, itself. I was mostly fine with the people. So questions like "why did you also leave God just because you left the church?" don't make sense to me. I left the idea of God first. The social stuff was a side effect. God doesn't represent my experience of reality so saying "I don't believe in God anymore" is descriptive rather than prescriptive. I am still very open to the idea that the universe is full of things that humans can't/don't comprehend, that there is some spiritual nature embedded in the physical universe that allows matter to organize into ideas and to attract like-minded people. But I don't feel like there's one spiritual superpower in charge of it all. A creator makes no sense to me. I guess that's as best as I can say it -- sorry if I got redundant :)

Joe Omundson
October 31, 2016 at 3:47 PM delete

Thanks for your thoughts. In my opinion there is a lot of freedom in being able to say what you really think, so I hope you are able to come out to them someday. I do understand what you mean about being sensitive to the beliefs of older relatives who want to see you again after you're dead... and I know my own relatives could very well read this and be upset by it. I hope not, but it's a risk I take because I'm on the side of the spectrum where I don't want to keep anything hidden about myself. I think, ultimately, most people feel more respected when you're willing to be totally honest rather than simply acting like you believe the same thing as them.