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Archive for May 2007

Write Your Own Epic

There was a required class in the computer engineering curriculum that was only ever taught by one particular professor. This professor had a penchant for creating pointless busywork. His homework for this class consisted of one page reports on each section of the book that we read. He didn’t tell you this at first, but these were no ordinary reports. He expected you to fill up that one side of the page with as much information as possible. Margins should be as tight as possible: usually ¼” all around. The last line of each paragraph should be as long as possible: whitespace was the enemy. Smaller fonts got more points. Color got more points. Diagrams were good but should not take up too much space. None of those criteria were stated up front. The class members discovered them through trial and error over the course of the semester. This is only one illustration of his eccentricities as a professor.

His arbitrariness clashed with my sense of fairness. I had a hard time bringing myself to just do whatever it took to pass the class. I took the class four times before the professor gave me the required C or better in the class. By that fourth semester, I knew the material in the class better than he did. It wasn’t for lack of knowledge that I didn’t pass; I didn’t pass because I didn’t want to bend to his will.

I tell this story to give you the context of why I hate admitting what I’m about to say. One of this professor’s favorite sayings was that each of his students was “special, just like everyone else”. That really bugged me, but I must now confess that he was right. Each of us is unique and special, but that makes us no more special than anyone else.


Lately I’ve been feeling kind of empty. My first reaction was “Oh crap! The Mormons were right. I’m losing the Spirit!” I fell prey to the indoctrination of my youth, but only for a moment. I reassured myself that some other reason must explain the emptiness that I felt every time I thought about life. I just had to find it.

It took me a while to put my finger on the cause: I miss being part of a grand epic. Mormonism put me in the middle of a larger-than-life struggle between God and the forces of evil. It told me that I was a valiant spirit in God’s army before I was born. God took a special interest in the course of my life. Everything that happened was part of his eternal plan. My life would determine my future eternal state. My destiny, if I lived worthy of it, could be to become a god to rule and reign over numberless worlds and their inhabitants. Mormonism gave my life a greater context and purpose than the mundane appearances of my day-to-day existence. It reassured me that I was special, more special than those who had chosen not to embrace the truth.

The initial euphoria of casting off old religious demons and tasting sweet freedom and intellectual integrity has now worn off. The euphoria had anesthetized me while my sense of my own inherent, unearned specialness was being removed. I’m just now becoming aware of the hole that Mormonism vacated.


My brother recently made me aware that Maslow extended his hierarchy of needs beyond what we typically hear about. Usually the hierarchy includes five levels of need (from the lowest to the highest): physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow later included cognitive and aesthetic needs in his hierarchy, but more importantly for me, he made the top of his hierarchy self-transcendence.

My needs for self-actualization are finally being met. My native self is finally finding expression outside the culture-imposed narratives of Mormonism. I am becoming self-determined. This self-actualization has come at a price. I have lost the Mormon myths that gave me a false sense of self-transcendence, Maslow’s next higher level of need.

The hunger that I feel in my heart is born of the questions “Why do I live? What greater purpose will my life hold?” I have to answer these questions on my own for the first time in my life. I no longer have a source of ready-made meaning to turn to. No one-size-fits-all story could possibly anticipate the full effect of my life. I have to write the story as I go. My purpose will be unique (just like everyone else) because my place in the universe is unique (just like everyone else).

What will I do to transcend myself? This is my story, my quest. No other hero can take my place.

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Beyond the Mark

I’ve been reading The Power of Myth today while my family was attending their church meetings. The overwhelming impression that I get is that we have misunderstood the purpose of our myths.

Myth comes to us from people who have experienced reality from another perspective. These poets, shamans, and mystics have left the mundane world and its concerns to experience transcendence of the self. They have sacrificed themselves on the altar. They have died and been reborn to bring us the bread of a new life beyond the illusion of duality and separation. Their stories point the way along the path that they have followed and beckon us to join in the journey.

We have missed the point entirely. We take our myths literally while ignoring the larger reality behind their words. We believe in the literal existence of a sky-father who sits on a cloud listening to the cries of his children and intervening in the world of humankind. We believe that our selves will continue in a world of joy after we die. We have polluted our myths with simpleminded, comforting stories to ward of the fear of death and to assuage our shame.

Our myths are not about facts. They are a call to transform ourselves, to see ourselves in our true relationship with the world.

It’s as if we believed in a literal Pinocchio, a puppet with a growing nose, but failed to learn about honesty. Our religious failure is not that we don’t trust enough in our religious stories, but that we have mistakenly taken metaphor for literal truth. If we truly understood, it would make no difference to us whether or not there was a literal first father and mother named Adam and Eve. We wouldn’t care whether Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth was literally crucified. The question of the existence of a personal God is entirely the wrong question to ask.

Is there a God? Mu.

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O! For the walls that surround us.
Protect us!

May we never hear a contrary word.
May we never see an unseemly deed.
May we never entertain a thought which is forbidden.

Hold us fast in the comfort of your familiar arms.
Keep us from the taint of freedom.
Protect our dead idols from scorn.
Preserve us safe, estranged, unchanged.

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Do What Thou Wilt

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law…
Love is the law, love under will
(The Book of the Law 1:40, 57)

I have been doing what was expected of me for most of my life. I was living my life according to the desires of others. Who I was and what I wanted was sacrificed in the quest to become like God. My law was God’s law as it had been taught to me.

I jettisoned that law when I realized that God was a fiction. I discovered that God was only the collective desires of humanity which had changed through the ages as humanity changed. My switch from believing Mormon to strongly atheistic agnostic was the first act of real consequence that I made contrary to expectations. I was doing what I wanted despite others’ desires. My repudiation of God was also a repudiation of the expectations that had been placed on me. The heady power and freedom of that act felt really good. It must be something like the feeling of getting up from your sick bed after months of confinement.

I no longer recognize anyone’s authority to tell me what is morally right and wrong. They have no more standing to pontificate on morality than I do because they don’t have an ersatz God to back them up. There is no absolute standard for behavior. I decide what I will do because I want to do it.

That may sound like a prescription for licentious behavior, especially to those who have listened to too many Sunday School lessons telling them how evil we would be without God. One may imagine that I hope for a life full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Life’s short. Live hard. Die young.

But that’s not what I want. I want to live happily, faithfully with my wife. I want to experience life’s adventures with her. I want to walk alongside my children as they experience the wonderful world that they’re so extraordinarily privileged to be a part of. I want to see who they were born to be unfold. I want to learn everything I can in life’s short day. I want to regain my sense of wonder and see the world with new eyes. I want to help others. I want to make a difference to someone. I want someone to miss me when I’m gone.

I will do what I want, and to hell with anyone who gets in my way.

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Navel Gazing

How could my view of the world change so radically from theism to atheism? More importantly, why was I convinced that I was right in both cases?

I had some doubts as a believer, but I thought I was on the right side of the question. I strongly believed this. Now, as a non-believer, I firmly believe that I am right and that I’ve finally escaped the briar patch that is religion. I could flippantly pass off the change as personal growth, but I think it’s trying to say a lot more than that to me.

My convictions feel different now. They are based much more on my own judgment rather than on received wisdom. They don’t jar against my experience of reality, and if they do, I’ll change them to suit. I am now much less dogmatic in that way. What hasn’t changed is my firm conviction that I am not deceiving myself, that I am not mistaken.

I guess it’s like how most of us think we’re great drivers. We tell ourselves that we’d all be safer if more people had our level of driving skills. I’m pretty sure I’m a good thinker, but the evidence of my history of beliefs contradicts that. This change has introduced a note of skepticism when I consider my own thought process. I’m probably not as smart as I think I am and my thoughts are probably not as clear as they seem to me to be.

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