Guest Post by William Lobdell: "Without a Doubt"

(Editor’s note: William Lobdell’s memoir—Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace—hits the bookstores Tuesday.)

Without a Doubt, By William Lobdell

When I wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times in 2007 about how I lost my faith reporting on religion in America, I prepared for an avalanche of criticism. I was sure I’d be branded a tool of Satan or worse.

As any religion writer will tell you, reporters on the faith beat get the nastiest hate mail and phone calls in the newsroom. In my eight years reporting on religion for The Times, I had people of God cuss me out, threaten me, put up a creepy website designed to “bring Lobdell down,” and predict with a great deal of satisfaction that I would spend eternity in hell.

When my essay was published, I was right about one thing: the response was huge. People read about my 20-year journey from evangelical Christian to reluctant atheist and sent e-mails in record numbers to the paper and to me. I personally received nearly 3,000 messages—a record for a single story at The Times. But here’s what I didn’t expect. The vast majority of them—I’m talking 99 percent—were supportive in their own way.

Some Christians tried to reconvert me, sending me books, tapes, videos and testimonies that formed a small mountain on my desk. Others readers suggested I try their faith, claiming I’d find spiritual peace as a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Unitarian, Jehovah’s Witness, and Mormon. The atheists welcomed me into the fold (though some pointed out that it took me an awful long time to get to the obvious truth).

But most readers simply thanked me for honestly expressing my doubts about faith and revealing how tortured and helpless I felt as I lost my once-firm grip on Christianity. Many had privately wrestled with their own demons before keeping or leaving their faith. But they all said talking openly about doubt was discouraged—at their place of worship and their home. Several e-mails came from pastors who no longer believed in God but felt they couldn’t tell a soul. Another arrived from deep inside the Vatican. All said they felt like outcasts with no place to turn.

It reminded me of Mother Teresa, one of the most revered religious persons of our time. She symbolized for millions the beauty of Christian devotion, sacrifice, holiness and works. But she suffered excruciating doubt. Recently published letters in Come By My Light reveal that she felt absent from God for the last 50 years of her life.

Frustrated, ashamed, and sometimes in doubt about God’s existence, Mother Teresa kept her spiritual crisis a secret from everyone but a few spiritual mentors.

“Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead,” she wrote in 1953.

“Jesus has a very special love for you,” she assured one mentor in 1979. “[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.”

If Mother Teresa doubted God’s existence for five decades, imagine how many people of all faiths secretly harbor doubts about their religion. Several recent studies have shown that there’s little difference in the moral behavior of evangelical Christians and atheists. I’d argue that’s because both groups don’t really believe, deep down, that God is real.

So it’s time for religious doubt to come out of the closet and be dealt openly and thoughtfully. I was honored (and a little surprised) that Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena made my essay required reading for faculty and students. Seminary leaders wanted to address the issue of doubt head-on, which is the healthy course to take. If Christianity is true, its teachers can dispel just about any doubt.

I have a different theory. I think there are so many closet doubters because people sense there’s no God who personally intervenes in their lives. But they can’t take the final step toward deism, agnosticism or atheism because the religious ties that bind us are thick. I know. I was a closet atheist for four years.

Optimistic Christians ask me if the outpouring of concern, love and support after my original essay was published restored my faith in religion. It didn’t. But it did give me a new appreciation of humanity. Most of us are doubters to one degree or another. And there’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone.


John W. Loftus said...

I reviewed his book and recommended it highly.

PersonalFailure said...

Wow. Mother Theresa? So she was just doing all that stuff because she wanted to? She was even more amazing than I thought.

I, too, struggled to maintain a faith that was dead. I wanted to believe that something, somewhere loved me and watched over me and cared, even as I saw more evidence every day that that simply wasn't true.

I suspect that many whom we think of, and think of themselves, as religious also harbor doubts. In fact, I suspect that many of the most outwardly fanatical have the strongest doubts.

I salute those with the courage to publicly identify themselves as atheists. Hopefully it helps those struggling to know they are not alone. (As I hide behind a screen name, I don't count myself among them.)

Piero said...

PersonalFailure, maybe you should read "The Missionary Position". Or watch Hitchens's videos (YouTube) on Mother Teresa. She was indeed amazing, but probably not in the sense you meant.

MKV said...

Is there an internet link to this essay? If so, could someone please post the link. I want to read this article. If it is good, maybe I will check out the book.

webmdave said...

Here's the link to his original essay: LINK

Jason Pratt said...

JD Walters has begun discussing this guest post at this entry on the Christian Cadre.

In relation to my own comment on that post, would Mr. Lobdell clarify which kinds of shared moral behavior he would argue from, that both groups deep down don't really believe that God is real?

For example, is he explaining our common propensity to give charitably to the needy, and to love our enemies, and to protect the helpless, and to be faithful in our relationships, etc.? Or is he explaining our common propensity to exploit the needy, deride our enemies, ignore the helpless, and be treacherous in our relationships, etc.? Which kind of shared moral behaviors leads him to argue that those who share those moral behaviors ultimately disbelieve in God? (Or does he have a third category of moral behaviors in mind represented by a categorically different kind of list?)

Alternately, which kind of shared moral behaviors would other atheists expect Mr. Lobdell to be talking about? (Or, if you happen to know which kind he's talking about, but disagree with him as to the kind that would count as evidence for his position, which kind of shared moral behaviors, if any, would you find to weigh more instead, toward an expectation that those who share in doing that kind of moral behavior disbelieve in God deep down?)


Doug said...

I'm sympathizing with Jason in that it's presumptuous to think that any shared moral behaviors are indicative that there is no God. You could just as easily assert (with just as much information that Lodell gives) that shared moral behaviors suggest that there is a God.

Another equally presumptuous statement he gives: "If Christianity is true, its teachers can dispel just about any doubt." Why wouldn't the same hold true for atheism or any other religion? Secretly harboring doubts that God exists is really no different than secretly harboring a desire to make a connection with whatever or whomever created the universe. I can't see that either of these doubting-type activities corners the doubters' market!

But I do completely and totally agree with Lobdell's statement that doubt should come out of the closet and be dealt with openly and thoughfully. Otherwise we're just talking straight past each other as I see happening in discussions like this.

feeno said...

Piero, Are you maybe AKA Massimo?

I know you are very intelligent I've read some of your stuff over there.

I've also read some of Hitchens' stuff. And if you believe that you'd believe just about anything.

So Mother Teresa Didn't care about the sick, dying or hurting she was just a secret agent for the Catholic church out to convert the world to Catholicism. If you knew anything about Mother Teresa you'd know the only criteria for her love was to be in need.

Yes, she may of had doubts, but if we are gonna be honest on this site we all have doubts. Me as a Christian and many of you Atheists.
Or am I wrong sir, don't you have any doubts about there might just be a God?

Mother Teresa doesn't need me to defend her life. Although I quote her very often, what she did speaks for itself. However from the writings I have on her everything she did was to become more like Jesus. Matter of fact on her death bed it has been reported her last words were" Jesus I see, Jesus I see."

Sorry if I got a little off topic.

Peace out, feeno

Russ said...

Mr. Lobdell said,

"Several recent studies have shown that there’s little difference in the moral behavior of evangelical Christians and atheists. I’d argue that’s because both groups don’t really believe, deep down, that God is real.

I think there are many good reasons to construe that "both groups don’t really believe, deep down, that God is real," but the "little difference in the moral behavior of evangelical Christians and atheists" is better explained by appealing to their common evolved moral sense.

Atheists and evangelicals conduct themselves similarly in similar situations because they share an evolved suite of behavioral and emotional responses to their understanding of the likely consequences of their own and other's behaviors.

Saying "there’s little difference in the moral behavior of evangelical Christians and atheists" suggests that concerning love, kindness, compassion, caring, generosity, thoughtfulness, courage, and honesty, among other virtues, there is essentially nothing to recommend one of the groups over the other. We can chuckle a bit that this observation directly refutes the evangelical's frequent claim that they are morally superior, not only to we atheists, but to everyone else, including other Christians. But, we can laugh out loud that any such findings will leave the evangelical's self-perception of being morally superior unaffected.

Piero said...

Sorry, Feeno, I'm not Massimo. Concerning Mother Teresa, I stand by what I said. That's a subject for a different discussion, but you can see how different and how much more honest Lobdell's reaction to doubt was.