Losing Religion on the Religion Beat: A Review of William Lobdell's book, Losing My Religion

My review follows:

William Lobdell’s new book, Losing My Religion, is a page turner from start to finish. As a former religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times he knows how to write in ways that make us feel and think what he does, every step along the way.

Previously I had said Joe Holman’s book, Project Bible Truth, was the most extensive deconversion story I had ever read. But now I must say Lobdell’s book is the most extensive one.

Lobdell’s book does not focus on the arguments against Christianity, like Holman does, although they are there. Rather he takes us on a journey from his evangelical faith to almost becoming a Catholic to what he describes as a “reluctant atheist” or “skeptical deist.”

Lobdell lost his religion on the religion beat: “Like a homicide detective, I had seen too much.” (p. 253). At first he liked his job and it didn’t affect his faith at all. But his doubt started when covering the scandal of Catholic priest molestations and interviewing the victims who were lied to and ignored by the church. For him the most egregious problem wasn’t necessarily the molestations and the ignored children sired from the affairs the priests had with women, although that was bad enough. No. It was the cover-up that the well-organized Catholic Church had for defending them. He just couldn’t understand, nor should anyone for that matter, why the church hierarchy didn’t do as Jesus wanted them to do in upholding the dignity and rights of the downtrodden and the abused. According to him, “the real story wasn’t about the molester priests, but rather the bishops who covered up for them and caused thousands of additional children to be sodomized, orally copulated, raped and masturbated.” (p. 142).

One missionary priest at St. Michael Island, Alaska, “raped an entire generation of Alaska Native boys.” (p. 215) “Though the Jesuits deny it,” Lobdell writes, “there’s evidence to suggest that the villages of western Alaska served as a dumping ground for molesting priests.” (p. 228) Lobdell called this a “pedophile’s paradise.”

As he reported on these abuses he was preparing to become a Catholic himself, and we see him struggle with this decision as he covers the story. Two weeks before doing so he couldn’t go through it. In his words: “Converting to Catholicism during the height of a horrific scandal felt like an endorsement of the establishment,” (p. 158) something he just couldn’t do.

He described going to a “survivor’s meeting” and concurs with Thomas Doyle, a leading advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse, that molesting priests and their superiors were committing “soul murder.” (p. 105) As he recounts it, the church “acted more like Mafia bosses than shepherds.” (p. 119). And he asked himself this question: “If an institution is corrupt, does that have any bearing on God?” (p. 135). He thinks it does. In fact, he started to see that “religious institutions are MORE susceptible to corruption than their secular counterparts because of their reliance on God, and not human checks and balances, for governance.” (p. 161)

Lobdell covered stories about the Mormons and their lifestyle, which were “mesmerizing.” (p. 122), although their beliefs were “nutty.” (p. 124). He recounted their strange beliefs, despite the fact that scientific evidence from DNA shows us “descendants of American Indians came from Asia, not the Middle East.” (p. 280) And he asks: “what’s so strange about Mormonism compared to traditional Christianity?” (p. 126). He himself didn’t see the disconnect at this stage in his faith journey, but he said, “I just happened to have grown up with the stories of the Bible. I was more used to them.” (p. 127) Indeed, that's the only difference.

Lobdell covered some evangelical TV Evangelist scandals, like Robert Tilton, whose ministry placed the donation checks in one pile and the prayer requests in the dumpster; and Benny Hinn, who raised funds for an alleged $30 million healing center in Dallas, Texas, which was never built; and Trinity Broadcasting Network founders Paul and Jan Crouch, who covered up Paul's homosexual tryst, and Paul's forcing a woman to have sex with him. (pp. 173-197). Lobdell asked himself why his faith “had so few people of principle.” (p. 187).

Lobdell reveals the mental gymnastics of believers in defending their faith and institutions when criticized. After he wrote about TV evangelist Robert Tilton’s financial abuses Tilton subsequently used this criticism by claiming he must be doing something right because Satan (i.e. Lobdell) was attacking him, and donations kept coming in. When a Catholic priest resigned after admitting he had “inappropriate contact” with a child 19 years previously, some parishioners suggested naming the new church wing after him for his years of service in the 19 years since then, failing to realize that pedophiles will only admit to the evil deeds they were forced to admit. Pedophiles usually have many more victims, as Lobdell told them. When the DNA evidence showed the Mormon faith was false, the defenders went on the attack against science and him.

After coming out of the closet in a personal piece written by him detailing his deconversion, one criticism levelled at him was that he only had “witnessed the sinfulness of man and mistakenly mixed that up with a perfect God.” Lobdell writes, "I understand that argument but I don’t buy it. If the Lord is real, it would make sense for the people of God, on average, to be superior morally and ethically to the rest of society. Statistically, they aren’t. I also believe that God’s institutions, on average, should function on a higher moral plain than government or corporations. I don’t see any evidence of this. It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists.” (p. 271).

We see Lobdell struggling, really struggling, to maintain his faith in the midst of his reporting. He attended a weekend retreat. He had an email exchange with a good friend and pastor. He looked into studies of prayer to find evidence that prayer works. He did a study to find if believers are any better morally than non-believers. All to no avail.

This is a very good book written by a credible person. While I doubt believers entrenched in their faith will be caused to lose their religion from reading it, Lobdell still stands as a credible witness against religion and the mental gymnastics of believers who simply choose to believe against the evidence.


strangebrew said...

Although it is to Mr Lobdell's credit that he finally admitted to himself that it was a no go...it is sad that it was not the actual premise of a god...but the activities of church and church officials that convinced him it was a bogus idea.

jUUggernaut said...

I had heard William Lobdell first on a podcast by FFRF ( http://www.ffrf.org/radio/podcast/archives/2007.php )
He comes across as a very sincere and thoughtful person without a hint of arrogance.
Deconversions are truly interesting but arguments rarely seem to be what cuts someone loose from a belief tradition.

Lobdell's case (which seems more argument driven to me) may be an oddity because as a journalist he came equipped with much better critical thinking and research skills (and access to closely held information!) than most people.

It makes a big difference whether a person experiences life 'casually' or goes about important subjects systematically as a paid, full time investigator. The casual style is characterized by our tendency to count hits and ignore or forget misses.

I'd speculate that regular folks are more likely to lose their religion through watershed events, such as loss, rejection, or sometimes insight.

As an atheist I attend a wonderful Unitarian Universalist church where a great many people have joined after experiencing bigotry and rejection in the churches of their (arbitrary) upbringing: a fairly recent member used to be a fervent Catholic but when his parish gave him to understand that his severely disabled daughter was not welcome he left, and shed it all. She is welcome with us. Same for several gays and lesbians. And those who have simply resolved the question of why innocent people suffer by answering that before they believe in sadistic god they'd rather deny the existence of a loving god because one with such characteristics appears powerless and hence imaginary.

akakiwibear said...

“He just couldn’t understand, nor should anyone for that matter, why the church hierarchy didn’t do as Jesus wanted them to do in upholding the dignity and rights of the downtrodden and the abused”

The church did not do what was right because it was corrupt! Plain simple human corruption! What the Church did was totally unacceptable and I can understand why Lobdell might not want to join such a faith community.

However, as John quotes Lobdell became disillusioned when his expectation that on average Christians (individuals & institutions) should function on a higher moral plain than others were not met.He says “It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists”

… and that to anyone (Christian or atheist) reading this is the real challenge of their lives – to live Christ’s teaching on a daily basis.

Now for the tough one – if anyone gets it right should we be able to distinguish them from the population in general by their conduct? Hell yes!
They will at the least treat the needs of others as their own – and that should really stand out. Christ’s teaching is not merely a call to a ‘do no harm’ life but one of actively doing good. By this test there are very few people out there who really live by Christ’s teaching.

So has Lobdell judged Christians by those few who actually practice the teachings of Christ in their daily lives – or by those who try to or who falsely claim to?

If the latter – and lets face it, it has to be the others are so hard to find – then why should we expect that the average “Christian” we encounter should be of above average morality? We should not! Christianity is the refuge of the “lost souls” – Christ came to save sinners … so I would expect to find a lot of sinners in the Christian community – in fact I would expect to find an above average count of those with moral issues.

So what we should expect of Christian communities is a collection of people of at best average morality, more likely a majority who recognise their moral issues and are trying to overcome them – and yes here and there we will find some really good people helping the others.

Sala kahle - peace

akakiwibear said...

A 'P.S.' to my last comment – Lobdell’s observations of Christians would have been similar to Christ’s view of the Jews of his time – some got God’s message and lived good lives, others did not.

jUUggernaut raises an interesting point – do you have to be a Christian to live Christ’s teachings – obviously not … indeed Christ’s message was one of how to live life rather than adhering to religious practices. Certainly Christ teaches that the anyone who lives a life according to his teaching (love your neighbour etc) is more likely to get to heaven than those who proclaim “Lord, Lord” and go about their immoral ways.

Sala kahle - peace

strangebrew said...

'Certainly Christ teaches that the anyone who lives a life according to his teaching (love your neighbour etc) is more likely to get to heaven than those who proclaim “Lord, Lord” and go about their immoral ways.'

I agree with you totally on that point..thing is your run of the mill committed Christian would rather cut his own head off then admit that point...they find it an anathema to what is actually taught in the pulpit...again the blind leading the deluded always ends badly!

But the deluded do not give a fig as long as they retain control..to that end fear is a great tool...the RC's do that one to a tee...
And it seems endemic in the West...and probably the East as well that the faithful are actively encouraged not to engage with atheists....instead horror stories are related by the deluded to the blind to circumvent that meeting of minds...so character assassination by the professionals atheists are honored...and simply because atheism tends to serve the ideals of Christ far better then his followers can manage!...and the deluded know that deep down!