Nothing Behind the Altar

Last month, the Los Angeles Times published a story titled “Religion beat became a test of faith“. The author, William Lobdell, described himself as a “serious Christian” – raised Episcopal, later a born-again evangelical, still later a convert to Roman Catholicism at his wife’s urging – who believed it was God’s plan to use him to write stories that would portray faith as respectable and serious.

Lobdell’s unquestioning faith in the Church first began to waver in 2001, when he covered the story of Michael Harris, principal of a Catholic high school. When Harris was accused of sexual molestation by multiple former students in the 1990s, the Catholic hierarchy protected him: allowing him to take a leave of absence and later resign from his job to attend psychological treatment, without telling the community the true reason for his departure. When the accusations first became public, church lawyers viciously lashed out at the alleged victims, while members of the church hierarchy seemingly showed sympathy only for Harris. Lobdell’s faith was shaken, and as he said:

I latched onto the explanation that was least damaging to my belief in the Catholic Church — that this was an isolated case of a morally corrupt administration.

And I was comforted by the advice of a Catholic friend: “Keep your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar.”

But this was only the first blow to Lobdell’s faith, and more would follow. In Salt Lake City, he learned how ex-Mormons were ostracized and cut off from contact with their communities, often their own families. In 2002, as the Catholic sex scandal spread, he learned to his dismay and revulsion just how pervasive the problem was, and to what lengths bishops and even parishioners had often gone to defend those accused of molestation. He investigated the teachings of the “prosperity gospel” and became enraged at the wealthy preachers who were deceiving the poor and the desperate with false promises of miracles. And why, he wondered, was God not healing those poor, trusting souls? Why did he permit the good to suffer so terribly?

As the darkness of doubt closed around him, Lobdell e-mailed his former pastor in search of answers. He received only the usual canned reply: we cannot understand God’s ways and we must trust blindly.

It was no longer enough.

And I considered another possibility: Maybe God didn’t exist.

…My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. It can’t be willed into existence. And there’s no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.

Sitting in a park across the street from the courthouse, I called my wife on a cellphone. I told her I was putting in for a new beat at the paper.

Today, Lobdell describes himself as “an agnostic, leaning toward atheism”. Interestingly, he noted in an online chat with readers that his wife is no longer a Catholic either. (He also noted that “I traditionally never got more vicious hate mail than from people of the faith… This is a phenomeon attested to by religion writers across the country”). Though he does not consider himself an evangelical atheist, and says he still understands the comfort that faith can give, this is the position to which reason, and honesty to himself, have inevitably led him.

In stories of this nature, there’s an oft-heard apologetic that I’d like to debunk. Consider again the comment by Lobdell’s Catholic friend: “Keep your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar.” When former theists cite the corruption and prejudice so common among churches as a reason for their loss of faith, believers often reply that people are fallible but God is not, and that we should not judge God by the words or actions of human beings who claim to speak for him.

There’s just one problem with this defense: Where is there any evidence that there is a god whose thoughts and desires differ from those of the human beings who act as his representatives?

After all, every act that has ever been done in the name of faith was done by a human being. Every church, every denomination is a gathering of human beings. Every prayer, every homily, every sermon was written and delivered by a human. Every allegedly inspired text was written by humans, transcribed by humans, handed down by humans. Every cathedral cornerstone was laid by human hands. Every holy war, every battle ever fought over interpretation and dogma, was fought by humans, on behalf of humans. Search high and low, travel as far back into history as you like, and you will never find evidence of any source anywhere in any religion that is not, ultimately, a human source.

Religion has brought about both great good and great evil in this world, and the evils it has caused should not be blamed on God. But neither should the good be credited to him either, and for the very same reason: because there is no evidence of any god who deserves either praise or blame. In fact, there is no evidence of any god who has done anything at all. There are only human beings, some doing good, some doing evil. Pull back the curtains behind that altar, and you will find no gods, no angels – nothing except a blank wall.

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