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.

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • terrence

    Last four paragraphs are beautifully succinct — I would have added “Either God is the source of morality, or He works in mysterious ways, but both can’t be true at the same time.”

  • J

    or He works in mysterious ways

    Right on. It’s also worth pointing out that the oft-invoked words “God works in mysterious ways” do not exist in the Bible in any formulation: They’re purely “apocryphal”. The liberal religious author Gregg Easterbrook wrote that it probably grew out of the sociology of pastoral counseling; needing something convincing to say to people who had, say, just lost a child or been diagnosed with cnacer, hospital chaplains came up with the comforting but essentially made-up, “God works in mysterious ways.”

  • http://none John Nernoff III M.D.

    There’s no “He” up there. There’s no human floating sky being. There’s no bearded old man that looks “down” from heaven. These are just childish dreams that somehow persist in the minds of many adults because they are afraid of being alone in the universe.

    Humans evolved out of the long distant slime some 100,000 years ago. The earth formed 5 billion years ago, making human existence a tiny fraction of the time of the creation, and even more remote from the Big Bang which started it all. To hold that any humanoid deity was somehow responsible for any of this is to commit a huge error of absurd disjunction.

  • John P

    Typical selection bias. The good stuff gets credited to god, the bad to his minions. Will it ever end?

  • MJJP

    As a relative newcomer to this cite I have to tell you how impressed
    I am at the articles and how they are written. Keep up the good work.

  • Greta Christina


    I’d also add that there’s another serious problem with “Keep your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar” — the degree to which, when there isn’t currently a scandal brewing, the priests behind the altar are presented as necessary to the faith.

    That’s especially true in the Catholic Church, where priests are seen as a necessary pathway to salvation and God (through baptism, absolution, last rites, etc.). But as you wrote about yourself in your piece Know-Nothings, even in other religions the leaders are seen as a necessary source of “information” and “knowledge” about God and heaven and hell and the soul.

    But you don’t get to say that the priests are a necessary and valid authority on spiritual matters… and then say they should be ignored when they’re caught stealing or molesting or just screwing around.

  • andrea

    Christianity always depends on the assumption that God is somehow above his “followers” to keep any validity to the faith. However, that limits the choices of what’s “really” going on to three choices:

    1. God accepts the actions of his followers and they are A-OK. Negates the idea of a “good” deity.
    2. God doesn’t care. Also negates the idea of a “good” deity.
    3. God doesn’t exist.

  • Albert F. Maas

    ” god works in mysterious ways”. Sounds like the majority of clerics and preists. It is a mystery if they do any work at all! Why don’t they get a real job?

  • D. Krueger

    One comment in this series says that the phrase “God’s mysterious ways” is purely apocryphal. For the sake of accuracy it needs to be noted that in the Bible New Testament, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 4, verse 1, the specific term “the mysteries of God” is used. The concept has been a part of the Christian tradition since earliest times. It is a way of saying that humans simply do not grasp all things, including the concept of God, and need to have minds open to many possibilities. One of those possibilities is that there is no god.