Book Review: Losing My Religion

Summary: A hard-hitting and emotionally moving story of a religion reporter’s deconversion, despite a few lingering blind spots.

Losing My Religion is the autobiography of William Lobdell, the religion reporter turned atheist whom I wrote about in 2007. I briefly mentioned the outline of his story in my previous post, but this book is a much more in-depth account of how he found, and then ultimately lost, his faith. Despite some significant weaknesses, which I’ll get to, it’s a powerful, honest story and definitely worth the time to read.

When Lobdell opens the story, his life was at a low point. By age 28, he was divorced and remarried, his career at a local magazine had stalled, he was in bad health and drinking too much, and he and his new wife were having a son whom he felt completely unprepared to parent. When he confessed his troubles to a colleague who told him, “You need God,” he was willing to try anything that promised to change his situation for the better. (He wryly confesses that if his colleague had said, “You need crack cocaine,” he’d probably have tried that too [p.4]).

He joined a nondenominational church, Mariners, near his home in Newport Beach. At first uncertain, he slowly warmed to its message of “unconditional love”, which he “eagerly lapped up” [p.12]. But more important was his friendship with the right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, who persuaded him to attend an evangelical men’s retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. Lobdell initially resisted, mortified by the thought of sharing teary confessionals with complete strangers, but the exhausting schedule of singing, preaching, work and testimonials gradually wore down his defenses (as, he rightly notes, it’s designed to do), and the weekend ended with him unexpectedly having a born-again experience:

When I repeated the line “I invite Jesus into my heart,” I experienced what I can only call a vision. Time slowed. In my mind’s eye, my heart opened into halves, and a warm, glowing light flowed right in… I felt instantly the light was Jesus, who now lived inside me. A tingling warmth spread across my chest. This, I thought – no, I knew – was what it meant to be born-again. [p.22]

With his conversion and newfound sense of purpose in life, both his career and his marriage improved. When he landed a coveted job on the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times, he took this as a sign that God was guiding him, and believed that he’d found his calling: using his journalistic talents to tell stories of how God worked in the lives of the faithful, the kind of story he felt was routinely overlooked in the media.

Lobdell’s career was thriving, but he was growing disenchanted with the simplistic theology of Mariners. His wife had been raised Roman Catholic and wanted to rejoin the church, and he found himself drawn to Catholicism’s long history and complex liturgy. But fate intervened dramatically: just as he was on the verge of converting, the Catholic child-rape scandal began to break in a big way. Lobdell himself reported on one of the earliest cases, Monsignor Michael Harris, who was so photogenic and beloved in his community that he was referred to as “Father Hollywood” – until the diocese reached an embarrassingly public settlement with a young man who claimed that Harris had molested him. At first, Lobdell dismissed it as an isolated case, but as more and more similar cases broke nationwide, and as he attended survivors’ meetings and witnessed for himself how the church treated abuse victims, his mind was changed:

I discovered that as horrific as the abuse was, most survivors experienced the most lasting damage from church leaders whom they approached for help. Instead of receiving protection and justice, these children and their parents were vilified for coming forward, called liars or accused of being bad Catholics for trying to bring scandal upon the church. The victims and their families were routinely told that they were the first to complain about a priest’s behavior, though it often wasn’t true. [p.102]

At the very last minute, Lobdell decided not to convert to Catholicism after all. Doubt was whispering at the edges of his mind, but he tried to suppress it. Disillusioned by Catholicism, but still a theist, he decided he had a new mission: he would “rebuild the church”, finding and exposing the hypocrites who claimed to speak in God’s name, and cleanse the institution of Christianity of these evils so that it would emerge stronger.

Now that he was looking for it, he found that Christianity was rife with corruption – faith-healing con men, powerful pastors who were blatant hypocrites, televangelists who lived lavishly off their followers’ donations. But the more exposés he reported, the more discouraged he got. He found that most believers didn’t want to hear bad news; their usual reaction was to cling even more tightly to whoever was scamming them. The preachers he exposed, meanwhile, denounced him and used his name in fundraising appeals. And it wasn’t just him: in one story he tells, a young evangelical named Jen Hubbard tried to blow the whistle on fishy expenditures by the apologist Hank Hanegraaff, who used followers’ donations on sports cars and country club dues, only to end up fired from her job and shunned by the Christian community [p.72].

Under the pressure of these contradictions, the proof that Christians lived no more morally than everyone else, and growing fissures of doubt about the irreconcilable contradictions of faith, Lobdell’s religious beliefs finally collapsed. “[A]s deeply as I missed my faith, as hard as I tried to keep it, my head could not command my gut… I just didn’t believe in God anymore” [p.244]. In a moving epilogue, he writes of the profound relief he’s experienced, the liberating feeling of freedom and the “tremendous sense of gratitude” [p.278] he now feels at being alive. (He’s since written to tell Christians to stop trying to reconvert him.)

That’s the summary, and I hope it shows what I liked best about the book: a painfully honest deconversion story, interwoven with devastating first-hand reporting about the Catholic child molestation scandal, as well as some hard-hitting takedowns of other Christian preachers. Lobdell chronicles both how he came to faith and how he ultimately left it in detail, with a reporter’s practiced eye and an undeniable, disarming sincerity.

That said, there were a few passages in the book that irked me. One was his treatment of Rick Warren, whom he’s met in person and whom he describes as a warm, friendly and genuinely sincere person who remains “grounded” [p.71] “different from most” Christian leaders and “careful to keep clear of controversy” [p.70]. This is the same Rick Warren who’s rabidly anti-choice, anti-gay and doesn’t think an atheist is qualified to be president. He even refused to denounce a Ugandan law, sponsored by one of his proteges, that would put gay people to death, relenting and offering a grudging condemnation only after an onslaught of bad press.

Second: I’m not sure Lobdell fully realizes the extent to which his former religious beliefs affected his coverage. He says that “My only agenda was to make religion as fascinating to others as it was to me… I didn’t think my role was to promote the faith” [p.46]. But some of his old stories which he quotes with pride – including one in particular about an investment manager who says he uses the Bible as his financial guide – sound like they could have come from a Christian apologetics pamphlet. He writes that he still believes there’s a “liberal slant” in the media, a long-debunked trope, but doesn’t seem to notice how his own beliefs shaped the tone of his writing.

Third, and the one that piqued me the most: Lobdell has scornful words for the New Atheists, saying things like, “I am not as confident in my disbelief as [Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens] are. Their disbelief has a religious quality to it that I’m not ready to take on” [p.271].

This tiresome, patronizing rhetoric is especially strange because, from reading the book, it’s clear that he agrees with every argument they make: the moral culpability of an all-powerful god who permits evil, the way believers rationalize the failure of prayer as God’s ineffable will, the abundant harm caused by religious beliefs which Lobdell himself has exhaustively chronicled. But even though there’s nothing he disagrees with the New Atheists about, he still doesn’t feel as comfortable as they do saying so in public. I think this is a remnant of his past theism: the idea that religious beliefs deserve “respect” even when they’re patently false and harmful. But despite this lingering blind spot, Losing My Religion was a hard-hitting and emotionally moving story, and well worth my recommendation and endorsement.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Charles Black

    Rick Warren is a disgusting lying snake Ebon, I hope you don’t fall for his lies that he doesn’t think gay people should be killed.
    Otherwise it’s quite a moving review of how disorienting it can be to leave a worldview that was held since childhood.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    I’m really glad I read this review before buying the book. While some of it does indeed sound interesting, those who keep trotting out this same tired criticism of the so-called new atheists lose whatever credibility they might have had. The quote you provided suggests that Lobdell either does not understand the meaning of atheism or has not read the authors he criticizes for making it into a religion.

  • http://generalsystemsvehicle.blogspot.com Mandrellian

    +1, vjack.

    Ebon’s of course correct: it’s not the ‘strength’ of their disbelief or the quality of their arguments that makes “new” atheists new at all, just their willingness not to coddle or compromise about any of it. It’s a shame that this writer & so many other atheists, who agree with the NAs on practically everything, still don’t get that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/byroniac Byroniac

    I bought this book for the Kindle and I agree with your criticisms. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I am a recent “deconvert” myself, and I believe this book is worth reading, despite the minor flaws. And oh, by the way, I cannot stand or trust Rick Warren, and could not even back when I was a believer. There is something about him that just cries out “snake oil” to me.

  • Brock

    I read the book and had substantially the same concerns that Ebon has expressed. For me, it was a valuable read, because it paralleled a lot of the process I went through.

  • Sus

    Hebrews 6:4: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.

    “Unconditional love”, except that one condition… I commend the author for finding his own way through his near-faith experience, but sometimes I wonder why any of them bother being born-again? You’ve already committed an eternal sin by denying the Holy Spirit. Might as well take up Satanism.

    It almost makes me think the anti-theist movement would be strengthened by bringing that little gem to the theist communities attention. “You doubt, you burn.” Not catchy, but poignant.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Thanks for this review. I read Lobdell’s book a couple of years ago and, speaking as one who de-converted in middle age, I saw a lot of myself in his story.

    Like you and other comment writers, I’m disappointed that Lobdell is so antagonistic towards the “New Atheists.” I don’t agree with everything they say, and sometimes they say things rather clumsily, but I still applaud their willingness to say it loudly, clearly and repeatedly. Their books and articles – along with many blogs, including yours – gave me much food for thought as I worked through my own doubts, then accepted and, over time, got comfortable with my own unbelief.

  • jane hay

    “a remnant of his past theism: the idea that religious beliefs deserve “respect” even when they’re patently false and harmful. ”
    My husband and I recently had an experience with that. We attended a dinner to plan for his 50th high school reunion – to take place next year – and it was suggested that there be some sort of memorial for those class members who had passed away. We discovered that several of the “born again” members had decided unilaterally that they wanted to invite some evangelical preacher acquaintance as part of the program – this parson was not our age, was not related to any of the class members, did not know any of the deceased, and I figured would probably go on about Jeebus for who knows how long. Several of us non-believers raised mild objections, to which someone voiced the opinion that we were “not being respectful/reverent”, and what was our problem? At that point, when, I suppose, the local Xtian contingent is used to everyone backing down and assuming a placating position, we all upped the ante and said that neither the six of us nor another classmate and his wife who could not attend the dinner would come to the reunion if they insisted on inflicting this on us. They were quite taken aback. The town is a small one, and the county is overwhelmingly rural, and I guess they had never had this happen before. More negotiating took place, with, I hope, the preacher idea quashed, and a “moment of silence” and maybe telling anecdotes about the departed substituted. With the ever-growing number of non-mainstream churches and the spread of the evangelical mindset, we encounter more of this every day in Ky. Formerly secular events are hijacked and turned into opportunities to pray, evangelize, etc.
    I’m with the New Atheists. It’s time to start fighting back.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    @Mandrellian:

    It’s a shame that this writer & so many other atheists, who agree with the NAs on practically everything, still don’t get that.

    It is unfortunate, and inexplicable to boot. For some reason, even after all the other trappings of religion have faded, some people retain the urge to say things like, “I’m an atheist, but I’m not one of those atheists.” Whether Lobdell realizes it or not, it’s sentiments like those that perpetuate and reinforce the cultural prejudices against atheists.

    @jane hay:

    Several of us non-believers raised mild objections, to which someone voiced the opinion that we were “not being respectful/reverent”, and what was our problem? At that point, when, I suppose, the local Xtian contingent is used to everyone backing down and assuming a placating position, we all upped the ante and said that neither the six of us nor another classmate and his wife who could not attend the dinner would come to the reunion if they insisted on inflicting this on us. They were quite taken aback.

    Bravo, Jane! That was beautifully done. Being visible and standing up for yourself the way you did is by far the most important thing an atheist can do. Bullying, intrusive religionists like your classmates impose their beliefs on others because of a false assumption that everyone else feels the same way (which is exactly what unfortunate comments like Lobdell’s reinforce). When we make our dissent known, it punctures that illusion of consensus and makes it much easier for atheists to take our place at the table as equals.

  • http://blog.oldnewatheist.com/ jim coufal

    All NAs don’t have to come out at the scale of Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. I’m not trying to blow my own horn, but offer myself as an example. As a reasonably well known member of the local Catholic community, I de-converted several years ago. I write a column for the County weekly newspaper and am outspoken about atheism, humanism, secularism, and religion in general. Today, I ran into an aquaintenance and she said she had been expecting to see a letter from me about the religious poster the Village Board had allowed on Village property. It wasn’t only that she expected it, she welcomed it. She is a Presbyterian. I frequently get similar reactions and I think I have become the local NAs.
    I often get supportive comments from other atheists, but the problem is they talk to me but don’t come out otherwise.

  • karen

    I’m a journalist who formerly worked at some of the same papers where Lobdell did. We never worked together directly but I knew of him back in the day and have followed his career.

    So I was thrilled to read his coverage unmasking the fraud going on in religious ministries and eagerly followed his deconversion story. I even went to a book signing and heard him speak about his experiences in person. As a middle-aged deconvert myself, I completely related to and admired him and his book.

    However, in the past few years, Bill has made some decidedly odd career moves. He got involved with a conman-turned-preacher whose trial I covered in the 1980s. How he could not see that this guy, Barry Minkow, was still a fraud is beyond me.

    Then earlier this year, he was hired by the city of Costa Mesa to be their spokesman. The city has made national headlines when it was taken over by hardline Tea Partiers who are trying their cost-cutting experiments on a small scale. They have laid off many, many longtime city employees, including one janitor who jumped to his death from the roof of city hall after he got a pink slip.

    I don’t know where Lobdell is headed at this point, but I have to wonder given the turns his life has taken recently.

  • Eurekus

    Judging from the review, it’s obvious William Lobdell is still under the influence of religion and probably will be for a while yet. I’m looking forward to read the book as it seems he is fighting the same demons as me. Ebon, I don’t know whether or not you know the man, but an invitation to join DA will help him the same way it helps other ex-theists. In my experience, there’s nothing more helpful than the reality of DA to cleanse the mind.

  • Charles Black

    I always find that Christians tend to be the worst bullies on this planet with the Muslims second.
    The only reason they have so much power is because they always bully people into accepting their beliefs, which is one of the main reasons why I don’t subscribe to religion.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X