Book Review: Losing My Religion

Book Review: Losing My Religion June 27, 2011

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.

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