Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace - William Lobdell I am an atheist.

I figured I would throw that into the ring the first thing so that people reading this review would know exactly the perspective from which I’m writing. For the first 10 years of my life, I had only a passing acquaintance with religion at all. After my parents divorced, my mother began attending church again (St. Robert’s (Catholic) in St. Charles, MO, or – after it was built – St. Elizabeth’s in St. Peters on occasion). Even then, I was never under any serious pressure to believe. I guess mom felt that religion classes on Wednesday and church on Sunday would inculcate faith without any effort on her part. And she was right to an extent. Up through high school, I accepted what I was taught without much thought. Toward the end of high school and the beginning of college (where I was taking a number of religious-history courses), I began to lose that façade of belief. Until recently, however, I remained an agnostic. It’s in the last five years or so that I’ve dived off the fence and plunged whole-heartedly into depraved godlessness.^

I have my father to thank for not indoctrinating me in any particular faith. He was and remains largely religion free. (Though he attends church with my stepmother, I think it’s more for the social camaraderie than for the dogma. He’s an avid reader of books exploring the contradictions of faith and the events that may have shaped Biblical writings – some of those tomes supplied by me.) It was not always so. When he left high school he entered seminary to become a priest. To this day, he doesn’t discuss why he left after a year and returned home. Considering the nature of the scandals that have plagued the Church in the last few years, it’s easy to imagine what he may have heard, seen or endured to make him leave. On the other hand, my father is not one to pursue a fruitless course. It’s more likely – in his case – that he realized the priesthood was not for him, left seminary as soon as possible, and didn’t discuss it much with his family because they remained faithful to Rome and he didn’t want to hurt them.@

When I saw William Lobdell’s book at my library’s used-book sale, I was naturally intrigued by the title and immediately laid down my 50 cents to see what, if any, parallels I could find with his experience. Interestingly enough, not many. Like my own, Lobdell’s childhood and early adulthood were not particularly religious. However, his life took a decidedly less beneficent turn than my own. He became involved in drugs, he cheated on his girlfriend even after getting her pregnant, and his life was spiraling out of control. Until he found God. At this lowest point in his life, Lobdell found a group that discovered satisfaction, happiness and answers to life’s problems as a result of their faith. He embraced it and them, and did indeed climb out of the hole he had dug for himself. More accurately, I think, the author found a group of people who gave him the support he needed to turn his life around. That they happened to be evangelicals was beside the point (believers will take a wholly different view, one which Lobdell would have agreed with until his unconversion). Guided by his new found belief and supported by his new found congregation, Lobdell kicked the drugs, created a healthy relationship with his girlfriend (and subsequently, wife), and established a satisfying career as a journalist. In fact, he began writing a weekly column about the positive activities of various churches for the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition.+ This went on for several years but then the Jim Bakker scandal erupted, and the Jimmy Swaggart scandal, and the TBN scandal, and – most distressing for Lobdell – the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. At the time when the first stories began coming out about pedophile priests and the bureaucracy that covered up their sins, Lobdell was in the midst of converting to Catholicism.

At no point does Lobdell deny the power of faith in a person’s life and acknowledges its own role in his redemption but he couldn’t square the activities of the Church and other spiritual leaders with the faith they preached. It went beyond accepting the fact that men (and women) were flawed and would sin. He asked whether or not a truly God-inspired ministry could sink to such depths of greed or sexual depravity. Surely, people called to the ministry would represent the better part of humanity and be able to resist the worst sins that humans were susceptible to. This led to study into the basis of faith and nonbelief and eventually to a repudiation of his own.

In my opinion, the most telling reason for Lobdell’s atheism – because it succinctly states a major reason for why I can’t believe – is an observation he makes midway through the book:

I felt angry with God for making faith such a guessing game. I didn’t treat my sons as God treated me. I gave them clear direction, quick answers, steady discipline and plenty of love. There was little mystery in our relationships, they didn’t have to strain to hear my “gentle whisper.” How to hear God, love Him and best serve Him shouldn’t be so open to interpretation. It shouldn’t be that hard. (pp. 160-1)

In the end, Lobdell characterizes himself as a reluctant atheist. He’d like to have faith in a higher power but he can’t reconcile what he feels and sees with the God of his early evangelical faith or of his Catholic training, and he sees no other faith with any better claim to knowing God. As he writes in the epilog:

I do miss my faith, as I’d miss any longtime love, and have a deep appreciation for how it helped me mature over 25 years. Even though I’ve come to believe my religion is based on a myth, its benefits are tangible and haven’t evaporated along with my faith….

To borrow Buddha’s analogy. I’ve just spent eight years crossing a river in a raft of my own construction, and I’m now standing on a new shore. My raft was not made of dharma, like Buddhism’s, but of things I gathered along the way: knowledge, maturity, humility, critical thinking and the willingness to face my world as it is, and not how I wish it to be.
(p. 279)

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in religion, in faith, in why we hold it and why we lose it.

^ Part and parcel with the radicalization of many of my beliefs as I grow older. I thought I was supposed to get more conservative as I approach senescence?

@ It’s thanks to my aunt that I know what little I do of my dad’s early years.

+ And not just Christian denominations. He emphasized the positive activities of all faiths – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.