Unlike most people who were raised in a religious household and grew up surrounded by religious people, I never experienced a “crisis of faith” since I never believed there was a god any more than I believed there was a Santa Claus or a Tooth Fairy. However, some of my friends are religious and because I value them as people, I have listened to them from time to time as they pondered aloud the deep questions that all of us face in the wee hours or after experiencing a significant loss or other life-changing event — the same questions that journalist, William Lobdell, addresses so eloquently in his memoir, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace (Collins; 2009).
The story begins when the author realizes that he has made a disaster of his life at age 27 by filling his nights with alcohol and his days with running away from the terrifying responsibility of a wife and new baby. He was so adept at this that, by the time his 28th birthday arrived, Lobdell looks over the wreckage of his life and is disgusted with himself.
“I could barely admit it was my birthday,” he writes. “I couldn’t stand the person I had become. I found no reason to celebrate my life.”
He confided his predicament to a good friend.
“You need God. That’s what’s missing in your life,” his friend told him confidently. “I was a lot like you until I surrendered my life to God. Why not try it? It can’t hurt. Look at where you are with you in control. Get yourself to a church, Billy.”
The author, desperate to try anything, went to church the following Sunday. His transformation was nearly instantaneous.
“It was like discovering a great new author,” he writes. “[O]nly the writer of this book — or at least the one who inspired it — was the creator of the universe. I thought, finally, I had found the answers to living a quality life. The secrets had been there all along — in ‘Life’s instruction Manual,’ as some Christians call the Bible.”
The church, an evangelical megachurch, assigned a spiritual adviser to him, who urged Lobdell to attend a religious retreat, which he does, reluctantly. After several days filled with song, prayer, “honest sharing” and worship, very little sleep and inadequate nutrition, the author (predictably) experiences a vision and ends up becoming a born-again Christian before returning home to his wife and kids. His behavior and attitude change and his health problems are ameliorated. His wife and children begin to attend church with him and his relationship with them improves. His professional life is rejuvenated: he even begins to tithe.
Lobdell falls in love with a perfect god, a god who loves him unconditionally and who gives him whatever he wants — well, sometimes. For example, Lobdell prays for $50,000 and, miraculously, a former employer eventually comes through on an old debt. Lobdell wants to better glorify his god so he spends years praying to be assigned to a religion writing job at his newspaper. In 1998, that finally materializes too. He finds great joy in writing stories about the religious people in his community and is eager to go to work each morning, and his writing begins to win numerous awards. In short, the “God Thing” was working well for him.
As an estranged Christian who rediscovered god as an evangelical, Lobdell then discovers that he is attracted to the extensive history and elegant rituals of the Catholic Church — which coincidentally, was the childhood faith of his wife, Greer.
Seeking to make a more lasting commitment to his growing faith, he and his wife pursue Catholicism. But to convert, they must take religious classes for one year before being formally accepted into the church. But his deepening knowledge of Catholic doctrine troubles him. Eventually, the author decides to compromise, by “planning on being a Cafeteria Catholic, picking which parts of church doctrine I would keep and which I would ignore.”
Unfortunately, at the same time, his journalism career led him to investigate the Catholic Church for another reason; the sexual abuse of young people by priests — aided and abetted and even covered up by the Church itself. As this scandal explodes around him, Lobdell becomes painfully aware of the deep rage that many religious people display when their faith is threatened; of the chasm that exists between religious ideals and the lives of those who claim to be religious, and how the entire Catholic power structure allowed priests to abuse their power to gratify their own carnal desires, leaving thousands of destroyed lives in their wake. But abuse of power is not exclusive to the Catholic Church; it is a feature of organized religion itself. Which led Lobdell to wonder, if organized religion doesn’t live according to the Bible, why should it expect anyone else to do so?
As if that was not enough, Lobdell could not find comfort in his faith outside of the church, either. For example, his research found no scientific evidence to support the healing power of prayer, despite fervent claims to the contrary. Most damaging, he found no evidence that any amputee’s missing limbs had ever been regenerated, so he concluded that the “most logical answer to why God won’t heal amputees is that either God doesn’t care or doesn’t exist.”
Lobdell is routinely tortured by the cruelty of disasters large and small, such as the Indonesian tsunami and the death of a premature baby. Nor does he find solace from studying the living example provided by evangelical Christians: statistics on evangelicals revealed that “Christians, as a group, acted no differently than anyone else, including atheists.” Sadly, Lobdell does not even find comfort or words of encouragement in Mother Theresa’s book, Come Be My Light, which chronicles her spiritual crisis that consumed the last five decades of her life! (Curiously, Lobdell gets the name of this book wrong!)
By the end of this book, we find a wiser and humbler Lobdell, who writes that “I’ve just spent eight years crossing a river in a raft of my own construction, and now I’m standing on a new shore. My raft was made […] of things I gathered along the way: knowledge, maturity, humility, critical thinking and the willingness to face the world as it is, and not how I wish it to be. I don’t know what the future holds in this new land. I don’t see myself crossing the river back to Christianity… [or] adopting a new religion. My disbelief in a personal God now seems cemented to my soul. Other kinds of spirituality seem equally improbable. Besides, I like my life on this unexplored shore.”
This is a highly readable and honest story about one man’s journey into adulthood. It carefully outlines the many serious issues associated with religion — any religion — and the questions that any thinking person will ask about the supposed nature of god. I highly recommend this book to everyone, religious or not, because there is much of value to be discovered here. For example, as an atheist, I am particularly troubled by what the author might have done if he hadn’t immersed himself into religion at the beginning of the book. Where can he, and others who are in a similar stage of their lives, turn to deal with the reality of a badly damaged life? Where could Lobdell turn to change himself and his life, if not to religion? This is one of many questions that I think people should seriously think about, regardless of whether they are religious or not because, whether or not there is an afterlife, how we deal with others in this life is crucially important.
William Lobdell is an award-winning journalist who worked for 18 years with the Los Angeles Times and its sister newspapers. Lobdell covered the religion beat for The Times for eight years, first as a columnist and then as a beat reporter. He earned several national awards for his work before becoming a metro editor for the paper in 2006. He left the paper in 2008. Lobdell is also a visiting faculty member for 12 years at the University of California, Irvine, where he teaches “Religion and the Media” and “The Internet, Blogs and Politics.” He is owner of Four Boys New Media, an online publishing and media consulting company. He lives in Orange County, Calif. with his wife, Greer, and four boys. This is his first book.