Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 deang
    March 30, 2009

    I wondered about your last question, too. Where in this society would someone with those kinds of life problems turn? American society is so atomized and people so isolated from one another that there often aren’t any support organizations around that aren’t religious in nature. I know from having grown up in a religious family that there are many people who attend church only for the social aspect, people who don’t believe or follow church doctrine. I suspect it isn’t that way in less religious societies like those of Europe, where I assume there must be secular forms of social support for people who need it.

    There’s a book from the 90s that examines these issues more broadly, called Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn To Faith and Others Abandon Religion by Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger.

  2. #2 Larry Ayers
    March 30, 2009

    I live in a Northern Bible Belt small town, Hannibal, MO. I don’t walk around announcing that I’m an atheist. I like to hear peoples’ stories and just generally get along with folks. I don’t want to be a pariah.

  3. #3 Bob
    March 30, 2009

    @deang: Turn to friends? Family?

    There are plenty of opportunities for “fellowship” in the world if that is what people are after. People have a tendency to default to religion because of the culture and the way human brains are wired.

    But consider that he could just as easily commiserated with his fellow journalists–assuming he had made friends with them instead of merely being colleagues.

    There are organizations all around for people with similar interests. The internet didn’t invent fan clubs by any means.

  4. #4 deang
    March 31, 2009

    @Bob

    It’s Americans and a few other societies who largely turn to religion for social support, not people in general, and I suspect it’s largely because there aren’t strong communities in the US outside of family and friends to provide structured support.

    Even not having read the book, I think we can assume that the author could not just as easily have commiserated with fellow journalists, friends, or family, or he would have. Perhaps there were barriers of personal pride, embarrassment, or other things. In my own case, I know habitual patterns of interaction and behavior with family and long-time friends can make personal change more difficult than with virtual strangers, even when the family members and friends are quite willing to help me.

    I think people need to look at what social and support functions religious organizations serve in the US, divorce them from irrational belief systems, and replicate them as secular organizations. I know it’s been tried, but it needs to become more widespread.

    And I would never suggest that the internet invented fan clubs. You will never find me praising computers as though they are the world’s salvation, as so many today do.

  5. #5 Dunc
    March 31, 2009

    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?

    Professional counselling?

  6. #6 llewelly
    April 1, 2009

    Turn to friends? Family?

    Asking your brother to defend you court works great – if your brother is a lawyer.

    Giving good advice is hard, far harder than most people realize. Making matters worse, our public discourse about advice is dominated by all sorts of pig excrement, such as the scads of painfully ignorant popular press articles about ‘how (wo)men really think’. There are groups with political agendas who, largely as a side-effect of their goals, have convinced millions that most or all choices we make are rational, self-interested decisions – despite two decades of nobel-prize winning work that indicates otherwise. Twelve-step programs for ending drug abuse are everywhere – but many studies indicate that participants are no more likely to helped than those who seek no treatment at all. I could go on all day, but friends and family, unless they are professional counselors, seldom have the experience, time, or energy necessary to give good advice. On the contrary – they are, like almost all the rest of us, prey for all sorts of bad ideologies that cause them to give very bad advice.

    The sad reality is that if you can’t afford professional counseling, you may as well put your pennies to use as random number generators, and follow whatever advice they give you (or buy a used tarot deck from the local woo shop – same thing).

  7. #7 Paul Sunstone
    April 12, 2009

    Great review!

    I suspect it’s hard to underestimate the sense of community that folks in this country get from at least some churches. Also, community is something many don’t find much of outside of their church.

    As for where a non-theist can go for support during a personal crisis, I’ve found it can even be difficult to find a therapist who is a non-theist. There seems to be very little that is comparable to a church group for non-theists.