William Lobdell started out in the early 1990s as an average, secular Christian, working as an editor for a paper owned by the Los Angeles Times. But after divorcing his high school sweetheart and accidentally getting his new girlfriend pregnant, he was drifting until someone told him he had a “God-shaped hole” in his life. Lobdell ended up making friends with Hugh Hewitt and going on a Christian retreat with him, where men poured out their hearts to one another, sang, prayed, and had spiritual experiences—Lobdell included.
After this, Lobdell became an evangelical Christian and began attending a southern California megachurch. And his personal spiritual journey led to a professional journey as well; he decided that he wanted to begin writing about religion for the LA Times, and after a bit of a false start that dream came true. He was extremely successful as a religion reporter, attributing that, of course, to God, until several years later he began covering the unfolding stories of Roman Catholic clergy abuse in earnest. Those stories, along with others, would eventually lead to Lobdell’s new memoir, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.
One of Lobdell’s most frustrating qualities for me will probably endear him to some readers: he feels instead of thinking—he is a little bit introspective, but more more into going with the flow than seriously analyzing the logic behind what he does. He has a religious experience and begins going to church. He and his wife feel at home at the megachurch and become involved. Eventually they move on a bit spiritually and begin attending Presbyterian services. Finally Lobdell decides to convert to Catholicism (his wife’s natal religion). Throughout, it’s not really clear what draws them to one thing over another, beyond the sense of community, the personality of the clergyman, or the general feel of the services. This is not a book about theology. On the contrary.
I did have problems with parts of the Catholic theology, including its sexual teachings (for example, a ban on condoms, even if it meant millions dying in AIDS-plagued Africa). More fundamentally, I couldn’t accept transubstantiation, the climax of the Mass when, according to the church, bread and wine are literally turned into the body and blood of Christ. Of course, I wasn’t alone. Millions of Americans—whom some orthodox Catholics derisively call “Cafeteria Catholics”—don’t agree with many of these teachings (40 percent don’t even go to confession, a basic requirement of the church). …
I didn’t only rely on the comfort of the crowd. Written into the Catechism of the Catholic Church—a reference book that outlines church teachings—is a wonderful loophole called “personal conscience.” If something, even church doctrine, goes against your conscience, you’re allowed to follow the moral voice inside your head. …
My conscience allowed me to practice birth control without guilt or fear of eternal damnation. It allowed me to view the Eucharist as only a symbolic representation of the Last Supper.
It’s hard for me to conceive of actively deciding to convert to Catholicism as an adult when you reject one of the most central tenets separating it from all Protestant sects, that of transubstantiation. But as Lobdell says, he is hardly alone in professing a religion he does not entirely believe.
But sloppy reasons to join a church end up leading to sloppy reasons to leave it. Years of reporting on religion have slowly left Lobdell wavering. He has written dozens if not hundreds of uplifting stories. Even some of those make him wonder, though; when he reports on Mormons he has to admit to himself that their incredible beliefs aren’t actually any more incredible than his own. And then come the bad stories, of physical and sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and fraud among televangelists and faith healers.
Lobdell tells himself over and over that abuse by clergy says nothing about the truth of his religion or the existence of God. But finally he realizes he doesn’t believe anymore, just about entirely due to the problem of evil. He never contemplates another simple solution to the problem, that God is evil too and not worthy of praise. It is not a terribly logical reason to become an atheist—but it is a common one, a natural one, and one that will probably resonate with many readers. He’s very honest throughout the book about his thoughts and feelings at the time, almost never anticipating changes of heart he won’t have for years. Before he loses his faith, he describes what happens to the people he will end up just like.
Many people want desperately to believe, but just can’t. They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can’t will it back into existence. If an autopsy could be done on their spiritual life, the cause of death wouldn’t be murder or suicide. It would be natural causes—the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason.
This will happen to him too before long. In many ways Lobdell will just be circling round to where he began, as a nonchurchgoer. On the other hand, he really does lose his faith in God and that leads to some profound changes in the ways he views his own life: he gives himself more credit for his own hard work and begins to value every moment more highly, with no expectation of an afterlife. And he’s much more peaceful.
The most unexpected part of the memoir was its long and in-depth focus on the Roman Catholic clergy abuse scandal (and also on faith healers, though less so). Lobdell was one of the first reporters to break the story of one of the first settlements, and befriended a lawyer that specialized in these cases and traveled all over helping plaintiffs. These sections are extremely informative and critical to understanding Lobdell’s own story. And in this he is not alone; there are many anecdotes out there of Catholics that were shaken in the same way. He is probably a lot like them, a lot like everyday people, only his job, for years, put him on the front lines of these tragedies, researching and reporting over and over the same sad story. Like all memoirs, this one is in many ways a personal catharsis, but I suspect it will serve the same function for more than a few readers as well.