Losing My Religion
How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace
By William Lobdell
Collins, $25.95, hardcover, 304 pages, March 2009
There is a moment in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal that I thought of more than once as I read William Lobdell’s new memoir, Losing My Religion. This is when the protagonist, Antonius Block, who has just returned to his Nordic homeland from the Crusades and whose faith is waning, befriends a husband and wife acting troupe. An impromtu picnic on a beautiful late afternoon on a grassy hillside becomes a epiphanous moment for the weary knight:
KNIGHT: I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light. Mikael sleeping, Jof with his lyre. I’ll try to remember what we’ve talked about. I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk. He turns his face away and looks out toward the sea and the colourless grey sky. And it will be an adequate sign—it will be enough for me.
The knight has come to this curiously twentieth-century existential moment because of the horror and misery of the crusades, which in hindsight he sees was about gold, not God, and because he has seen penitents flagellating themselves to ward off the encroaching Black Death and torturing unbalanced women as witches—he has seen all this and cannot believe anymore.
William Lobdell, a professional journalist for twenty-five years, underwent a similar journey. With his life in tatters in his late twenties, a friend in whom he confided said, “You need God. That’s what’s missing in your life . . . . Everyone has a God-shaped hole in their soul . . . . We try to fill it with something—drugs, alcohol, work, sex—until we stumble upon God. He’s the only thing that fills that hole.”
So Lobdell went to church, eventually was born again as an evangelical Christian. Soon his marriage was mended and his career in journalism prospered. He was on his own crusade to cover religion in journalism, stories of believers that the media tended to ignore when it wasn’t labeling believers as fanatics. Lobdell wrote many stories and columns about believers of all faiths, whose lives were significantly and positively different than most. In a few years, however, he began wondering why they were the exceptions, these saints. Why weren’t more believers holy?
Then came the Father Hollywood pedophile case in Orange Country, one of the first of the Catholic Church pedophile cases in Southern California. These cases, which he explained in their truly terrible details and were seared into him in interviews with the abused, did not shake his faith at first. He was even in the process of becoming a Catholic at that point and “viewed the scandal as a necessary evil that would give the institution a badly needed cleansing. I believed my own reporting, in small part, would contribute to the movement that would force the United States bishops to enact reforms to protect the parishoner’s children and to bring back holiness to the Catholic Church.”
But as he covered the pedophile cases and Boston archdiocese cases broke open, and he saw how cowardly and callously the bishops had behaved and that no matter how many of the laity found out about priests being pedophiles that they would defend them and say it was all a long time ago, doubts assailed him. Then he went to Alaska and researched a story about a Jesuit deacon who had abused seventy natives in six villages on St. Michael’s Island. “Correspondence from early in the missionary’s career in Alaska,” writes Lobdell, “shows that his superiors knew that he was a pedophile but did nothing to stop him.”
Combined with this was Lobdell’s coverage of the faith healer Benny Hinn and the Crouch family who run Trinity Broadcasting Network. Both of these stories included financial improprieties and in the latter, sexual scandals hushed up with money. But, here again, Lobdell’s reporting hardly influenced the faithful to stop giving their money to charlatans. And other Christian leaders, such as Billy and Franklin Graham, Robert H. Schuller, and Joel Osteen, who used TBN for their shows, continued to use it and ignored the scandals.
Finally, Lobdell realized he did not believe anymore. Lobdell accepted the distinction between the sins of believer’s and God and the content of the faith, but to him it seemed that the number of Christians who were an argument against Christianity far outnumbered those who were an argument for it.
As he describes the writing of the article that led to his book,
The darkest part of my heart wanted to show in a very public way, how people who identified themselves as Christians had driven me away from a faith I loved. It someone with my desire for God could come away disillusioned by faith, then Christianity in its present form was in trouble, and someone should point that out to believers.
Lobdell sees faith as a passive thing. He says he found that he just no longer believed and says that he could not choose either to keep or to lose it. It was not a choice. “Faith can’t be willed into existence,” Lobdell write. “There’s no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.”
But it could be argued that faith is not a state of the soul but a verb, in the sense of trust, and hence a choice. Josef Pieper notes in his Belief and Faith that Aqunas said that faith was a mixed thing, partly composed of doubt. It has to be or it wouldn’t be faith, it would be knowledge and no belief would be involved. Pieper argues that, “Unbelief contradicts what man is by nature.”
No one wrote more deeply on this than Dotoyevsky in The Brothers Karamozov wherein Ivan the skeptic’s argument against God is the abuse of children, and the only answer is not an argument, but what Father Zossima calls the practice of “active love.”
Perhaps believers and skeptics alike, and those of us, like Lobdell, who have been both, can agree on that. Antonius Block, the knight in The Seventh Seal clings to a plan and deed of active love by saving the acting troupe family, with whom he picnicked, from the Black Death—“one meaningful deed,” he calls it.
William Lobdell, however, has focused on, in Losing My Religion, what the knight said during that same picnic: “Faith is a torment . . . . It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.”