Journey from belief to disbelief

Staff WriterMarch 5, 2009 

When William Lobdell turned 28, he hated the person he had become. Looking in the mirror he saw a man who drank too much, cheated on his girlfriend and was not ready to be a good father to his newborn son.

Desiring change, he reconnected with his faith, becoming born again in a powerful moment when his "heart opened into halves and a warm, glowing light flowed right in. … I felt instantly that light was Jesus, who now lived inside me."

As he became a better man, the California journalist wanted to serve God in his work. His daily prayers were answered when he became a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times. This led to one more unexpected conversion, as he details in his new memoir, "Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America -- and Found Unexpected Peace" (Collins, 291 pages).

In heartfelt and often achingly honest prose, Lobdell, 48, chronicles his journey from belief to disbelief. Intimately aware of the power of faith, he describes how a series of scandals he covered in the 1990s -- the pedophile priest scandal that shook the Roman Catholic Church, the scheming televangelists who bilked their followers out of millions -- stoked his doubts. His reporting led him to focus on age-old spiritual questions, from rampant contradictions in the Bible to why God lets bad things happen to good people, to which he could not find satisfying answers.

We spoke with Lobdell in advance of his visit to the Triangle.

Q: Why did you write this book? A few years ago I wrote an essay about this for the L.A. Times. The response was overwhelming because not a lot of people openly express their doubts about their faith. There are a lot of people in the closet about their doubt, and I think it helps to hear from someone who's been through it. I've heard from many pastors who've said they have grave doubts or have lost their faith. Some of the saddest e-mails are from people who are maybe in a small town in the Midwest and they don't have anyone to turn to. This has been their livelihood for 20 or 30 years -- they feel like hypocrites -- but when you're in that job it's hard to leave.

Q: Your book recounts scandals involving the Catholic Church and televangelists. What lessons do they teach about all religion? I think those terrible things happened in part because we are very hesitant to question religious leaders and institutions. We think they are pure because they are doing God's work, when in fact they are human beings as prone to wrongdoing as the rest of us. So the larger lesson is about the danger of blind faith. It's important to aggressively question what's going on, not only in your denomination or church but also in your own faith. The tendency, and this was the case with me, is to numbly go along with the program. …

Q: Besides the scandals, what else fueled your doubts? A big turning point in my deconversion was that there are no legitimate studies showing that prayer worked. There's so much prayer going on, it seems there should be a provable -- that it works. And when bad things happen or prayers aren't answered, the catch-all answer is "you can't know God's plan," or "you can't possibly fathom what His intentions are." So when the plane went down in the Hudson River and everyone was saved, I heard many, many times [that] God had answered the prayers of those passengers. A few weeks later a plane went down in Buffalo and killed everyone on board; we were told we can't blame God for that. That … seems illogical.

Q: Why do you fault Christians for not being better people than everyone else? During my reporting I was surprised to learn that there is little evidence that believers are more moral than nonbelievers. I think when Christians behave just like atheists, I conclude that they don't really believe in the Gospel message. If they did, their moral behavior would be much different than an atheist's.

Q: Didn't your faith make you a better person? It did. And I think it makes many people better people, but I don't think it's just faith that does it -- meditation, self-help programs, working out can all help. … If I had gone into counseling instead of becoming a Christian, the result would have been the same, because I was at a point when I wanted to … grow up. I had an intense desire to change, and Christianity was the channel for it.

Q: What are the lessons of faith for the nonbeliever? I think what I took away from it was the close relationship I developed with my Christian friends. We could tell each other anything. That kind of openness and love is rare in other places in our world. …

Q: What questions should believers ask themselves? Speaking personally, I wish I had spent more time reading critics, reasoned critics, of my faith. If my faith were true, that wouldn't put a dent in it; it would let me fully explore the truth of my faith. Instead I only read people who were defending the faith. Instead of listening to my inner voices of doubt, I would shut them down. It's going to come out sooner or later, so you might as well deal with it. or 919-829-4773

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