walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Losing My Religion_, William Lobdell (kindle)

Subtitled: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America -- and Found Unexpected Peace

There's a genre of books (and other "testimony") which go something like this: I didn't believe in God or Jesus. I was a Bad Person. I drank too much. I screwed around. My parents tried to raise me right but it didn't take. I mocked believers. Then, a crisis happened, and I started to question everything. I went to the Bible, and the evidence, and I started to realize that that's where everything was made clear and I was Saved by Jesus and you can be too.

Occasionally, someone goes and dismantles an individual instance of this genre, pointing out that the author was pretty damn religious all along, not the skeptic they claimed to be (because they usually make a point of their unbeliever-ness and then the conversion process), etc.

Obviously, with a title like this book, you know that Lobdell, at the end of the book, isn't going to be a Believer any more. But the beginning of the book is very much in line with that genre so beloved by a fairly naive type of Christian, whether Born Again, Evangelical, Fundamentalist or Other. So much so, in fact, that I went and double-checked to make sure I hadn't inadvertently bought the wrong book. But no.

Lobdell starts out going to church with his parents, waiting until he's old enough to quit, which his siblings do before him. He becomes a journalist, gets married, splits up, knocks up another woman, gets divorced, drinks and sleeps around, then settles down to raise The Boy with The Wife, but knows he's a totally fucked up mess and unloads it on a friend who points him at the Mariners megachurch. From there, he gets hooked into one of the Family's offshoots (Thousand Pines) and cleans up his act. The Wife sticks it out with him, they have three more kids, they "graduate" from Mariners' Seeker services to a Presbyterian Church and Lobdell works his way into being the religion reporter for the LA Times and turns that into a meaningful, well-paid position. Initially, it's a ra ra thing, reporting on individuals from a variety of faiths who stand out for their devotion, holiness and great goodness. Over time, however, he starts to talk about ex-Mormons and their bad treatment in Utah, the burgeoning Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal, corruption and evil doings by Benny Hinn and the Crouches at TBN, etc. His wife, born Catholic, sort of would like them both to be Catholic, so as all this is rolling along, he's in the process of converting to Catholicism so they can be _really_ married, instead of being fake married and guilty of adultery. The Boston Globe articles and the work he's doing for the LA Times, however, are really making him feel bad and he doesn't want to be seen to be siding with the bad guys so he temporarily delays his initiation into the Catholic Church, a cusp which becomes his long, slow slide out of Christianity and religion and faith and belief in God and so forth.

It's a well-told tale, covering the contents of many of his columns in conjunction with the development of his own spiritual life and family life and psychological health and well-being. It's annoying that Lobdell's faith in God is so personal, so black and white and so interventionist. No such faith can possibly withstand any detailed encounter with reality, and while Lobdell is no rigorous thinker, he's a little too inquisitive to maintain that kind of faith. Well, he might have been able to compartmentalize it and keep it safe, but writing a religion column week-in and week-out with actual journalistic integrity (I know, I am having trouble believing I wrote that, too, but there's a lot of evidence that Lobdell has journalistic integrity) was really asking for trouble. And then on top of it, his faith was incredibly bookish from start to finish -- that never turns out well.

There are some interesting aspects to the story. First, there's a recognition in the story that he has a god-shaped hole, and after failing to fill it with screwy relationships and alcohol, he tries god. Go him. That supplies enough self-help that, in conjunction with a reasonable marriage and what appear to be fairly non-toxic parenting of their children, heal a lot of his childhood wounds that led to the god-sized hole. He gets regular exercise, has a larger social circle, finds meaning in work -- all the stuff that makes for a healthy, well-adjusted life. Second, there is enough detail supplied that it is utterly clear that Lobdell is the sucker born every minute. Even after revelation after revelation, he never seems to get any clarity on how scary Mormon parenting practices are, or why temple marriages have such a low divorce rate (that's not success, buddy, trust me) or what he perceives as really great Mormon kids are just disasters on a scale that make him seem really quite well off -- even _before_ he got god, much less his long-term healing that led to his ability to un-get god. He dismisses as paranoia the fears sources have regarding TBN. I'd kinda like to know _why_ he thought it was just paranoia. Third, and I think this is perhaps the best aspect of the book, while Lobdell is yet another hate-to-use-the-term-agnostic (right up there with people who won't identify as feminist), he is quite fearless (at least in print -- he's quite an anxious person by self-report) in describing his life as an unbeliever as rewarding, satisfying and joyful.

It was the realization that there are as many good people outside of Religion as inside that eroded Lobdell's faith permanently, a realization I have complete sympathy for. But it is not clear that Lobdell reached a related conclusion: there are more very bad people using religion as justification or cover for their actions than there are very bad people operating completely outside religion. And while it's all well and good for his Presbyterian pastor to point out that all those Catholic Clergy abusers were likely once abused themselves, this fails to get to the meat of the nut: if there really is a God, a Prime Mover, then God is the abuser who started this chain of evil, and God is therefore responsible for the latter day outcomes. (And any Christian having trouble with this could use a short course in all those verses, OT and NT, about bashing babies onto rocks.)

I'm glad Lobdell's marriage and family relationships (mostly) survive this roller coaster of belief and unbelief. It is a testimony (ha!) to the value of communication that by constantly discussing what he was thinking about and learning (on the job) with his wife, they stayed in step with each other, rather than being split apart by differing opinion. I could well imagine it could have gone very differently if he had concealed the gory details he was learning from abuse survivors from his born-Catholic wife while he was in the process of converting.

Lobdell serves as a nice counterpoint to Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris.

I picked this up for the kindle around the time I got Prothero's _Religious Literacy_ and Plotz' _Good Book_. I tried Prothero first, which was unfortunate; I didn't even attempt the others for months and they are both far superior. Prothero advocates teaching religion in schools. Lobdell and Plotz both depict, in very, very different ways, adults past school age learning about religion and wrestling with large philosophical questions based on holy writ and communities of believers. Where Prothero is advocating a shallow, meaningless exercise, Plotz and Lobdell show in detail how one can learn about, think about, and act on religious ideas -- and how belief or unbelief is sort of orthagonal, in the end, to the process. I don't know whether any of these three would serve the purpose they were recommended for (inoculating people against the dangers of religion), but Lobdell is definitely worth your time, Plotz is probably worth your time, and Prothero is annoyingly useless. IMO, of course. I mean, this is my _blog_.

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