A book review of William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America – and Found Unexpected Peace:
Pacing across the bright, flood-lit stage, a faith-healer screeches Alleluiahs into the microphone, his voice echoing around the packed auditorium. As the offering buckets fill, an elderly man in a wheelchair empties what little money he has, catching the eye of the rock-star priest on stage. The healer bellows:
Brother before this night is over, you’re going to walk out of here!
As the buckets overflow with desperate donations, the healer proclaims that the gathered faithful are healed of their ailments; cancers cured, diseases remedied, disabilities overcome. And yet, as the fanfares fade and the crowd clears, William Lobdell can’t help thinking about the old man in the wheelchair: poorer, still disabled, and with anguish in his eyes.
Lobdell’s faith begins where faith grows best: in a time of dire need, and when any help, even imagined help, will do. His life in ruins, he finds a crutch in scripture, and embraces Christianity with relief and enthusiasm.
The journalist beautifully describes a new world seen through the eyes of religious faith. God’s work is suddenly everywhere. And the Divine has a plan for him. He believes that he must use his “God-given” journalistic talents to report on religion, bringing stories of glory and hope to his readers. He works hard for years, and then, miraculously, lands a job at the Los Angeles Times – a clear sign of heavenly favour.
Unfortunately for his faith, the glossy veneer of religious organisations appear increasingly tarnished as he begins reporting on the more disturbing side of the godly.
He meets charismatic man of God, Monsignor Michael Harris (the first of many such men). In 2001, Harris was accused of molesting a boy in his care and, as the evidence started to pile up, the Roman Catholic Church paid out $5.2 million, whilst Harris was quietly permitted to resign his positions of authority due to “stress”.
At the time of the meeting, Lobdell did not realise that the Church had knowingly hid and protected Harris. He’d been accused of a similar offence 30 years earlier and had received “treatment”. Those who “treated” him concluded that Harris was attracted to adolescent boys and, in all likelihood, had probably molested children on several occasions. The Church knew all this and yet they did nothing.
But the scandal did not stop there; it was only the beginning. Lobdell takes us through his time reporting on the Church’s escalating paedophilia scandal, with one revolting revelation following another.
His statistics on the number of paedophile priests left me feeling uncomfortable and angry. The Church would bully and manipulate the victims into silence to prevent a scandal. Organised religion can be vulgar, but to see the Roman Catholic Church aiding, abetting, and facilitating paedophiles in staying undercover and unnoticed whilst they continued to rape children in their care, is enough to make one detest them.
If such an organisation existed without a claim to the divine, the fury of all moral people would erase them from the face of the earth.
Priests – the ones appointed to hearing confessions of sin – were the ones that should have been confessing. The hypocrisy and silence of the Church was bewildering – enough for Lobdell to abandon long-standing plans to join it. To do so, he felt, would have felt like a betrayal of the Church’s victims.
Lobdell simply had met too many victims and heard too many stories. And the stories continued to come out.
He tells of a priest standing in front of his congregation with the air of an oppressed victim. He’s been hit with the Church’s new zero-tolerance policy on molesting children, or “boundary violations” as he puts it, and has been forced to resign because of an “incident” many years earlier.
The gathered women and men of God give him a standing ovation as a sign of solidarity, and sympathy with his plight. Lobdell, a proud father of four sons, is horrified by the reaction of the faithful as they applaud, cheer and cry for the frocked offender.
Stephen Weinburg once wrote in the New York Times:
With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
In what circumstances other than in a religious setting, where critical thinking is gradually – and often instantly – destroyed by faith, is it possible to conceive of a group of good, ordinary people applauding a child molester?
Lobdell had no answer, and left his job with his faith in tatters. What he now knows to be true destroyed what he so deeply wished to be true: that God was looking out for him, that his life was in His hands, that he had a divine purpose. The corrupt godly, the swindling faith-healers, the rapist priests, the contradictory scripture, and the cold and silent voice of God led him to one conclusion. God was not silent, but imaginary.
This is a story of revelation and rebirth, but not as the Christians would like it. Lobdell damns himself to hell as he realises that there isn’t a hell to be afraid of. His belief in an afterlife evaporates as his temporary, mortal, real life takes on new clarity.
He needed a crutch whilst he was crippled, and Christianity sufficed, but he mistook the crutch for the cure. We all need purpose, but wishing something does not make it so. William’s intelligence allowed him a lucky escape – and he was cured of a delusion no faith-healer could ever fix.
I know one thing, I don’t believe in a God who intervenes in our lives. That seems to me to be the real dividing line: do you believe in a personal God or not? Deitism and atheism are on the other side of belief in a personal God. That’s where I am.
Though it varies by the day, I estimate that I’m 70 percent sure I’m a reluctant atheist and 30 percent positive that I’m deist (deist meaning that a creator kicked off this whole world but has a hands-off approach).
The larger point being: I’m 99.99 percent sure that there’s not a god who intervenes in the lives of humankind.
First published May 5 2009 at freethinker.co.uk