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Losing My Religion

Dominic Erdozain

How I lost my faith reporting religion in America
William Lobdell
Collins, 304pp, ISBN 9780061626814

If you have been brought up on the 'worldview tennis' that sometimes passes for Christian apologetics, or are in any way suffering from Darwin fatigue, this book may come as a welcome remedy - albeit an arresting one. 'Has science disproved God?' is not a question that William Lobdell ever poses, and evolution does not feature until the epilogue. The faith killer, the decisive solvent of his once-fervent piety, was religion itself. This is no glib account of intellectual discovery, or ritualised indictment of church history, but a loss of faith as grudgingly reluctant as it was apparently unstoppable. As a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Lobdell fully acknowledged the peculiarity of his vantage-point - a 'backstage pass to the world of religion' that became 'a curse' - but the power of his narrative is the genuine sense of loss, the insider perspective that is so lacking in contemporary polemics. Finding 'peace' mis-sells the narrative, for even in his bullish epilogue, Lobdell conveys the fragility of his unbelief: bouts of illness still drive him to prayer, and he wonders 'what would happen to my spirituality if I became terminally ill.' The real story is the slow draining of his faith in God - a process that is paradoxically driven by his Christian sensibility.

Lobdell was a young, misfiring journalist in the 1990s when a personal crisis led him to accept a friend's invitation to church, and later a mountain retreat, where he experienced a classic evangelical conversion. The disarming honesty of the men he met on the retreat, and his early morning runs along the Pacific coast with a friend and mentor, cemented a piety as joyous as it was sincere. Lobdell's subsequent rise through the ranks of local, regional and state reporting was positively Weberian. Writing his religion column with the zest of a newly-minted sports reporter, he marvelled at the inspirational figures who crossed his path. As to the fabled secularism of his profession, he soon found that a good story will always trump an old prejudice. His faith was nourished by the gallimaufry of religious energy he encountered, from reformed Jews to the zeitgeisty, bear-hugging piety of Rick Warren.  

Then his world started to unravel. Having moved from megachurch to a more cerebral Presbyterianism, Lobdell was drawn to the majesty of Catholicism. Such was the desire to make the Catholic Church his home, he initially ignored a tip-off about child abuse in the diocese. Then he started to explore it. His path to unbelief is marked by disappointment with 'ordinary' Christians, disgust with avaricious prosperity preachers, but the central narrative is disenchantment with that an organisation that tolerated and concealed the abuse of children. Disbelief takes hold of him like a quiet but insistent friend, pointing first at individuals and finally the Church-as-divine-institution, the decisive argument being the scale and seemingly universal pattern of cover-up.

Lobdell struggles to control his anger as he relates the details of abuse but his theology, indeed his faith, had room for individual transgression. What it couldn't accommodate was the euphemisms, the fob offs, the culture of self-protection that allowed 'predators' repeatedly to devour the young. It was the corporate nature of the scandal, centring on a ruthlessly tactical hierarchy but also involving the instinctive clericalism of the laity, which killed his faith.

A dismal scene is related in which a congregation is angrier to find a journalist in its midst than to discover that the parish priest had committed 'boundary violations' on a young boy some years earlier. Order was restored thanks to a policeman present, whose main contribution was to explain what happens to abused children. The parishioners eventually took the point, but Lobdell had seen enough. How many times could he make the distinction between the purity of the creed and the failings of its practitioners? What of the Pauline principle of 'transformation' in the life of the believer? Is the Church no better than the world? Is it indeed worse?

Apart from the sheer ingenuousness of the account, what is most interesting about Losing My Religion is the constant recourse to Christian language in the indictment of Christian faith. Far from a secular conspiracy, both Lobdell and several prosecuting attorneys, acted out of Christian convictions. They even likened their struggle to that of 18th-century Quakers campaigning against slavery. What he probably didn't know is that his alienation was also mirrored in the experience of 19th-century abolitionists whose unbelief was sparked by the religious justification of slavery. The passion of Lobdell's unbelief is unmistakably Christian. Identifying with a group of ex-Mormons, vilified by their families for their apostasy, Lobdell quotes the shortest verse in the Bible: 'Jesus wept.' Adding: 'And I wept with Him.' The sense is that authenticity - even Christlike authenticity - is found outside religion. The correlative point, and the really polemical contention, is that religious people don't even believe in God anyway: from child abusers likening their secular 'persecution' to the sufferings of Christ, to a merely culture-affirming evangelicalism, Lobdell senses a kind of institutionalized unbelief. If more Christians were to believe in hell and judgment, he speculates, the churches would be a better state, but they clearly don't. All those 'miracles' of his early Christian life suddenly melted into a prosaic web of mutual interest and plain serendipity.

This is a disturbing and occasionally harrowing book, but it is not depressing. It opens up the debate between faith and unbelief as lived encounter and opportunity rather than the zero-sum game of worldview assassination. Both Lobdell's conversion and deconversion reflect the ordinary apologetics of experience in which Christianity forms its own 'natural theology' and has to live with the inferences that people make. This is what Karl Rahner meant when he spoke of an 'innocent' or conscience-led unbelief. It was under Rahner's influence that the Second Vatican Council explored the 'pastoral' roots of secularism, noting that 'believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith ... or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.' If Catholics feel especially exposed by a book like this, it is in their own tradition that some of the best thinking about unbelief has been done. This is not a flawless account but its virtue is to humanise unbelief, and there is no harm in that.

Dominic Erdozain