Leaving the Fold

By Mark Oppenheimer
New York Times
April 24, 2009

[read excert from the first chapter]

There are many great books about finding God. But there are far fewer books, great or otherwise, about finding and then losing God. So "Losing My Religion," by William Lobdell, a former religion writer for The Los Angeles Times, feels powerfully fresh. It is the tale of being born again in his adulthood, then almost 20 years later deciding that Christianity is untrue. Today Lobdell prefers the God of Jefferson or Einstein, "a deity that can be seen in the miracles of nature." While Lobdell never entirely rejects belief in the supernatural, his humane, even-tempered book does more to advance the cause of irreligion than the bilious atheist tracts by Christopher Hitchens and others that have become so common. And Lobdell's self-deprecating memoir is far more fun to read.

William Lobdell
Photo by Challenge Roddie

"By age 27," Lobdell, now in his late 40s, writes at the outset, "I had screwed up my life. I had married my volatile high school sweetheart five years earlier, mostly because it seemed easier than breaking up." Rather than divorcing her, Lobdell just left, and before long he got his new girlfriend pregnant. His journalism career was "stalled at a local minor-league magazine," and — insult to injury — he had acne. Lobdell was so filled with self-loathing that he had trouble looking at himself in the mirror. "When I turned 28, I could barely admit it was my birthday," he writes. "I couldn't stand the person I had become. I found no reason to celebrate my life."

The turnaround began when Taylor, Lobdell's first son, was born. A month later, Lobdell married Taylor's mother, at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas (baby steps toward Jesus, one might say); afterward, they watched Tony Orlando and Dawn sing in a half-empty casino concert hall. Lobdell adored his son, and like many new fathers he resolved to grow up fast. But he was skeptical that his marriage, born of imperfect circumstances, would last, and in most respects he still felt pretty desperate. Soon after his wedding, "on an especially low day," Lobdell confessed his pain to a good friend. "You need God," the friend told him. "That's what's missing in your life."

Lobdell had no desire to return to the indifferent Episcopalianism of his youth, and his friend suggested Mari­ners Church, a nondenominational mega­church in Newport Beach, Calif. At Mariners, Lobdell heard Pastor Kenton Beshore preach about a friendly, intensely personal God. "This God loved me perfectly," Lobdell writes. "I eagerly lapped up the unconditional love. He was a rock upon which I could build my life." The Bible, as Beshore preached it, was a little instruction book, containing common sense about avoiding debt and gossip, helping the poor and honoring your wife. This Jesus, this book, this church — for Lobdell, they all worked.

ttending church, Lobdell noticed improvements in his life — new friends, a calmer marriage, a better job, even less acne — and attributed them to God. In 1992, two years after he began attending church, Lobdell was finally born again, at a men's retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. At the climactic service, when a student pastor invited the unsaved to come to Jesus, Lobdell fell into the Lord's arms at last. It's an extraordinarily moving scene, especially because the decision is a difficult one. Despite his newfound happiness, Lobdell is terrified of the baggage that could come with being "saved." "I didn't want to be looked at as a freak," he writes. Would he have to wave "John 3:16" signs on camera at football games? Give up all material possessions? Millions of Christians will recognize that ambivalence about converting, an ambivalence that can shade into terror. They'll also recognize some version of what happened when Lobdell finally silenced his doubts: "When I repeated the line 'I invite Jesus into my heart,' I experienced what I can only call a vision. Time slowed. In my mind's eye, my heart opened into halves, and a warm, glowing light flowed right in."

Lobdell never denies the power of his original conversion experience, and he never ceases to be grateful to the loving evangelicals who turned his life around. But after seven years at Mariners, he begins to find the self-help pieties simplistic and anti-intellectual. He leaves for a Presbyterian Church, and from there moves toward Roman Catholicism — fatefully, as it turns out, because his studies for conversion to Catholicism begin just as American Catholics are about to be confronted with the most heartbreaking news they have ever had to face. And Lobdell, by now a religion reporter for The Los Angeles Times, is not at liberty to look away.

I left the daily religion beat (for The Hartford Courant) in 2001, just as journalists from Boston to Los Angeles were about to expose a horrendous pattern of thousands of American priests' molesting young children, and their superiors' covering it up, over many decades. I have often wondered how I would have slept if I'd had to do what Lobdell did from 2001 to 2004: talk to traumatized survivors; watch indifferent bishops try to brush the abuse under the rug; and, perhaps worst of all, see the victims pilloried as bad Catholics, and the priests defended in the face of all evidence. "I've watched Catholics yell at and even spit on victims who picketed outside a parish," Lobdell writes. "I've seen congregants offer molesting priests jobs and even raise their bail." Lobdell's faith had already been tested by other articles he'd written, about charlatan faith healers and adulterous televangelists; but those people could be dismissed as rare malefactors. By contrast, thousands of Catholic clergy­men were tainted by this evil. Many were direct perpetrators, many more were cowardly and silent.

To Lobdell, it began to seem not just that religious institutions were no better than secular ones, but that sometimes they were much worse. After all, school systems and Little Leagues don't defend molesters as tenaciously as the Catholic Church did, and parents aren't as reluctant to believe the worst about teachers and coaches. It was precisely the cultivation of religious awe — with its traditions, rituals and ceremonies — that made priests seem holy, and thus allowed so much evil to go unreported or disbelieved. At times, Lobdell's homely, down-to-earth prose and intellectual modesty obscure the import of what he's saying. His explication of religion's capacity for evil is far subtler than the simplistic atheist line that "religions cause wars," but he doesn't seem to know it.

Fortunately, "Losing My Religion" is not a grim book. It is leavened by absurdity, as when, after Lobdell reports that Paul Crouch, a founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network, had paid a former gay lover to keep quiet, Crouch uses the mainstream media's satanic attack on him to help raise even more money. And while Lobdell's break with Christianity is poign­ant, his story ends well. Everything that matters, including his career and his family, survives the loss. Lobdell concludes with the cheerful freedoms that irreligion has brought him — to follow his intellect wherever it takes him, to shrug and accept that some mysteries are inexplicable. "I do miss my faith," he writes, "as I'd miss any longtime love." But "I like my life on this unexplored shore. It's new, exciting and full of possibilities." Lobdell is quite a rarity: an unembittered divorcé, grateful for the marriage and just as grateful for what lies ahead.

Mark Oppenheimer edits The New Haven Review and is the author of "Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America."


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