Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace, by William Lobdell (New York: HarperCollins, 2009, ISBN 978-0-060-162681-4) 304 pp. Cloth $26.95.
William Lobdell, a former religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has written an intensely personal spiritual memoir of his journey from God-seeker to born-again evangelical to Roman Catholic catechumen to reluctant atheist. In Losing My Religion, he tells an eminently engaging story of faith found, faith desperately clung to, and faith lost. The backdrop to this fascinating pilgrimage is Lobdell’s work as a religion columnist and later full-time religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he covered a wide variety of stories, including the treatment of ex-Mormons by their former church, deceptive faith-healers, fraudulent televangelists, and the Catholic priest sex-abuse scandal. Lobdell skillfully weaves his personal spiritual narrative into the context of his journalistic experiences.
For readers of this magazine who are accustomed to confident, highly confrontational, and systematically argued full-frontal assaults on faith, Losing My Religion may at first seem a bit underwhelming. There are no scathing attacks, philosophically indestructible arguments, or flights of soaring rhetoric designed to persuade the religious and satisfy the hungry minds of nonbelievers. However, to ignore or be disappointed with this book on these grounds would be to miss its real value.
Lobdell’s account of his spiritual journey is honest, heartfelt, and extremely humble. This is not an arrogant or triumphalist book shouting the obvious superiority of atheism from the rooftops. Rather, it is the painful story of one man’s heartbreaking struggle to come to grips with the reality of a cold, indifferent, and godless universe. On page 141, Lobdell writes:
Many people want desperately to believe, but just can’t. They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can’t will it back into existence. If an autopsy could be done on their spiritual life, the cause of death wouldn’t be murder or suicide. It would be natural causes—the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason.
This passage is an apt description of Lobdell’s own loss-of-faith experience. At times, it almost sounds as if unbelief was something that happened to him rather than something he chose or even would have considered choosing for himself.
For years now, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I had seen, but the battle was lost. I couldn’t keep ignoring reality. I couldn’t believe in Christianity any more than I could believe two plus two equals five. My worldview had shifted. . . . Belief in God, no matter how grounded in logic and reason, requires a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. . . . But as deeply as I missed my faith, as hard as I tried to keep it, my head could not command my gut. [pp. 243–244]
Despite the difficult struggle, Lobdell eventually settled into his new life without God, comparing his season of resistance to a swimmer caught in a rip current: “When I decided to stop fighting it, I felt relief—even serenity. I decided to ride it out past the surf line and see where it would take me” (p. 251). He later goes on to write, “Frustrating, endless confusion about the way the world worked disappeared. My life makes better sense now, without a personal God in the equation” (p. 275) and “What the Bible promises—peace and serenity—I’ve found in larger measures as a nonbeliever” (p. 277). Finally, he was pleasantly surprised by the new meaning he found in life without eternity: “I sense how fortunate I am to be alive in this thin sliver of time in the history of the universe. This gives me a renewed sense of urgency to live this short life well. I don’t have eternity to fall back on, so my focus on the present has sharpened” (p. 278).
Overall, Lobdell’s writing is calm and conversational, never pushy or argumentative. This makes Losing My Religion an appealing introduction to nonbelief for both believers and doubters still on the fence who may be open to a kinder and gentler approach than the more aggressive methods used by familiar atheistic standard bearers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. This is not to say that there is no substance to Lobdell’s narrative. On the contrary, while describing his spiritual journey, he tackles such concepts as Pascal’s wager, the nature of faith, and various problematic biblical passages. However, he never overreaches by trying to draw universal lessons out of his own experiences and reflections. Rather, he allows the reader to make the connections to his or her own life and to draw his or her own conclusions. While this was a tad infuriating at a few points when I was ready for him to drive a dagger deeply into the heart of religion, his approach is wise and well suited, again, for those less assured of their doubt or for believers interested in a genuine nontheistic testimony.
One thing that would have made this book even better is the inclusion of footnotes. Throughout the text there are quotations and references to events and statistics that I would like to be able to follow up on but cannot without doing all the research myself. For example, in chapter 14, there is a lovely quotation from Sigmund Freud in 1910 but no reference to the work in which it is found. A few pages later, Lobdell cites statistics about the percentage of Americans who believe in God without mentioning any particular study. As a librarian in the age of Google, it is not difficult for me to find the sources of these passages, but it would have been a lot easier if the author had done the work instead!
Although it will probably not become part of the canon of new atheism (and Lobdell purposely distances himself from that crowd), Losing My Religion is an important contribution to the growing body of nontheistic literature because it bridges the gap between believers and doubters on one side and established atheists on the other. He has written a beautiful chronicle of his search for truth that serves as an accessible and nonthreatening entry point into the world of nontheism for a wide audience.