The Examined Life: William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion

One of the biggest surprises about William Lobdell’s book Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion—and Found Unexpected Peace is the respectful tone he maintains toward not only religious people in general, but Christians in particular. Given the book’s title—and considering some of my own life experiences–I expected the author to be bitter. And I would have understood.

I was also amazed by the good press the book received, including from within the Christian community. Granted, the positive reviews have come from the more progressive portion of the church, but how many books can you find with positive blurbs from both Christopher Hitchens and the Chairman of the Board of Christianity Today?

The answer: not many.

It’s also important to remember that asking piercing questions about religion is a difficult and often terrifying venture, especially if you’ve been taught that doing so is not only a sin but a sign of spiritual weakness. I often envy people who don’t have the same background as me, the reason being that I can never really know how much of my paranoia belongs to me and how much of it comes from others telling me I should be worried. Even if we ended up in different places, it’s refreshing to read an account of someone who’s also pondered the same issues I’ve encountered and not come away with easy answers.

The broad appeal of Lobdell’s book makes sense, though. His tone when speaking of his Christian acquaintances, many of whom he still counts as friends, rarely comes across as resentful. Of course, he takes the usual suspects to task—the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons, and Benny Hinns—but the rank-and-file folks who try to live out the message of the gospel, though they may not be the ones who make the most noise, are the ones who earn Lobdell’s admiration.

Perhaps one of the other reasons Lobdell’s book has been so well-received is that he waited to “come out” as an atheist because he didn’t want to seem like a spurned lover with an axe to grind. He spent so much time in the church, building credibility as a religion writer, that it made his leaving seem gradual enough to almost be excusable. Also, he raises questions that many within the church would do well to contemplate, even if only to test and perhaps even strengthen their own faith.

Here’s an example. Lobdell eloquently states a concept I contemplated eleven years ago when my mother died but couldn’t find the words to describe: a feeling of relief. My circumstances were different, but the idea was the same. Whereas I experienced relief after my mother’s passing, due to the knowledge she was no longer suffering physically, Lobdell expressed it at the idea of the absence of a God, at least the God portrayed by the world’s major religions. His reasoning was that, even though his realization offered no explanation for the problem of suffering, it at least eliminated the possibility of a deity allowing such depravity. While I couldn’t necessarily identify with his conclusion, I understood the route he took to get there. 

But perhaps the most compelling idea that Lobdell wrestles with is his inability to understand why a benevolent creator would make it so difficult for his people to know what he wants them to do. Lobdell recounts a conversation with a Christian pastor who, when asked about the problems of evil, suffering, and uncertainties about the afterlife, responded that he had no issue with the fact that these topics are mysteries. After all, he said, God works in mysterious ways.

But Lobdell makes an important point here, and it’s one that cannot be overemphasized. Despite his situational tolerance of ambiguity, this pastor nonetheless claimed to be quite clear on a number of things: the various requirements for salvation, the often seemingly arbitrary guidelines that govern gender relations and sexual orientation, and, perhaps most importantly, the penalty for not being saved. Make no mistake, Lobdell points out. This pastor was quite certain about that.

How, Lobdell asks, can we be content with religious mysteries on the one hand but insist on utter certainty on the other? Unfortunately, this question and the others Lobdell raises in this book mean different things to different people, so while some may see it as inspiring, others will consider it dangerous.

In other words, the certain will remain certain while everyone else keeps scratching their heads.