Former religion reporter speaks at MU about faith journey

Thursday, April 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:31 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 9, 2009

COLUMBIA — Former Los Angeles Times religion reporter and author William Lobdell was at MU on Tuesday night to talk about his faith journey and how his faith and his reporting were intertwined.

Lobdell considers himself to be about 60 percent to 70 percent reluctant atheist and 30 to 40 percent deist. This introspective self-labeling evolved from growing up Episcopalian — a "minor-league Catholic" — then an Evangelical Christian and starting the process of becoming Roman Catholic.

Lobdell was covering the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals and corruption in the televangelism community as a reporter and found these stories so horrific that they caused him to lose his faith in a personal, intervening God. As a result, he wrote a book about it titled "Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace." He spoke to about 100 people in the audience at the Reynolds Journalism Institute about his faith.

Lobdell began his faith journey in his childhood, growing up as an Episcopalian. He said it was something he did because he had to, and as soon as he turned 17, he stopped going to church.

As he entered his twenties, his life wasn’t going so well. In his book, Lobdell described a litany of problems: leaving his wife but not following up with a divorce, getting his girlfriend pregnant, working in a career that wasn’t going anywhere and experiencing an inability to face himself. As he encountered all of these problems, a friend suggested that he start attending church.

As a result, Lobdell started attending a megachurch and felt his relationship with God led him to make improvements in his life. He began attending church frequently and discussing his faith with other Christians around him. As he continued to study Christianity and learn more about it, he decided he wanted to become Catholic.

In this time frame, Lobdell noticed a disconnect between what was being covered in mainstream media about religion and what was happening around him. He started suggesting religion stories to his editors, which earned him a job as a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times and its affiliates. He said that, at the time, he attributed this career change to God.

As all of this was happening, the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal broke around the nation. Lobdell was assigned to cover it and the effects it was having in Orange County, Calif.

"I was leading this dual life: at daytime, I'm talking to sexual abuse victims, I'm talking to lying bishops, lying clergy members, and at nighttime, I'm learning about this great Catholic tradition," Lobdell said.

Lobdell said when the stories first broke, he was considered more a novelty in the classes he was taking to become Catholic as both a faith reporter and a student of the faith. As time progressed and it became evident that the corruption was widespread, he said others in the class stopped talking about the stories he was reporting.

A week before Lobdell was to be baptized, he decided he couldn't go through with becoming Catholic. In fact, he lost all faith in an intervening, personal God, he said.

Toward the end of his tenure as a religion reporter, Lobdell covered a story about two villages in Alaska. He described the two remote villages as being without water or roads and ruled by the Jesuit missionaries. He said this area was considered the dumping ground for Jesuit missionaries who had a history of sex abuse. He described how, in an eight-year period, every boy in the village was sexually victimized by the missionaries. When the story came to light years later, the Jesuits denied that anything had happened. Shortly after, they offered a fraction of what other victims were receiving in their settlements. Lobdell said that was the first time he was glad not to believe in God, because he said he wasn't sure how he could imagine a God who would let something like that happen.

"I always was a better journalist than Christian," Lobdell said.

Lobdell explored other forms of religion but found that they seemed strange to him. In retrospect, he said he felt they were no stranger than Christianity, but he didn't grow up around those cultures, so they appeared even stranger.

Lobdell foresees no circumstances that would lead him back to the type of faith he had previously. He expresses an anger toward the people who allowed things like the Catholic sex abuse scandal to happen.

"The problem is they believe their bishops are holy," he said. "They're not."

In the end, Lobdell transferred away from the religion beat and eventually quit working at the newspaper altogether. But before he left, he wrote a column that described his faith journey and how he had lost his religion. He said he received 3,000 e-mail responses to the column, more than any other Times story.

Lobdell said many responses thanked him for showing doubt about religion. He said many people said they felt the same way he did, but had no outlet for expressing that doubt. That is one of the reasons he thinks his book is so popular.

The other reason he thinks his book is popular is because some Christians have embraced the book as an example of how hypocrisy among the leadership in a faith community can lose followers.

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