William Lobdell: ‘Free at Last!’

This speech, slightly edited for publication, was delivered by journalist William Lobdell at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 32nd annual convention on Nov. 7, 2009, in Seattle, where Lobdell received an Emperor Has No Clothes Award. FFRF’s golden statuette is reserved for public figures who openly dissent from religion, like the child who “says it like it is” in the Hans Christian Andersen fable.

I’m really happy to be here. I love this organization. I love all the speakers — Ron Reagan last night, Phil [Zuckerman] was amazing. Late last night, I was thinking about all the speakers and how lucky I was to be an atheist!

I’m going tell you a little bit about my journey. When I was 25 or so, my life was a complete mess. I had married and left my high school sweetheart but never divorced her. So I was dating, I was having a great time, and I got a girl pregnant while I was still married. My career was just really stalled out, so I was incredibly depressed and I thought my life was over.

I did what most males do: I didn’t tell a soul. Anybody asked me, “How’s your life?” I’d have said: “It’s unbelievable. Outstanding. Couldn’t be better.” So then my best friend pulled me aside and said, “What is wrong? You’ve got something really wrong in your life,” and I spilled my guts to him. He said, “You know what’s missing from your life, Bill, is God.”

At the time, he could have said “crack cocaine” and I would have taken it, because I was in tremendous pain, and he had a solution to this pain. So he said, “I’ll pick you up and I’ll take you to church Sunday.” I said, “Fantastic.” I was raised a minor-league Catholic — I was Episcopalian. We would go to church each week, and even then, I would think, as they were talking about The Trinity — three in one — “How could there be three things but they’re really one god?” This was in downtown Long Beach, Calif. It was a ghetto, but the whole congregation was white.

So I kept thinking of Jesus’ words, and help the poor, and we have to step over the homeless to get inside. It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I went along with the program. After church, occasionally it would get to me. I’d feel sort of holy. But before we were out of the parking lot, my dad would start screaming at us about something. And I thought, “He’s not quite getting this thing.” I didn’t really understand this religion thing, so as soon as I could stop going, when I was about 17, I stopped.

My friend took me to this church, a mega-church in Irvine. The Episcopalians had those silver kettles of coffee and a couple of stale donuts, but here they had a latté machine and croissants, and instead of an organ they had this really great band. So I went to this church and everybody is attractive, and I’m not a big hugger, but they’re hugging each other. They seemed so happy.

The pastor gave this message (they called it a message, not a sermon) and he tied in the bible with everyday life, and it all made sense to me. I did not have the perfect father. So all of a sudden, I have a perfect father who can love me no matter what, who can’t love me any more or any less for what I do. He’s going to take care of me — I just have to pray. I have all these new friends around me. I don’t have to take control of my life — I have to give up control. It was a wonderful thing. I thought, OK, I’m all in. And so I went into bible study, I did everything they said to do, and my life started to change. I had better friends. I made better choices.

Some of you have probably never been on a religious retreat, but if you get the opportunity, do not go. It’s a hideous experience. If you’re a guy, you go with all guys, and you’re in this Spartan cabin. There are no cell phones, there’s nothing there and nothing to drink. (There’s not enough to drink here, by the way. I went to the ex-Mormon conference a couple months ago — they drank like fish.) So at any rate, the whole idea of the weekend is to wear you down, to wear down your emotions, wear down the walls you have.

This is on Sunday. This is after you’re worn down and very tired. After the music, a pastor-to-be who conducted the climactic Sunday-morning service asked the men gathered in the chapel a simple question that I should have anticipated, but hadn’t: “Have you publicly pronounced Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?” I hadn’t. I wasn’t ready to. I panicked, my pulse quickened, my eyes darted, I suddenly felt trapped. I didn’t want to be a born-again Christian. I knew what I thought of them. I knew what people less tolerant than I thought of them. I couldn’t even say “Jesus” in public.

The weekend had been such a great spiritual experience — why did they have to wreck it by forcing this born-again question on me? My walls quickly came back up. I needed more time to warm up to the idea of being called born again.

The pastor went on to say that a public profession of faith was an important part of the Christian journey. He asked us to bow our heads, close our eyes and pray. In a gentle voice, he told those who felt moved to accept Christ into their hearts today to raise their hands. My heart beat even faster, but no longer in self defense. I couldn’t believe it, but I felt the urge to lift my hand. But I sure as heck didn’t want to be the only one. So I took a peek around the room and saw several hands shoot up. What was I going to do? My eternal fate might rest on this decision. “Maybe not,” said another voice inside my head. “This whole born-again thing could be just a bunch of crap.”

I should have listened to that voice.

I shut my eyes and prayed. That seemed safe and noncommittal, but there was that urge again to raise my hand. Was it from God? My heart threatened to beat out of my chest. I was at the edge of a cliff, weighing whether to jump. I wanted to take the plunge, but I didn’t want to be looked upon as a freak. I didn’t know how to explain my conversion to my atheist friends. I didn’t want to imagine how I’d change once Jesus truly became the centerpiece of my life. Would I be wearing a rainbow wig and a handlebar mustache inside a football stadium, waving a JOHN 3:16 sign at the TV camera? Would I be compelled to walk away from material pleasures and devote my life to helping the poor? I didn’t want to find out.

The pastor was very good at his job. Not in any rush, he said he still felt there were others in the chapel who wanted to become Christians today. He’d wait a few minutes in case anybody else wanted to raise his hand. Was he talking to me, I wondered? Or was it God speaking? My pulse actually slowed as at last I obeyed. My hand seemed to float up on its own until it was over my head.

Those who had raised their hands were asked to repeat the sinner’s prayer. 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. As my heart melted back together, it remained illuminated with a soft light from the inside. I felt instantly that the light was Jesus, who now lived inside of me. A tingling warmth spread across my chest. This, I thought — no, I knew — was what it meant to be born again.

On the religion beat

So I had this magical, mystical experience and was even further in. I didn’t think I could be, but I was even further in. I was in prayer groups, I was in study groups, I was doing everything.

I was a journalist, and I saw how the mainstream media, especially on the west and east coasts, covered religion. They were missing these incredibly dramatic stories, just from an objective point of view, interesting stories. The mainstream media treated religion, for the most part, like a freak show. It was the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells and all those other a-holes, and there was abortion and homosexuality, basically.

I saw these great stories, and as a journalist, I thought, maybe my calling is to be a religion writer for the L.A. Times. I lived in southern California and didn’t want to move, so that was my only option. I thought, God can do anything so I’ll pray that I’ll become the religion writer for the Times. I prayed for four or five years, morning, noon and night. After about five years, I thought, “Maybe I should actually do something about it and not pray.” I called the editor of the Times and said, “I want to meet with you.” We met and I said, “What if I told you there were 20,000 people coming to a venue each weekend in southern California, and you’ve never written a word about it?” Editors are very arrogant people, as you may know. She said, “That’s impossible. There’s no way that could happen.”

I said, “It’s the Saddleback Church and 20,000 people come there, and you’ve never reported on it.” She was struck by this. She said, “What else are we missing?” I gave her a list of 20 ideas, and she said, “You can write a weekly column for us.”

I thought God answered my prayers. I did this weekly column, and I did so well that they said, “We can’t believe we’re missing all these stories” — and they’re good objective journalism stories.

“How about if after about a year, you write full-time for us?” I thought, “This is the biggest miracle in the world. God is great.” And the honeymoon continued.

Then in 2001, right before the Catholic sex scandal came out, I did a story on a kid in Orange County who had been molested by a priest. When he tried to commit suicide, his parents found out, and he finally told them what had happened. He didn’t think they would ever believe him.

He was the most charismatic priest in southern California. He drove a Corvette with a license plate abbreviated “Father Hollywood,” until the bishop found out and he had to give the car back. But he had this dark secret: He was a serial molester. The diocese knew, of course, but no one else knew, and so anybody who came forward they would vilify.

The person who came forward before this kid brought a lawsuit, and the Catholic attorneys had him in deposition for 11 days, if you can imagine. A victim of rape, sodomy by a priest, had answered questions like, “Did you like it?” “Why did you get an erection?” “Weren’t you really in love with him?” Others were discouraged from coming forward.

This guy got a settlement for $5.2 million, and I’m at the press conference. Journalists have very dark minds, so I’m thinking in my dark little mind, my dark little heart, “$5.2 million is just way too much money for what happened to this kid. It happened 20 years ago. He should have gotten over it. Why’d he spend five years on this lawsuit?”

I was talking to an advocate for victims, asking her questions very objectively, I thought, and she said, “Why don’t you come to a victims’ meeting? There’s one tomorrow night.” I said sure.

I went to the victims’ meeting, and if you’ve never met a victim of clergy sexual abuse, I wouldn’t suggest it. It’s really a life-changing experience. There were about six people, ages 20 to maybe 75. The one that made the most impression on me was a woman who was in her 30s. Her mom was sitting beside her.

They were Mexican immigrants, and the priest took an interest in this daughter when she was 14. The mom was very honored because the dad had left the family. Her daughter was going to get religious training every Tuesday night. After the first night, she didn’t want to go back. The mom said, “Don’t be stupid. This is the greatest man in our community, and you’re getting this great religious training.”

What he would do is take her to a hotel room, where he and up to seven other priests would rape her. She got pregnant, and so the priests told her mom that her daughter had been a very bad girl and had been sinful, and that to avoid scandal, they needed to ship her to the Philippines until she had the baby. The mother did that, and the girl almost died in childbirth in the Philippines.

I’m watching the woman to whom this had happened, but I’m really watching the mom. Week after week for years, the mom had unintentionally put her daughter in the path of these monsters. To see her pain — I can’t describe her pain. It’s with me all the time.

I didn’t have a sudden conversion, or rather deconversion, after meeting with the sexual abuse victims. I drove home in a trance. I had written so much about the redemptive power of faith, but I had never seen, in a real and personal way, the opposite: the damage religion could do in the hands of bad people.

I looked back on what I had seen on the faith beat, and started to wonder for the first time about the low level of holiness I was seeing. It was the reason why stories were so easy to spot. People of deep faith, real faith, shined brightly against the dullness of the spiritual path. This short supply of holiness was something that began to stick in my throat, a disconcerting fact that I washed down with prayer and Christian affirmations such as, “Don’t mix up man’s shortcomings with God.” It would take a lot of processing and several years for my conscious thinking to catch up with my gut.

When I got home, I tried to tell my wife what I’d seen at the survivors’ meeting, but it was impossible to properly put it into words. The closest I could come was to say that these people had had their souls shattered, and they would never be whole again. I would later run across a better description given by Father Thomas Doyle, whose career was stunted by church leaders after he became, in 1985, a leading advocate of victims of clergy sexual abuse. He said that molesting priests and their superiors were committing “soul murder.”

Poor Father Mike

In my great wisdom, I thought this mega-church was very shallow in its theology. I’m a great intellect, so I needed something deeper. I thought, “As long as you’re going for it, why don’t you go for the one true church, the Catholic Church?”

A mega-church, you walk in there, and bingo, you’re a member. But the Catholic Church takes a year. They’re very picky. So I started year-long conversion classes on Tuesday nights and on the weekend. Starting in 2002, by day, I’d talk to literally hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse. I’d be lied to straight-out by cardinals, bishops, archbishops and their lawyers, and then at night, I would learn about the glory and the wonder of the Catholic Church.

In my mind (and this is where lifelong atheists have got to have some empathy), they were two parallel tracks that would never meet. The Catholic Church was corrupt in this area, but it didn’t take away from its holiness and its greatness over a 2,000-year history.

So you go into a Catholic church on Easter Vigil, which is Easter eve, and it’s a big deal. It’s like getting married, almost, except you only do it once. A week before, I got a tip that there was a priest who was going to get booted from his parish because of molestation in his past. Of course, until then it was, like in the case of John Geoghan in Boston, 113 strikes before he was out. But now, it was one strike and you’re out.

I’m sitting in the back of the church. I’m a father of four, and there were maybe a thousand people there. The priest gets up and gives what’s typical of priests who molest people: a victim speech. He says, “Nineteen years ago, I had a single boundary violation with a minor.” (The boundary violation was sodomy.) “A single boundary violation with a minor, and because of that single incident, I need to step down because of the new zero-tolerance policy.”

I’m sitting in the back, as a father, and thinking this is outrageous. They had this guy, they knew about this guy, and let him be a pastor! I’m very curious what the congregation’s reaction is going to be. He comes down off the pulpit, and they stand up and give him a standing ovation like it’s the seventh game of the World Series. There are men and women pouring down tears for this guy. Poor Father Mike.

It gets worse, because afterward, there is a “healing session” in the parish hall. I understand this was their pastor for eight years and it’s going to be a shock. But in the parish hall, the first or second or third thing people say is, “We’ve got to find a way to honor Father Mike. He’s done so much for us.”

Someone goes, “He just helped us build this parish hall. Let’s name the parish hall after him.” In my mind, I’m thinking, Father/Child Molester Father Mike. They second it. They’re about to vote on the name of this parish hall. I’m looking, and there is one guy in the corner of the room, and his veins are about to pop out of his neck. He’s about ready to blow. As a reporter, this is a great moment. I’m thinking, I hope this guy blows.

Right before they vote, he yells at the top of his lungs, “Enough!” Everybody’s silent. I’m thinking, “This is so bitchin’.” He said, “You know what? I’m a sheriff’s deputy. I deal exclusively with child abuse, and I guarantee you there is not one victim. I’ve left my kids with this guy. How dare the Diocese leave this guy in office, in his post? You guys call yourselves Christians and not one of you has ever said anything about the victim. Shame on you, shame on all of you.” Then he leaves.

I want to go talk to him, so I’m kind of sneaking around and I start to go after him to see if he’ll be quoted for the newspaper. A woman at the very front says, “There’s even a bigger scandal here.” I sit down, of course, because that’s even better. She goes, “I want to know,” and she stands up, “what’s an L.A. Times reporter doing in our midst?” and points right to me. I thought I was going to be martyred right there.

They turned all their anger right on me, and they’re like, “If you report this, you’re going to ruin Father Mike’s life.” Yeah, right.

I said, “I think when he molested the kid, that pretty much did it.” They said, “It’s only one time,” and I said, “I’ve been with the story for a long time, and I can guarantee you that it’s not one time. One thing victims hate is when they are discounted. If there are other victims, they’re going to call me up tomorrow and tell me.” The fact is, many, many, many, many victims called me the next day.

When I was driving home that Sunday, I thought, “Maybe this isn’t the best church to go into.” I had to call my little sponsor, and I said, “I can’t go into church at this moment,” but I thought I’d be back. Over six months or a year, I stopped going to church, but in my mind it wasn’t because I stopped believing. It was just because I needed a break, because I worked on the religion beat for 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week, and I needed a break from that.

Starting to lose it

I was really good and had a knack for investigative reporting. Thankfully, in religion, there is no shortage of scandal and hypocrisy. My career was soaring. Any scandal that came up, people would tip me off to it. My career was going very well, but I realized that these religious institutions were no better than AIG or Enron or Merrill Lynch. In fact, in a lot of ways, they’re worse, because they can say, “God’s telling me to do this.” It was very disconcerting to me.

These religious institutions were incredibly sinful. I covered the televangelist Benny Hinn and those guys, and in a way I pray there is a hell because I would like those guys to go there. They take people who are the most desperate.

If you ever want an interesting day, go to a Benny Hinn healing crusade. He’s got the psychology down. He has people who are so desperate for a cure, whether they’re quadriplegics or in the final stages of a terminal disease, and he says, “All you need is enough faith and you will be cured.”

Enough faith means as much money as you can possibly give him. And he says that. So they give him all their money, and he gets done with his four-hour crusade. If you’re there, if you’re human, you start to think maybe it’s true.

When Benny walks off the stage with his money, he makes about a hundred million dollars a year, lives in a $23 million mansion on the cliffs overlooking Dana Point. He has a very cool move, by the way. When he goes out of town, he tells his wife that God said that they can’t stay in the same hotel. So he stays in a hotel with his assistant, and his wife has to stay down the road at a different hotel. Kind of like Joseph Smith. [Editor’s note: Suzanne Hinn filed divorce papers Feb. 1, 2010.]

At any rate, when Benny walks off the stage with all his money, left on the floor there are all these people who really believe they are going to walk out of there cured. The tragedy is they don’t blame Benny Hinn, and they don’t blame God. They blame themselves for not having enough faith. They are shattered people.

I started to think that there was something wrong with me, because I knew that my faith was wavering, but I didn’t think it was because it wasn’t true. I thought it was because Satan might have got a hold of me, or I wasn’t trying hard enough. I tried everything I could do to regain my faith, because I liked my faith. I liked the idea of knowing that I was going to go to heaven. I liked the idea that there was this loving God looking after me. I based my whole life on it.

I thought, “Well, I’m an investigative journalist; I’ll figure out if my faith is true.” I just wanted one ounce of evidence. I decided to check out the behavior of Christians versus atheists. As Christians, we were made new in Christ, we were guided by the Holy Spirit, we should, on the whole, have some sort of better behavior than godless atheists. I said to myself, very naively, “I’ll spend years on this until I get it right.” It took me about five minutes on the Internet.

As Phil Zuckerman said last night, there’s not only no difference, but in many areas, atheists are better than Christians. This was a huge blow to me. Even Christian surveyors like George Barna have come to this conclusion and it was very disconcerting to them.

Then I thought, well, prayer. We pray all the time. There have got to be great studies that show prayer is true. You always hear this, or always see these kind of weird studies, but when you really research it, there are no studies that show prayers are true. If you’re in the hospital and you have a heart condition, the worst thing you can do is have a bunch of people praying for you, because you feel this pressure on you and it makes you have a greater chance to die.

I did this with the bible. I did everything, and every place I turned to find out if my faith was true, it was the opposite. It was very hard on me. But I couldn’t yet admit I had made a mistake about the truth of Christianity. I was hoping for some sort of miracle that would restore my faith. Being an atheist in America, even within my own family, was appalling to me. I wasn’t anxious to be part of a minority, especially knowing the passions of the majority.

The specter of hell did keep me clinging to religion. Facing eternity in Hades was a big price to pay if I were wrong. If I admitted my disbelief, what would I tell my kids? It was one thing to send myself to hell; it would be unimaginable to guide my children along that path. Christians often talk about Pascal’s Wager, which argues it’s a good bet to believe in Christ: If you’re right, you’ll [certainly] spend eternity in heaven; if you’re wrong, you’ll just be dead like everyone else. But it seems to me, to indulge in Pascal’s Wager, you actually have to believe in Christ. The Lord would know if you were faking, and I could no longer fake it. It was time to be honest about where I was in my faith.

As principles go, Occam’s Razor seemed like a better bet: It basically said that all things being equal, the simplest solution is most likely the correct one. It was becoming harder and harder for me to fit my idea of a loving, personal god into the reality of the world in which I lived. The simplest explanation kept boomeranging back to me: There is no God.

Saint Michael Island

If you’re right on the fence about whether God exists or not, the last place you want to go is Saint Michael Island, Alaska, which is exactly where I went. The good Jesuits went to be missionaries in Alaska, and talk about opportunity. In the early 20th century, a huge flu epidemic wiped out about 60% of the Eskimo population, including whole villages. The Jesuits were there and said, “Your gods didn’t take care of you. Our God will.” Almost overnight, all the Eskimo villages became Catholic. Over the years, it was a great fundraising tool for the Jesuits, because they pictured these little Eskimo kids, very cute, in the snow, with the words, “Toughest missionary field. Send your money. Help the Jesuits. Help these poor kids.” When the Jesuits had a terrible child molester from anywhere in the world, they would send him to these Eskimo villages.

In the one I went to, there were no roads in or out. You had to fly in or boat in during the summer. There’s nothing there. It’s like Tijuana with snow, and not even that. There’s no law, no mental health facilities, there’s nothing. There’s no running water to this day.

These missionaries would come in and be the only game in town. On Saint Michael Island, this one guy, Joseph Lundowski, raped every single kid in the village for eight years. He leaves and these kids grow up and now they’re elders of this village. They’re already dysfunctional enough as it is. These people are very reticent. They never talked about it. They’re very simple people. They didn’t understand really what was going on. But when they got word of the Catholic scandal, one guy said, “You know what, we’re people too, and we should stand up and be counted.” They got a lawyer. The average settlement, at least in L.A., in Orange County, Calif., was about a million dollars per victim. The Catholic Church offered the Eskimo adults $5,000 apiece. That’s their worth. Then, when the Eskimo plaintiffs wanted more, the church filed for bankruptcy. But there was this one guy named Packy, and Packy was the only Eskimo who retained his faith.

[Lobdell began to read from his book, Losing My Religion:]

On my return home on my winter trip to Alaska, I stopped at Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correction Center, where Packy was serving three months for assault. Sitting in that tiny visitor’s room, I studied Packy’s round face. In Saint Michael, the Yupiks lived in many ways, just as their ancestors did 10,000 years ago. They harpoon whales, track herds of caribou migrating across the tundra, and hunt walruses sleeping on icebergs in the Bering Sea. In the midsummer, they gather wild berries, a key ingredient in Eskimo ice cream, a frozen and oddly tasty concoction of sugar, berries, fish and lard. I ate that before they told me what was in it.

Smells of the outdoor life hung heavy in the air in the village. The salt air, strips of salmon drying on the rack, seaweed washed up on the beach. For Packy, he can only smell the disinfectants used to scrub the jail’s concrete floors. Alcohol and a violent temper had put him here often in his 46 years. Wearing navy blue prison clothes, the short, powerfully built man folded his calloused hands on the table between us. A homemade rosary hung from his neck, the blue beads held together by string from one of his village’s fishing nets. I pointed to the rosary. “Why do you still believe?”

“It’s not God’s work that happened to me,” he said softly, running his fingers along the rosary beads. “They were breaking God’s commandments, even the people who didn’t help. They weren’t loving their neighbors as themselves.”

I didn’t tell Packy about my own doubts of faith. Listening to him filled me with a sense of shame. My faith had collapsed, but he had been through so much more. I asked him to tell me more. He told me he regularly got down on his knees to pray in his jail cell, an act that brought ridicule from the other inmates.

“A lot of people made fun of me, asking if the Virgin Mary is going to rescue me,” Packy said. “Well, I’ve gotten more help from the Virgin Mary through intercession than from anybody else. I won’t stop. My children need my prayers.”

In the late spring I met Packy again, this time in his home in Saint Michael. He told me he’d recently followed the fresh tracks that a grizzly bear had made in the gray sand of a deserted beach. He said he could never commit suicide because it was against his beliefs, but he had hoped the grizzly would eat him and end his misery.

But then, approaching some bushes where he was sure the bear was hiding, Packy had a change of heart. As he ran down the beach, he prayed to Jesus to rescue him. Packy’s heart ached for the church in Saint Michael. Until recently, he couldn’t bring himself to set foot in it. He said on Sundays he would walk through his dilapidated village, reciting prayers and parts of the Catholic liturgy he had learned from his molester. He included a prayer for his abuser, who had died in 1995. Packy asked God to accept his molester into heaven. “I pray for him and for his soul. I just want him to heal.”

With Packy, I thought, thank god I’m not him, because it was the first time I had loved not believing in God. I don’t know how I could fit that square peg into that round hole. When I went to church in the villages, there was one family left going to the Catholic church. I felt a great sense of exhilaration that all the people had turned away from the church.

I started to see that the miracles in my Christian life had rational explanations. My born-again experience at the mountain retreat had been about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability, not about being touched by Jesus. I began to attribute my personal and professional turn-around to maturity, not guidance from God.

Landing the religion-writing job at the Times was a product of years of hard work and persistence, not divine intervention. I changed in another way: I now saw that belief in God, no matter how grounded in logic and reason, requires a leap of faith. Either you have that gift of faith or you don’t: It’s not a choice.

I used to think that you simply made a decision to believe in Jesus or not, reflect on the facts and then decide for yourself. It’s not that simple. Faith is something that is triggered deep within your soul, influenced by upbringing, family, friends, experiences and desires. It’s not like registering to vote and checking a box to signal that you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent.

Christians often talk to those who have fallen away from the faith as if they had made the choice to turn away from God, but as deeply as I miss my faith, as hard as I try to keep it, my head cannot command my gut. I know now that it was wishful thinking, not truth. I just didn’t believe in God anymore, despite my best attempts to hold onto my beliefs. Faith can’t be willed into existence. There is no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.

I decided I was an atheist, but I didn’t want to be an atheist, and I stayed in the closet for a long time. Finally, I saw this play by Julia Sweeney called “Letting Go of God.” I had no idea what it was about. I kind of got a sense from the title, but I thought, I’ll go see it and maybe I’ll do a story on it.

I went there, and it was right when she was first doing it, at this tiny theater in Hollywood. From the moment she started, it was like she was talking right to me. It was my story. I had goose bumps down my back; I sat on the edge of my chair. This intelligent, funny, thoughtful woman didn’t look like my typical vision of an atheist. I thought, “Wow, maybe I could be an atheist.” Sweeney said she finally had to accept what was true over what she wished were true. This was, for me, the most profound moment in the play. I had been wishing Christianity were true, as if I wished hard enough, I could turn fantasy into reality.

One of my big problems was death. I didn’t want to die and not have anything. But she dealt with this so straightforwardly, with no angst about it: “You’re dead. It’s like before you’re born. Things are going to be fine.” It was really a huge moment for me.

Driving home from the play, adrenaline raced through my body. It felt as though I had made a discovery that made sense of my life and gave my mind some rest. For me, the play was the key I had been missing in my new worldview. I could now open the door to a new life, one without God. It didn’t seem too scary. It felt more like something new and exciting, like exploring a new home.

I had earned money in college working as a lifeguard on the sands of Huntington Beach, Calif. It was a perfect summer job, guarding the waters of one of the world’s best and most dangerous beaches. I made about fifteen-hundred rescues during my four summers there. Most of the swimmers I had helped were caught in rip currents, rivers that form in the surf and pull people out to sea. Rips themselves are harmless. They don’t yank people under, they aren’t very wide, and they dissipate outside the surf line, but inexperienced swimmers don’t know this.

All they sense is that they are being pulled quickly out to sea. Panicking, they claw at the water, fighting in vain to get back to the beach. They tire, choke on water and go down. No swimmer can make headway against a strong rip current, but someone with ocean experience can get off a rip easily simply by swimming to a side, or she can just relax and let it carry her beyond the surf, where it will quickly peter out.

At first, experiencing doubts about my faith, I acted like one of those frightened beachgoers who swim madly against the current, trying to get back to what I thought was the safety of Christianity. But the current of truth had me and wasn’t going to let me go. When I stopped fighting it, I felt relief, even serenity. I decided to ride it out, pass the surf line, to see where it would take me.

[Lobdell resumes his speech.]

So this happened, I kind of came to peace with it, and I waited a full year to tell anybody. When I started to tell people, they were quite surprised, because they thought I was the ultimate evangelical Christian. Someone encouraged me to write a column about it for the Times. I wrote the editor and said, “Would you like a column about how I lost my faith working on the religion beat?” He said, “Wow. You’re going to have to really pour your guts out and just expose yourself, and that would be awesome. Do it.”

So I did it. It was very scary. There’s a time in newspaper life where you turn in the story, and it’s gone through the editing process, but it hasn’t been published yet. It’s sort of like you’re on the Niagara River and you know you’re going to go to the falls, but you can’t get out of it.

So late at night, I’m sitting there thinking, “Why the hell did I do this?” Because, as a religion writer, the nastiest letters you get are from people who are religious, by far. I thought I was just going to be vilified and that I did it to myself — I’m so stupid. I’m sitting there, completely sleepless. I decide to check the Internet and see if my story was posted. For some reason, once it’s on the page, you can’t do anything about it. You’re already over the falls. There’s some peace there.

There it was, and the worst thing about the story was this hideous picture of me. It was just terrible. But I read the story. Usually, as authors, when you read your work you just hate it. But actually, it wasn’t that bad, I thought. OK, now I can go to sleep. But I had all this adrenaline going, so I thought, “I’ll just go check my work e-mails.” The story was posted about 10 minutes before, and I already had four screens full of 20 e-mails apiece about the story. I’m like, aw, shit.

But then I look at the subject lines: “Thank you,” “Congratulations,” “We’–re with you.” It was by far the most in L.A. Times’ history. I got over 3,000 e-mails, and I would say 80% of them were from Christians. These were people who had huge doubts, and no one to talk to about them. (By the way, the worst e-mails I got were from atheist a-holes who would say, “How could you waste your whole adult life on a fantasy?” “How come you learned at 45 what I learned at 7?”)

I got an e-mail from someone deep inside the Vatican, who says there are many people in the Vatican who don’t believe any of this stuff, not surprisingly. It was amazing. I would say 99% of the e-mails were positive. That never happens from a religious article.

I think there are so many people, and I think this is why you see this in the statistics, who are culturally religious but they don’t believe a word of it. When someone comes out honestly, not attacking them as being stupid or anything else like that, but just telling them what their story is, that resonates with them. It was a big surprise to me.

Placebo of faith

My story, I think, has a really happy ending. Among the things the bible promises are peace and serenity, which I found in larger measures as a nonbeliever. My morals and values haven’t changed. I used to see my innate beliefs about right and wrong as something God-given. Now I see them as a product of tens of thousands of years of evolution, encoded in my DNA to best ensure the survival of my family and myself.

A sociopath, not an atheist, has no conscience and no ability to tell right from wrong. As a believer, I tried to live up to the standards for living outlined in the bible — that is, the generous and loving parts of scripture. Nothing has changed since my loss of faith. I still try to follow the same ideals, morals and values that I’d argue are inherent to each human being. I still find myself stumbling, but now I don’t blame Satan.

Usually when I do wrong, it’s due to selfishness and poor judgment overcoming common sense, self-restraint and experience. Truth be told, my actions aren’t much different than when I was a Christian. Many of my basic life struggles are the same. I still worry too much, hold grudges too long, lie (usually in small ways) too easily, drink more than I should, am too impatient with the kids, etc.

What’s gone is the placebo of faith that was supposed to transform me into a better person, to protect me, to guide me, and eventually to usher me into heaven. The placebo had stopped working long ago, and when I admitted I had been taking the sugar pill of faith, relief swept over me.

My increasing doubts about Christianity hadn’t been a sign of weakness or a lack of faith or a skirmish with the devil. I had only been slowly, even unconsciously, headed for the truth.

What has taken the place of God in my life? A tremendous sense of gratitude. 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. I find myself being more grateful for each day, and more quickly making corrections in my life to avoid wastes of time.

I’ve tightened my circle of friends, wanting to maximize time with the people I love and enjoy the most. I’ve become truer to myself because I’m not as worried about what others think of me. This may be due in part to maturity, but it also has to do with knowing what is of real importance in my one and only life. The sound of a ticking clock counting down the minutes of my life is now nearly impossible to get out of my head. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s the background beat to a well-lived life.

William Lobdell is a former Los Angeles Times religion reporter and author of the fascinating and thoughtful memoir, Losing My Religion, about losing his faith as a devout believer while covering the religion beat.

Freedom From Religion Foundation