The William Lobdell Interview

Today I chat with the author of the new book Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace, the review of which caught my eye a few weeks ago in the New York Times. Prior to the book, William Lobdell covered the religion beat for The Times for eight years, first as a columnist and then as a beat reporter. He also has been a visiting faculty member for 12 years at the University of California, Irvine, where he teaches "Religion and the Media" and "The Internet, Blogs and Politics."

Prior to writing Losing My Religion, were you influenced, positively or negatively, by any other first-person atheist works?
Books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris served as battering rams to get me, and other atheists, out of the closet. They put atheism closer to the mainstream. But Julia Sweeney's one-woman play, "Letting Go of God," had the largest impact on me. With humor, intelligence, and humility, her work showed me people who don't believe in a personal God can have fulfilling and content lives.

How much feedback to you receive from readers who try to change your point of view? Did you receive much when you were covering the religion beat at the Times?
I get e-mails every day from people trying to reconvert me. And I have gotten a small mountain of tapes, books, workbooks, CDs and DVDs along those same lines. I think I would be a prized convert if I re-embraced Christianity (I don't see that happening). At The Times, when I interviewed people, they often asked about my faith - but no one tried to shape it differently.

Of the negative feedback you receive on the book, how much of it is people criticizing your writing and how much of it is people criticizing what you had to say?
Even when people hated the book, they often praised the writing. The most common criticisms: I wrote it for the money; I never was really a Christian; I didn't take my faith seriously enough; I took a turn toward Satan when I decided to become a Catholic; and I mistook man's sins for the work of a perfect God. It's a had book to criticize because it's just my story, and I'm not trying to de-convert people.

I read one comment on a review of your book from a person who claimed that you were never really "born again" if you eventually lost faith. How would you respond to that?
I'd agree. I don't think I was ever "born again." It was just wishful thinking. In my opinion, I don't think anyone is really born again.

How has theological life for your family changed since you became an atheist?
Obviously we don't go to church, and we've lost from Christian friends. But overall, our lives are pretty much unchanged--the same morals and values, which I'd argue are inherent to most people. My kids don't believe in God at the moment, but it's not something we try to ram down their throats. I just want them to think critically about faith and come to their own conclusions.

What was the most difficult part of writing your book?
Being honest and revealing secrets I'd rather keep quiet. But for the book to work, I had to lay it all out there.

Which of your LA Times stories are you proudest?
My coverage of the Catholic sex scandal, which spanned five years, and my investigative work on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Do you feel like atheists sometimes need to defend themselves more than just a person of weak/little faith would need to?
Though it's getting easier, being an atheist in America is tough, and you often get some very aggressive Christians who want to challenge your beliefs or convert you to their side. I think there are many cultural Christians out there who don't reveal their doubts because it's easier to just go along than tell the truth.

What have been some of your favorite depictions of god or religion in cinema or art?
I love any religious painting by Caravaggio, the Oscar-nominated film "Doubt" was spot on in depicting how the Catholic Church works when a priest faces an allegation of sexual abuse, and Robert Duval's "The Apostle."

Do you believe that atheism is a belief?
No. Not believing in something in something isn't a type of faith.

Why do you think people get so hung up on other people's religious practices?
People have a huge investment in their religion - it's at the center of their worldview and, in practice, they are betting their eternal lives on their decision. When their faith is threatened or questioned, defense of it comes from a primal place.

How has the popular meaning of the word "evangelical" changed over the last ten years changed, in your opinion?
To non-evangelicals, I think the word hasn't changed much. To many people, it's scary and bring forth thoughts of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the Christian Right. I think that's going to change in the next few years because the new generation of evangelicals doesn't care a lot about politics and want to live out the social justice messages of the Gospels.

How literally, in your opinion, should believers take the Bible?
Not literally. It's a lot of things, but it's not the literal truth. For starters, Earth is a tad older than 6,000 years.

How does it feel to be the 230th person interviewed for
230th? That's my new lucky number!