Review: Losing My Religion

May 15, 2010 | 22 comments
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I admit that when approaching William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace (HarperCollins, 2009), I expected the standard debunking treatment that is so familiar in news and entertainment media these days. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find a balanced and engaging narrative that mixes accounts of the stories Lobell covered while a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times with details of his own journey into, then out of, faith.

Lobdell’s journey and reporting

Lobdell’s journey began in his late twenties, when he first attended the Mariners Church, a nondenominational megachurch in Orange County. Ironically, that church is located just a couple of blocks away from the Newport Beach Temple. [The Mariners Church very kindly allowed their parking lot to be used for overflow parking during the public open house tours provided prior to the dedication of the temple in 2005.] Lobdell slowly grew in the faith, recovered his health, improved his marriage, got a big salary bump, and gained a spiritual mentor and friend in Hugh Hewitt, the blogging law professor and conservative commentator. So far, so good.

Still in search of what he called “The Moment” (when an Evangelical has that born-again experience), Lobdell attended a weekend retreat at Hewitt’s urging. Lobdell’s account of that weekend alone merits the price of the book for any LDS reader. Lobdell describes a “cycle of singing, testimony, preaching, sharing and praying [that] repeated itself Saturday morning, Saturday evening and Sunday morning” (p. 19).

By design, the weekend left us emotionally raw. Cut off from our regular lives, our facades broke down under the assault of song, prayers, worship, honest sharing and sleep deprivation. With real emotions exposed, I could see that the other guys were as screwed up as I was. … There was nothing these guys wouldn’t share: addiction to pornography, affairs, mistreatment of children, failed business ventures, and alcohol and drug abuse. And they all found comfort and direction in Jesus. (p. 20)

Does that sound cultish or what? Before the end of the weekend, Lobdell had his Moment. I’m not suggesting every Evangelical gets born again through this sort of manipulation, of course. But nothing like this happens in the LDS Church. We don’t do retreats. Converts need to go through a series of lessons and attend church prior to being considered for baptism into the LDS Church. Every convert goes through a relaxed but sober and straightforward interview with a local LDS leader to confirm that individual’s’ understanding of and belief in the basics of the LDS faith before being baptized into the Church. It is the polar opposite of the cultish approach used by some Evangelicals as described by Lobdell.

It is worth noting that Lobdell the author, looking back on the experience of Lobdell the believer, did not discount, bracket, or ridicule his own earlier experience. It was a sincere spiritual experience — he said it was “what I can only call a vision” (p. 22). He deserves credit for passing up an easy opportunity to criticize his prior actions and beliefs (and, by extension, religion and religious conversion in general). Later in the book he reflects more generally on how he now views his earlier belief.

Religious ceremonies I once thought were exquisitely beautiful … now seem almost comical to me, what with the incense, the holy water, the costumes and the freshly minted priest prostrate on the floor. But then I remember where I was a short time ago, viewing nonbelievers with sadness because they didn’t know the Lord. With all that has happened to me, I don’t feel qualified to judge anyone else. (p. 271.)

Lobdell was eventually hired by the Los Angeles Times, where he soon began covering religion stories. His timing was good, as a big Catholic priest abuse story was just breaking in Orange County. He recounts the details of this expanding story over several chapters. He also summarizes his reporting on other stories, including a series on the escapades of a popular televangelist, the faith struggle of an attorney representing sex abuse victims, then finally his own struggle and eventual loss of faith. His short explanation to a colleague: “I lost my faith on the religion beat” (p. 260).

The series of personal essays published in the Times recounting Lobell’s loss of faith generated a tremendous response. “This kind of response was completely unexpected. … There were people across the religion spectrum who had serious doubts. Many said they felt reluctant to express them. Their stories … poured in. More then 2,700 of them, in the end” (p. 268).

Encounters with Mormonism

Chapter Nine, “The Golden Rule,” recounts the stories Lobdell did on Mormonism, including his experience as part of a wagon train trek reenactment. That story produced an invitation to the first Exmormon Conference, which he described as “60 ex-Mormons gathered in a small, dingy meeting room at a second-rate hotel.” But he could feel their pain: “rejection by Mormon spouses, children, and relatives; the disappearance of Mormon friends; the end of a social life; and sidetracked careers” (p. 130-31). And so forth. Given the many positive stories Lobdell authored on Mormons, one can hardly accuse him of animosity, but I think he was a little too willing to take the stories he heard at the conference at face value. One Exmo who regularly sported a “Have You Hugged an Apostate Lately?” t-shirt complained about “having problems in her marriage.” Okay, I can see that.

Lobdell saved the most interesting section on Mormons for the last chapter. After publishing “Bedrock of a Faith is Jolted,” a story on DNA and the Book of Mormon in 2006, he was invited to speak at a Sunstone West conference in Southern California. I’m not sure he really understands Sunstone: “The lecture hall was filled with devout Mormons, and I was the only non-Latter-day Saint on the panel” (p. 280). He anticipated criticism of his story, but didn’t get any … until the last panelist, Clifton Jolley, unloaded what Lobdell called “a bizarre, occasionally funny, often angry 45-minute tirade” (p. 281).

Lobdell chalked up Jolley’s “out-of-proportion response” to insecurity, “the result of someone trying desperately to defend a faith that had one too many fault lines running through it” (p. 282). I find that response ironic on two counts. First, few Mormons would consider a Sunstone speaker to represent the LDS response. The Sunstone response to the DNA issue might be insecurity; the mainstream LDS response is to simply ignore it. Second, it’s odd to see Lobdell, who had recently lost his own faith, criticize someone who energetically defends his faith rather than surrendering, as did Lobdell.

Maybe Mormon roots grow deeper than Evangelical roots and Lobdell’s loss of faith did not prepare him to understand the Mormon response to contrary evidence. I can’t blame Lobdell for losing his Evangelical faith; I understand Jolley’s defense of his Mormon faith. In any case, that was certainly an interesting choice for the last story in the book.

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22 Responses to Review: Losing My Religion

  1. Kevin Barney on May 15, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    The story of the encounter with Clifton Jolley seems odd to me. At Sunstone in 2004 Jolley talked about his conversion to Judaism. So Lobdell apparently didn’t appreciate the religious perspective from which Jolley was coming in 2006.

  2. Alison Moore Smith on May 15, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Interesting review, Dave.

    As for the “cultish” week described, I don’t know. Doesn’t sound that much different from a trek or YW camp. :)

  3. Tim on May 15, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Or the MTC…

  4. SLO Sapo on May 15, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    “We don’t do retreats.”

    Maybe not for investigators, but what Lobdell describes sounds a LOT like the youth conferences I chaperoned when my kids were growing up.

  5. jjohnsen on May 15, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    That’s what I was going to say. What he described sounds exactly like the Pioneer Trek I went on as a teenager. And looking back at some of the activities we did, it does seem kind of cultish.

  6. J. Stapley on May 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Thanks for the interesting review Dave. Others have noted this tension, but I’d be interested in your critique of our youth program.

  7. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 15, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Interesting how little he understood of what he was seeing.

  8. Living in Zion on May 15, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    Over the years I have used every opportunity to express concern for YW camp. I don’t know anything about Boy Scouts, but yearly the pitfalls of programs running late into the night, campers being sleep-deprived, living on candy and cheap, low-nutrient dense food and then running around all day in extreme summer heat and humidity took its toll.

    Besides the obvious problems of girls getting physically exhausted and ill on day 2 or 3, every year we had one or two girls who had intense emotional experiences directly due to the conditions. It was sometimes very sad. I often wished for a calm, restorative type enviroment for the girls instead of an insane, Energizer Bunny type schedule. Alas, it was not to be.

  9. Craig M. on May 16, 2010 at 12:12 am

    “Does that sound cultish or what? Before the end of the weekend, Lobdell had his Moment. I’m not suggesting every Evangelical gets born again through this sort of manipulation, of course. But nothing like this happens in the LDS Church. We don’t do retreats…. It is the polar opposite of the cultish approach used by some Evangelicals as described by Lobdell.”

    Please tell me this was tongue-in-cheek! Otherwise, this is very poor form and unbecoming – haven’t criticisms of our “cultist” practices taught us to have any amount of respect for other religious practices? Who are we to launch rhetorical volleys against the methods of others who seek to bring people to Christ? Or is the assumption that these groups are insincere because they are Evangelical or related to a megachurch? After frequenting the Bloggernacle for a couple of years primarily as a lurker, I am stunned that no one has taken this on yet beyond pointing out that we too may have “cultish” practices. Please excuse me if I was lost on the sarcasm.

  10. Alison Moore Smith on May 16, 2010 at 2:47 am

    Craig M., I don’t care if people use accurate terms to describe things. By definition I have no problem with Dave’s label. I’m not sure what you think there is to be “taken on” about his statement.

    My point was simply that IF, indeed, that behavior is deemed cultish — then let’s not get too worked up about others being cultish when we are, too. Or, more specifically, let’s not assume cultish behavior is necessarily negative, since we do such things all the time.

  11. WJ on May 16, 2010 at 6:27 am

    “Besides the obvious problems of girls getting physically exhausted and ill on day 2 or 3, every year we had one or two girls who had intense emotional experiences directly due to the conditions. It was sometimes very sad. I often wished for a calm, restorative type enviroment for the girls instead of an insane, Energizer Bunny type schedule.”

    Because, of course, during the actual trek the girls never got ill, and the entire process was happy and wholly restorative. It was more like a sauna than a hardship. The nerve of local leaders, who apparently don’t understand that the best way to give our youth some semblance of understanding about what the pioneers experienced, they ought to make these exercises entirely different from the actual trek.

  12. Craig M. on May 16, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Alison, perhaps I’m alone on this, but I thought others would have agreed that calling a practice cultish is inflammatory and demeaning; it’s for that reason I take offense at Mormon practices (and beliefs) being labeled that way. (And I think it’s precisely for that reason that others offer such a label).

    From the description given, I think others are right to compare the retreat to the MTC and youth conference, and the comparison could may even be extended to General Conference participation or fasting. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these events – religious leaders recognize that enlightenment can be facilitated by first attaining a spiritually sensitive mindset. There’s nothing abusive or manipulative about any of these practices if the autonomy of the participants is respected by not actually pressuring individuals to say or do things they do not want to. I would hate to write off the spiritual awakenings or testimonies of any of my friends just because they were jump-started by a “retreat” or EFY.

  13. DeeAnn on May 16, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Craig M makes some great points.

  14. Living in Zion on May 16, 2010 at 8:42 am

    OK, after rereading my original post #8 after a decent night’s sleep, I recognize my comment was off topic regarding spiritual awakenings. I do defend my comment as valid, just off subject.

    #11 WJ – I was referring to Young Women Camp, not a Pioneer reenactment activity. Totally different format. I wouldn’t expect YW to go home exhausted from a week at camp, but they do. I also would hope they wouldn’t come to camp exhausted, but they do. We have a generation of kids who have no clue how to ‘get quiet’ and let the Spirit in without being utterly fatigued first. I am concerned for them.

  15. Syphax on May 16, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    This review reminds me of another review I just read about… Peter Hitchens’ book “The Rage Against God” that chronicles his departure from his brother Christopher’s atheism into the Church of England (I think). I think both books would be interesting to read. http://christiannews.co.nz/2010/peter-hitchens-the-rage-against-god/ Peter Hitchens talks about going to the Soviet Union and seeing the results of an atheist state, leading him to rethink his belief system.

    In any case, both authors seem to base their “testimonies” on the behavior of believers and non-believers, which I believe is a good pragmatic view of religion. Certainly true belief, all other things being equal, will have practical benefit. But I think it falls just shy of our true mission, which is to make a determination based on what we know in our hearts to be true, regardless of what other people do.

  16. Dave on May 16, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Craig (#9), no I’m not being sarcastic. But note that I’m not making a blanket charge that Evangelicals or megachurches are cults. I said that the event described by Lobdell was “cultish.” It resembles tactics cults are stereotypically alleged to use to exercise undue influence over those they are inducting. (Whether those stereotypical charges have any merit is another questions, of course.) The fact that most “you’re a cult!” charges launched against Mormons come from Evangelicals certainly makes the discussion legitimate. Obviously, if Evangelicals were aware of what their own churches sometimes do, they would be less likely to toss that label at Mormons. I try not to miss opportunities to educate Evangelicals along this line. You’re welcome.

    I think youth programs are a different issue. Most denominations run summer youth camps. Minors are in the legal custody of their parents, who are actually expected to socialize their children using a mix of carrots and sticks, either directly or by way of organizations to whom they delegate temporary custody or responsibility of their children. So I don’t think the comparison between the adult event Lobdell describes and youth programs is a proper comparison.

  17. BHodges on May 16, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks for the review. I share some of the trepidation about the “cultish” comments, noting similar things could be said about our pioneer treks or youth conferences. Other than that, I really enjoyed the review.

    Also, it seems like Clifton was not a believing Mormon when he responded to the DNA article at Sunstone. At least, that’s the impression I get from the somewhat abstract abstract of the session:

    The Indians Are Lamanites, but the Los Angeles Times Is Not: An Alternate Interpretation of DNA Results and Promises Made to the Chosen People of the Americas
    Abstract- On February 16, 2006, William Lobdell, a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times, published an article headlined: “Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted.” Whether or not the Times reporting of a story that (in the jargon of journalism) had “whiskers” or in fact “jolted” Mormonism remains for history to decide. What is more dangerous is that it jolted one of Clifton Jolley’s children, his eldest daughter, who called him seeking explanation. A father’s instinct to defend his daughter against the evils of DNA research seduced Jolley out of his retirement from Mormonism to investigate and explain the pragmatics and polemics of DNA research as a commentary on the heritage of the Lamanite remnant in the Americas. Although Lobdell is suspicious of the Book of Mormon as history, he used to remark on how “nice” Mormons are. Now he says: “That was before I met Clifton Jolley.”
    Session tape available- SL06354
    http://sunstoneonline.com/symposium/index/sympParticipant.asp?PersonID=53849&SympID=77

  18. Alison Moore Smith on May 17, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Craig M. #12, I don’t disagree at all with your second paragraph. Where we seem to differ is when you say, “I would hate to write off the spiritual awakenings or testimonies of any of my friends just because they were jump-started by a “retreat” or EFY.”

    Personally I don’t think calling these things “cultish” writes them off. But, then again, when someone says I belong to a cult, my answer is, “Yea. And so do you.” :)

    Dave, I’m not sure of your point disagreeing with the comparison. Based on the idea that parents are supposed to socialize kids?

    By design, the weekend left us emotionally raw.

    I have seen this in both camp and trek situations, due to lack of sleep, unfamiliar surroundings, being away from family, unfamiliar food, exposure to bugs, weather, elements, vulnerability and dependence on people they often don’t know well, regular activities pointed at particular outcomes (singing, prayers, testimonies, “faith walks,” etc.).

    Cut off from our regular lives,

    Check.

    our facades broke down under the assault of song, prayers, worship, honest sharing and sleep deprivation.

    Check.

    With real emotions exposed, I could see that the other guys were as screwed up as I was.

    Check.

    There was nothing these guys wouldn’t share: addiction to pornography, affairs, mistreatment of children, failed business ventures, and alcohol and drug abuse.

    Check.

    And they all found comfort and direction in Jesus.

    Check.

    To be clear, I’ve never had a problem with camp (other than lack of SHOWERS) or trek (all my kids old enough have gone and my husband as well). But when reading your description of this retreat, both of those events came to mind. So I was surprised at your apparently negative reaction.

    If those things listed are problematic — and I’m willing to consider that they might be — then that’s something we might want to discuss. (As long as we promise not to make this a reason to keep the girls home from camp while the boys still go!)

  19. Bookslinger on May 17, 2010 at 9:47 am

    I’ve long believed that the evangelical “the Moment” or born-again experience is analogous to obtaining a testimony in the LDS paradigm. For many LDS converts it is an event as opposed to the more lengthy process that is usually experienced by those who grow up in the church. I see the LDS youth conferences, camps, and treks as tools for helping LDS youth get their “moment.”

    In the Book of Mormon, the conversions of Alma Jr., Lamoni, and Lamoni’s father are examples of evangelical-like born-again experiences. 2 Nephi 31:13 even describes the Pentecostal-like speaking (or shouting) in tongues.

    And I’d have to agree that my 2-month MTC experience in the 80′s was often cultish, and sometimes crossed over into emotionally abusive when leaders got frustrated at the high-energy and often immature elders.

  20. gst on May 17, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    By the way, the FTC disclosure requirement is unconstitutional, and you should refuse to comply.

    Here’s a helpful collection of opinion on the matter.
    http://overlawyered.com/2009/10/required-ftc-blogger-disclosure/

  21. Dave on May 17, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    gst, the FTC has not withdrawn the rules and has signalled an intention to enforce them, albeit selectively. [Selective enforcement shouldn't make you feel any better, of course.] Yes, a court may find the rules unconstitutional should the issue ever be litigated, but I prefer to be on the safe side. Besides, the disclosure is a healthy reminder to all that government is out of control. Banks get billion-dollar bailouts; you and I get harassment from brainless bureaucrats. The tagline for November should be “delete your local incumbent.”

  22. gst on May 17, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Selective enforcement of an unconstitutional law is actually worse than uniform enforcement.

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