Guest Post by William Lobdell: "Without a Doubt"

(Editor’s note: William Lobdell’s memoir—Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace—hits the bookstores Tuesday.)

Without a Doubt, By William Lobdell

When I wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times in 2007 about how I lost my faith reporting on religion in America, I prepared for an avalanche of criticism. I was sure I’d be branded a tool of Satan or worse.

As any religion writer will tell you, reporters on the faith beat get the nastiest hate mail and phone calls in the newsroom. In my eight years reporting on religion for The Times, I had people of God cuss me out, threaten me, put up a creepy website designed to “bring Lobdell down,” and predict with a great deal of satisfaction that I would spend eternity in hell.

When my essay was published, I was right about one thing: the response was huge. People read about my 20-year journey from evangelical Christian to reluctant atheist and sent e-mails in record numbers to the paper and to me. I personally received nearly 3,000 messages—a record for a single story at The Times. But here’s what I didn’t expect. The vast majority of them—I’m talking 99 percent—were supportive in their own way.

Some Christians tried to reconvert me, sending me books, tapes, videos and testimonies that formed a small mountain on my desk. Others readers suggested I try their faith, claiming I’d find spiritual peace as a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Unitarian, Jehovah’s Witness, and Mormon. The atheists welcomed me into the fold (though some pointed out that it took me an awful long time to get to the obvious truth).

But most readers simply thanked me for honestly expressing my doubts about faith and revealing how tortured and helpless I felt as I lost my once-firm grip on Christianity. Many had privately wrestled with their own demons before keeping or leaving their faith. But they all said talking openly about doubt was discouraged—at their place of worship and their home. Several e-mails came from pastors who no longer believed in God but felt they couldn’t tell a soul. Another arrived from deep inside the Vatican. All said they felt like outcasts with no place to turn.

It reminded me of Mother Teresa, one of the most revered religious persons of our time. She symbolized for millions the beauty of Christian devotion, sacrifice, holiness and works. But she suffered excruciating doubt. Recently published letters in Come By My Light reveal that she felt absent from God for the last 50 years of her life.

Frustrated, ashamed, and sometimes in doubt about God’s existence, Mother Teresa kept her spiritual crisis a secret from everyone but a few spiritual mentors.

“Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead,” she wrote in 1953.

“Jesus has a very special love for you,” she assured one mentor in 1979. “[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.”

If Mother Teresa doubted God’s existence for five decades, imagine how many people of all faiths secretly harbor doubts about their religion. Several recent studies have shown that there’s little difference in the moral behavior of evangelical Christians and atheists. I’d argue that’s because both groups don’t really believe, deep down, that God is real.

So it’s time for religious doubt to come out of the closet and be dealt openly and thoughtfully. I was honored (and a little surprised) that Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena made my essay required reading for faculty and students. Seminary leaders wanted to address the issue of doubt head-on, which is the healthy course to take. If Christianity is true, its teachers can dispel just about any doubt.

I have a different theory. I think there are so many closet doubters because people sense there’s no God who personally intervenes in their lives. But they can’t take the final step toward deism, agnosticism or atheism because the religious ties that bind us are thick. I know. I was a closet atheist for four years.

Optimistic Christians ask me if the outpouring of concern, love and support after my original essay was published restored my faith in religion. It didn’t. But it did give me a new appreciation of humanity. Most of us are doubters to one degree or another. And there’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone.