William Lobdell’s “Losing My Religion”: Why Do Bad Reviews Go to Good Books?

lobdellWhy do bad reviews go to good books? Because religious people deem it to be so.

William Lobell became an evangelical Christian at the age of 27, after being divorced by his former high school sweetheart. He was shocked at the level of anti-religious media, and set out to change that by becoming a religious journalist for the Los Angeles Times. But as time passed, he found his faith harder and harder to maintain, eventually becoming nonreligious entirely. His experiences are outlined in his new book: Losing my Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace.

This book recieved a favorable review by Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist, who likes the book in part because it is fair to Christians:

He’s not out to (de-)convert you, just to tell you how he became an atheist himself. In that sense, this is a book that religious people can read from front to back without wanting to burn it… If you’re religious, it can help you understand why some atheists choose the path that we do.

If only it were that easy. A significant chunk of his reviews on Amazon ignore the merits of the book itself and simply bash the fact that Lobdell dares not to believe. But the worst press so far is the book review in his own former place of employ. Heather King, writing for the LA Times Book Review, lays out the details of his path to atheism as if describing the actions of a man about to commit murder. Then, instead of addressing the quality of his writing, she trashes his decision to no longer be religious, and suggests he just go back and read the book of Job.

I understand that Lobdell’s heart is broken, as all human hearts must be broken if for no other reason than that we must die. I sympathize down to the bone with his hunger for the world to be holy without quite being able to be holy himself. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened had Lobdell stepped out of his journalist’s role. I wonder if he would not have discovered that even the best of us contribute to the suffering of the world. I wonder if he would not have discovered that conflict, uncertainty, paradox, doubt are the beginning of faith, not the end of it. I wonder if he would not have realized that an anonymous author wrote a variation of this story 2,600 years ago — about a man named Job.

I wonder too. I wonder why it is that atheists see the beliefs of the religious as a difference of opinion, yet believers see our lack of belief as a critical flaw, and a personal attack on them. I wonder why King ignored the second part of Lobdell’s subtitle, in which he “found unexpected peace”, and why the mere fact he is no longer religious makes him the target of scorn. And I wonder why the Times couldn’t have found someone to write a more balanced review.

At the end of her review, King presents the book’s cover photograph of a snuffed candle as the perfect summation of Lobdell, the lost soul. Yet I’ve always thought candles were more beautiful after being put out; the flame of a candle is intense and will burn you if you try to touch it, but snuff it out and the room fills with a delicate veil of smoke, always changing into different shapes, each as beautiful as the last. Maybe someday we’ll live in a society that appreciates snuffed candles.

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Blogical

I’m starting this blog as an outlet for my thoughts on religion, it successes, shortfalls, and how I get along without it. As an atheist and secularist, I often get accused of only believing in “cold logic”, to which I respond, “What’s so cold about it?" Just because I think critically where where religious people don’t doesn’t make me cold, immoral or unfeeling. I’m not anti-religious per se, though I feel some religious practices do get a free ride where they shouldn’t. The main reason I’m an atheist is that I think a life lived on secular priciples is a better way to live. In reading this, you’ll probably see plenty of ideas you’ve heard before, and hopefully a few you haven’t. With any luck, you’ll understand where I’m coming from, and we’ll both be better off.
The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism
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