Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A journalist's deconversion from Christianity

I am currently working on a research project regarding deconversion from Christianity. Several colleagues and I are looking at stories/interviews of 50 people who had professed Christianity but now reject this.

In this context, I was very interested by this story about William Lobdell--an evangelical Christian who took the religion beat for the LA Times and not believing in the existence of a God.

As he tells it, and I encourage you to read the story, he was overwhelmed by the wrong things Christians were doing. In particular, he was shaken by the Catholic priest ual scandals but also by Christian televangelists' mismanagement of money.

This story raises an interesting question--what did he, and others, expect? Yes, Christians have done despicable things, but does this mean that an Christian so doing is evidence against God? Must all Christians be perfect, or at least pretty good, for Lobdell to believe?

Various posts that I have published (plus plenty by others) make a pretty good case that Christians have less ual "immorality" than others + they use money more responsibly. But, there are exceptions of Christians doing very badly at both.

As such, why would these exceptions matter?

To take another angle, why not gauge the irreligious by the same standard? I would assume that plenty of child molesters and white-collar criminals have no active religious faith.


Amishlaw said...

Thank you for having the courage and honesty to post the link to Lobdell's column. I have been reading your blog for several months now and find it refreshing. I think you over simplify and distort Lobdell's column, however, by posing the question, "Must all Christians be perfect, or at least pretty good, for Lobdell to believe?" That's not what he's saying at all. Nobody expects Christians to be perfect. But, as a whole, looking at the Christian movement over the last 1,500 years, is there really evidence that Christians are more loving, more altruistic, less self centered, more concerned about their "neighbors" than Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or atheists? I don't think so. This list of atrocities performed in the name of Christ goes on way more than the current sex scandal in the Catholic Church. I was raised in an ultra-conservative religious tradition and have been a church member and goer all of my life. But I find it harder and harder to justify my Christian identification. When I was 18, I read a book, "The True Believer," by Eric Hoffer that started me thinking about my basic Christian beliefs and how little they differed in substance from the beliefs of fanatical non-Christian ideologies. I started praying, "God, show me the truth; even if the truth is that you don't exist and I'm just talking to myself." Paradoxically, I think my prayers are being answered and I am discovering that I'm just talking to myself. Sorry for going on so long, but you asked a serious question that deserves a serious response.

Scott Kemp said...

If God exists (and He does) and if He is, more or less, what evangelical Christians say He is (and He is) - then how can we explain the sex scandals in the Catholic church, the luxurious lifestyle of the Crouchs, and the lack of healing at the hands of Benny Hinn?

How do I keep my faith - and I have known for years about everything that Lobdell wrote about - while he loses his?

Is it merely, as Lobdell quotes in his column a matter of "Keeping your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar." ...and I am better at that than he is? Or, is one of us just smarter than the other? I will defer to Lobdell's own conclusion - in the next to last paragraph of his column - "Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't be willed into existence. And there's no faking it if you're honest about the state of your soul."

Compare Ephesians 2:8 "For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God..."

Corey said...

Must all Christians be perfect, or at least pretty good, for Lobdell to believe?

The self-righteous tone taken by many Christians fuels reactions like that which you cite. I started running away from the faith when I was a freshman at a Christian Liberal Arts College. I discovered that there was social capital in self-professed piety; something I didn't have the capacity to develop (as someone who was doubting his parents faith). It was an alienating and scary experience.

Wherever we see insistent proclamations of self-righteousness, hypocrisy is certain to follow. [We are sinful after-all, no?] A similar thing happens when people realize that environmental activists fly to their rallies, animal rights activists own leather products, law and order politicians have oxycontin addictions, etc.

Knumb said...

The priest that married my wife and me got was Fr. John Lenihan, who had molested 16 year old girls.

As horrible as it is, my wife and I are still married, legally and before God.

The church is bigger than the sinner.

As far as the general perception of Christians by others, just out of curiousity... how do non-Christians want Christians to behave? Seems like there's a pretty fine line between being a "regular guy" (i.e. sinner) and "annoying goody two shoes" (i.e. saint). I know that's oversimplifying it, but it seems to me that there is a strong opinion coming from outside the Christian faith about how those inside should conduct themselves. While it's understandable that Christians should not be expected to be pederasts, this propensity to judge the behavior of Christians is more comprehensive and drills right down to mannerisms.

Of course, there's a lot of opinion coming out of the church as well, but that's not the elephant in the room that's stepping on my foot.

Brad Wright said...


I'm glad that you cited Lobdell's conclusion... I agree with his statement of faith being a gift, not something easily explained. Makes sense.

The rest of his column spoke of faith (or rather lack of faith) as a response to wrongdoing, so in this he implies a different model of faith.

How do I keep my faith in light of the Catholic priest scandal etc...? Well, even Jesus had one of his 12 turn out to be a murderer (or at least an accomplice), so Christianity has always had incidents of "bad apples". Much more often, though, it's about bad being replaced by good, and that's what's cool about it.

Brad Wright said...


You put your finger on what I think is a bigger problem than the sex and $ scandals when you write about their being "social capital in self-professed piety."

In the stories about Jesus, he could handle the financial cheats and sexual deviants. The self-righteous, however, were a much bigger problem for him.

Brad Wright said...

John, no kidding about your priest. I'm so sorry to hear it.

Very good point about "this propensity to judge the behavior of Christians is more comprehensive and drills right down to mannerisms."

Perhaps Christians will usually be judged negatively, the only question is on what...

Brad Wright said...



Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Yes, I've over-simplified Lobdell's column as a way of highlighting one aspect of it.

I think that you've hit the nail on the head when you write: "As a whole, looking at the Christian movement over the last 1,500 years, is there really evidence that Christians are more loving, more altruistic, less self centered, more concerned about their 'neighbors.'"

I guess I would say probably, at least in regards to those who have no religious affiliation.

Many, many Christians have devoted their lives to doing the right thing, but that's not of interest to the media.

I would say the bad rep Christianity gets is more a media construction than an actual fact.

For example, say someone kills/maims/rapes/cheats/steals. When is their religion news? When their actions contradict their faith. Otherwise, we never hear of their religion. "Atheist molests child"? Never see it.

This results in a *very* selective presentation of religion and wrongdoing.

BTW, great picture!

S.S.Stone said...

Interesting discussion going on here...don't you think we need to have "bad" in order to understand "good"?

It's all in the label...Christians, Jew, Atheist, Protestants and so on.... maybe we're forgetting that we're all "human" and we're all going to sin.

Knumb: a g/f of mine was also married by a RC priest that was brought up on child abuse charges. It bothered her so much she had to get some councilling...it's too bad when that happens and like you said "The church is bigger than the sinner."-great point.

Jay Livingston said...

It seems that there are at least four components here: the faith (the religion, its beliefs, its teachings); the church; the people who staff the church; and the non-staff believers.

It's convenient to separate these -- to say, "The corruption of the people who staff the church doesn't mean that the religion is wrong." But I suspect that the interrelations among these four categories are more complex than that. Can there be a religion, Christianity say, without a church or without priests?

DLW said...

I'm puzzled by Brad's claim that Christianity gets a "bad rep". There's a lot of evidence that the American public has a highly favorable view of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Eg, a 2002 survey by the Pew Research Center asked people whether their view of various groups was favorable or unfavorable. The percent UNfavorable was about 10 for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, 18 for evangelical Christians, and in the 20s for Muslims. For atheists, it was over 50, and even for the vaguer "people who are not religious" it was about 30.

Maybe the most remarkable finding: 50% agree that it is necessary to believe in God in order to "be moral and have good values".

So if anyone has a bad reputation, it's the irreligious. As someone who isn't religious, I could be upset that about half of the public apparently thinks that I can't possibly be moral and have good values. But actually, I think that the level of tolerance and acceptance of different points of view on religion is impressively high in the contemporary United States.

Practicing Idealist said...

I have to agree with dlw, and the results of the Pew Research Center, which have been replicated in other sociological studies and national polls.
It makes me wonder whether your perception of the attitudes of others (i.e., that Christians are disliked), Brad, are due to your structural placement. You are an Evangelical Christian living in a blue state (both politically and religiously), working in an institution that tends to be quite liberal, and in a discipline that is VERY liberal.
As I teach my students, our structural placement influences not only who we become, but also the way that we view the world.
Personally, this happened to me. I suppose I could be classified as one of the "deconverted" you are studying (although I would argue that I just was converted to something else). Anyway, I was a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian for a good ten years of my life. I think a large part of my leaving Christianity behind was directly due to changing structural circumstances (and also a lot to family influence).
More directly tied to my main point, I lived for a time in a red state/city (and my parents still do). I now live in a city that is quite blue (as many university cities are). Anyway, from inside the "red zone," it was easy to feel that people didn't like either my politically or religiously liberal views. Now living in a blue city, my viewpoint has shifted with my circumstances. I also feel a good deal more comfortable, now that I'm surrounded by similar others.

Brad Wright said...

Jay, David, and Practicing Idealist,

I think that you're on to something here. The data you cited David are helpful to understanding public opinions about Christians as a group, and Jay you make a good point that there are various facets of Christianity.

You're right about the effect of structural placement, PI. I lived in very conservative Orange County, CA and liberal Madison, WI and Storrs, CT, and I have been struck by how much my surroundings influence me. (I suppose that helps keep sociologists in business).

So, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Christians as a group of people are liked, and the bad reputation that I was speaking about (and that Lobdell writes about) is applied to the church and, especially its leaders.

What do you think, is this more accurate?