Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Snap: William Lobdell's "Losing My Religion"

From the April 2009 E-Block. The Ticker will be off until Wednesday. 

I suppose I could view this book by religion reporter William Lobdell as advertisement for better education in the church. It is that, but it also serves as a reminder of how Western Christianity has failed because it has put emotion so far ahead of using one's intellect, and because it has made the personal testimony, rather than the historic fact of the Resurrection, the central proof of Christian truth. 

One will not find in Lobdell any systematic argument against Christianity. One will also barely find any indication that Lobdell is aware that the basis for Christianity is the historic rising of a man from the dead. His understanding of Christian beliefs is primitive to the point of embarrassment; the Bible's contents are broadly dismissed with stereotyped phrases (eg, "contradictions, bizarre laws, and hard-to-believe anecdotes" [49]) and arguments by outrage, a "gumball machine" understanding of prayer [207] and an emotionalized version of the "problem of evil" closes out the roster of Lobdell's intellectual objections. (But this is hardly surprising, since he uses sources like the "Why Does God Hate Amputeees" website! [209]) 

In the final analysis, though, what Lobdell says turned him from faith was bad behavior by Christians: In particular, the Catholic pedophile-priest scandals (a self-described "body blow" [119] to his faith), though he also reserves some distaste for Protestant nega-stars like Benny Hinn, the Crouches, and Robert Schuller. As he sums it up: "It's hard to believe in God when it's impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists." [271] This is his prime argument against Christianity, and he wields the bat of it time and time again.

It is not normally my practice to make an issue of a person as a person when critiquing their material, but with Lobdell, it is impossible to not do so, as he not so much wears his heart on his sleeve as wears a T-shirt with a full cardiac profile. Lobdell acknowledges worrying about embarrassing himself by raising his hand to indicate that he wished to make a Christian commitment, and that he might become "Jesus Freak" or end up devoting his life to self-sacrificial service. [21] He admits that he "repeatedly fell short" [32] of his goal to set a Christian example and cherry-picked Biblical passages to get the message he wanted out of the text [50]. He describes himself as so beset by anxieties that he bites his fingernails until they bleed [56] and has a stomach that can "churn up at a moment's notice." "I have anxiety nightmares more nights than not," he tells us. He hopped all over the denominational spectrum, sampling Presbyterianism and evangelicalism and ending up in Catholicism, and says that the idea of hell was one of his primary motivations for keeping faith [169]. 

Inevitably, it is hard to not reach a conclusion that Lobdell was a victim of his own personal guilt -- of not living up to the hard standard he demanded of others; of being tormented by those who did live selfless Christian lives, whose example he could not follow as he instead followed what he (rightly) calls "Christianity Lite" [77]; of his frustration at not being able to reduce Benny Hinn's influence via his journalistic expose' [187]. His incessant focus on Christian bad behavior has too much of a scent of sour grapes. It is not a logical argument; at most, it can only prove that there are many false followers of the faith, not that the faith itself is in error. Jesus did not fail to rise from the dead because Robert Tilton ripped people off, any more than Lobdell's book is rendered closer to false just because he bites his fingernails.

Lobdell's centerpiece argument against the faith is thus not an impressive one, and indeed, falls back on his own shoulders. If bad behavior by a a Hinn or by a molester-priest is evidence against Christianity, then Lobdell should consistently see the selfless behavior of other Christians whose stories he recounts as proof for the faith. He laments (rightly so) the fact that 4 percent of Catholic priests have been accused of child molestation; [139] but fails to turn that around and recognize that this means 96 percent of those priests have not been so accused. Why is this therefore not a judgment "for"? When, in response to his announced apostasy, he received an outpouring of loving, concerned communications from Christians, he chalked it up to "humanity" [268] rather than Christianity. Why is this so? Lobdell's argument is one of convenience and how he feels at the moment -- and most tellingly, he is aware that this argument is fallacious, but uses it anyway. In a guest post on John Loftus' blog, Lobdell "answered" the charge that he was confusing the sinfulness of man with God's perfection by saying: 

This is condescending. In Christian theology, I understand the difference between God and fallen man. And I know that means Christian institutions, run by humans, won’t be perfect. But the argument falls apart on several levels. First, despite man’s fallen nature, Christian institutions should behave in a manner morally superior than their secular counterparts. I didn’t see much difference. But that not even where I lost my faith. That fact only caused me to start questioning other aspects of Christianity: why Christians behave basically the same as atheists in terms of morals and ethics; why no studies show that prayer works; why God gets credit for answered prayers and no blame to tragedies; and why the Bible is filled with a litany of bizarre punishments (death for working on the Sabbath, for one), a wrathful God who wipes out whole populations; why Christianity would be the one true faith out of the 1,000 of religions past and present; how God could be both merciful and just (the notions are contradictory); and even why Jesus didn’t speak out against slavery (in fact, he only says they should be beaten less). Eventually, my faith collapsed under the weight of all the evidence against it. I’d say as a Christian, I had mistaken a man-made creation for one developed by a loving God.
This is, however, in stark contradiction to the heavy emphasis in Lobdell's book on the "bad behavior" of Christians he encountered. His "first" point, also, is not an answer, but merely a re-affirmation of the defeated premise -- so that Lobdell is essentially admitting that the "condescending" critique is on target, and it does not matter to him that it is.

Of the rest, little more needs to be said; that Lobdell raises the "Jesus said nothing about slavery" argument (not even aware that the Jewish residents of Palestine -- Jesus' audience -- held no slaves to begin with!), and somehow gets instructions for treating slaves out of Luke 12:48 (the word used, while it can mean slaves, refers broadly to anyone who serves another person in any capacity), speaks to Lobdell's objections as far from intellectual -- or, if they are intended to be intellectual, failing in that effort.

In the final analysis, Losing My Religion is little more than an "anti-testimony" -- and to that extent, has as much apologetic value for Lobdell's worldview as a personal testimony does for the Christian worldview....meaning, in other words, none.

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