I talk to Bill (WilliamLobdell.com) by phone Sunday afternoon.
Bill: "I thought the two (religion and journalism) were intertwined. I thought God’s calling for me was to be a religion writer."
Luke: "People do feel called to journalism. There is a sense that is a holy calling and it’s a clique of priests."
Bill: "I guess so. I guess that’s why we don’t mind the low-pay and the terrible hours. I guess journalists want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, probably religion is similar to that."
Luke: "There’s also the zealousness for truth."
Bill: "I’m old-fashioned in that I think that’s dying out. In the younger generation of journalists, it is not so much a calling as a job. I don’t see that same passion among many of the younger reporters I’ve worked with."
Luke: "How many evangelical Christians were there among the reporters and editors [at the Los Angeles Times]?"
Bill laughs. "Not many. It’s a fairly godless newsroom. There aren’t a lot of people who attend services on a weekly basis no matter what their faith. I ran across a couple of evangelical Christians, but I always kept my faith on the downlow because I don’t think it would’ve reflected well on me and my career so it was kinda sad for me. Because I didn’t wear it on my sleeve, I was privy to the comments people would have about evangelical Christians or people of faith in general, and they weren’t always kind."
Luke: "What was the ratio of kind to unkind comments from your peers about evangelical Christians?"
Bill: "They are viewed as interesting or weird animals. It’s gotten better over the years. People have gotten more sensitive to the fact that there can be thoughtful normal people who are evangelical Christians, but I do think there is a kneejerk…uneasiness about it because I think it’s foreign. It’s not anything that’s vicious or that they are out to get them. I just think it’s ignorance."
Luke: "To what extent is that cultural disconnect responsible for the failure of the Los Angeles Times as a business?"
Bill: "Very little. Over the long-term, it probably did have an impact, but with the market forces, they could’ve been an exact mirror of Southern California and they’d still be in the same spot they are in today."
Luke: "If I had asked you eight years ago why were you a Christian, what would you have said?"
Bill: "Because I had experienced Jesus in my heart. I had prayed for it, I felt him come into my heart. And that that’s backed up by my reading of scripture and other books that support that feeling."
Luke: "It was primarily an experiential thing."
Bill: "It was. My friends who were Christian seemed to have a much happier life than I was having at the time. It was their Christian walk as displayed in everyday life that made me envious of them, made me think, ‘Maybe there’s something to this?’ Then I found the same kind of experience and felt the same kind of feelings. That’s what sucked me in. It wasn’t some intellectual exercise. It became that later on to make sure that my beliefs were true. I spent a lot of time in Christian apologetic books and classic Christian literature with minds that were far greater than mine to shore up my faith, but initially it was an emotional experience."
Luke: "Yes. And it was an emotional experience that moved you out."
Bill: "Yeah. It was the same kind of thing. It was several different incidents, really hundreds of different incidents that put dents in my faith and made me doubt it. And then I did the same kind of thing, I went around trying to shore up my faith and trying to gather evidence that it was true, but this time I was looking at it through a slightly different [lens]. Instead of being someone who had just gained his faith and wants to learn about it, I was someone who was questioning his faith and was gathering some evidence to shore it up. And everywhere I looked, the evidence was pointing in the other direction, which was quite a surprise."
Luke: "On page 273 of your book, you quote an email you received from a church-going mother after you told your story in the Los Angeles Times and she talks about losing her losing 10-year old child to cystic fibrosis and how she felt betrayed by God. It’s a common feeling among other people in your book and in the world in general. It’s interesting to me that when other people were losing their children to cystic fibrosis, this woman wasn’t feeling betrayed by God. Only when it happens to them."
Bill: "That’s like life, isn’t it? My teenager got diabetes. I knew it was not a great thing to have, but it wasn’t until he got it that you understand the horror of the disease and how tough it is. Answers are more simple when they are in the abstract. It’s like when you have a gay son and you’re really against homosexuality and you have to reexamine your thoughts and values."
Luke: "So much of what you describe in the book is people being religious while it works for them and stopping being religious when it no longer works for them."
Bill: "I view that differently. The vast majority of people that are religious give God all the credit in the world when things go right, including finding a parking space, and He gets none of the blame when things go wrong. That always drove me crazy. I’d love that job where I get all the praise when things go right and none of the blame when things go wrong."
"Even very religious people have these kind of doubts but they’re just not allowed to talk about them. I think it’s better in Judaism than in Christianity. Culturally, you’re not allowed to really doubt too much. The answers are all very pat. When someone like me comes out and says, ‘I had these doubts and they haunted me,’ people, even when they’re still Christians, like to read it. One of the places I’m getting booked the most is churches. They want to hear the story."
"In Christianity and Judaism, it’s been watered down so much in so many denominations that people sense that there’s not a whole lot there. It’s more something to do on a Sunday and they meet some friends but the rest of the week they are not really living out the radical messages that are in the Gospels, for instance. If they would do that, they would probably lose a lot of people, but the faith would be more authentic. That’s why I like much better the people on the far right or the far left of any kind of faith, because they act like their scriptures are real."
Luke: "How big of a role did friends play in your journey into and out of religion?"
Bill: "Certainly into. I made a whole bunch of friends who I am still close to. We had a weekly Bible study. That was the hard part of leaving, my whole life was centered around this world. It was hard to come to grips with not believing this stuff anymore. It took me about four years. I lost my faith around 2002 and it took me until 2006 to admit to myself that I just don’t believe anymore."
"Before I wrote this essay for the Los Angeles TImes, I initially thought this could be a book. I called agents and they said, ‘A book on atheism would never sell in America.’ About eight of them said that. Then in six months, three of them are at the top of the bestseller list. That shows that there’s a real hunger out there for people to talk honestly about matters of faith. I bet a lot of people of faith have bought those books to get the other side of things."
Luke: "Did you lose friends when you switched churches and when you left the church?"
Bill: "I didn’t lose friends when I switched churches. I did lose a couple of friends when I left the faith. Especially because I spoke out about it, they thought I was doing damage to the Body of Christ. They thought I was either a troubled person or a danger to Christianity or a tool of Satan. When my kid got diabetes, my brother in law called to tell me it was because I stopped believing in God. God’s protection had been lifted from my house. But those were exceptions. He’s a little nuts anyway. Now we don’t have to talk to him anymore."
"Everybody could use a little bit of humility. I find atheists to be arrogant people. There are religious people who are so cocksure of their beliefs. If everybody would just step back a bit and instead of preaching, just act out their faith, we’d all be a lot better."
Luke: "How much ego did you have invested in your Christianity and is that why it took four years for you to come out of the closet about your loss of belief?"
Bill: "It did. It was ego and it was a lot of self-denial. I couldn’t believe that this world I had built myself around, being a mainstream journalist it was not the most popular thing to be this public Christian, and I didn’t even realize how much I had invested until a friend asked me what was new, and I said, ‘I lost my faith.’ He just stopped dead in his tracks. That was tough. My mind wouldn’t just let it be. I tried to ignore it. I tried Bible study, prayer, retreats. None of it worked. It was just gone. There was no light on. Eventually, because I was going crazy, I decided I just had to be honest. Living in truth is the best way to go. It was a real relief once I accepted what had happened to me."
Luke: "How difficult was it for you to start offering your services as a media manager aka publicist?"
Bill: "Yeah. I haven’t gotten one job. I haven’t really pursued that. I thought I’d put that on the website in case someone I wanted it. No one does. I am actually pretty close to starting with a partner a local paper for Newport Beach, Costa Mesa. We’ve figured out a model close to the Voices of San Diego model [but for profit]. That will eventually be my fulltime job."
Luke: "How dangerous is the serious practice of journalism to one’s religious life?"
Bill: "Oh God, this was probably a failing of mine if I really believed my faith, but I was always a journalist first. I was always wanting to get the story and not being concerned at all about the consequences. I felt in the back of my mind that as long as the truth got out that would be good for the institution or the faith. The newsroom is not the most conducive environment to people of faith. You’re fairly isolated. You can find people of faith in there but it’s not like finding a Democract in the newsroom. There are times that you feel isolated and you can’t talk. There are things that you do such as knock on the door of an accident victim’s father to see how he feels, there are things that conflict with your faith that you’ve got to reconcile."
Luke: "How easy was it at the Los Angeles Times to be out about your homosexuality as opposed to being out about your evangelical Christianity?"
Bill: "I don’t think there’s any problem with being out about homosexuality. I mean zero. I don’t want to give the impression that there’s some oppressive environment at the Times, it’s just not the norm, and a lot of people don’t know how to deal with it. I heard some whispers that some people were uneasy that an evangelical Christian was covering the religion beat as though I was going to be proselytizing on it. I’ve never heard that concern when it comes to having a Democrat cover President Bush. I found it really insulting. It’s almost a benign neglect of how they don’t know about a certain kind of faith as opposed to some kind of persecution of people."
Luke: "I did a project where I interviewed editors in the parochial Jewish press and some of them told me that if you covered a synagogue with much scrutiny, you’d destroy it. What do you think?"
Bill: "I think you should cover with as much scrutiny as you possibly can. If there’s corruption or malfeasance within that institution, it should be brought to light. For the members sake, for the community’s sake. These are tax-free institutions. In a way, they’re underwritten by the rest of America. If they can’t hold up to scrutiny, that’s their problem. I get that quite a bit, especially covering the Catholic church. ‘When are you going to stop? This is a good institution. You’ve got to stop hammering on it.’ I think that as long as there are stories there, there are scandals there, it needs to be brought out into the light of day."
Luke: "I broke the story about the mayor’s marriage ending. I think it’s a story who the mayor is sleeping with without any other news consideration. What about a pastor? What do you think?"
Bill: "I think there has to be some sign of hypocrisy before it becomes a news story. That the woman the mayor was having an affair with was reporting on him makes it no question a big story. A pastor who rails against homosexuality and is having a gay affair, that’s fair. Pastors are in a different league. Any kind of extra-marital affair is against their scriptures. They are supposed to be good moral people. For others, it is a case by case basis. If the mayor was separated and dating on the side? Is that a news story? I don’t think so."
Luke: "I’d think that whoever the CEO of a major city is sleeping with is a big story."
Bill: "I disagree. If he was sleeping with a waitress or someone who has no influence on the city, I don’t see the news story. If he’s sleeping with a lobbyist or the head of a big company that is getting favors from the city, then it becomes a news story."
Luke: "What role did Howard Stern play in the writing of your book?"
Bill: "I really like Howard. I think he’s the comic genius of America. He’s the best interviewer in the media of anyone. He had Martha Stewart on and within two seconds had her talking about why kind of vibrator she uses. I’m not sure anyone else can do that. He also gets other information that is not so sexual. More than that, what makes Howard Stern compelling is that he’s relentlessly honest about himself. He talks about all his shortcomings, all his dark thoughts, all his failings. That makes him like someone giving a testimonial at an AA meeting. It makes him totally lovable, you see him as he is, this public personality. One of the hard parts of writing the memoir was being honest. I had to admit some things that were really painful. I kept going back to, ‘What Would Howard Do? How would Howard handle this?’ Sometimes it took two or three passes through the material before I got down to what the truth was. I hold him up as this icon of truth. It’s kinda funny being on the religion beat that I have to go to a controversial shock jock — I hate that expression — as my model for truth when I had Catholic bishops and other holy men around me that I would never use as models of truth."
Luke: "It’s amazing what a low value truth has in the organized religion I know."
Bill: "It’s such a scandal. It’s not just with the hierarchy, the people in the pews don’t want to know the truth. They just want to go to their place of worship, be sealed off in a bubble, and feel that everything on the stage is perfect and there’s no trouble…"
"One of the reasons I began to doubt my faith was that if these great leaders could not have the courage of their religious convictions to tell the truth, who could? Where is this courage? I didn’t see a lot of courage out there. The Catholics are an easy place to start. People always tell me, ‘You talk about the molesting priests and the bishops who cover up, but there are a lot of really good priests out there.’ Most of the priests out there knew what was going on and they chose not to get involved. They turned away. Is that a good priest? They do a lot of good things, no doubt, but it’s not like they are completely innocent. You’re dealing with kids here. They would just turn a blind eye to what was going on."
Luke: "I was struck by your point about how little courage there is in the Christian media."
Bill: "Don’t get me started."
"The people who try to reconvert me and get me over to their movement, it’s such a waste of time. I’ve been through it all. I probably know more than what they do about what they’re pitching. If it’s an evangelical Christian, I’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s say I’m a Mormon. And I say, ‘As proof of Mormonism, I’m going to send you passages from the Book of Mormon that are underlined and say you have to read this and this and they’ll convert you,’ would that mean anything to you?’ They go, ‘No, why would it? It’s not true.’ I go, ‘That’s the way I feel about the Bible. Save your paper. Save your breath. I always tell them to do what St. Francis of Assissi said, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times, and sometimes, if necessary, use words.’ If you would just act out your faith in a way that’s in accordance with the Bible, you’d have more converts than you could handle.’ But they just don’t do that."
Luke: "Any reactions to your book that surprise you?"
Bill: "I’m pleasantly surprised at the quality of the reviews. They’ve been very kind. I’m surprised by the embrace of the book by serious Christians. They’re usually on the Left or the Right. They’re inviting me to their churches to be their guest speaker. They want to hear what I have to say because they think there are lessons they can learn. The pitch by the pastor of this church in San Diego that invited me is, ‘If Christianity can drive a person like this away, we’ve got to understand what’s going on.’"
Luke: "I had a rabbi who made the point that if Christians had tons of rituals, they wouldn’t be as driven to proselytize. As a Jew, you’re so busy just performing your religion that there’s not much time left to proselytize. As you said a minute ago, people don’t want to do the hard work of actually living their faith in a way that’s a glory to God. They just want to make converts."
Bill: "That’s a good point. It’s much easier to shoot me off a few Bible passages or a pamphlet. I get a fair amount of, ‘You’re so stupid. You’re going to spend the rest of eternity in Hell.’ That’s easy. I sense that this is from the people who have some insecurities about their faith. The real hostility, certainly not Biblical, in the way they’re coming after me. In their eyes, they’re taking a gun and shooting a lost sheep. That’s easy.
"The hard thing is to bring in the homeless. The Catholic Worker, a lefty group in the Catholic church, they believe that Jesus was serious when he says take care of the homeless. They open up homes and anybody can come in there and spend the night. The one in Orange County that I focused on, they get 170 homeless people that are mentally ill, on drugs, in one fairly small house and backyard, but they can’t turn anyone away because Jesus wouldn’t turn anyone away. That’s the kind of radical faith that’s very difficult. I spent the afternoon there and I got the hugest headache. I was thinking, ‘I’m not really a Christian. I would never do this.’"