Another Religion Reporter Loses His Faith August 20, 2009

Another Religion Reporter Loses His Faith

William Lobdell‘s time working as a religion reporter for the LA Times helped him become an atheist.

It looks like he has a counterpart in the UK.

Stephen Bates is a former religion reporter for The Guardian. His time reporting on religion led him to agnosticism.

The thing that astounded me was the vituperation directed not at other faiths (a degree of Islamophobia came later) but at those who happened to disagree within the same faith communities.

You get evangelical publications denouncing “liberals” within the Church of England and claiming they are not really Christian, there are reactionary Catholic publications sneering similarly at modernists and attacking those who do not wish for a return of the Latin mass as somehow lesser beings…

What rankled most was the hypocrisy, the fact that the Bible’s scattered and random words on homosexuality were uncontestable for all time and yet, somehow, divorce — which Jesus himself appears from the Gospels to have condemned — was somehow only a minor and changeable transgression…

I gave up covering religion for the paper after seven years, partly because I felt I could no longer report dispassionately on such events, or even give a fair shake to those whose views seemed to me to be both deluded and malign.

The last paragraphs are must-reads.

Atheism may be realistic, but without some humanism in there to provide compassion and support, it’s hard to get people to consider godlessness as a viable option for them.

(Thanks to Emma for the link!)

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  • keddaw

    Atheism may be realistic, but without some humanism in there to provide compassion and support, it’s hard to get people to consider godlessness as a viable option for them.

    I assume that is resonse to the last few paragraphs when the author regrets the passing of a large part of his life that he now realises he has misspent.

    The fact that some people need comfort, solace or community does not mean that humanists or atheists should go about setting it up. By doing that you become a church in all but name.

    The fact is humanists and their ilk have a diversity of opinions about various things from charity to abortion to euthanasia to taxation. By providing the facilities you mention there will be a charismatic leader (there is in every group) who, by force of will or personality, sets up his stall as the only viable humanist outlook. Anyone coming from religion and hankering after the authority of it will fall in with this person without thinking it through properly themselves.

    Ultimately this will lead to divisions, splinter groups and a bout of bitter infighting between the godless.

    If people want that they should join political parties when they leave religion.

    Atheism is about trying to see the world as it is, not some fuzzy security blanket for those people who have had the scales reluctantly removed from their eyes.

  • Mariana

    The debate going on the comments for the article are interesting…and a little circular…I’m surprised none of the atheist-advocate commenters brought up humanism.

  • keddaw, you wrote:

    “The fact that some people need comfort, solace or community does not mean that humanists or atheists should go about setting it up. By doing that you become a church in all but name.”

    I disagree with this assessment. I feel that this is misguided, and that this kind of misplaced apprehension is a setback for humanists and atheists.

    Why not provide solace, community, or comfort?

    No, a group of people that cares for other people does not become a church in all but name. If you believe this, you are allowing the religious to win their argument, because their accepted premise is that only religion can provide the things you’ve listed.

    If the argument is that only religion can provide those things, then why shouldn’t people stick with religion? Let’s have some empathy, and think about this situation from someone else’s position. If I’m a liberal or apathetic believer, and I gain some comfort and solace from religion, and there is nothing else I can find to provide that, then why shouldn’t I just keep doing what I’m doing?

    Does anyone else understand what I’m trying to say here?

    I’m not asking you to accept one common understanding of humanism or atheism, but I’m merely asserting that there is nothing wrong with building a community founded upon your own understanding of it!

    Let a thousand flowers bloom! We can have all kinds of communities doing all kinds of things for all kinds of people. We can do what religion would do if they weren’t consistently chained to dogma.

    Let’s be optimistic, not apprehensive.

    This is exactly the kind of attitude that Stephen Bates probably finds disconcerting. If we refuse to embrace human needs or desires, what else should we expect to find but resentment and disappointment? I’m not saying that anyone has to embrace those things, but it would be nice if some people could embrace those things openly and not be maligned for it as “just another church”.

    Again, you ask “why?” and I ask “why not?!”

  • DJ

    The article’s discussion about disagreements within the same faith communities reminded me of this classic from Emo Phillips:

    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well…are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?” He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” He said, “Baptist!” I said, “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist church of god or Baptist church of the lord?” He said, “Baptist church of god!” I said, “Me too! Are you original Baptist church of god, or are you reformed Baptist church of god?” He said, “Reformed Baptist church of god!” I said, “Me too! Are you reformed Baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed Baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?” He said, “Reformed Baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!” I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off.

  • keddaw

    My comment may have been a little cold, but I simply feel that a feeling of community should be provided by… friends, family and people with a shared interest.

    My point was really that by trying to provide a ready made community of atheists for believers to belong to you, intentionally or not, define what an atheist is and it is not the definition I want.

    I do not want to be a bright. I do not want to be a humanist. I simply want an atheist to be someone who rejects the idea of there being an anthropomorphic god.

    There are many incredibly stupid people who are atheists as well as clever, bad people as well as good.

    Atheism is not a movement. It is not even an idea. It is a rejection of other ideas. To make that into a movement seems like madness.

    I understand the political pressures as well as the social pressures, especially in America, but I live in an ideal world where ideas win out…

    Besides which, if people won’t leave a religion for fear of losing the community spirit in spite of the fact they realise it is intellectually and morally bankrupt and see the damage it is doing to the US Constitution then not only are they apathetic, they are hypocrites and bad Americans.

    You cannot salute the flag with one hand while making the sign of the cross with the other.

  • keddaw

    A sense of community should be put where it belongs, in the sports stadium.

  • keddaw,

    Atheism doesn’t have to be made into a movement, but why should there be such strict opposition if some atheists or some humanists want to come together as a group?

    I understand your objections but I do not agree with them.

    Yes, I also wish that we lived in a world where ideas win out, but that is not the world we live in.

    Some people need an emotional community that is not a sports team or a knitting group.

    If you are fine, great. If other people could use something else, why deny them the opportunity by disparaging their hopes?

    This is what I don’t get – why are we shooting ourselves in the foot?

    If you personally disagree with what someone else does who is an atheist or a humanist, fine. But oftentimes it is the same exact people who say “atheism is not a movement” acting like any type of community will be the “end of atheism as we know it”. Outlandish much?

    You don’t want to be anything – that’s great. But atheism isn’t going to go down the tubes if some people also want to be something else. I am a human being first and I am an atheist after that.

    You can be what you want, but what if I want to be something else, too?

    We need more options for people who happen to be atheists or agnostics. And that’s what an option is, it’s optional. It doesn’t have to be dogmatic.

    I’m only stating that it would be nice if there were more options for a community that provides comfort and solace for people who are not religious.

    I feel that if you do not want this, that is fine. I feel that if you think this is a bad thing overall, you have the right to that opinion.

    But to conclusively rule out such an endeavor for everyone who might want it before it is even tried, seems just a bit…dogmatic.

    If you cannot remember anything else that I’ve said: no one has to go along with anything, but if people want to do something, there should be lots of options and choices for them. As I said in my original post, let a thousand flowers bloom!

    I don’t want to make atheism a movement, but if there were more movements for people who happen to be atheists or agnostics, that is what I want. I keep saying this again and again, but it’s the most critical thing I’ve said: let a thousand flowers bloom!

  • The Other Tom

    It saddens me that he said,

    I didn’t get any hospital visits from atheist visitors. What might they have said to me: “This is as good as it gets, mate?”

    It shows that he still doesn’t understand a world without a god. The answer to his question is, of course, “I’m here. I care about you. How are you feeling? Let me hold your hand. Do you want to talk?”

    It’s not the promise of divine intervention that makes a hospital visit comforting, it’s the fact that someone cares to come and spend time with you.

    My friend is having surgery today, 400 miles from where I live. I’m upset because I can’t be there to hold her hand beforehand and tell her again that it’s going to be okay, or to hold her hand after and remind her that it IS okay. Being an atheist doesn’t mean I care any less, it means I value the one life that she has all that much more.

  • Moxiequz


    Does anyone else understand what I’m trying to say here?

    Yes, and I absolutely agree with you. Very well put.


    I simply feel that a feeling of community should be provided by… friends, family and people with a shared interest.

    Like..oh, say…atheists and other secular minded folks?

    A sense of community should be put where it belongs, in the sports stadium.

    I’m not sure if that statement was intended to be a joke or not but it not only contradicts your prior statement but it’s also just flat out disconnected from reality and basic humanity.

  • Kaylya

    I didn’t get any hospital visits from atheist visitors. What might they have said to me: “This is as good as it gets, mate?”

    But he probably did. They just wore the titles like “Dr.” or “Nurse” etc. rather than “Chaplain”. It’s also possible that the hospital did have a team of secular volunteers who do patient visits, but perhaps they focused their time more on people who did not have many family and friend visits. It could also be that his visits from the religious were through a pastoral care program of some sort that would be impossible or very difficult for an atheist to join.

  • Sven

    I didn’t get any hospital visits from atheist visitors.

    I wonder if the doctor that got him better is an antheist. This person who has studied for years and has worked to the latest hours to get other people well. Or does the doctor not count as ´visit´?

  • Schmeer

    I notice that he called opinions that Richard Dawkins has never held “Dawkinsite”. How unfortunate. His article was ruined by that libelous remark.

  • re Sven and Kaylya:

    I think this misses the point. The doctors and nurses are there professionally. Even if the religious visitors are part of a pastoral program, this simply suggests — once again — that religions have “something” that atheists do not (e.g., care beyond mere professionalism). This does *not* need to be the case.

    I understand both keddaw (in that atheism is atheism…it isn’t humanism, “bright”, etc., etc., it doesn’t provide the glue between any of us and if it weren’t for the existence and popularity of theists, it would provide even *less* glue) and Teleprompter (the dry and unempathetic/unsympathetic tone only serves to continue to propagate the idea that atheists are inhumane, hyperrationalist and out of touch with emotions. And if this is so, we LOSE to religion no matter how objectively false it may be, because people *aren’t* hyperrationalist. They do care about emotionality and care.)

    Personally, I am like keddaw in that I don’t need strangers coming to visit me at the hospital. My family and friends are enough. If I want some organization, I’m of the kind of attitude to join some club.

    BUT I recognize that this is not how most people operate. Most people gain a social and “spiritual” value from religion that keddaw’s outlook utterly ignores and misunderstands and which atheists, unfortunately, have been notoriously blind to (though it doesn’t HAVE to be that way since it’s not like atheism has rules and regulations).

  • Erp

    IIRC the NHS (National Health Service) does have some humanist chaplains.

  • Most of the article was interesting, in that it’s always interesting to see how someone goes through a change of heart on something. But the last few paragraphs, the “must-read” ones, disgusted me.

    I take issue with Mr. Bates’ line: “I didn’t get any hospital visits from atheist visitors. What might they have said to me: “This is as good as it gets, mate?'” That rhetorical question makes clear that despite his disillusionment with his religion, he still carries the same ready-made prejudices and assumptions. One of those assumptions is that life, the Universe, God, other people or any combination of the aforementioned owes him answers. And, for that matter, the promise that his desires will be fulfilled, that his fears be allayed, his transgressions righted. These are things that are owed to none of us, yet are demanded by those of religious (and even nonreligious) persuasion, whenever we are told that atheism is nonviable because it doesn’t provide enough comfort.

    That sense of entitlement that Mr. Bates displays, to things that are earned and not granted, is exactly the sensibility that results in so many people abandoning reality and its inhabitants on the grounds that it just isn’t good enough for them, and that is truly reprehensible. Such a person has no motivation to make reality better. Indeed, never does it occur to Mr. Bates that he is now responsible for providing his own answers, his own compassion, his own charity. Instead he is “sad” that he has fallen closer into company with those “bad people.” (Though he never uses those words, it is apparent in his tone and characterization of atheists.) How can he honestly expect his life to get any happier when he takes no responsibility for it?

    Atheism may be a hard pill to swallow, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept others’ inability to accept responsibility for their own lives. No matter how heart-wrenching a loss of faith may be, it doesn’t excuse prejudice and it doesn’t excuse an infantile sense of entitlement. If I heard this story in a bar, I’d say to him: “Get over yourself!” Unfortunately, when an atheist says that, nobody listens.

  • beijingrrl

    I would imagine (and hope) that most hospitals don’t allow people to randomly drop in to visit people.

    The Catholic hospital I gave birth to my first child in did have a group of volunteers who came by and brought newspapers and such, but I don’t think the secular hospital in my area has them.

    Some people like that kind of attention, but personally, I don’t like having to put on a friendly face for strangers when I’m laid up. I prefer privacy and visits from people who actually know me.

    I am considering volunteering for Meals on Wheels with my kids. I am not planning on discussing my atheism. So the majority of people I help will just assume I’m some nice Christian woman. And that’s mostly okay with me. I want to do it as my own act of generosity and to help my children understand the concept of charity. I have no ulterior motives of promoting my philosophy or making myself look better for a sky daddy. Which I think is a whole lot nicer.

  • James

    That atheists do not believe in a god does not make them uncaring. There being no god means that an illness or injury is within our control. That science can and will – given time, resources and minds – figure them out. If we are to believe that a god controls all, then that god and only that god has the power to allow the illnesses and injuries to be understood and repaired or prevented. Belief in a god is not necessarily a sign of a “stupid[ity], or delu[sion], or malign[ancy]” but an acceptance that your life and the life of everyone else is under the control of that god. Belief in gods destroy freewill. Without freewill, we are nothing.

    Stephen Bates, in my mind, is still a religious man. While he holds to the belief that an atheist is somehow inherently uncaring and thus immoral he wildly misses the point he originally tries to make.

  • Sven

    @ Andrew S.

    YOU are missing the point.
    You and I do not know the reason why a doctor spend years of study to become a doctor, nor do we know the reason a chaplain does what he does.

    What we do know is that the doctor is actualy doing something to make a person better. An Atheist docter cares so much he actualy chooses to make this his proffesion. Nobody told him/her to do good.

    A chaplain on the other hand, needs a religion to tell him/her to do good things.

    Are you telling me that my work as a (volenteer) first aider is not ‘caring’ beyond mere professionalism?
    I still get tears in my eyes when I think of the time a heart attack victim told me she was going to die while I was holding her hand. Are you telling me these are feelings I should not have as an atheist?

  • keddaw

    @Moxiequz + @Teleprompter
    The staduim comment was a bit of a joke, but there is actually a genuine feeling of community, togetherness and fraternity in everyone pulling for the same team.

    The reason I am opposed to the formation of atheist(ic) groups is not quite as you would imagine. It is the fact that as soon as any of these groups do or say something outside of “there probably is no god” then it gives the theistically inclined a point of attack. For example there may be one group who says the woman’s body is hers and she should be allowed to do as she pleases and another that says all unborn children should be removed safely and treated as well as possible medically. Thus there are now two ways to paint atheists depending on your audience: baby killers; and anti-women’s rights.

    The formation of support groups of like minded people is to be applauded, and I understand the need for a helping hand to come out the theistic closet but when these types of groups make pronouncements on other things (Harris being pro-torture for example*) then we all get tarred with the same ‘no morality’ brush. We lose the simple message that we don’t want our lives controlled by those who believe in inerrant yet contradictory 2,000 year old truths.

    *Harris got lucky that the most religious people in America also supported torture so he got a pass there.

  • Heidi


    Wow, that was a serious misrepresentation of Sam Harris’s views on torture.

    from Sam

    My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this: if you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to “water-board” a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden). It seems to me that however one compares the practices of “water-boarding” high-level terrorists and dropping bombs, dropping bombs always comes out looking worse in ethical terms. And yet, many of us tacitly accept the practice of modern warfare, while considering it taboo to even speak about the possibility of practicing torture. It is important to point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make travesties like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. I considered our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to be patently unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders to occur in the last century of U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I ever seen the wisdom or necessity of denying proper legal counsel (and access to evidence) to prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

    I would hardly call him “pro-torture.”

  • It is quite understandable that many individuals have turned away from their faith, for a wide range of different reasons. Often, religious authorities pick and choose what to emphasize and what to marginalize, depending on their particular viewpoints. Your comment about how homosexuality is regarded as compared to divorce is a fine example. As time moves on, some religions are assuredly becoming more tolerant of persons with variant lifestyles, such as those of a different sexual orientation. It seems we are ever so gradually moving away from heated rhetoric and towards dialogue and reason. However, we have a very long way to go. That is the salient point of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay Mormon man, and chronicles the internal and external struggles of his troubled life as he battles for accepatnce (of himself and by others, including his co-religionists). More information on the book is available at

    Mark Zamen, author

  • The last paragraph is very telling. It demonstrates that no matter how irrational he shows religious belief to be in the rest of the article, the author’s desire to believe still wins in the end.

    Now that’s what is truly sad.

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