Sunday, February 1, 2009

Julia Sweeney: Letting Go of God

The Atheist blogosphere tends to be a bit ... critical, maybe harsh, when talking about our religious brethren. We can forget just how comforting religion is, and how truly sad it is for a religious person who loses his or her faith. It really is like losing a loved one – maybe even worse. Because not only are they losing God, who most view like a father, they're also losing everyone they ever loved and lost, all over again. The solace of knowing that, in spite of death, you'll meet again some day, is very powerful.

Nobody says this better than Julia Sweeney. The former Saturday Night Live comedian, who has a wicked fun presence on stage, turned her journey from Catholicism to Atheism into one of the best stories ever told. Letting Go of God, her one-woman stage play, is funny, powerful, sad, poignant and yet uplifting and optimistic. It is the story of her attempt to rekindle her faith in God, which led her to really study the Bible, and for the first time in her life, to actually think about her faith.

If you've never heard Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God, you can catch the first hilarious minutes on

Julia Sweeney: Letting Go of God (an excerpt)

If you like this, and I know you will, you can get the full soundtrack on Apple's iTunes – search for "Julia Sweeney." But there's a great excerpt, the core 15 minutes, on "This American Life: Godless America," with Ira Glass. I HIGHLY recommend this CD – it has several other brilliant interviews about separation of church and state in America.


  1. My husband and I had the opportunity to see Julia Sweeney perform her one-woman show in LA a couple of years back. It was amazing and really encouraged me to reflect on how I viewed religion and the people who participated in it.

    I'm sure part of it was the Catholic upbringing, but I was (and still can be) very bitter about religion, those who believe, and what I perceive as their attempts at control over my person. Somehow Julia's musing cut my bitterness and remind me that those in my life that are religious and pushy only do what they think is best... and that fear is absolutely a motivating factor. My getting angry doesn't help.

  2. Michelle, thanks for writing. You hit the nail on the head. It is so much easier to take the constant barrage of pressure and meddling if you can accept that your friends, family and neighbors truly mean well.

    And from my shameless commerce department ... I hope you'll join my mailing list ((click here) for news about the publication of my book. A number of my readers have made comments like, "Wow, I feel so much better now!" Very similar to your reaction (and mine) to Julia Sweeney's stageplay.

  3. It was too late for me to see Julia's live show, but I did hear the CD. I think she does a great job illustrating how religion, in this case Catholicism, manipulates children using fear. I think this borders on child abuse.
    Many people, however, find the act of "letting go of god" to be very freeing and positive.

    Not My God

  4. I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing the show, but I appreciate her take on the issue (based on the comments I read here). As a former evangelical christian (and daughter of a pastor), my road to atheism was a long and painful one. Now, I tend to be ultra-passionate in my trashing of religion. It's hard for me to feel compassion for christians when their beliefs are so terribly destructive. It affects our mental and physical health, our IQ, and even the future of the earth (christians looking forward to armageddon will not be motivated to make the world a better place - the sooner they can destroy the earth, the sooner they can meet Jay-sus). Having been forced to suspend disbelief; terrorized into believing based on Tim LaHaye's "left behind" series, punished for questioning obvious absurdities, literal interpretations of the bible that damn women and children to a life of hell here on earth (one needs to look no further than the evangelical kingpin James Dobson, who openly advocated for BEATING CHILDREN BETWEEN THE AGES OF 18 MONTHS AND 12 YEARS!!!! How many children have been abused in the name of god????...I could go on and on. Bottom line, I am not, as yet, feeling very forgiving toward christians. Maybe I will be able to empathasize better with christians after seeing Julia's show. But I won't hold my breath. My goal is forgiveness - I realize that as long as I hold anger toward christians, I am still allowing it to control me; and that I am not so unlike christians themselves whose beliefs are based on anger and fear. So are mine, to be honest. Anger at being raised christin; anger at how the evangelicals got W bush elected TWICE - just enough time for him to destroy the country in the name of faith in god; fear that christians will keep a stranglehold on public policy to the detriment of all of us.

  5. Julia - I sympathize with all of your comments, and your anger. There is a lot to be angry about. But like so many things in life, it's good to get past the anger, to a more productive viewpoint. And the road to that viewpoint is understanding just how "infectious" religion is. People don't believe it because they're stupid. They believe it because of indoctrination, peer pressure, and a bunch of ideas (like the afterlife, heaven, hell, guilt, and many others) that are incredibly persuasive.

    I don't want to sound too self serving, but I hope that when my book is released (which, unfortunately, isn't until next March), you'll have a look at it. In it, I explain, using an evolutionary approach, just why religion has become so attractive, so infectious, so hard to overcome.

    It's easier to forgive and be compassionate if you see religion as an affliction, one that has infected all the people that you love, an infection that you've overcome but they have not.

  6. Oops, I should have addressed that last comment to "Janet" - sorry Janet! I had "Julia" on the brain because of your comments about Julia Sweeney.

    BTW, if nothing else, you should try to buy the episode of "This American Life" that I linked to in the original post. If you don't have iTunes, you can probably find it on Amazon as a regular CD. Julia Sweeney's excerpt is just wonderful, but there are three other essays on the CD that are equally impressive. I hope you'll buy it.

  7. So sad...Her performance should be titled "Letting Go of Religion." The problem is that she confuses religion with a relationship with God, which hinders her ability to know God’s truth. Religion is man trying to reach God, Christianity is God reaching us. Her 'experience' is only that...her experience. I'm wondering if she has read the bible despite her claims, as she consistently misquotes it or makes up her own interpretation of God's word. Too bad her humor overshadows the nonsense with which she tries so wittily to make her points, because then you have viewers so readily sucked into the same paradigm of thinking. Some comments posted address the “indoctrination” of the church, and I do agree many churches do this, however how gullible are viewers as to find Sweeny’s performance to be enlightening or to have any truth to it? Are viewers really that easily swooned by her material, because it doesn’t fall far from her days on SNL. What I don't understand is why people convert to atheism because 'people' act poorly as they claim to be Christians (no matter what domination). That has nothing to do with God's word, truth, or God's desire for us to act more "Christ-like." For lack of a more sophisticated analogy, it's like deciding you don't like fruit because you bought and sampled a few bad apples. Forget that fruit is good for you and has nourishing qualities, or that there are different types of fruit, you had a bad experience with those apples, and therefore you will not eat fruit anymore. Sounds ridiculous? make the connection. We cannot make excuses for people who claim to be Christians and act poorly, or churches that make ridiculous rules or judgments that have nothing to do with God's word, however you can educate yourself about God’s word to know the difference, and realize the most important thing is your RELATIONSHIP with God, not your religion.

  8. Cherie - No, you are simply mistaken. Julia Sweeney did NOT confuse religion with God. They are one and the same.

    What Julia Sweeney did was to take the path that so many thoughtful people do, by discarding all of the myths and fables, and discovering that there's nothing left. You and other theists are starting with the assumption that God exists (though there is no proof or evidence at all for this assumption), and then working backwards to "prove" the rest of your beliefs.

    And your "bad apples" analogy is exactly the same: You equate God and fruit, thereby presupposing that God exists and is good. I could equally well say it's like deciding you don't like criminals, because you try a few and they robbed you. I've equated God with criminals, with just as much validity as you equating God with fruit. It's irrelevant.

    If you think Julia Sweeney misquotes the Bible, you're mistaken – go look it up yourself. Everything she says is in your Bible. The God of the Old Testament is immoral and cruel, and the stories of Jesus are inconsistent and don't even match up with each other. Try, for example, to create a timeline for the events of Jesus' death and resurrection. You can't, because Mathew, Mark, Luke and John have contradictions that have no possible solution.

  9. I Googled julia sweeney and I found you guys..... I had to comment...seems like u had religon forced on you or a few too many run in's with Zealots...I really would like to know reasons that you believe in no God. The real reasons, not from a book or a quote or a film. The nitty gritty. Divorce, abuse maybe a prayer that was not answered... The real stuff.... Why do I want to know.. I'm just curious and you all seem willing. Thanks and God Bless.-Joe

  10. Joseph – many religious people would like to believe that we only "turn from God" when we're disillusioned or disappointed, that somehow if everything in life was wonderful, we'd be able to believe in God without reservation.

    Nothing could be farther from the truth. I happen to be a scientist/engineer, and almost all of my colleagues and friends are also scientists and/or engineers, highly educated people who are at the forefront of creativity and inventiveness.

    The simple fact is that I was raised in a non-religious household. There were no huge disappointments, nobody beat God out of me, I didn't have a loved one die in spite of my earnest prayers ... in fact, I've had a pretty good life.

    When I learned about the Judeo-Christian idea of God, it just seemed unnecessary. Science has done a pretty good job of explaining the universe. There is still plenty of work to do, but there's no reason to invent magical gods to explain the things we haven't figured out yet.

    On top of that, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic versions of God are somewhat offensive to truly moral people.

    Why should I believe in your God any more than I believe in Thor or Zeus or Pelé?

    Joseph, you are an atheist too. Out of the 16,000 to 20,000 gods that have been invented by humans over the centuries, you have elected to not believe in over 99.9% of them. I just take it one step further, and don't believe in the last one, that one particular god that you call God or Yahweh or Jehovah.

    What's the difference between your Yahweh and the Hawaiian Pelé? Nothing, as far as I can tell, unless you are running a popularity contest. But as we all know, popularity contests don't determine truth.

  11. My thoughts on Sweeney's "Letting Go of God," including a video Q&A with Sweeney, and a link to a transcript of her later talk to an atheist group, available here.


  12. Sorry Craig, You're gravely mistaken. Unfortunately people do confuse God with religion. They are NOT one in the same. How God intended the church to be, isn't exactly how some Christians conduct themselves, as they get wrapped up in rules and conduct they think makes them righteous in God’s eyes. BTW, I was not comparing God with fruit. But that doesn’t matter, when you simply believe there is no God. Sweeny does misquote and misinterpret the bible, but because you are set in your views, I'm sure you would not see this any more than I would see your point. It is not enough to simply take a quote out of context in the bible. It would be like me taking some fact out of context from some scientific discovery to draw a conclusion. It is distorted when it stands alone out of context, and that IS what Sweeny did throughout her act when quoting the bible. She tries to distort God's word to support her points and humor. And by the way, I love how you refer to yourself as 'thoughtful' people. Just because I believe in God, does not make me any less of a 'thoughtful' person. You're simply being condescending and prideful. On the flip side of the assumption of how people turn to atheism, many atheists assume Christians come to Christ when all is wrong. I came to God of my own free will, when life had me on top of the world....not out of desperation, not out of some loss in my life. You are completely forgetting about free will. Free will is what caused the things that disturb you about the stories of the OT. God had nothing to do with the immoral and cruel, that would be people...and it is still true today in people's actions: rape, murder, etc. And your comment to Joseph is so seriously flawed; it would take more than a blog to explain how you twist things to make you comfortable with your own thinking. It is apparent through your comments to everyone on this blog that you assume you are more educated or have some authority about this matter. Well read, highly intelligent people believe in God; it doesn’t make us any less thoughtful, just as it doesn’t make you any less thoughtful for not believing. You really need to reevaluate your comment, “On top of that, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic versions of God are somewhat offensive to truly moral people.” Again, who are you to call yourself "truly moral," and what's more, who are you to assume Christians aren't. My comment is not written in anger, as I see you have assumed this with other bloggers, it is just simply written to show you there are other moral, educated people who think differently...and while you work hard to try to 'educate' other's about your 'belief’ by grasping at the things you have read an agreed with that support your atheist views, I will continue to pray for you to let go of your pride and be enlightened by others.

    1. Well said! :)on that day...WE will all see..

  13. Like Julia I was once a disgruntled Catholic for many of the same reasons but I concur with Cherie's posts. As for all those "thoughtful" people out there I would advise that they continue with their thinking. Julia is entertaining but a serious theologian? I think not. Julia I am praying for you with all the power my "virus" commands. And yes, I do mean well.

  14. Cherie -- I don't believe there is a god. Therefore, I'm wholly confident all religion is self-serving hoeey designed to exclude and sanction bigotry and ignorance. It is true that religion is often confused with a belief in God but Julia Sweeney is not even remotely confused. She, like myself, understand completely.

    Asserting that she is a theologian or somehow responsible for the "conversion" of individuals to atheism is silly for two reasons. She's an entertainer and people know that. AND, you can't CONVERT to atheism. It's why I don't like the term atheist. Like Sweeney said, "it puts me in the religious camp." I don't like it there...

    I was raised with plenty of religion, god and all the trappings contained therein. Even as a child, I harshly questioned things and NEVER received satisfactory answers. Blind faith is fine but don't get confused or angry when people who choose not to exercise blind faith arrive at answers or assertions with which you are uncomfortable.

    Sweeney did not make this claim lightly and wanted, desperately, to believe in a god, any god. But, alas, some of us seek and do not find. It DOES NOT mean we are wrong and I resent your poorly constructed arguments asserting as much...I don't care if you believe in god. I do not. Show a little respect. If you feel like discussing what you believe in, fine. But don't tell people they're wrong because they disagree with you.

    It's getting old to those of us who have done our homework and come out on the other side...

  15. Cherie said...
    How God intended the church to be...

    "God," like all words and concepts, may well be useful to some people in particular situations.

    "God" can be used, e.g., as a name for the great mystery of life. However, since it's a mystery, we don't know what "God intended." Or perhaps, we could use "what God intended" as a way of saying, "The way things are just now."

    If you *think* you know what God intends beyond that... then it's an opportunity to explore why you hold this belief.


  16. I'm not here to try and say who's right and wrong in terms of religion or the existence of a god. All I'm here to do is praise Julia Sweeney for her performance, as well as sharing her own life experiences in a way that is relateable for other individuals in our country. I was raised a Christian my entire life and started questioning my belifs a little before I started college. I loved this performance because when you're raised in a community where EVERYONE is a Christian, you don't have anyone who you can go to for comfort unless the person's either really openminded or if you don't mind being chastized. Her journey from trying to discover the good in god to trying to cling to her belief in a god period reminded me of my own struggle with belief, one that I still have this very day. Like Julia I tried everything from reading the bible for understanding to looking at other religions, to saying "They all have different beliefs to get to the same place". I TRIED (sometimes I STILL try, just because for my entire life it's all I knew) to make myself believe in god again. I myself said "It's not about the religion but about the relationship with god". I also thought I had moments of a great epiphany where I was sure with every fiber of my being that god existed, that it would be impossible for him not to. So for people to sit there and say that Sweeney "claimed" to have read the bible or was in any other way overdramaticizing her journey is, in my opinion, highly disrespectful. Like someone said up here earlier, while easy for some, "losing your religion" is a painful process, and I say that from experience. It's been two years since I've realized that the belief in a god no longer satisfies me and it's as if you have to rewire your own mind. It's as if you put all your energy into believing something that made so much sense to you your entire life, and then it's gone. You can't just get it back. It's like losing your best friend. Maybe even like losing your arm. You feel alone and you have to go through the grieving process for all you've lost again and again before you can come to terms with it. It's not something most people choose to do.
    Like I said, I'm in no way trying to start some "discussion" on how anyone arrived at their religion or who's wrong. I just wanted to say that Julia Sweeney's performance helped me realize that I'm not alone.

  17. If there truly was no God, there would be no atheists.

  18. Craig James...angry much??

  19. "highly educated people who are at the forefront of creativity and inventiveness"

    explains it all to me.

    Don't knock it just because you haven't experienced it ...God's presence.

  20. religion is a system of rules based on fear and control. God is a being you can get to know. i've been able to ask him some pretty blunt questions and doubted him a lot, actually, but he always gave me answers that were above and beyond my expectations.

    i believe and have a relationship with God. i have never felt more freedom in my life.
    God does not serve me... he's not something i made up to promote my interests, because a lot of the time i don't instantly agree with him and we argue a little bit... but in the end he always knows best. God humbles me with the fact that he loves imperfect humans even though he is deity and is infinitely beyond us all... God reminds me that i'm not the center of the universe and teaches me how to serve others...

    i serve God by choice, no one ever told me to. i tried living other ways for a long time and i was miserable, even though everyone around me thought i was strong, intelligent, and had my life together... i still cried all the time. the joy i have now goes beyond any circumstance. God is my provider, and when he challenges me to be more humble, more loving, more of a servant still, it can be hard at times, but i'm more happy and content and fulfilled with my life than ever before.

    i cannot control you and i don't want to, and i know that this probably won't convince you of much of anything - i'm well aware that reading this from your perspective i probably need to get medical help and must seem completely insane, lol - but God has not failed me, ever, and every time i've failed him there is nothing but forgiveness. you choose your own path, but i will tell you that as much as your arguments make sense at points, i would never again choose what you have or trade what i've found. and it's more important to me than looking like a fool.

    "if you're not serving a God that blows your mind, then you're serving a God you made up."

    ps i agree with the above about the presence of God. best thing on earth.

  21. Any organized thing in the world is an attempt to curb individual liberty. Be it in the name of religion, country, society, cult, arrmy, so on and so forth. Standards and frameworks in the society is an attempt to curb individual liberty

  22. I was reading about Julia's show and found this. Interesting but a few observations. To Cherie, read what you posted and take a hard look in the mirror. You demonstrate everything you accuse others of! To Craig James, there is no proof of God, there is no proof of no God. No scientist can say there is or is not a God as there is no proof either way. One can say it is highly unlikely, but you cannot say it's impossible. Everyone should be free to believe what they want without someone else trying to convert them to thier own point of view- just so they can feel better about thier own beliefs.

  23. Cherie, my problem with God and Christianity (what we are taught, the Bible etc.) is that you can't know which interpretation is correct. You talk about the truth and God and your relationship and all and that's great for you but understand that there are thousands of differing interpretations of the Bible out there. Even Christians don't agree. To be able to tell an atheist or agnostic about God is to say that you definitively know which interpretation is the correct one. I don't think you can say that because you have nothing more than your own faith to back it up -- and that's what everyone else has, too. To start a real conversation, you have to first know which version of God is the true and right one. If God is interpreted differently by different people, you can't insist that your interpretation is correct or that anyone else should believe or follow it. I was once told that ONLY the KJV of the Bible was true. And I was also told that I couldn't understand the Bible unless I read it in its original languages. I'm sorry but how many Christians can read Aramaic, Hebrew etc.? And about right action and Christians -- sorry again but this is a huge reason for me losing my faith. All around I see "Christians" acting anything but. I think if you truly believe in Christ, in His Love and His Power, etc. then He will change your life. You're not going to speed, watch porn, cheat on taxes, have sex outside marriage, cheat on your spouse, use cuss words and so on. You just wouldn't do that to someone you love and who loves you. And in the Bible it says that God said "Why do you cry Lord Lord and not do what I say?" In the end I think a great deal of Christians are just not at all Christian. They just like the idea of a pushover in the sky who doesn't really care what they do and if He does, it's all forgiven anyway. What is the point of pretending to be a Christian if you really just don't care about what God says, anyway? (And then the interpretation gets in the way because I have even heard Joyce Meyer say that we should not judge other Christians because maybe God is okay with their bad behavior but not ours. Quite the hypocrite, sorry!)

  24. And BTW Cherie it sounds like maybe you didn't listen to the whole show because Julia has a lot of nice things to say about her experiences with religion and God etc. I think religion/God is the same because religion teaches you who God is and how to think about Him. So how can you even know God without some kind of religion (i.e. evangelists, teachers, clergy etc.)? I wanted to also comment on Letting Go of God because it is such an intense show and I watched it over and over. The quotes from the Bible -- I didn't literally check them but I know the stories from years and years of Catholic school, reading the Bible, study groups etc. I'm surprised you would even say that Julia hadn't read the Bible or that her quotes were wrong. I think you're just going to wash away anything unpleasant with the "you took it out of context" answer or the "you just don't understand GOD" answer. Go back and listen to Julia when she talks about Abraham and Isaac. She makes complete sense.

  25. It takes courage to be an atheist.


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