Julia Sweeney

Julia Sweeney has a new play, “Letting Go of God”, and describes her path to atheism. It’s different than mine—she was drawn to religion by mystical feelings, and rejected it on intellectual grounds after inspecting it up close, while I’ve never found any appeal in the mystical or supernatural—so she’s much more sympathetic than I am.

“The world is modernizing so quickly, people want to latch on to things that seem familiar,” she mused. “Religion identifies people, roots them in a tradition bigger than themselves, reminds them to be compassionate. I get that.”

I don’t see the reminder to be compassionate in religion at all.


  1. says

    In all fairness, most churches do encourage their members to be compassionate to other church members and to people they think can be converted. There’s variation, of course, but a certain amount of “love thy neighbor” does come down from the authority figures.

    They tend to be far more compassionate than the Bible itself, in that regard… particularly the Old Testament.

  2. speedwell says

    Oh, well, as for that… Religion typically TELLS you to be compassionate. (“Do as we say and not as we do,” you know.) Christian lore abounds in saints and martyrs and people who go through various forms of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice in order to please God with their suffering and to make God stop doing the crappy things to people He would otherwise do. If that’s the sort of thing that you think brings you happiness and joy, then you’re nuts, but it’s a free country, as they say.

  3. says

    How unfortunate.

    There are reminders all the time, both in text and in practice. There’s the other, too, of course: the bitter, cynical, holier-than-though Bible-thumping antagonists that make your eye twitch. Don’t let them distract you from the beauty expressed in human nature. People do wonderful things in the name of religion all the time. That isn’t to say they don’t also do terrible things in the name of the same, and of course one spared life will never really replace another slain.

    What it does mean is that you can’t ignore peace and empathy encouraged and expressed, just because you disagree with a practice in general. You’re entirely too smart for that. Just because the experiment didn’t pan out doesn’t make the proven factors X and Y less true.

    Enjoy the day!

  4. says

    My religious faith was simply a matter of immersion. My entire family was Catholic, so I was Catholic. As I grew up and began to make up my own mind about things, I decided I didn’t believe most of it. Gradually it became clear that I didn’t really believe any of it, and tossed the whole thing over. I still have a vague sense of being “culturally” Catholic because of the way it shaped my adolescent sensibilities and because my family members are still deeply immersed in Christianity’s largest and most successful sect, but religious faith now seems really silly to me. You must have faith! Oh, yeah? Why? I can’t see why.

  5. says


    Same with me. The why tends to be “it gives your life meaning” or “so you will go to heaven instead of hell,” both of which I reject these days.


    I’ll agree that often religious people do very wonderful things, but I don’t see them as a consequence of their faith. They’ll usually say they do these wonderful things because of their love for humanity as sons and daughters of god, but I think they would love people just as much whether or not they believed. That’s not an opinion that’s really backed up by evidence, but rather by my personal experience with my affection for humanity as a person of faith and as a person without.

  6. Ian H Spedding says

    It is this need to “worship” that I cannot understand. Why “worship”? What does it mean to ‘worship’? I can understand feeling a sense of profound awe when looking at a photograph of thousands of galaxies like our own in deep space or contemplating the amount of ‘information’ contained in a microscopic structure like the human genome but my reaction is that I want to know about it, to understand it, not worship it – whatever that means.

  7. pough says

    I don’t see the reminder to be compassionate in religion at all.

    Is it because you tend to only focus on the aspects of religion that you don’t like?

  8. says

    Wait hold that .. Julia Sweeney (sorry for the typo in the earlier comment) was ALSO on last week’s This American Life:


    Also as Sweeney’s description of why she originaly had faith was close to what Zeno stated:

    My religious faith was simply a matter of immersion. My entire family was Catholic, so I was Catholic.

  9. says

    Zeno: that was my situation as well. I consider myself culturally Lutheran (I can blend in in Minnesota!), but even at an early age my attendance at church was mostly pro forma.

    Pough: No. It’s because I see religious exhortations to be charitable, for instance, that are really demands to mail money to the church so they can skim off their percentage, and use it to recruit more converts, who will send them money, etc. The actions of the church rarely meet the standards of their words (individual religious people, of course, can be excellent examples of compassion — but that’s a reflection of commendable humanity, not godliness.)

  10. noema says

    Ive never been a Christian (UU, born and raised, and these days just flat-out areligious), but I went through a brief phase of considering being a sort of Christian apologist. That is, I thought briefly that one could more or less sort the wheat from the chaff– the, as it were, “rational core” of the Christian value system from its practice by the institution of the church. That lasted a few weeks, until I discovered that there is, in the modern Christian community, some disagreement over how to interpret the term ‘neighbor’ in “Love they neighbor…” (i.e. some people take the term in its narrow, literal meaning… as in, only applying to the people who live nearby to you). At that moment I decided these people were not worth apologizing for.

  11. Hudson says

    The urge to worship.. how do you explain it. I have it, and I’ve been an atheist since high school at least. Why do I have a need for solemn ritual? Perhaps it’s like the urge to paint. I don’t have an urge to create art at all, and don’t understand why anyone else would, but clearly some people do. I do, however, have an urge to dance. I absolutely must dance, so I take weekly classes. The urge to worship and take part in rituals feels like the same sort of urge. You don’t do it for any intellectual reason, but because it feels good, it’s calming, it clears your mind and focuses your attention for a while. For me, when the urge to worship comes on, usually I head to a museum to take in some art in a beautiful, quiet setting, and that usually does the trick. Other times I’ll find a quiet spot and do zen meditation, which for me is a mental exercise. The urge is not connected to my curiosity about scientific phenomenon.. I do have a strong desire to know, find out, ask questions, find the answers. The need for ritual is unrelated.. it is more about clearing your mind and being at peace. Perhaps it is something specific to people who are easily over-stimulated. Things like being at the mall on a weekend can make my nerves raw with all the people pushing past and the commotion of movement and noise. The need for solemn ritual arises more as a need for peace and quiet contemplation to recharge from such experiences.

  12. says

    I’ve always been drawn to religion because of the “oceanic feeling” (to use Freud’s concept) it invokes in me. I’m very attached to Christian music, art, and literature. I did eventually realize that the beauty of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion or El Greco’s paintings stands apart from an illogical and sometimes cruel religion.

    Like Sweeney, reading the actual Bible was a catalyst to casting off faith. In fact, I’ll often tell Christian friends to read the Bible (no, not just the handpicked passages they use in church) and see if they still believe the same way.

  13. Karl says

    I find the comment (above) about being an ethnic Catholic very interesting. I’ve never heard that before. I didn’t realize that anyone other than Jews made that distinction. I am not at all religious but I am still Jewish. Is this distinction made by people of other denominations? If you were raised by Methodists (or Prebyterians, or etc.) and are now nonreligious, do you still feel and identify yourself as Methodist. I thought that those were all purely religious identities and ethniciity was more a matter of geographic heritage. I.E. There are Catholics who are Irish, or Italian or so on. But Jews, not ever having a homeland, are ethnically Jews wherever their ancestors came from.

  14. Mnemosyne says

    I find the comment (above) about being an ethnic Catholic very interesting. I’ve never heard that before. I didn’t realize that anyone other than Jews made that distinction.

    The more usual term is “cultural(ly) Catholic.” It’s a recognition that there’s a whole culture that surrounds Catholicism that’s difficult to break away from even if one rejects the tenets of the faith itself.

    It’s like a discussion I had with a fellow fallen-away Catholic. Her nephew was baptized in the Unitarian Universalist church, and my fellow Catholic found it a little too happy-happy and life-affirming. Or, as she said, “What that place really needed were some pictures of Mary cradling her dead son in her arms.”

    I’m curious to read or see Sweeney’s new work because I loved her previous book/show, “God Said HA!” That dealt with the death of her brother from cancer. I’d be interested to see how she’s able to recast that grief when she decides that she will, in fact, never, ever see her beloved brother ever again in any form.

  15. Proud2SwimHome says

    re: culturally catholic…

    living in certain areas, cities or neighborhoods of cities, there really is a “cultural” catholicism. i live in new orleans. while it is less culturally catholic than it used to be, it is still strongly that. and when you get out into “cajun country” there’s a lot of cultural catholicism. it’s really sad that we’re losing this uniqueness of our culture by the intrusion of these evangelical mega-churches.

    i also lived in chicago, and there were neighborhoods that were also culturally catholic (irish, polish, & italians ones are what i was familiar with). i’d imagine you get the same thing in places like boston & new york. any place where there’s been a large influx of catholic immigration a few generations back.

    new catholic immigration is still religiously catholic, but with the kids of the kids of the kids of immigrants, they’re more likely to only be culturally catholic and not really “believe”. they think that catholicism is good for raising kids not so much so the kids will actually belive, but so they’ll have a tie to their culture.

    most of these 3rd 4th + generation catholics are easter-xmas catholics, or “bells and smells” catholics. they go for the pretty rituals, to see family, and to have a “reason” to celebrate the cultural holidays. i know dozens of “catholics” down here who go to get ashes on ash wednesday because it’s a ritualistic end to the carnival season. they go to all saints’ day services at cemetaries so they can clean the family tomb and get together with surviving family members and remember those gone. that there is a priest sprinkling water on the tomb serves only as an excuse for the get-together. all of these church rituals, even funerals, are excuses for the country family to get together with the city family & have a party/reunion/picnic/meal/etc. without the religious excuse, someone would have to ‘put together’ an event. and then you’d get into family sqaubbles and who hates whom. but if you’re gathering for “religious” reasons, well, everyone is at least nominally nice to each other.

    i’m an ardent, argumentative athiest & my wife is a wishy-washy skeptic-spiritualist. and as much as we hate religion, we’re probably going to have to wind up sending our kids to catholic school. first, the public schools down here suck. 2nd, the private non-religious schools are way-expensive and very few. 3rd, it’s the lesser of the evils. if my kids have to go to school, then i’d rather them go to catholic school where the vatican has declared ID paganism and they are taught some logic & science. i figure i can counter the rest at home.

  16. Christopher says

    I became an atheist because I realised there was no reason to say that a Pentacostal speaking in tongues is having a true encounter with god, but a person possessed by a loa is just hallucinating.

    There are some philosophical problems with acknowledging the good bits of religion, especially when it comes to

    If we accept the basic empirical claims of Christianity (God exists, he is nearly omnipotent and he is basically good) then there is no coherent reason for Christianity to have led to so much evil.

    If, on the other hand, we accept it as an institution invented and perpetuated by fallible humans, then we have to ask why we should have any attachment whatsoever to the empirical claims that form the center of the religion.

    In fact, once we start ditching the harmful bits of Christianity (Monotheism, the idea of heresy, prosyletism, the idea of the saved and the unsaved, and more I can’t remember), we end up with a philosophy that is barely even recognizable as Christianity.

    We basically end up as being against Christianity either way; If it’s true, then god is a monster; If it isn’t, it’s filled with unneccesary bits that lead to nothing but evil.

  17. Roman Werpachowski says

    I don’t see the reminder to be compassionate in religion at all.

    Reminds me a blind man trying to judge paintings.

  18. Sastra says

    I’ve seen Julia Sweeney’s play about 5 times now — 4 times while “in progress” at various skeptic/humanist conventions, and once in final form at the theater in LA. It’s excellent. High recommend. She’s honest, thoughtful, and funny. She also gives credit to what’s positive about religion, while recognizing — and pointing out — that religion doesn’t necessarily have a special lock on those good things anyway.

    The play’s not just for infidels. On the contrary, Julia says that church groups regularly attend: Catholics in particular seem to enjoy and admire the story of her “search,” despite the fact that it ended up taking her away from the Church. They appreciate her sincerity; she took religion seriously. That’s respect, and they return it.

    When I saw her performance at the theater about a year ago it had been specially reserved for people from the Atheist Alliance convention. For the first time her regular show had an audience which was entirely nontheistic. I asked her later if she noted any differences in audience response. She said yes, we sometimes laughed at different places.

    For example, at one point, she bluntly truncates the mainstream beliefs of Christianity into a quick 60 second run-down, as if one were learning about it for the first time. Normally, there is a surprised intake of breath and a huge laugh, as a largely Christian audience suddenly hears what their beliefs would sound like to an outsider.

    The atheists already knew. No laugh there.

  19. LilLeaguer says

    I believe the Seattle Times article was to preview a special show combining Ira Glass (from This American Life) with Julia Sweeney that I attended Saturday night. The show was about 1-1/2 hours of Sweeney’s show (which isn’t quite new; it’s been playing in LA for a few years) and a shorter “interview” with Glass. The interview was interesting, with both riffing on the journey from different religions to atheism.

    The excerpt from Sweeny’s show was quite good. She’s funny, articulate, and incredibly knowledgable about the subject of doubt. She is ruthless in criticizing the beliefs of Mormonism, Catholicism, Creationist Christianity, and even takes a shot at Deepak Chopra.

    On the other hand, Dr. Myers’ offhand comment about compassion is probably the kernel of what he’d say about the show. Sweeney finds the religious rationally wrong, but not unsympathetic. She understands that while their reasons aren’t rational, they are significant. She is also not afraid to credit religion for the value that she has personally seen, and sees in society.

    Glass, on the other hand, was closer to Dr. Myers’ mocking attitude towards the religious.

    Great show, both Sweeney and Glass are worth seeing. I don’t know if this show (or any other version of Sweeney’s play) will travel, but I highly recommend it. At the Paramount, this meant being in a room with 2800 other people applauding the notion of rationalism, science, and atheism.


  20. says

    PZ Meyers says: I don’t see the reminder to be compassionate in religion at all.

    Every church that I’ve ever heard of spends time visiting shut ins in nursing homes, running soup kitchens for the homeless, sending youth groups to places like New Orleans to build houses after a disaster, encouraging people at Christmas time to contribute towards lifestock for poor countries (the Heiffer Project). Christians run organizations such as the Christian Children’s fund, in which a person in a rich country can sponsor a needy child in a poor country.

    Churches were actively involved in the civil rights movement, in the effort to end slavery, in anti-war movements.

    Reminding people to be compassionate is really the biggest thing that churches do.

  21. says

    I’ve been to church. The biggest thing that churches do is self-promotion.

    I’ll also point out that churches were actively involved in efforts to suppress the civil rights movement, in supporting slavery, and in promoting war. Churches are loci of community action, and can actively advance the agenda of the community; religion, however, does not seem to be much help in defining rightful action.

  22. says

    PZ writes: I’ve been to church. The biggest thing that churches do is self-promotion.

    That’s not true of any church I’ve been to.

    I’ll also point out that churches were actively involved in efforts to suppress the civil rights movement, in supporting slavery, and in promoting war. Churches are loci of community action, and can actively advance the agenda of the community; religion, however, does not seem to be much help in defining rightful action.

    I think you are changing the subject. You said that “I don’t see the reminder to be compassionate in religion at all.” Churches remind people to be compassionate all the time. Why would you say something that is so contrary to the facts?

  23. Caledonian says

    There are Catholics who are Irish, or Italian or so on. But Jews, not ever having a homeland, are ethnically Jews wherever their ancestors came from.

    Um… no. Having a “homeland” doesn’t make you part of an ethnic group, and lacking one doesn’t exclude you.

    There are several ethnic groups that are part of the widest religious and/or sociocultural category of Judaism — including Ethiopian Jews.

  24. says

    It’s true of every church I’ve been to, and it’s a common theme in their literature. For instance, the big charity in my church when I was growing up was support for a Lutheran mission in Africa; send bibles and hymnals to the good reverend in that poor benighted land. Send money for their church! That’s self-promotion: that’s recruiting. In college, despite my godless state, I joined up with a campus church group to do charitable work, and spent some time hammering and painting and sprucing up…a church camp. I was willing to do good work, but everything I found through the religious groups was tied to their proselytization efforts.

    I was not changing the subject. I was pointing out that churches don’t tell people to be compassionate — they tell people to serve the church, which means compassionate impulses get shunted into laboring for a money-making pyramid scheme, like religion. Compassion is not a likely end-product of the process, although they make sure to pay lots of lip service to it.

    That often means service to an authority, an authority that is often screwed up and less than compassionate. Religion is a darned good tool for con artists, and they tend to climb to the top. The only religions that seem to avoid the worst of it are those that decentralize authority, as we see in Buddhism and Quakerism.

  25. DMLou says

    Much like a few others, I am “culturally Catholic,” in that I was raised Catholic and it still influences certain things in my life. I’m also a big traditionalist, and I find no problem with observing Catholic traditions when I view they are pretty much harmless (weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc.). Needless to say, I view the majority of Catholic traditions and rituals as pretty much harmless.

    As for my own personal views, however, I am a borderline deist/atheist agnostic. I can’t deny the existance of some form of supreme being totally, but I generally view that if one exists, it’s not quite the same as that espoused by most major religions, including the Catholicism I was raised with. I don’t say for sure that there is or isn’t a supreme being (hence my agnostic nature), but I figure that if there is one, he pretty much leaves the universe on its own and maybe only once in a very great while might step in to stir things up, but certainly not with the regularity that most religions claim. On a similar note, I view that if there is an afterlife of any sort, that any good person would be able to get into it no matter their religious affiliation (or lack thereof — atheists are fine just as long as they aren’t serial killers or anything like that!). After all, a truly supreme being who created all life and who loves his creations should be above such petty desires as the need to be worshipped.

    Now, my agnostic nature means I don’t view the religious as being “stupid,” just as long as they aren’t bigoted fundies or anything. Also, while it varies from religion to religion and church to church, there are a lot of non-self-promoting charties and works of compassion that many churches do perform. I have no problem with making donations to churches that run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and the like. I do draw the line at making donations for missions and recruiting, however.

  26. says

    This is an interesting discussion but I have found something missing. I know in the US you the UU, but here in Europe there is nothing equivalent and it is an important, what religion does give people is a community. The alternative is special purpose association, but they don’t usually involve the whole family. I think athiests are lacking a community organisation. It is all very well bagging religions (I do quietly myself) but I must admit having grown up as a Catholic organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul society do a lot of good. What do athiests do? (I know we pay taxes and vote for Liberal governments which is arguably better, but not so personally satisfying).

    Somebody could make a big contribution by setting up active “church” like but non-idealogically organisations. It would sure take a lot of the sting out of religious rhetoric if somebody did it. (To rat out of doing it myself – I’m an aussie living in Germany and don’t really have the connections or political clout to get something organised myself).

  27. George says

    MP3 of an interview is available here:


    June 24, 2006 – “Letting Go of God”
    Comedian/actress Julia Sweeney is interviewed about her amazing and hilarious new monolog, “Letting Go of God,” on Freethought Radio, FFRF’s weekly production co-hosted by Foundation co-presidents Dan Barker & Annie Laurie Gaylor. The Saturday Night Live alumna, known for her character “Androgynous Pat,” tells how she came to leave the Roman Catholic Church and become an atheist. Music featured: “My Father’s House” by Dan Barker, and “This World,” by Malvina Reynolds, performed by Kristin Lems. (MP3, 47 min, 21.6 MB)

    Excerpt of monolog is here (This American Life):


    Starts at about 29:30.

    “In the Bible, morality is relative and wishy-washy.”

  28. George says


    “Once I read the Bible, I couldn’t keep up the charade anymore … it was just so absurd. … and the Bible was so upsetting and awful … the only way you really could be a Catholic was … where you didn’t know that much. … And then once you really learned stuff, how can you look the other way?”

    Great interview.

  29. Melissa says

    I am a Christian and I know that God exists. I have gone through a lot in my life and there is NO WAY that I could have gotten through all that without the Lord. He has proven Himself to me over and over again in my life. He keeps His promises. He never fails. He never leaves us or forsakes us. His love is greater than anything we could ever know!

    I’m so glad that the Lord is in my life!

    Praise God!!