The Sympathetic Atheism of Julia Sweeney

Nov 1, 2016

By Josh Veal

Julia Sweeney is not your typical atheist. The former SNL cast member and current mother, actor and comedian introduced her one-woman show, Letting Go of God, in 2004. For two hours, Sweeney humorously and frankly discusses her 40-year journey from Catholic to nonbeliever.

That’s why she’ll be joining fellow atheist, Richard Dawkins, on stage at Fountain Street Church on Nov. 7. While they may have atheism in common — both being “rah-rah secularists,” as Sweeney says — their ideology differs in some distinct ways. Mainly: Sweeney still believes in the value of religion, while Dawkins is colloquially considered one of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism, an unofficial term for atheism that directly critiques religion. His most famous work is titled The God Delusion.

Revue had a lively, laugh-filled conversation with Sweeney about the duo’s upcoming event, along with why she doesn’t think religion is evil, despite hating all “the bad parts” of it as much as anyone else.

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9 comments on “The Sympathetic Atheism of Julia Sweeney

  • She reminds me of my own escape out of the roman catholicism of my parents, only she started at a much older age.

    At first I too thought the only thing wrong with catholicism was that it insisted on an illogical and irrational god just like the other religions I was exposed to growing up. As I’ve gotten older however I’ve come to the conclusion that religion is an absolutely useless mental parasite with no redeeming features. Further, it can’t be made to have any.

    The sense of “community” evaporates quickly for those who announce they aren’t religious. Prejudice exposes itself in people that you would never have suspected of it. Such was the case when I announced my “agnosticism” to my parents at age 13. They always seemed remarkably tolerant of their non-catholic friends. They certainly weren’t of me! My father immediately denounced me as “lazy” for not wanting to attend mass and insisted that I do so for as long as I lived in his house. Even now in his nineties he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. My mother warned me not to discuss any of this with my eight siblings, “lest you spread the error of your ways.” She’s since drifted a bit but likes to remain ambivalent.

    Perhaps the most dangerous thing many religions do is attempt to co-opt morality for their own use. Our morality is based on empathy, hard wired because we possess so many mirror neurons that make us feel what others feel — just like many social animals. As proof, I find it easy to point to the YouTube videos of a parrot feeding spaghetti noodles to the family dog. an old goat leading around an old blind horse, wild dolphins protecting humans from sharks, or a wild crow raising a kitten. Religion pretends that morality boils down to “laws” or “teachings,” and the only source is the religion.

    I think those who post here are well aware of religion’s ugly affect on politics, science and various aspects of culture. I hope Julia Sweeney comes to recognize these things too.

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  • 2
    bonnie2 says:

    @ #1 – co-opt morality

    Your eloquent reasoning / explanation would be lost on some folk in my area; to wit, good deeds can’t exist unless hitched to something “tangible” (a Christian god, in their minds). To be blunt, it’s simply easier that way.

    The guy outside Wal-mart standing next to a stack of bibles, woman who says god inspired her to open a child center, local “angels” manning the holiday charity kettles. Teflon like, it sticks in folk’s minds.

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  • Firstly, as a first time poster on this site, I wish to tip my hat to my favourite posters – Alan4discussion and LaurieB. Keep up the good work.

    As for what Julia Sweeney has to say I consider her misguided in thinking that live, currently believed in, religion is necessary for cultural transmission of ideas. Nobody today believes in or worships the pantheon of the Ancient Greeks (although I occasionally pour out a libation in honour of Mighty Aphrodite). However, the cultural ideas of Ancient Greece continue to inform thinking throughout the world. So there is no need for anyone to maintain a belief in Xtianity, Islam, Hinduism or whatever and whatever is considered of value in their “holy” books will continue to be transmitted one way or another just as those concepts formulated in Ancient Greece. Let’s not forget that Greek concepts run through the “New Testament”.

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  • So often I think that the New Atheists in general — and I’m not
    particularly saying this about Richard Dawkins — they’re often white
    intellectuals who came from a privileged and intellectual background.
    They’re not rejecting their culture to not believe in God.

    Reject reason and logic………..Silly argument!

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  • David #3
    Nov 3, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Welcome to the site David.

    As for what Julia Sweeney has to say I consider her misguided in thinking that live, currently believed in, religion is necessary for cultural transmission of ideas.

    I think she has seen through the delusion of gods, and irrationality of religion, but as gwolf explains @ #1, the culture of religious up-bringing is deep rooted, and the core assumptions from childhood, take some time and effort to shake off.

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  • Olgun #4
    Nov 3, 2016 at 10:59 am

    They’re not rejecting their culture to not believe in God.

    Locked in deep religious preconceptions, usually show rather prominently in atheists who spell “god” with a capital “G” – or use double negatives!

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  • @David

    Welcome. This is a nice place to contribute (which I do on occasion) and lurk (which I do often). Alan4 and LaurieB are great anchor contributors and there are many more. Phil, Dan, Stephen of W, crookedshoes – they come to mind immediately and they are only a few of the many. You’ll learn early on who’s an expert on what and you’ll see the flow of the conversations as they try to teach and/or argue (depending on the stamina and stubbornness of the posting ‘student’) as the case may be, usually without patronizing unless provoked. And the Mods rein everything in if that’s the case.

    Julia Sweeney’s gentle atheism works for some as is clear by the interview. Letting Go of God is a great monologue and she imbues her journey from faith with good humor. She paints a picture so it’s easy to see how losing your faith doesn’t necessarily have to be the painful, harrowing experience it is for some. Though brought up Jewish with the requisite bar mitzvah (and the Hebrew school to prepare for it) I never remember believing. My father was secular and my mother died when I was 12 (despite my one and only hopeful and wishful protestation via prayer to a god I was very skeptical of in the first place) so I had no religious guidance and it was very easy for me to divest myself from something I was never truly invested in. It’s not quite so easy for others. But more and more, secularism is finding a home. Having Sweeney and Dawkins share a stage (they are essentially different sides of the same coin) is a great way to show the solidarity of secularism, however you want to define it. That seems to be the biggest difference. You don’t have that kind of latitude in religion. Nor the eye rolling paternalism.

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  • I know! That’s been my hard time with the atheist groups. There was this one moment when I had this friend who I love, and she said, “Julia, religion is evil! Evil!” And I was really taken aback. I said, “No. It so isn’t evil! It’s just about culture transmission.” It can have bad parts to it, but I feel like every atheist I meet, especially at the conventions and stuff, they don’t realize what a privileged position they’re in.

    I like Julie Sweeney and really enjoyed “Letting go of God” when I saw it years ago but I think her view here is colored a bit by her own privilege. Her journey to a lose of faith happened in liberal Catholic environment in which answers to her problems with Christianity came in the form of “Oh that’s just a relic of it’s time” or ‘that’s just a metaphor” or “yeah it’s not really true, but it’s psychologically true”.

    I wouldn’t want to try to convince her that religion is evil, but I think if she’d gone through her experience in a lot of other places, she’d find religion a little less innocuous then she does now.

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  • Catholicism is like an old lawnmower passed down through the generations. It can’t cut the grass. It injures people who use it. It uproots the grass in patches. But people insist on using it out of tradition.

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