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Friday, 28 October 2016 11:04

The Sympathetic Atheism of Julia Sweeney

Written by  Josh Veal
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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.


What are the parts you do hate? Your talks don’t go into a lot of detail on the “evils” of religion.

Right! Because I don't really feel that way. But the biggest thing I hate about religion — where they tell you things like what's good and bad and how the world began and how things work — is that it quells the natural curiosity in a person. There are so many great things about it and I'm so happy that I was raised in the Catholic church. But the thing that I'm most upset about is that I could've been enlightened so much younger than I was.


How so?

I was like 40 and I really feel like I might have been a scientist or something otherwise! We even accepted evolution, but still because I imagined there was this supreme being that kind of created it all, it made me much less interested in how it happened. When I really understood how evolution and science work, it was so mindblowing. … I wish I had another 20 years of my life to look at the world that way.


How about religion’s impact on the world at large?

When I look at how religion plays itself out, religions are so much about controlling women and their sexuality and freedom, I'm the most personally upset by that part of it. It reinforces a power structure to keep people down, basically. I really think that the whole "submitting" and "surrendering" yourself — even though poetically I can really get into those ideas — in practical ways, I think it keeps people passive.


Why do you think that we shouldn't just lose it all, then?

I think there's so much culture transmission that comes through religion. ... There's still so much richness there.

Not only that, there is a lot of great advice for living and wisdom. I think there are great things in each religion that we can learn that will help us do better. I also think that it brings community and solidarity and insurance, going every week to a community place where you know other people that share a similar ideology. You're singing the same songs and doing the same rituals when people get married or die or are born or whatever. It really strengthens the tribe and community and that isn't something you should just let go of.


Does that differ, in your mind, from most atheists?

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. In fact, it's really part of their culture to not believe in God. So the idea that those people are saying the others should just leave (religion), it's ludicrous.


It's rare to hear that kind of nuanced approach to the issue.

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.

To me, the people who are the reverends and the preachers who left, they literally lose everything when they say what they think. Those are really the heroes.


Right. It’s harder when that’s your whole life.

On the other hand, there needs to be more openness about not believing in God and more casualness about it, and all that stuff is brought about by these people like Richard Dawkins. Even people who are extreme, that I don't agree with everything they're saying, it’s good just that it's out there in the zeitgeist and making it easier for people to say, "I don't believe.” But I think they should have more understanding of people who are in religious traditions.


You poke a lot of fun at religion in your talks, but I never get the sense you’re trying to “convert” people. Is that right?

That's funny, because I have a whole relationship even with that phrase, "trying to convert." People at first really wanted me to reassure them that I was not trying to convert them. Why do I need to reassure you that much? Why can't you just hear what I have to say and then you just decide to believe whatever you're going to believe?

So when people say, "What I like about your show is you're not trying to convert people," I have mixed feelings about it! Because yeah, I'm not. I'm just telling my story. I'm not telling people they shouldn't believe. On the other hand, maybe I am trying to convince you! I think I have some really good arguments that you should consider! [Laughter]


Have you ever had anyone tell you that you convinced them?

Oh my god, so many people! In fact, it's the greatest thing of my life! I have had so many people say that watching my show is what started it for them. And, of course, people will say anything when they see someone, but it seems like it's true! [Laughter] Then, I've had guys who are atheists who date a woman who’s vaguely or out-and-out religious — they show her my show and then they start to understand. That makes me really proud and happy.


Compared to your monologues, what do you want people to get out of this talk with Dawkins?

I think it's a discussion between two people who want to take this topic really seriously and have strong opinions about it, but not identical opinions. He's just so fascinating. I hardly do anything — I add a few laughs here and there and tease him, which is great. But he is so articulate, he takes my breath away. It's like being with a virtuoso of speech. Personally, I'm like, "I can't believe I'm on the stage with this guy! That's so great."

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