juliasweeney08jun

SIFF 2008: An Interview with Julia Sweeney of "Letting Go of God"

Letting Go of God is the latest monologue by former Saturday Night Live star Julia Sweeney to be made into a motion picture. It’s a two-hour, one-person film where Sweeney traces her life from her Catholic upbringing to eventually rejecting the idea of God.

The film itself is powerful and funny at the same time. It was a live performance of Sweeney’s monologue that was filmed and turned into this movie. Her timing is impeccable and she is such a likeable personality that she is able to seamlessly hold our rapt attention for the entire length of the film. It was the most stripped-down and most basic film I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival. It was also my favorite.

Just before Letting Go of God made its world premiere at SIFF, Sweeney and I discussed her film, our own atheism, how the brain works and what she has on deck. We did not, however, talk about the gender of any androgynous, recurring "SNL" characters.

Tonight is the first screening of Letting Go of God as a film. Was it by design that you chose to screen it in Seattle, which is known as one of the more secular cities in America?

I was here before with God Said Ha! ten years ago and I’m from Spokane and I love Seattle, so it seemed natural to be here.

I wonder how this film will play in more conservative and religious parts of the country.

It will never play in those places!

I hope that is not true.

I don’t know if this film is going to be distributed or not. It might be in a movie theater for a week in LA so it can qualify for some things but then I feel it may play on cable on Showtime or Cinemax and then I’ll just release it on DVD – or something like that.

When did you start having doubts about the existence of God?

I guess I had doubts my whole life. There were a couple of significant times but it wasn’t until I started reading books about science, like Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. That was when I put down the book in the middle of reading it and thought “I can’t continue to believe. I’m convinced.” There isn’t any good evidence. Everything I kept holding out in my own mind as a way God could exist while trying to reconcile with how I know the world works was answered by psychology or probabilities or biology. It was all answered. It wasn’t until a couple of years into my quest that I even entertained the possibility. I never thought I’d ever not believe in God. I just thought I’d find some intellectually credible way of believing. But I never did.

From your story, you were curious your whole life and never seemed satisfied with any of the answers you had gotten to your questions trying to understand better.

Yeah, it was like all the things I learned in my Catholic education were the same things that caused me to leave: looking for the truth, caring about scholarship, rigorous intellectual pursuit. Those were very Catholic ideas but those were the things that caused me to reject the whole thing.

Even this morning I was thinking about when it first occurred to me. I thought “wait a minute, isn’t the Bible supposed to be the word of God according to Catholicism?” That’s a Catholic answer. Why is the Bible the Bible? It is amazing that that is a very difficult question to find an answer to. You can go to all of the Catholic websites or the Vatican’s website. The answer turns out to be tradition. It is traditionally our source and through our authority, the Pope, we traditionally accept it. If you applied those methods to finding truth in science, we’d all still be living in caves. “We’ve always lived here and the chief told us to live here.” That’s a crappy answer but it is their answer because there is no answer.

I didn’t know that. I thought I was going to call the Vatican and they were going to go “oh yes” and open some vaults and be like [in a wise old man’s voice] “looking at Jesus and then we have this site and a tomb and then…” I don’t know what I thought – just that when I looked for the evidence that it would be there.

I do understand the idea of faith but I didn’t realize that it would be used to cover up everything. It was like faith was spread so thin in your argument. Like frosting you keep spreading out over bigger portions of the crap you’re trying to cover up.

That reminds me of my own upbringing. My parents were never religious but I think they were both disappointed when I told them separately that I didn’t believe in God.

Daniel Dennett is this philosopher and scientist and he talked about how people don’t really believe anyway. They don’t actually believe they just believe it is good to believe. They want their kids to believe because they think it is good for them. I never had that articulated to me before but it’s true.

Every time I would meet an adult on my journey that would be against where I was in my critical thinking, when I tried to pin them down on why it was so important that I believed and it was never because of good evidence. It was because they thought it would be good for me. They weren’t being cynical or condescending – it was just this general acceptance that believing was better than not.

That was one of the things I really liked about Letting Go of God. You weren’t bitter or cynical – you just told your story and how you arrived at your conclusions. If someone never heard your story and their only exposure to atheism was seeing someone like Christopher Hitchens on television talking about his book God is Not Great they might get the impression that we atheists are a bunch of bitter jerks.

What I’ve been thinking about recently (and I’m writing my own book that I hope to have finished by the end of the year) is that I think the idea of God is a fantastic idea that works for short-term crises and traumas. I just read this book called Kluge that is about how the brain evolved. The neocortex is the last thing that came but all of these other parts of the brain evolved in our ancestral environment. They are more animalistic things and we do an amazing amount of cost/benefit analysis that we aren’t even really aware of. Like, should we fill this glass of water so much or will it make us have to go to the bathroom shortly? These are things we aren’t even aware of but we heavily discount the future because before we didn’t even live that long. Anything that helps you get through the next ten minutes was valued higher than something in your brain that helped you get through the next thirty years. My feeling is that if you are running into a battle or trying to kill a beast, believing that there is a supernatural force that is behind you or with you or loves you and is going to care for you, if you are killed or not, it works. If you can get yourself to believe that, then you are going to be less traumatized if you believe that your life is in danger or that your parents are dying. I just think that that belief in God only works in the short-term. I believe in the long-run it is better to be a better critical thinker than a person willing to throw themselves into battle because they think God is with them.

That’s what I’m thinking about right now, but when I think of Christopher Hitchens’ book, I’m not saying God is great, I don’t think there is a God. I just think that God can be very useful to people in traumatic situations. You can think of any emotion that is a short-term benefit: physical attraction or infatuation, for example. Your judgment can become clouded. You are attracted to this person and you want to have sex with them, but that is very short-term thinking. You may act on your emotions but everyone knows that infatuation is not the same as making a good choice for a partner for your lifetime.

Although they wouldn’t have seen your film y
et, how have people that are very religious who have heard your story, either the audio version or seeing you live, responded to it?

They feel sorry for me. They think I had those experiences where I experienced God. To them, that is God – a mechanism for coping. I think of it as psychological now but they still think of it as religious; like I shut out God because the knowledge has not left me with any room for God. They think that is sad. I think it is happiness – to me, that is joyful that I’m the most human I can be. I am a human being with a brain that can think through things. To me that is just joyful but to them, it is just sad.

I agree. It reminded me of when you discussed Pascal’s Wager – this argument that you should believe in God because the benefits and probabilities of God’s existence outweigh disbelief. If you believe in God and go to heaven, it is preferable to not believing in God and going to Hell. To me, that is one of the most cynical things a person can believe.

I know it!

Now that I’m in the skeptic world I hear all these arguments against it. One is by Michael Shermer, who would say “how do you know this God is the right god?” It could be Vishnu and you’re screwed! You just spent your whole life worshipping the wrong god!

I like my take on it, which is: isn’t God supposed to know what you’re thinking anyway? You have this idea that you are hoodwinking God into believing that you believe. It’s like “he didn’t know that I was just doing it to get into Heaven, but I’m here now!” I thought the idea was that He could hear your thoughts.

That reminds me of a cartoon I once saw in The New Yorker where a man and woman are drawn coming from church and the husband says “just between you and me, I hate the sinner as much as I hate the sin.”

That’s really funny!

In your story you also talk about meeting Deepak Chopra when you were both guests on “The View” and you were fawning over him. Then in Letting Go of God you talk about taking a class on quantum mechanics and conclude after one class that “Deepak Chopra is full of shit”. Have you run into him since?

No, I haven’t. I did read that Mike Myers, who was on SNL with me (but I’m not in contact with him. I do think he’s funny and I want to see his new movie), has become friends with him and it inspired his new movie (The Love Guru) and he actually appears in the film.

I don’t know what Deepak could say beyond “I’m not full of shit!”

He’s written some things for Skeptic Magazine, but he really bends science to become “the God of the Gaps”. There are gaps in our understanding of science and he puts God in there. “We don’t know if electrons can be positive and negative at the same time so there is a God!”

What else are you working on these days?

In the fall, Jill Sobule and I are opening a show together where she sings and I tell stories. It’s called “The Jill and Julia Show”. We’re going to open it in LA. She’s working on a new record right now and she’s hoping to release her CD and I’m hoping to release my DVD and we’re hoping to open our show at the same time. We are hoping to get into a 99-seat theater called The Coast Theater. I don’t know if it will all work out at the same time, but that’s our plan.

I’m also working on a pilot to a show. It’s set in Seattle and is about a science journalist who works at NPR. Her life is very similar to mine. She has a daughter and a scientist husband. It is a single-camera comedy. It’ll never get made but they pay me to write the pilot and I get my insurance that way. I still have to write it. I have already gotten the outline approved but now I have to write the script.