Julia (formerly) of the spirits
Last night, Julia Sweeney came to Cambridge, MA for a single performance of her one-woman play, Letting Go of God.
It's a nicely woven autobiographical story of a woman losing her religion. The linked clip features the first seventeen minutes of the show, from a performance in Monterey, CA earlier this year.
For a die-hard atheist (and we may die hard, but the afterlife is a cinch), it was remarkable to see the show in Harvard's churchy Memorial Hall, presented by a group called "The Humanist Chaplaincy," and watched appreciatively by hundreds of true non-believers.
If she was preaching to the choir, it was my kind of sermon and my kind of choir. Reminded me some of watching Fahrenheit 9/11 in a packed house in the conservative South Shore, feeling like maybe, just maybe there were enough of us to wake the country out of its jingoistic nightmare. I'll get back to you on that a week from next Tuesday.
Sweeney's approach to encouraging people to evolve from superstition to rationality is a gentle but compelling one. As an anecdotal recounting of looking for God in all the wrong places (i.e., anywhere and everywhere, until she looked in the right place: nowhere), it's a perfect companion to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, which methodically breaks down the conventional arguments for monotheism.
That's not at all to say that Sweeney's show is light on content. She illuminates her own experiences with many well-chosen facts and keen observations, adding up to a convincing case for doubting God — and then doubting the need to doubt.
Most impressive was her litany of horrifying Bible citations. And for me, most inspirational was her unabashed embrace of Reason:
It was like I had been starved for science. As if the Cambrian explosion happened in my brain.In a post-show Q&A, she was disarmingly down-to-earth. She sounded a cautiously optimistic note about the growing acceptance of non-believing, and she quoted James Randi: "If Atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby." She explained her preference for less-threating terms like "Naturalism" and "Humanism" over "Atheism" (though she does not shirk from the latter), noting that the opposite of the former would be "Anaturalists." One might add that "Ahumanists" doesn't sound like a very enobling position, either.
And I liked it. It was challenging. And unlike every other knowledge quest, this one got better the closer you looked. For the first time, knowing too much didn't ruin it.