Letting Go of God, by Julia Sweeney

The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.

Letting Go of God, by Julia Sweeney

Postby admin » Thu Jun 25, 2015 6:46 am

by Julia Sweeney
© 2006 Julia Sweeney




Table of Contents:

Act One
1. There is No Santa Claus
2. Exodus: The Mormon Boys Arrive
3. My Religious History In a Nutshell
4. I Wish I Were a Nun
5. I Rededicate Myself to the Church: The O.T.
6. Sodom & Gomorrah; Abraham & Isaac
7. The Ten Commandments
8. The New Testament
9. St. Paul & The Book of Revelation
10. Psychologically True
11. Jesus Suffered, But So Did a Lot of People
12. Father Tom Blesses Me & I Get Out of There
13. Numbers: I Begin to Drift East, Spiritually Speaking
14. God Is Nature; The Galapagos
15. Sister Charatina's Theory of Evolution & God is Not Nature
Act Two
1. Judges: God Is Love
2. Deepak
3. I'm Becoming So Cantankerous!
4. How the Mind Works
5. Intelligent Design
6. What If It's True?
7. Good-Bye to God
8. So, I'm Just Another Animal
9. Acts: Mom & Dad Freak
10. A Child is Born: Mulan Arrives & Dad Is Sick
11. A Funeral
12. More Mormon Boys
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Re: Letting Go of God, by Julia Sweeney

Postby admin » Thu Jun 25, 2015 6:49 am



On September 10th, the morning of my seventh birthday, I came downstairs to the kitchen where my mother was washing the dishes and my father was reading the paper. And I presented myself to them in the doorway. And they said, "Hey, happy birthday!" And I said, "I'm seven!" And my father smiled and said, "Well, you know what that means don't you?" And I said, "Yeah, that I'm going to have a party and a cake and get a lot of presents?" And my dad said, "Well, yes. But more importantly, being seven means that you've reached the Age of Reason and you're now capable of committing any and all sins against God and Man."

Now I had heard that phrase, "Age of Reason" before. Sister Mary Kevin had been bandying it about my second grade class at school; but when she said it, the phrase seemed all caught up in the excitement of our preparations for First Communion and First Confession. And everybody knew that was really all about the white dress and white veil. And anyway, I hadn't really paid all that much attention to that phrase: Age of Reason.

So I said, "Yeah, yeah. Age of Reason. What does that mean again?" And my dad said, "Well, we believe, in the Catholic Church, that God knows that little kids don't know the difference between right and wrong, but when you're seven, you're old enough to know better. So, you've grown up and reached the Age of Reason. And now God will start keeping notes on you, and begin your permanent record."

And I said, "Oh." Wait a minute, you mean all that time up till today, all that time that I was so good, God didn't notice it?"

And my mom said, "Well I noticed it!" And I thought, "How could I have not have known this before? How could it not have sunk in, what they'd been telling me? All that being good and no real credit for it. And worst of all, how could I not have realized this very important information until the very day that it was, basically, useless to me?"

So I said, "Well, mom and dad, what about Santa Claus? I mean Santa Claus knows if you're naughty or nice, right?" And my dad said, "Yeah. But honey, I think that's technically just between Thanksgiving and Christmas." And my mother said, "Oh Bob, stop it. Let's just tell her. I mean, she's seven. Julie, there is no Santa Claus."


Now this was actually not that upsetting to me. My parents had this whole elaborate story about Santa Claus, how they had talked to Santa himself and agreed that instead of Santa delivering our presents over the night of Christmas Eve, like he did for every other family, who got to open their surprises first thing Christmas morning, our family would give Santa more time. Santa would come to our house while we were at 9:00 High Mass on Christmas morning, but only if all us kids did not make a fuss.

Which made me very suspicious. It was pretty obvious that it was really our parents giving us the presents. I mean, my dad had a very distinctive wrapping style and my mother's handwriting was so close to Santa's. Plus, why would Santa save time by having to loop back to our house after he had gone to everybody else's?

There was only one obvious conclusion to reach from this mountain of evidence. Our family was too strange and weird for even Santa Claus to come visit. And my poor parents were trying to protect us from the embarrassment, this humiliation of rejection by Santa, who was jolly, but let's face it, also very judgmental.

So, to find out that there was no Santa Claus at all was actually sort of a relief. I left the kitchen not really in shock about Santa, but rather, I was just dumbfounded about how I could have missed that whole Age of Reason thing. It was too late for me. But maybe I could help someone else, someone who could use the information. They had to fit two criteria: They had to be old enough to be able to understand the whole concept of the Age of Reason. And, not yet seven.

The answer was clear: my brother Bill. He was six!

Well, I finally found Bill about a block away from our house at this public school playground. It was Saturday and he was all by himself, just kicking a ball against this brick wall. I ran up to him and said, "Bill, I just realized that the Age Of Reason starts when you turn seven and then you're capable of committing any and all sins against God and Man." And Bill said, "So?" And I said, "So, you're six. You still have a whole year to do anything you want to and God won't notice it!" And Bill said, "So?" And I said, "So!? So, everything!" And I turned and ran, so angry with him. But when I got to the top of these steps, I turned dramatically and said, "Oh by the way, Bill, there is no Santa Claus."

Now, I didn't know it at the time, but I was actually not turning seven on September 10th.

For my thirteenth birthday I planned a slumber party with all of my girlfriends. But a couple of weeks before hand, my mother took me aside and said, "I need to speak to you privately. September 10th is not your birthday. It's October 10th."And I said, "What?" And she said, "Listen, the cut-off date to start Kindergarten was September 15th. So, I told them that your birthday was September 10th and then I wasn't sure that you weren't just going to go blab it all over the place, so I started to tell you your birthday was September 10th. But, Julie, you were so ready to start school, honey, you were so ready!"

I thought about it, and when I was four, I was already the oldest of four children, and my mom even had another child to come. So what I think she, understandably, really meant was that, "She was so ready, she was so ready." Then she said, "Don't worry, Julie, every year on October 10th when it was your birthday, but you didn't realize it, I made sure you ate a piece of cake that day." Which was comforting, but troubling. My mother had been celebrating my birthday with me, without me.

What was so upsetting about this piece of information was not that I was going to have to change the date of my slumber party with all of my girlfriends. What was most upsetting was that this meant I was not a Virgo. I had a huge Virgo poster in my bedroom. And I read my horoscope every single day and it was so totally me! And this meant that I was a Libra?

So I took the bus downtown to get the new Libra poster. The Virgo poster was a picture of a beautiful woman with really long hair, sort of lounging by some water. But the Libra poster was just a huge scale. This was around the time that I started filling out, physically, and I was filling out a lot more than some other girls, and frankly, the whole idea that my astrological sign was a scale just seemed ominous and depressing. But I got the new Libra poster and I started to read my new Libra horoscope. Which I was astonished to find was also totally me!

It wasn't until years later, looking back on this whole Age of Reason, change-of-birthday thing that it dawned on me. I wasn't turning seven when I thought I turned seven. I actually had a whole other month to do anything I wanted to before God started keeping tabs on me. Oh, life can be so unfair!


2. The Mormon Boys Arrive

Not too long ago, two Mormon missionaries came to my door. I live just off a main thoroughfare in Los Angeles, and my block is a natural beginning for people peddling things door to door. Sometimes I get little old ladies from the Seventh Day Adventist Church showing me pictures of heaven. And sometimes I get teenagers who promise me that they won't join a gang and just start robbing people if I only buy some magazine subscriptions from them. So, normally I just ignore the doorbell. But on this day, I answered.

And there stood two boys, each about 19, in white, starched, short-sleeved shirts. And they had little nametags that identified them as official representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And they said they had a message for me. From God.

I said, "A message for me, from God?" And they said, "Yes."

Now, I was raised in the Pacific Northwest around a lot of Mormons and y'know, I've dated them, and worked with them, but I never really knew the doctrine or what they said to people when they were out on a mission. And I guess I was a little curious. So I said, "Well, please come in." And they looked really happy because I don't think that happens to them all that often. And I sat them down and I got them glasses of water and after our niceties, I said, "Okay, I'm ready for my message from God."

But they had a question, instead. Which threw me a little. I thought it would be more like a pitch at a studio and I would hear their story and then if I were interested I would have my people call their people or something. But, apparently this was going to be interactive. And they said, "Do you believe that God loves you with all his heart?"

And I thought, "Well, of course I believe in God. But, I don't like that word 'heart' because that anthropomorphizes God, and I don't like the word 'his' either, because that sexualizes God." But then, I didn't want to argue semantics with these boys, so after a very long uncomfortable pause, I said, "Yes. Yes, I do. I feel very loved."

And they looked at each other and smiled, like, that was the right answer. And then they said, "Do you believe that we're all brothers and sisters on this planet?" And I said, "Yes, I do. Yes, I do." And I was so relieved that it was a question that I could answer so quickly. And they said, "Well, then we have a story to tell you."

And they told me this story all about this guy named Lehi who lived in Jerusalem in 600 B.C. Now, apparently in Jerusalem, in 600 B.C. everyone was completely bad and evil, every single one of them: man, woman, child, infant, fetus. And God said to Lehi, "Put your family on a boat and I will lead you out of here." And God did lead them. He led them to America.

I said, "America? From Jerusalem to America by boat in 600 B.C.?" And they said, "Yes." Then they told me how Lehi and his descendants reproduced and reproduced and over the course of 600 years, there were two great races of them: the Nephites and the Lamanites. And the Nephites were totally, totally good, each and every one of them, and the Lamanites were totally bad and evil, every single one of them, just bad to the bone.

Then, after Jesus died on the cross for our sins, on his way up to heaven, he stopped by America and visited the Nephites. And he told them that if they all remained totally, totally good, each and every one of them, they would win the war against the evil Lamanites. But apparently somebody blew it, and the Lamanites were able to kill all the Nephites.

All but one guy, this guy named Mormon, who managed to survive by hiding in the woods. And he made sure this whole story was written down in reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics chiseled onto gold plates, which he then buried near Palmyra, New York.

Well, I was so into this story, I was just on the edge of my seat. I said, "What happened to the Lamanites?" And they said, "Well, they became our Native Americans here in the U.S." And I said, "So you believe the Native Americans are descended from a people who were totally evil?" And they said, "Yes."

Then they told me how this guy named Joseph Smith found those buried gold plates, right in his backyard! And he also found a magic stone back there, that he put into his hat and then buried his face into and this allowed him to translate the gold plates from the reformed Egyptian into English.

Well, at this point I just wanted to give these two boys some advice about their pitch. I wanted to say, "Okay, don't start with this story. I mean, even the Scientologists know to start with a personality test before they start telling people all about Xenu, the evil intergalactic overlord.

Well, then they said, "Do you believe that God speaks to us through his righteous prophets?" And I said, "No I don't." Because I was sort of upset about this Lamanites story and this crazy golden plate story. But the truth was, I hadn't really thought this through. So I back peddled a little bit and said, "Well, what do you mean by righteous, exactly? And what do you mean by prophets? Like, could the prophets be women?" And they said, "No." And I said, "Why? And they said, "Well, it's because God gave women a gift that is so spectacular, it is so wonderful, that the only gift he had left over to give men, was the gift of prophesy."

"What is this wonderful gift God gave women?" I wondered. Maybe their greater ability to cooperate and adapt? Women's longer life span? That fact that women tend to be much less violent than men?

But no, it was not any of these gifts. They said, "It's her ability to bear children."

I said, "Oh come on. Even if women tried to have a baby every single year from the time they were 15 to the time they were 45, assuming that they didn't die from exhaustion, it still seems like some women would have some time left over to hear the word of God." And they said, "No."

Well, then they didn't look so fresh faced and cute to me anymore. But they had more to say. They said, "Well we also believe that if you're a Mormon, and if you're in good standing with the Church, when you die, you get to go to heaven and be with your family for all eternity." And I said, "Oh dear. That wouldn't be such a good incentive for me." And they said, "Oh. Well, we also believe that when you go to heaven, you get your body restored to you in its best original state. Like, if you'd lost a leg? Well, you'd get it back. Or if you'd gone blind, you could see."

I said, "Oh. Now, I don't have a uterus because I had cancer a few years ago. So does this mean that if I went to heaven I would get my old uterus back?" And they said, "Yeah." And I said, "I don't want it back! I'm happy without it! Gosh, what if you had a nose job, and you liked it? Would God force you to get your old nose back?"

Well, then they gave me the Book of Mormon and they told me to read this chapter and that chapter and they said they'd come back someday and check in on me and I think I said something like, "Please don't hurry." Or maybe it was just, "Please don't." And they were gone.

3. My Religious History In A Nutshell

Okay. So, I initially felt really superior to these boys, and smug in my more conventional faith. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I had to be honest with myself. If someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology and dogma for the very first time, and they said, "We believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us. And she had a baby and that's the son of God." I would have thought that was equally ridiculous. I'm just so used to that story.

So I couldn't let myself feel condescending towards these boys. But the question they asked me when they first arrived really stuck in my head. "Did I believe that God loved me with all his heart?" Because, I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about that question. Now, if they'd asked me, "Do you feel that God loves you with all his heart?" That would have been much different. I would have instantly answered, "Yes. Yes. I feel it all the time. I feel God's love when I'm hurt and confused and I feel consoled and cared for. I take shelter in God's love when I don't understand why tragedy hits. And, I feel God's love when I look with gratitude at all the beauty I see."

But since they asked me this question with the word "believe" in it, somehow it was all different. Because I wasn't exactly sure if I believed what I so clearly felt.


Okay, my religious history in a nutshell. I was raised Catholic and for me, it was, all in all, a good experience. I know we can't stop reading about all of the horrific and abusive experiences that people have had growing up in the Catholic Church recently in the papers. But for me, it was mostly wonderful. I always felt lucky to be a Catholic.

My parents were both from Catholic families that went as far back as anyone knew on either side. My parents both went to all Catholic schools: grade school, high school, and college. Then my father even went to Catholic law school.

My father told us kids that when he was in high school, the Jesuits separated out some of the boys, and they were on this separate advanced track and he studied Latin for four years and Greek for three years. And out of the 15 of his special, special group, 11 of them became Jesuit priests themselves. When my father told us kids this story, we thought, "He's gotta be like this genius who was being groomed for the priesthood. But lucky for us, he chose to get married instead." When I was old enough, my father introduced me to his favorite writers, which he pointed out were Catholic writers: G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor. They were in a club that we were in too and I felt lucky and privileged.

4. I Wish I Were A Nun

I think my favorite time to be a Catholic was in high school. My first two years of high school, I went to an all-girls high school taught primarily by nuns. And I befriended one sister in particular, Sister Antonella. And she often invited me to the convent for dinner. And maybe because it was such a contrast to my home life at the time, I mean, I was the eldest of five children in a very busy Irish Catholic home, but for me the life of the nuns just seemed like heaven.

The convent was really quiet and calm, and the women were dedicated to the education of their students. And dinner discussion centered on theological debate, or what I thought was theological debate. Maybe they just talked about a poem that everyone liked. But it was just so civilized.

I don't know, the convent seemed like books and incense and rosary beads and meditation and like, rationality. The sisters lived in an Order, but they sure seemed to have their lives "in order" as well.

Now, my adult-self knows that I am definitely romanticizing these nuns, but in the seven or so times that I ate dinner over there, and in almost all my personal dealings with them, that's how I remember it.

I became a little bit of a nun-o-phile. My favorite show as a kid was "The Flying Nun." I watched all the nun movies with relish: "Song of Bernadette," "The Singing Nun." After watching "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," I took the confirmation name "Clare" because I, like St. Clare, was in love with St. Francis. I memorized "The Trouble With Angels" and "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows" and I secretly wished that I were Haley Mills and I practiced saying, "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea."

Naturally, I wanted to be a nun myself for a little while in high school.

And I confessed my dream to Sister Antonella. And she told me that the Church didn't really allow girls as young as me to enter the convent. But she could arrange for me to spend the weekend at another convent to see if I liked it.

This other convent was not like the convent at Mary Cliff. The nuns just lived in a house in a regular old neighborhood. And they just wore jeans and plaid shirts and they played guitar and sang "Kumbaya," and like, helped the poor and the sick. And I didn't want any of that hippy kind of nun life.

I wanted a habit and a cell and I wanted to flog myself and wear a hair shirt. And I wanted a Gregorian chant wafting through the halls, the halls that I would walk down right next to the wall, because to walk in the middle of the hallway was to be arrogant.

I wanted to be silent and make all of those hand signals during meals that the contemplative nuns made that meant, "more salt" and "thank you for the salt." And I wanted my long, thick hair to be cut off abruptly like Audrey Hepburn in "A Nun's Story," and then I wanted to prostrate myself before the cross.

But it wasn't just the type of convent that was a problem. There were also boys.

I was way into boys. Even though, for a while, I really did think it could be me and Jesus together forever. I had this picture of Jesus in my bedroom. And he had this shag haircut and these big, beseeching, totally understanding eyes and a sexy beard. I will confess to you that that Jesus helped me discover the pleasures of my own body. Believe me, he was cute. He was not this Jesus. He was this Jesus.

Anyway, as I grew and matured, my understanding of God also grew and matured. I mean, he really was sort of a Santa Claus at first, but then he became more abstract. I had many experiences which I considered to be religious, which confirmed my belief in God. I had religious experiences. I had a few times, maybe five or six times, felt the power of the Holy Spirit come over me and just shake me to the core. In fact, just before the Mormon boys arrived, I had my, perhaps, most visceral and profound religious experience.

You see I'd just suffered the traumatic end to a four-year relationship that I had a lot riding on. I was madly in love and he was not. I wanted us to raise children together and he did not. And then one day, he went away. And I thought I would die, but I didn't.

Night after night I was waking up, crying, barely able to breathe. It felt like a knife was being plunged into my chest. It seemed like the end of the road, my dream of being a mother had met a fatal blow. And then, one night, I woke up with the familiar pain and the shortness of breath and I could hear myself saying the words, "Heal me. Heal me." I must have been out-of-my-mind with grief.

And suddenly I felt this bright light in the room. Or maybe it was just a feeling inside me, like something burst, or released, or something. But I felt a powerful presence, a powerful force of love and transcendence. For the first time in weeks, I felt whole. I felt absolutely connected to everything. And I knew that I would be healed and that God had a plan for me and that my break up was part of my divine destiny.

The next day I was almost blushing to myself, thinking about this incident. And I felt close to God, closer than ever before. And I did feel healed. God had healed me.

So now you can sort of see how, when, a few days later, these two Mormon boys arrived on my doorstep and said that God had a message for me, why I was stopped in my tracks and actually let them in.

5. I Rededicate Myself To The Church: The O.T.

And I realized that I was kind of embarrassed that it had taken me so long to answer that simple question: did I believe that God loved me? And I thought, "How dare they walk into my house and ask me such a personal, private question so cavalierly." It made me kind of angry. But I wasn't sure if I was angry with them or with me, And I realized that I had really been getting a bit lazy about my faith. In an odd way, the Mormon boys dedication inspired me and I think I glimpsed in them, the girl inside me who wanted to be a nun: a person who is willing to go the distance in matters of faith.

So I decided I would rededicate myself to the Catholic Church. I went to several different churches and finally settled on joining one about ten miles from my house, near the ocean. It was liberal, it was big, and it had a dedicated and enthusiastic congregation.

Their Masses were wonderful, so emotional, so full of feeling. I would have to choke back tears just to say the Nicene Creed every time I went.

"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And of all things seen and unseen."

I love reciting that, the voices in church all together in unison. But I wanted to say it with conviction. Not as a child who has just grown up absorbing all of these things, but with an adult's understanding, in my heart and soul, the way God says we should.

I noticed in the announcements that they offered a Bible Study class on Thursday nights and on a whim, I decided to sign up for it. Now you know, the Catholics don't really emphasize the Bible all that much. Their attitude is sort of, "Leave that book to the professionals. Don't you worry your little self with that complicated book."

But of what little I did know about the Bible, I knew there were parts I loved. Often when I felt scared or confused, I repeated the 23rd psalm, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear, because you are with me." And I felt so much better.

Now I was happy to see that the Old Testament starts out with two conflicting stories about the origin of the universe: one where Adam and Eve are created at the exact same moment. And then a second creation story in chapter two, where Adam is created first and then Eve is created out of his rib after he gets lonely. And I thought, "Wow! For all those people who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, or that every single word of the Bible is true, I mean, they can't even have read the first two chapters of the Bible."

I remembered that Sister Charatina had told us in eighth grade that Genesis, Genesis was a "poem on creation." We were not to take it literally. I shared this with the Bible Study class and Father Tom, this Irish priest who was leading the class said, "That's exactly right, Julia. 'A poem on creation.' Yes. Nicely said."

But then we got to stories like Noah and the Ark. And it was kind of funny, I don't remember when I was studying this as a kid, Sister Mary Kevin highlighting the fact that Noah becomes an alcoholic after the flood. And spends all of his time passed out and naked, to the point where his sons have to back up into a room with a blanket, just to go cover him up. Cause jeez, Dad. Gawd.

I realized I'd always had the Bible served up to me piecemeal and in sections and it had been edited, severely edited. It was quite different reading it as an adult. As an adult you could begin to see the whole puzzle. As an adult, it was disturbing.

For example, when I read about the flood, as a kid, I didn't think about the fact that God killed everyone because he was angry, just drowned them all, because he thought they were all bad. Which you have to assume included a lot of kids, and unborn fetuses. Which I guess was okay with God.

But then I was relieved to read that God comes to Noah afterwards and he says, "Y'know the whole flood thing? It might have been a big mistake!" And he promises that he'll never do it again. And that was another surprise: God has regrets.
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Re: Letting Go of God, by Julia Sweeney

Postby admin » Thu Jun 25, 2015 6:51 am

6. Sodom Be Gomorrah; Abraham Be Isaac

Then we got to stories like Sodom and Gomorrah. All I remembered about that story is that they were these two sinful cities, like Las Vegas and Reno or something, and God got mad and wiped them out. And Lot's wife looked back when she was told not to and she got turned into a pillar of salt.

But the nuns of my grade school didn't explain to us about what happens right before they flee. Right before they flee, Lot is visited by these two angels, who are masquerading as two men, and they come and stay overnight at his house. And this mob forms outside and they yell, "Send out those two angel-like men to us so we can have sex with them!" And Lot yells "No!" (Which I think is a basic rule of hospitality: don't give up your guests to be raped by the angry mob outside.)


But then, what does he say next? He says, "Why don't you take my daughters and rape and do what you will with them? They're virgins!"

Okay, so Lot is evil, right? How is it that the story we know about him is about his wife getting turned into a pillar of salt? Maybe that was her only way out. Maybe being a big pillar of salt is preferable to being married to Lot!

Anyway, after Lot and his two traumatized daughters flee Sodom and Gomorra, they all go up to a cave in the mountains. And during the night, Lot's two daughters get Lot drunk and then rape him. Do they do this in revenge of what their father did to them? No. The Bible says it's because there aren't any other men around. Even though, the Bible also says that they're not that far from a city named Zoar. So, I guess no men around for maybe a few miles?

And wait a minute, so Lot's two daughters just had to drug and rape somebody? And then I guess if you're their dad and you're the only one there....

Okay, I knew the Bible had nutty stories, but I thought they'd be wedged in amongst an ocean of inspiration and history. But instead, the stories just got darker and even more convoluted.

This Old Testament God makes the grizzliest tests of people's loyalty. Like when he asks Abraham to murder his son, Isaac. As a kid, we were taught to admire it. I caught my breath reading it. We were taught to admire it?

What kind of sadistic test of loyalty is that, to ask someone to kill his or her own child? And isn't the proper answer, "No! I will not kill my child, or any child, even if it means eternal punishment in hell!"?

At the next Bible study class Father Tom reminded us, "That Isaac represents what matters to Abraham most. And that's what God asks us to give up for him."

I said, "But loving and protecting and caring for the welfare of your child is such a deep ethical, loving instinct and act. So, what if what matters to you most is your own loving behavior? Should we be willing to give up our ethics for God?"

And he said, "No! No, it's because your ethics, because your ethics IS your love and faith in God." That confused me a little bit, but I decided to just let that one go. But then, I found out that Abraham is not the only person willing to murder his own child for God. They're all over the place in the Bible.

For example, in the book of Judges, this guy named Jephtheh tells God that if he can win this battle, he will kill the first person who greets him when he comes home as a burnt offering. And who is the first person he sees? His only child, his beloved daughter, who runs up to him playing with tambourines and singing. "Hi daddy... what?"


And does God say, "No, don't kill your only child as a burnt offering to me!" Or even, "Jephtheh, who did you expect to be the first person to greet you when you came home?"

No, it appears the most important point of this story is that Jephtheh allows his beautiful daughter to go off into the woods for two months to mourn her virginity (I kept thinking, "Run! Run!") before she comes back and he kills her... by lighting her on fire.

Even if you leave aside the creepy sacrifice-your-own-offspring stories, the laws of the Old Testament were really hard to take. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are filled with archaic, just hard to imagine laws. Like if a man has sex with an animal, both the man and the animal should be killed. Which I could almost understand for the man, but the animal? Because the animal was a willing participant? Because now the animal's had the taste of human sex and won't be satisfied without it?

Or my personal favorite law in the Bible: in Deuteronomy, it says if you're a woman, married to a man, who gets into a fight with another man, and you try to help him out by grabbing onto the genitals of his opponent, the Bible says you immediately have to have your hand chopped off.

7. The Ten Commandments

Even things that I thought were set in stone, like literally set in stone, like the Ten Commandments, were not. I mean, the Ten Commandments that we are all most familiar with, are these rules that God told Moses on Mt. Sinai, without referring to them as commandments and without even setting them in stone.

It's only later in Exodus, when Moses goes back up to Mount Sinai, that God then hands him a set of two tablets of stone with these rules chiseled on them. When Moses gets back down off the mountain, he sees the people worshipping a golden calf, and he has a tantrum and he smashes the stones before he reads them.

So then Moses goes back up to Mt. Sinai and God gives him another set of stone tablets, and this is the first time now that they are referred to as "The Commandments." And they're chiseled into stone, so you'd sort of think that God must be pretty firm on the subject of commandments by now.

But the rules are significantly different than those other rules. Like how all male children have to appear before God three times a year (however that's supposed to be accomplished) and how you shouldn't cook a baby goat in it's mother's milk and how every domestic animals' first born male should be sacrificed. But then the commandment goes on to say that if you don't want to sacrifice your donkey's firstborn male, you could go ahead and substitute a lamb's. If you really needed to.


Some people think that without the Ten Commandments, morality in society would be relative and wishy-washy. But in the Bible morality is relative and wishy-washy. In fact, it sure seems like our modern morality is much more loving and humane than the Bible's morality.

Well, Father Tom saw me outside of church after Mass one Sunday. He said, "Julia, you know, you always look so very sad in Bible Study class." And I said, "I'm sorry Father, it's just that, God is so offensive in the Bible. I mean, really, it's like he's bi-polar."

And he said, "Well, y'know, the Old Testament. Just remember Julia, that the people who wrote it were an ancient Bronze Age civilization. I mean the stories are legends. They're tales of trickery and deception that were told around the campfire by sheiks who made God impressive by their very ancient standards."

I said, "Oh. Wow. Looking at the Old Testament that way, it actually makes a lot of sense now. Looking at the Old Testament that way is quite interesting. But you know, Homer was also an ancient Bronze Age writer, writing about Gods... I mean, how much are we supposed to believe is actually true?"

And he said, "Well, there's no evidence that Abraham is anything other than legend. Or Isaac. Or Moses. Or even the whole Exodus story." I said, "The Exodus story is a myth?" And he said, "Well, myth-ish." And I said, "How could something be myth-ish?" And he said, "Well, the Exodus story is a myth in the sense that it never actually happened. But it's not a myth in the fact that a people believed the story was true, and shaped their identity as a culture based on believing it. But, Julia, you can't read the Bible with modern, historical eyes. You've got to read it with the eyes of faith. This is the story that God wants us to know."

I left the church thinking, "Okay, calm down. This is the Old Testament. Old. Old is right in the title. A new, a Newer Testament is coming up. And that's why God must have sent his son, Jesus. Because we clearly hadn't gotten the message right. Right?

Jesus was all about tearing down those old, archaic ways of worship and reminding people that what mattered most was what we were like on the inside. I could hardly wait to meet Jesus again as if it were the first time.

8. The New Testament


But, oh dear. Well, first of all, Jesus was much angrier than I had expected him to be. I mean, I knew Jesus got angry with all those moneychangers in the temple, but I really had no idea that he was so angry so much of the time. And very impatient.

Jesus says that he speaks in parables because the people, they just don't understand anything else. But the parables are often foggy and meaningless. And Jesus is snippy when even the disciples don't get them. He says to them, "If you don't understand this parable, then how can you understand any parable?" And "Are you incapable of understanding?" I kept thinking, "Don't teach in parables then. It's not working! Even your staff doesn't understand them! Why don't you just say what you mean?"

Okay, so, Jesus isn't so patient and I think he picked a very ineffective lesson giving technique, and he's angry most of the time, but that doesn't make him bad. It's just, wow, I really expected someone else.

Some of the parables are not just foggy, but to me, they're really sort of offensive. Like, in Luke, Jesus helps us understand God's relationship with humans by telling us a story about how God treats people the way people treat their slaves. They beat some more than they beat other ones.

Okay, I know this was a different time and everything, and I really tried to keep that in mind as the Bible refers to slavery all over the place. And not only does it not say it's wrong, I mean, the Bible gives advice about how you're supposed to keep your slaves and how slaves should behave obediently at all times to their masters.

But I don't know, I sort of thought the Son of God would say slavery was wrong. But no, Jesus does not say that. In fact, he uses slavery as an example of how God treats people.

It was really hard to stay on Jesus' side when he started saying really aggressive, just hateful things. Like in Luke, Chapter 19, Jesus says that he is like a King who says, "Anyone who does not recognize me, bring them here and slaughter them before me." Or in John, Chapter 15, where Jesus says, "Anyone who does not believe in me is like a withered branch that will be cast into the fire and burned!" In Matthew he says, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." In Luke he says, "And if you don't have a sword, sell your clothes and buy one."

Then Jesus just starts acting downright crazy. Like in Matthew, Chapter 21, when this fig tree doesn't have a fig for Jesus to eat, he condemns the fig tree to death. That's right, Jesus condemns a fig tree to death. Not a parable, by the way. Just Jesus pissed off that the fig tree didn't have a fig for him to eat when he wanted one! Not exactly the Prince of Peace who taught us to turn the other cheek....

And then, there's family. I have to say, that for me, the most deeply upsetting thing about Jesus, is his family values. Which is amazing when you think how there's so many groups out there who say they base their family values on the Bible.

I mean he seems to have no real close ties to his parents. He puts his mother off cruelly, over and over again. At the wedding feast he says to her, "Woman, what have I to do with you?" And once, while he was speaking to a crowd, Mary waited patiently off to the side to talk to him, and Jesus said to the disciples, "Send her away, you are my family now."

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this exact same story, but Mark actually tells us why Mary was there to see Jesus. He says, Mary came to see Jesus to restrain him, because the people were saying, "He's gone out of his mind." I kept thinking, "Yes! Let's go get Jesus and get him some help!"

Anyway, Jesus discourages any contact his converts have with their own families. As we know, he himself does not marry or have children and he explicitly tells his followers not to have families as well, and if they do, they should just abandon them.

Now, mostly Jesus says this because he believed the End Of All Time was imminent. Jesus said over and over again that the people who were alive when he was alive would not die naturally, but see the End Of Times. He tells us this in Mathew, Mark and Luke.

So, okay, Jesus tells us not to have families because he (mistakenly) believed that the End Of All Time was imminent, but then he tells us not to take care of the families that we do have already. In Luke, Chapter 14, Jesus says, "Anyone who comes to me and does not hate father and mother, brothers and sisters, wife and children cannot be my disciple."

I mean, isn't that what cults do? Get you to reject your family in order to inculcate you?

So, that's the New Testament family values for you. The supposed big improvement over the Old Testament family values, which seemed to me to be mostly about incest and mass slaughter and protecting your own specific genetic line at all costs.

9. St. Paul & The Book Of Revelation


After the Gospels, there's a bunch of letters written by the early Christians, the most important of which were written by St. Paul. Now, the Bible's view of women is dreadful in general, and I know this was a different time and everything. But St. Paul? Man, he really gets right to the point.

St. Paul writes, "Man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have any authority over a man; she must be silent. If there is anything a woman desires to know, let her ask her husband at home. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve. And it was not the man who was deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became the sinner."

The Bible. The Bible. The Good Book! The Good News!

I was so disillusioned by the time I finished the epistles, I just didn't think it could get any worse. But, it did. We were just about to read the last, and most oddball book of the Bible: Revelation.

Now, apparently, Revelation was written by St. John, the same person who wrote a Gospel and some of the epistles. The biblical historian Ken Smith says that "If his epistles can be seen as John on pot, then Revelations is John on acid." It describes the End of Days with a little too much gruesome enthusiasm.

Revelation tells us that in heaven there "is a throne, and the One who sat there had the appearance of a jasper." "Around the throne were four living creatures, and they're covered with eyes, front and back. Day and night they never stop saying, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come.'" In heaven, Jesus resembles a dead lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. When the gates of Hell are opened, locusts pour out with human faces, wearing tiny crowns, and they sting people with their tails.

Revelation tells us that only 144,000 people will be saved and go to heaven and that none of them will have, quote, "defiled themselves with women." Which I guess excludes most heterosexual men from heaven and, depending on how you interpret that word "defiled," I would say excludes all women, too.

After we finished the Book of Revelation, the entire Bible Study group sat there, dumbfounded, our Bibles on our laps. Father Tom said, "Revelation's a poem about the end of the world?" I said, "Father Tom, I'm having a really hard time with this book." And he told me to, "pray for faith."'

I left the church thinking, "Is this one big practical joke? Where is my God? The Jesus I know? The one that 1 love and the one who loves me?"

I was driving home, and I was stopped at this red light on Crenshaw and Wilshire, and it was a Sunday, and all these people were walking to church, holding their Bibles. And I wanted to roll down the window and say, "Have you read that book? I mean, really!"

I felt like I was in a horror film and the clue to the insanity was not a secret document, it was a book that everyone was holding, that was on every coffee table, the biggest best seller of all time, in every hotel room in the land, the key to the understandings of the faith!

And yet, if you cared enough to glance inside, you found you'd opened the door to an insane asylum, with a bunch of crazy people dancing around saying, "Yippity, yippity yah!" And now I'd shut that door and how could I pretend that I hadn't opened that door?

My mother said, "Julie, I just ignore what I don't like. Why would you do something like read the Bible cover to cover if you weren't just looking for reasons to get upset? You make your life so much harder than it has to be, honey!"

10. Psychologically True

I went to Book Soup and I wandered around and I saw a book called, "The History of God" by this woman Karen Armstrong. Karen Armstrong is this amazing British religious writer who was a nun for seven years and then left the convent and now, I believe, she teaches religious history at a Rabbinical Institute in England. In my mind, the Haley Mills character in "The Trouble With Angels," grows up to become Karen Armstrong. Karen has all sorts of scathingly brilliant ideas.

I loved "The History of God." In it, Karen makes a good point. She says that the stories of the Bible are not literally true; everybody knows that they're not literally true, and it isn't even important that they're true. What's important is that they're "psychologically true." And that was a big revelation for me. I felt I finally understood, as if, at long last, I was in on the secret. I thought, "Oh, yeah! This is what everyone already knows; only no one says it. Or maybe this is what Father Tom was trying to tell me when he said 'myth-ish.' He meant it was psychologically true."

I walked around thinking, "Of course, of course!" And I remembered the nuns teaching me dogma in grade school, and how exasperated they would get when I asked so many questions. And now I knew what they were thinking, they were thinking, "Don't you know, it's just psychologically true? Everybody else gets that!"

So, when I went to Mass on Easter Sunday that year, I felt I had a new positive attitude. I knew the correct way to look at the stories, historical accuracy was not important; that peoples built cultures around them wasn't even important. What was important was that the stories triggered us deep in our psyche, they were: psychologically true.

But as I sat there in Mass, I thought, "What does that really mean: psychologically true? I mean, Jesus' death and resurrection, rebirth, okay I get it, psychologically true enough. But what about other stories? I mean what about Persephone going down into the underworld? That's psychologically true, too, I suppose. Or, what about stories from the Iliad? Or Darth Vader? Or the Little Engine That Could? They are also psychologically true stories, aren't they?


"And what's psychologically true about atonement? We were taught that Jesus died for our sins, based on this idea of atonement, or that someone else can pay for the sins of other people. For the first time, after going to church basically my entire life, I considered the idea that God sent his son to earth to suffer and die for our sins. Why?
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Re: Letting Go of God, by Julia Sweeney

Postby admin » Thu Jun 25, 2015 6:52 am

11. Jesus Suffered, But So Did A Lot Of People

I mean, first of all you can say that Jesus suffered, but he didn't really suffer any more than a lot of other people have suffered. I could think of examples in my own family. My brother Mike, who had cancer, suffered unspeakably for a very long time. Eye lids freezing open and his eyes drying up, canker sores all over his throat and he couldn't swallow, weeks and weeks and then months of gut wrenching vomiting and nausea, before he then died.

So, okay, Jesus suffered. He apparently suffered terribly. For one, maybe even two days. I heard someone say once, "Jesus had a really bad weekend for our sins."

I thought, "Why would a God create people so imperfect, then blame them for their own imperfections, then send his son to be tortured and executed by those imperfect people, to make up for how imperfect people were and how imperfect they inevitably were going to be?" What a crazy idea.

I looked at the Crucifix, and for the first time instead of seeing a symbol of transcendence and compassion, I saw a horrible execution device. What kind of God sends his son to be tortured and killed like that? Oh, I guess it is the God of the Old Testament, that's exactly who would do something like that.

But when I looked at Jesus as just a guy, just a human, just this impassioned young idealist who lost his temper a lot, but who could also wax on teary eyed about loving your neighbor and helping the poor, and because his ideas were so outspoken it threatened those in power, who ordered him to be tortured and killed.... And then reading how Jesus died, astonished and heartbroken that his own God abandoned him, his story became so tragic.

Jesus' life and death made me want to go out and campaign for free speech, not sit in a church and worship him!

So, I decided I would concentrate on what I did like about the Church. The stained glass windows were pretty, the light in the church. The religious art. The songs. Not the words to the songs, exactly, but the melodies to the songs were nice. Especially at Christmas. It was all so... pretty in the church then.

12. Father Tom Blesses Me & I Get Out Of There

Father Tom saw me outside the church and he said, "Happy Easter, Julia." And I said, "Happy Easter, Father." And he said, "You know I can see you frowning from the pulpit." And I said, "I'm sorry, Father. But please, help me! I am finding this all just impossible to believe." He pulled me over to the coffee and donuts table. He said, "Listen, I've been speaking with some of the other priests about your... predicament." I loved how he said "predicament." I felt like I was 16 and knocked up.

I said, "Yeah?" He said, "Listen. We all struggle with doubt. But we all come back. Just remember Proverbs 3-5, 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.'"

"So, God gave us the gifts of intelligence and curiosity and rationality, and then we're not supposed to use them?"

Father Tom sighed, like he was so tired of me and my struggle. And I was so angry that he used that particular Proverb. It really felt like he was slamming the door in my face.

Then all of a sudden Father Tom started to bless me. It was sort of awkward, he just started moving his hands over me and chanting this phrase in Latin. Not that this is so out-of-the-ordinary or wrong or anything; it's just in this instance it really felt like he was trying to perform an exorcism.

Afterwards, I went back into the empty church. I sat down and stared at the altar.

When I was ten or so, the Sisters at St. Augustine's announced that anyone who was interested in becoming an altar boy were to go see Monsignor at the rectory. And I thought, "I want to be an altar boy!" So my best friend, Janie Parker and I went to the rectory and knocked on the door. When Monsignor answered I said, "I want to be an altar boy... altar girl... altar people. Whatever, we want to do it." And he said, "Don't be ridiculous." And then he slammed the door on our faces, as we stood there.

Janie and I were so angry, we were so mad. We went into the church and we went where they had always told us we could never go, up to the sanctuary. And we knew it was a sacrilege to touch anything on the altar if you weren't a priest or an altar boy. And we ran around and touched everything; we touched every little thing. We got our girl cooties all over that altar.

And, suddenly, remembering that, like a big ocean wave, the force of all that I hated about this Church welled up in me; all the pompous, numbing masses, the unabated monotony of the rituals, all the desperate priests trying to tease out something meaningful from a very flawed, ancient text.

I was driving home, going east on the 10. And I was near tears thinking, "I've tried so hard! I tried to learn more about my Church and it just made everything a lot worse. I thought they knew something I didn't know. Like they had to have, this whole huge institution is built on it!"

And I thought, "I feel like the Catholic Church is this great huge cow that I am lying underneath, and I am sucking on a teat, trying to get some milk of meaning. And I am sucking and sucking. And then I usually do get a teaspoon of milk. And I thrill to myself, 'A teaspoon of meaning! A teaspoon of meaning! Hallelujah!' And now my neck is so exhausted and even the muscles in my shoulders and back are starting to ache."

And I prayed to God, "What am I going to do? I can't go back there again." We could go to some other church together, me and God, and find some other way. But this is not the right way for me. I will not make this drive again, it is ... finished."

Then I did start to cry. And as if God were crying too, it began to rain. And I could almost feel God, sitting in the passenger seat next to me, and we were ripping down the freeway together. And I could practically hear God say, "I can barely stand it at that Church myself, let's get the hell out of there!" And so we did.


13. I Begin To Drift East, Spiritually Speaking


I came home and it felt remarkably quiet. It was like God and I were empty nesters, and now we had no church or rituals or special prayers to distract us. Just me and ... God. Not saying much, just pondering. Not a big conversationalist, God.

In retrospect, I could have easily become an Episcopal at that moment. But I didn't. Instead I went to Rocket Video and rented all those Bill Moyers-Joseph Campbell tapes and I re-watched them. And I reveled in the common themes that all religions share.

But it was different than the first time I had watched them back in 1988. Back then all I really remembered was, "Follow your bliss, follow your bliss, follow your bliss!" And I thought, "Okay, I'm following my bliss! That's good advice."

But this time I thought, "You know what? I believe in everything! All religions worship the same God; they just do it in different ways."

I began to drift East, spiritually speaking. I took a meditation class and began to meditate rather regularly, and I found it challenging and it really sharpened my concentration. I got Huston Smith's guide to the spiritual classics and I read them all: the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Rumi, The Essential Kabbalah, and The Way of the Pilgrim. I was on a Spiritual Quest.

Fortunately, around this time on the work front for me, I was cast in two direct-to-video family dog movies, Beethoven 3 & 4. I know, I hate to throw my credits around, but... Anyway, one of the scripts had this nightmare sequence which involved a bunch of drooling St. Bernards licking my terrified face. And this was accomplished by... well, by taking a whole bunch of St. Bernards and not feeding them for a very long time, taking me to the beach and burying me in sand up to my neck, rubbing a bunch of dog food in my hair, and then releasing the hounds.

And as the dogs galloped towards my fragrant cranium, I thought, "Maybe I'm a Buddhist. In a way, it seems inevitable. I live in California, it's practically Buddhism's second home." I was so excited about Buddhism; I decided I wanted to spend some serious time traveling in the East, in countries predominantly Buddhist and go visit the places where it all began. And the money from these two movies allowed me to do it. I took off and traveled for several months.

I went to China and hiked along the Yangtze, and then to Tibet where I went overland from Lhasa to Katmandu. And I spent some time hiking in Bhutan, this little Buddhist monarchy high in the Himalayas sandwiched between India and China.

As I hiked up and up and up to a monastery, I could hear the monks chanting and singing in the distance. Prayer flags whipped in the wind and the giant mountains hovered. It was all so otherworldly and exotic.

It also happened to be my fortieth birthday. I kept thinking, "Forty. Wow, forty. I always thought that by this age, I would be married and have kids, maybe even grown kids." I could almost hear God laughing in the wind at how differently everything had turned out for me.

Ahead of me on the trail was an old man carrying a prayer wheel and one of those rosaries of prayer beads that have the same number of beads that Catholics use, a mala, I think it's called. And I thought, "Wow, he almost looks like my grandmother walking to church."

I got closer to the monastery. But as I got closer, I could see how young some of the monks were: it's a tradition in places like Tibet and Bhutan that the second son automatically goes into the monastery. Some boys were as young as seven, the Age Of Reason, but hardly an age where someone could make an informed decision about their life purpose. They would get only a religious education; they would never experience a heterosexual relationship, with its particular joys and sorrows, or a family of their own. Instead of being inspired by them, I wanted to free them.


As I hiked back down, I thought, maybe I have it backwards. Maybe we don't all worship the same God. After all, the Buddhist Gods are so different than the Judeo Christian God. But, we worship them in the same ways: we recite prayers, we make sacrifices, we wear special garments, and we use special objects.

From there I went to Thailand where I happened to visit a woman who was taking care of a terribly deformed boy who was an orphan. I said to his caretaker, "It's so good of you to be taking care of this poor boy." She said, "Don't say 'poor boy.' He must have done something terrible in a past life to be born like that.

When I came back to L.A., even though there was still a lot about Buddhism that intrigued me, I had to admit, I was less interested. I kept thinking, "The Buddhism we get in California is all cleaned up for us."

And I wondered what enlightenment really meant. I felt pretty good about my level of attachment and detachment to the world. To me, life was not all suffering. In fact, what I mostly felt was a growing sense of outrageous luck.

I realized I wasn't just looking for inner peace so I could be happier or more content with my life. I was trying to figure out why I was born, who God was, and I guess, what the meaning of life was.

14. God Is Nature; The Galapagos

Bill Moyers was to appear once again on my quest. Not exactly as a spiritual guide, showing me down the right road, but more like a friendly gas station attendant who had some pretty good maps for sale next to the cash register.

He did this interview with Sister Wendy. Sister Wendy is this British nun who is on PBS all the time, walking through museums talking rapturously about art. I adore Sister Wendy. To me she has the perfect, dream life: half the year she spends in a silent monastery, and the other half she spend being a television star.

I've watched all of her shows and Bill Moyers did a special interview with her. He did ask her question, after question, after question about her sexless existence, which got to be rather annoying and then even a little disturbing. But then he asked, "When you're at the monastery, what do you do all day?" And Sister Wendy said, "Well Bill, I pray a lot. And I live in the sunshine of God's presence. It's absolute bliss!" And I thought, "The sunshine of God's presence, huh? The sunshine of God's presence. Maybe I'll spend more time in the sunshine! Maybe for me, God is nature. The beauty and harmony of our natural world."

And as soon as I said it to myself, I just knew it was right. I could almost hear God inside me saying, "Duh." And I walked around saying, "God is nature, God is nature. That's the way for me to connect with God, by spending time in his masterpiece, nature!"

Now, you know Catholics don't emphasize nature all that much. There's something almost pornographic about the whole idea of nature to Catholics. I don't remember a lot of hiking, growing up. We weren't like those crazy Protestants who were out camping all the time. I guess the idea was that nature was so lush and unabashedly bright. You just didn't know what you were going to get tangled up in, out in... nature!

So, I decided I would try experiencing God while I went on a hike. Or on a bike. And it was pretty fun. Really fun. And I began to notice the smallest leaves and what a web of life was out there, so intricate and beautiful.

I was able to continue my travels and I headed to South America. And I went to Ecuador, and visited the Galapagos Islands. I went on a weeklong boat trip with eight other people and a naturalist.

In the common area of the boat was Charles Darwin's, "The Origin Of Species." And it made me laugh when I saw it. Because I thought, "Either you would be someone who would have read the 'Origin of Species' and that would be why you were in the Galapagos, or you would be someone who would never read the 'Origin of Species.' And how supremely dorky would it be if someone saw this book and thought 'Huh, I wonder what this is about?' and started reading it here, of all places. That would be so ridiculous!"

And in a few moments I was that person.

15. Sister Charatina's Theory Of Evolution & God Is Not Nature

Now, of course I accepted the theory of evolution. I remember Sister Charatina telling us all about it in 8th grade, how we, as Catholics believe in evolution. We weren't like some of those uneducated protestants who believe God literally plopped people onto the Earth in one fell swoop.

She told us, "This is the way it happened: God set everything in motion in order for humans to evolve. Then there was a specially pre-ordained moment when there was the very, very first human man and woman. Because think about it. There had to be some moment when there was the very, very first man and woman. And that was Adam and Eve. And that's when God put a soul in us. And then everything else happened exactly as it says in the Bible." And then she sort of encouraged us not to think about evolution so much anymore, because, "After all," she'd "just explained it. Right?"

In any case, the idea of evolution wasn't threatening to me in any way, I just didn't really understand much about it except that over time animals change or something.

I thought that "The Origin Of Species" would be way too scientific for a person like me to read. Personally, I had avoided science at all costs in school. In fact, I had this prejudice that doing well at science was somehow an admission that you didn't have the complexity of mind or subtlety of character to take on the humanities. Science was for people who couldn't handle ambiguity and needed black and white answers, people who couldn't get in touch with their feelings and had nothing left to think about.

But to my surprise, "The Origin of Species" was actually very easy to read. And truly a page-turner. And Charles Darwin described evolution in ways that Sister Charatina had not. It was a lot more scary and chancy and frightening the way Darwin explained it.

The next day we visited an island where the Blue-footed Boobies were tending to their new babies. The Blue-footed Booby babies are the cutest animals in the world, almost to the level of absurdity. They have this bright, white, longhaired fur that sticks out all over, and these blue beaks and feet, and these huge plaintive eyes.

Usually the Blue-footed Boobies have just one baby per pregnancy, but every once in awhile they have two. And when they do the stronger sibling usually pecks the brains out of the weaker one.

So we were looking at all these adorable Blue-footed Booby babies and then we found one pecking the brains out of its weaker sibling. And the naturalist was telling us that this was routine. That now the frigate bird would probably come soon and carry the dead baby off to feed its family. That's the way it went.

And I looked at this poor doomed Blue-footed Booby baby, with its brains hanging out of its head. And we sort of looked at each other in the eye for a moment. He looked at me like, "What are you going to do? I'm the weaker Blue-footed Booby baby."

I thought, "Oh. God... is not nature. God is not nature. I mean, nature is floods and famines and earthquakes and viruses and little Blue-footed Booby babies getting their brains pecked out by their stronger sibling. God, I mean, the God I know, the God of love and compassion, that isn't exactly found in nature.


I went back to the boat and clouds formed overhead. And I decided I would just lay in the fetal position on the boat for a while and consider nature. So God and nature are separate. Oh, it is so obvious that is true. God is a moral force and nature is utterly amoral. Nature doesn't care about me, or anybody in particular. Nature can be terrifying. Gosh, why do they even put words like "natural" on products, like shampoo, like that's automatically a good thing? I mean sulfuric acid is natural!

I could almost hear God saying, "Duh."

"But then, God, who are you? Because, I can't stop thinking, 'Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!'"

"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear, because you are with me... ?"
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Re: Letting Go of God, by Julia Sweeney

Postby admin » Thu Jun 25, 2015 6:53 am



1. God Is Love


God is love. I mean, can't it be that simple for me? You hear it all the time, "God is love." God is love. God is... a force of love. God is a force of love... in the universe!

When I was in high school, at the Catholic girls school, Mary Cliff, there was this lay teacher who taught P.E. named Ms. Roberts. And she was gorgeous. She walked like an athlete, her head held high. She was tall and blonde and muscular: a goddess in our midst.

One day the nuns had all of us girls in the gym and we were sitting on the floor, listening to a guest musician, who I think may have been a friend of Ms. Roberts. And he was playing his guitar and singing. At the end of his set he began singing this song "Vatican Rag," which is very irreverent and has lyrics like, "Bow your head with great respect and then genuflect, genuflect, genuflect."

Well, the nuns reeled. Sister Mary Howard stood up in the middle of the song and asked him to leave. He stopped, took his guitar and left.

Then I remember us just sitting there in the gym for a while, sort of decompressing, y'know, talkin' about God. And suddenly Mister Mary Howard turned to this Ms. Roberts and asked, "Do you even believe in God?"

I'd never heard anyone ask somebody if they believed in God before. Ms. Roberts stared right into the eyes of Sister Mary Howard and Sister Mary Howard stared right into the eyes of the Ms. Roberts, who, after an eternity said, "I believe in a 'Force of Love' in the universe."

All of us girls nodded in agreement, like, "That sounds good to us, how could anyone argue with that?" Force or love in the universe, sure! And then we all looked back at Sister Mary Howard, whose eyes narrowed like, "That is the wrong answer."

Only two years later, the attitude of my Church towards God being simply "love" had completely changed. Gonzaga Prep, the Catholic boys school, had gone co-ed, and that's where I spent the last two years of high school. Everything seemed to be changing. Folk Masses were slipping into the mainstream. Some of the priests were using chalices made of thick handmade pottery and their vestments were made out of unbleached fabrics, coarsely woven. And instead of the pre-made communion wafers, we all just started breaking a loaf of bread into little pieces. Like Jesus did.

In the spring, Father Fitterer started teaching us Transcendental Meditation. Suddenly there were guitars in Mass and a drum set right up on the altar!

Transubstantiation was never like this before.

In my senior year of high school they had us go on a special retreat, called a "Search." And they took us off to a retreat house and they put these big blankets over the windows so you didn't know what time it was and they didn't let you sleep for two days and of course everyone kept breaking down, crying, and saying, "God is love. God is love."

Only we were actually saying, "Fred is love. Fred is love." Because they asked us to call God "Fred" instead of God, because the name God was too off-putting for a lot of people and Fred felt friendlier. So we were all saying "Fred is love. I am walking on Fred's path."

I remember after the Search, all of us seniors were on the bus going back to school, down these scary, steep, winding, switch-backed roads. And another senior, Larry, who a few years later would leave the Catholic Church to become an evangelical Christian, turned to me with this big beatific grin on this face. He said, "Just think, if our bus got into an accident right now and we were all killed, we would all probably go straight up to heaven!"

And we all nodded, like, "Yeah, our souls are so clean and pure at this moment. How wonderful it would be if we were all killed in a big bus accident right now because we would all fly straight up to Fred!" This was how I danced in high school. I didn't really date in high school.

So, here I was, years later, saying God is love again myself. But what did I mean, exactly? I decided I would think more about this whole idea of God being love. The feeling of love. Did I think there was God behind it? Or in it? There seemed to be a lot of incentive to feel love, just for it's own sake. Without God, would there be no love?

2. Deepak

In my confusion I found someone who had thought about this a lot. Someone who made it clear. Now, at this point I knew a little bit of science, but not a lot. And that made me the perfect candidate for ... Deepak Chopra. I read "The Way of the Wizard," "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, the Quantum Alternative To Growing Old," "The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success," and "How To Know God." I basked my way through Deepak Chopra's books. I thought, "I get it. God is energy and intention and the Quantum field or something." Deepak says that by perceiving changelessness, time ceases to exist.

I loved Deepak. I did an interview on "The View," on ABC, and Deepak also happened to be a guest on the same show, and I gushed all over him in the green room, telling him how wonderful he was. I did notice that he seemed older than he looked on his book jacket, and I wondered if his perceived timelessness was working on his own body.

I told him how his books were helping me understand what and who God was, what ultimate reality was and also, I had to just tell him how I appreciated that he had advice about how to create spontaneous wealth and how to lose weight.

Deepak says, "The world is the creation of the observer and the body is information and energy spanning the universe. Consciousness is the ground of all being. It created us and we are part of it."

Deepak believes that we can tap into this big consciousness with our awareness and that it is the source of all creativity, and intention, and synchronicity.

And if you want proof? Well, the exotic field of quantum mechanics proves all of it.

I was really enthralled with how Deepak was using science, the cutting edge science of quantum mechanics. This was so much better than using myths and superstitions to find spirituality, this was using physics and science to find spirituality. I was so intrigued by this quantum mechanics that Deepak refers to over and over again in his books, that I decided to take a class in it.

What I found was that Deepak Chopra is full of shit.

I wanted to go back in time, and instead of gushing at Chopra I wanted to say: "Deepak! What the hell are you doing? There is no Universal consciousness that can be demonstrated with Quantum Mechanics. There is no healing of the body or arresting of the aging process through telepathy. Sure, subatomic waves and particles do behave in perplexing and strange ways to us, especially when we try to measure them, apparently. But that doesn't mean that there are angels and that the "Universe" wants me, in particular, to make more money! I know this, and I took one measly class!

I turned on the TV one day and found Deepak, back on his beloved show, "The View," promoting his new book: "Golfing to Enlightenment." And all the ladies were so thrilled; who knew you could achieve Enlightenment on the links?

I started feeling so angry with the New Age movement: so arrogant, so clueless. Here was the generation that was supposed to be the best educated, the ones that threw off the shackles of superstition and traditional religion, and what did they do? They gravitated towards chakras and crystals and auras and "quantum consciousness." What is the matter with people?

3. I'm Becoming So Cantankerous!

Then I thought, "Oh dear, what is happening to me? I'm becoming so cantankerous. I'm going to become one of those angry retired people who keeps writing letters to the editor!"

And I realized that the class I took didn't just give me a rudimentary understanding of the basics of Quantum Mechanics. I learned something much more disturbing about myself. Which was that I had never really been taught critical thinking skills. I hadn't considered how to evaluate evidence before. I always thought being smart meant that you knew a lot of things, or that you did what the teacher told you to do really well, not that you ha a mechanism for filtering information.

Plus, the real truth was, I was starting to get nervous about my relationship with God. I felt like we were a married couple in trouble, trying to find some common ground. I began to wonder just who I was married to. How defined did it need to be for me?

I mean, the truth was, God worked for me.

William James said, "It doesn't work because it's true, it's true because it works." When I prayed, I felt calmer, more focused; it really changed my state of mind.

But just because the idea of God worked so well for me, it didn't necessarily mean that he existed. I felt suspicious. For the first time, I wondered if God wasn't just my imaginary friend. As they say, "The invisible and the non-existent often look very much alike."

God requires faith. Faith does not require evidence, right? But the more I thought about it, my faith was based on evidence. The evidence of how I felt when I prayed. The evidence of everyone believing in God, almost everyone I ever met from the time I was a kid. The evidence of what I had been taught by people I trusted, admired, and who, ultimately had authority over me.

So my faith in God was based on evidence. Well then, how could I not examine that evidence? But how did I examine anything? How did I know what I knew? I had to know!

4. How The Mind Works

One day I was thinking about these things while I was wandering around Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, Washington, and I glanced up and saw a book called, "How The Mind Works" by this guy Steven Pinker. And I thought, "Wow. How does the mind work, anyway?"

It turns out: dendrites. And neurons and glial cells and spindle cells. I mean, apparently the nature of consciousness is still mysterious in some respects, but basically we're talking about neurons firing through dendrites, often releasing chemicals in our bodies.

Reading "How the Mind Works" triggered this appetite inside me to understand what we understand. What we really know.

I found that all of our brains are on drugs all of the time. We give ourselves hits: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and vasopressin. The next time all of you laugh, I'll get a hit of adrenaline through my veins, and if you don't when I expect you to, I'll get cortisol instead and I'll feel anxious. I always thought I was a person in my family who escaped addictions, but now I realize that I am up here on this stage right now partly because... I am an addict.

Also, I learned that memory is very, very unreliable. Even when we think we remember for sure. All of our memories are not accurate, video playbacks, but instead, reconstructions. Memories get filtered by our prior prejudices, and mixed up with things that happen later. And that was a very scary thought for me, because my memories make me who I am.

When we think of our "self" as our innermost being, we don't think of it as a body function. My brain creates this idea that my "self" is not it "self." We think of our "self" as something separate, looking out from our eyes, listening through our ears, and pulling the strings that make our body move. The brain is not able to perceive it's own functioning. And this is true for all of us, right from childhood.

When children are told that it's their brain that thinks, they don't think their brain is them. They think their brain is a computing, thinking machine, something that is added to their "self" to help them understand things.


And yet the mind is what the brain does, just like pumping blood is what the heart does.

Reading about the brain opened this door in my interests that I never really knew existed. I was catapulted into a binge of reading. I was voracious. It was like I had been starved for science. As if the Cambrian explosion happened in my brain.

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.

I always thought science was a set of immutable answers revealed by nature and when I would read, as a lay person, about how, say a planet was not a planet anymore or gravity is not like we thought, I thought it was a failing of science, another sign at how unsure science was.

But I realized these examples were not signs of weakness; they were signs of strength. That the method was working, constantly filtering new and better information. I had it backwards when I was younger. It's the scientists who are good at dealing with uncertainty.

5. Intelligent Design


I was dating a guy who was a big believer in Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design is an idea that the world is so complex, and especially the conscious, thinking, feeling human being, who is so complicated, that it couldn't' have happened by chance. Someone or something even smarter had to have a hand in creating us. And that someone or something is God. The watch requires a watchmaker.

One morning my Intelligent Designer boyfriend and I woke up and he glanced at the books on the table next to my side of the bed, which were becoming increasingly more biological rather than religious. Then we gazed into each other's eyes, deeper than ever before. Ah....

He said, "It's the human eye you know, that's the proof that there must have been a designer. You can't have half an eye. Half an eye is no good at all. You either have an eye so you can see or you don't. How could you possibly evolve an eye?"

"Yes," I said, "That's probably true. An eye, an eye is very complex, After all, it's the window of the soul."

So I began to read about eyes. I learned a lot more than I ever dreamed about eyes. It turns out that from an evolutionary perspective, the human eye is perfectly explainable. What began as a patch of skin, more sensitive to light than other skin offers some advantage, those that have it, live. Those that don't, do not.

So, half an eye is pretty valuable, about half as valuable.

Now if an intelligent designer, or God, designed our eyes, well, he would not get such a good grade. Because he put the blood vessels and the nerves that carry the visual information to the brain on top of our retina. Imagine! That's like putting the wiring of a video camera on top of the lens.

And where the blood vessels and nerves go through the retina into our brain, it causes this blind spot that we have to compensate for by basically hallucinating. That's bad. Bad, bad, bad.

Not the best design for an eye. AND it doesn't even have to be that way!

Octopus and squid have eyes that evolved separately from us and they don't have those annoying features. The wonderful biologist, Massimo Pigliucci, wrote, "that the only possible conclusions to this evidence are that God didn't design the eye, or he's pretty sloppy and not worthy of our unconditional admiration, or God likes squids a lot better than humans."

Intelligent design gets everything backwards. It's like saying that our hands are miraculous because they fit so perfectly into our gloves, "Look, at that! Four fingers and a thumb! That can't have been an accident!'

My old cat Rita lumbered onto my lap while I was reading about eyes. She was about fifteen years old then and she had gotten too tired and bothered to go through an entire "meow." She started just going, "meeeeagh."

We looked each other in the eye. Instead of noticing the differences, I noticed the similarities. We inherited our eyes from our common ancestor who probably lived around 100 million years ago. We both have our eyes forward on our skull, because we are hunters. Except, well, Rita wasn't much of a hunter. And frankly, I realized, neither was I. Not if I was dating a guy who was so into Intelligent Design. Rita meowed at me like, "Oh, who needs to hunt when I have domestic help?"

Then, I started reading about all about these experiments on the function of the temporal lobes. These doctors figured out how to stimulate, electromagnetically, the right temporal lobe. People who wore this helmet experienced a sense of transcendent understanding, an overwhelming peace and connectedness, and sometimes the presence of God. Or, of, Aliens. This was often accompanied by a white light. Everyone has certain right temporal lobe sensitivity, and we're all susceptible to these experiences.

So, this could have been what was happening to me when I had my "Heal me, Heal me" experience. Of course that doesn't mean that God just doesn't use this physical way to allow us to experience Him, or Her, or Whoever. But that sure was interesting.

I learned that because our brain is in some deep, fundamental ways, unaware of itself, hallucinations like I had, or like that people have of angels or ghosts, or out-of-body or near death experiences are perceived as real encounters or actual events. And so most people, including me, instinctively think of the mind as something separate from the body. Even though there is no evidence that they are separate.

It turns out we are organic beings, in essence, our minds living and dying along with our bodies, and sometimes even before our bodies, as it takes just one visit with a person with Alzheimer's to realize. So, my common sense view of the world can be very mistaken. My instincts tell me one thing: like that the earth is flat because it seems to be while I'm walking around on it. But the earth isn't flat. As the facts show us.

1 suddenly realized that there were implications to everything that I was learning. My assumption about God's role in our lives was getting squeezed. I didn't think He intervened in our lives, I didn't think He was necessary for us to evolve. I tried not to think of the implications.

But it was impossible not to.
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Re: Letting Go of God, by Julia Sweeney

Postby admin » Thu Jun 25, 2015 6:55 am

6. What If It's True?


One day, as I was Cometing out my bathtub, I thought, "What if it's true?"

"What if humans are here because of pure random chance? What if there is no guiding hand, no external regulation, no one watching? It is clearly possible that this may be true. In fact this is what our scientific evidence is pointing towards. But if it were true, what would that mean?"

I had spent so much time thinking about what God meant, that I hadn't really spent any time thinking about what not- od meant. A few days later, as I was walking from my office in my backyard into my house, I realized there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I'm not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, "There is no God."

And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. "There is no God. There is no God. Oh my God, there is no God!"

I sat down in my backyard under my barren apricot tree. (I didn't know trees were like people, they stop reproducing after they get old. Maybe that barren fig tree that Jesus condemned to death was just menopausal.) Anyway, I sat down and thought, "Okay. I admit it. I do not believe there is enough evidence to continue to believe in God. The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural. My best judgment tells me that it's much more likely that we invented God, rather than God inventing us."

And I shuddered. I felt I was slipping off the raft.

And then I thought, "But I can't! I don't know if I can not believe in God! I need God. I mean we have a history together."

But then I thought, "Wait a minute. If you look over my life, every step of maturing for me, every single one, had the same common denominator. It was accepting what was true over what I wished were true. This was the case about guys, about my career, about my parents.

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, "Do I really believe in a personal God, and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal's Wager. Pascal argued that it's better to bet there is a God, because if you're wrong there's nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can't force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I've been praying to knows what I think, he doesn't just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.

And plus, if I lead my life according to my own deeply held moral principles, what difference did it make if I believed in God? Why would God care if I "believed" in him?

But then I thought, "But I don't know how to not believe in God. I don't know how you do it. How do you get up, how do you get through the day?"

I thought, "Okay, calm down. Let's just try on the not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off. So I put them on and I looked around.

I'm embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, "Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we're just hurtling through space? That's so vulnerable!" I wanted to run out and catch the earth as it fell out of space into my hands.

And then I thought, "Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a really long time." Then I thought, "What's going to stop me from just, rushing out and murdering people?" And I had to walk myself through it, why are we ethical? Well, because we have to be. We're social animals. We're extremely complex social animals. We evolved a moral sense, like an aversion to wanton murder, in order for communities to exist. Because communities help us survive better in much bigger numbers. And eventually we codified these internal evolved ethics inside of us into laws against things like wanton murder. So... I guess that's why I won't be rushing out and murdering people!

And then suddenly I felt like I'd cheated on God somehow and I went into the house and prayed and asked God, "To please, help me have faith!" But already it felt slightly silly, and vacant and I felt like I was talking to myself.

I thought. "Okay, I'll just not believe in God for one hour a day and see how it goes." So, the next day, I tried it again.

Then I thought, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What about those people who are like... unjustifiably jailed somewhere horrible, and they are like... in solitary confinement and all they do is pray... this means that I... like, I think they're praying to nobody? Is that possible?" And then I thought, "We gotta do something to get those people outta jail!"

Because no one else is looking out for them but us, no God is hearing their pleas. And I guess that goes for really poor people too or really oppressed people, who I had this vague notion; they had God to comfort them. And an even vaguer idea, that God had orchestrated their lot, for some unknowable grand design.

I wandered around in a daze thinking, "No one is minding the store!" And I wondered how traffic worked, like how we weren't just in chaos all the time. And slowly, I began to see the world completely differently. I had to rethink what I thought about everything. It's like I had to go change the wallpaper of my mind.

7. Good-Bye To God


Eventually I was able to say good-bye to God. And I imagined him as this old man, this old broken down man more like an older version of the God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And if you looked closely you could see the Jesus on my poster in my high school bedroom, but older, much older, with long gray and white hair and lots of lines on his face. An old hippy who still smoked. And at one time he seemed so all-powerful and all-knowing and all-protective, but now he just seemed a little stinky.

I could just see him sitting on his suitcases near the front door of my house. And I said to him, "I'm sorry God; it's not you. It's me. It's just, I don't think you exist. I mean, God, look at it this way: it's really because I take you so seriously that I can't bring myself to believe in you. If it's any consolation, it's sort of a sign of respect. So, you know, sit here as long as you want to, stay for a while, if you need to, there's no big hurry."

And slowly, over the course of several weeks, he disappeared.

Looking back on it, I think I just walked around in a daze for a few months. My mind became such a private place. I had shared my mind with a God my whole life and now I realized that my thoughts were completely my own. No one was monitoring them, no one was compassionately listening to them, my thoughts were my own private affair, and something no one but me knew about.

And I had so much thinking to do! One day I was walking along Larchmont Blvd., a busy shopping area near my house. I was lost in thought, thinking: "So, I don't think anything happens to us after we die. Consciousness fades and stops like every other organ. So people just die."

Then I thought, "Wait a minute, so Hitler, Hitler just... died? No one sat him down and said, 'You fucked up buddy! And now you're going to spend an eternity in HELL!' So Hitler just died." I thought, "We better make sure that doesn't happen again."

And my brother Mike. He just died. I always had this idea that Mike's death, while premature, was his divine destiny somehow. And that his spirit didn't really die, it lived on. Not just in the memory of those that knew him, but in a real tangible sense. And I realized that I now thought he died. He really died. And he was gone, forever.

And then I realized I had to go and basically kill off everyone I ever knew who died who I didn't think really died.

Then I thought, "Oh, I get it. So, I am going to die. I'm going to die." I sat down on a bench and watched people bustling by and thought, "Wow. Life is so cheap and so precious."

8. So, I'm Just Another Animal

So, I guess I'm just another animal on Earth, just a type of primate, the third chimpanzee, better at using tools and able to talk. And then I'm going to die and there will be eons of more time when I will not exist, just like the eons of time before I did.

I'm in my forties, about halfway through life, I hope. At this moment, the sun and the Earth and I are all middle aged. Just an animal on a planet in a solar system. Nothing special.

But then, I think about it in this way: The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. For a billion years there was no life at all, nothing. And then for three billion years, there were only algae and arche-bacteria. Dull green and brown primordial slime. For three billion years!


And then, just 500 million years ago, complex life came on the scene. Plants and animals, including us... who've been around for what? A few million years to a hundred thousand or so, depending on what you consider to be human?

If Genesis is a metaphor for creation, the metaphor is way off. God would not be creating man on the sixth day, but like, the six thousandth day. And all humanity would have been here for less than a second. Adam and Eve are blinking their eyes, just barely awake.

So, even if simple life exists all over the universe, it could be that any type of complex life is really rare. And then on top of that, when you think about how flying has evolved over and over again and how eyes have evolved over and over again, but how a species with a brain like ours, able to use language and tools the way we do, well, that's happened only once in 4 and a half billion years on Earth!

I mean it's not so improbable as to be impossible, given all the time involved and all the different species that have existed. But still, it's got to be pretty rare for animals like us to turn up. And in my DNA, is a history of this life on Earth. Not just back to the African Pliocene but even farther back from that, when we crawled out of the pond. And then even farther back from that when there were only single cell organisms. All told in the cells of my own body.

And to think that I live at a time when I can know and deeply understand that. It makes me feel so lucky.

Then I started thinking about all the little happenstances, all the little random moves, which resulted in me being alive, me in particular, at this very moment. Not just of my parents meeting, but even of the millions of sperm against the hundreds of possible eggs. I thought about this randomness multiplying, my parents, their parents: Marie meeting Tom in Yakima, Henrietta meeting Will on the cruise to Cuba, and then their parents, their parents, their parents. All the ways it could have gone one way, but it went the way it went. And all the possible people who could, just as easily, be here in my place.

Richard Dawkins wrote, "Certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. And in the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here."

I suddenly felt very deeply that I was alive: Alive with my own particular thoughts, with my own particular story, in this itty-bitty splash of time. And in that splash of time, I get to think about things and do stuff and wonder about the world and love people, and drink my coffee if I want to. And then that's it.

I walked to my car and I had a ticket. My time had expired.

And I got in the car and I turned on the radio and there was that old Peggy Lee song. It used to be my Mom's favorite. I suddenly had this memory of us in the kitchen and that song coming on the radio. And my Mom was flipping hamburgers, dancing around the kitchen, taking care of all of her kids. "Is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing."


9. Mom & Dad Freak

I went to Spokane to visit my parents. My Dad walked to church every single morning, to Lourdes Cathedral for the six thirty a.m. Mass, and then he took the bus back home. On the days I was in town, I went with him. My dad was fun to walk to church with. He had a special way of walking downtown that took him past certain store windows and he could see if they changed things.

On the bus ride home, we would muse over the wording of certain prayers or recitations in the Mass. My dad loved it when the priest said, "Satan, who prowls thru the world, for the ruin of souls." We both agreed that it was the word "prowls" that made that phrase perfect.

Later that day, I told my parents that I had stopped believing in God. They just looked at me blankly. Sometimes I feel so sorry for my parents to have me as a kid. Sometimes I feel so thankful that my parents had a lot of kids. My mom said, "This doesn't mean that you've stopped going to church, does it?"

I suddenly felt so guilty about this religion: my parent's religion, the religion that they had given to us kids, and that I was now handing back to them.

I went to a conference in Washington D.C. put on by the Center for Inquiry, a non profit group that promotes science and critical thinking. A lot of people spoke at the conference. Then I got to give a speech too, which included my views on God. And the Associated Press covered it. And the wire story was picked up by my hometown paper.

Spokane, where I had recently hosted the Catholic Charities luncheon, where I had spoken repeatedly at my Catholic high school, where my parents took such pride in their Catholicism and their children and, who I believe now in retrospect, felt that my Catholicism was what connected me to my hometown, to my social class, and to them in spite of having moved away.

So one day, weeks and weeks after this speech, and without me even being aware this article existed out there, my parents went out and got their morning paper. And there I was on the back of the front section, a huge picture of me, and in bold letters, in a huge type it said, "Sweeney Loses Her Religion."

And the first two sentences of the article were: Julia Sweeney has come out of the closet. Period. As an atheist. Period.

It was the local angle and they led with it. And then the article went on and talked about the conference in general and barely mentioned me again.

My first call from my mother was more of a scream. "Atheist? ATHEIST?!?!"

My dad called and said, "You have betrayed your family, your school, your city." It was like I'd sold secrets to the Russians. They both said they were not going to speak to me anymore. My dad said, "I don't even think you should come to my funeral." After I hung up, I thought, "Just try and stop me."

I think my parents had been mildly disappointed when I'd said I didn't believe in God anymore, but being an atheist was another thing altogether. Frankly, I hadn't even described myself as an atheist, although, I suppose that I am. I don't live my life under the assumption that there's a God, so I guess that makes me an atheist. A-theist. Non-theist. But I like the word "naturalist" more. Atheist defines me on religious terms. I believe in a wholly natural universe, that makes religious people, in my mind, a-naturalists.

A few weeks went by, and there was no contact from my parents. And this was a huge deal; I usually spoke to my parents on the phone several times a week.

Then, one day, I got a call out of the blue from my mother on her cell phone and she said, "Julie, I just got out of the foot doctor and he told me that ..." And then there was a pause. She had forgotten she wasn't speaking to me anymore.


That began a series of sporadic phone calls that I would get from my mother sometimes in the wee early hours of the morning. Once at around 5:30 in the morning my phone rang. I picked it up and my mother said, "Why can't you just say you're still searching?" And I said, "Ah... Well, I am searching. If what you mean by searching is a continual yearning to understand better. But when it comes to God, at some point, don't you have to make a decision for yourself one way or the other? I mean, the way you look at the world if you believe in God is so different than the way you look at the world if you don't."

She said, "Well then why do you have to tell people about it? Everyone knows that there are those few people out there who don't believe in God, but they keep it quietly to themselves! Last night, your father said he even wished you'd announced you were gay. At least that's socially acceptable!"

To my parents it really was like I was rejecting them personally, or like saying I wasn't Irish anymore -- or worse, like 1 wasn't American anymore.

Once, I picked up the phone and my mother said, "Where do you get your peace?" And I repressed the urge to be sarcastic.

I said, "Well, mom, I guess I do have less peace. I don't think everything works out for the best, or that there is some grand plan. I don't think that things happen for a reason other than a tangible, actual reason. The sad things in life do seem sadder. But I guess I've learned how to live with it."

My mother said, "Julie, I just want you to be happy. Aren't you just depressed all the time now?" And I said, "No. I mean it's sort of turned out to be the opposite. I'm kind of astonished that I'm even here at all. The smallest things in life seem just amazing to me now. I'll look at a bridge and I'll think, "Wow, we figured out how to make a bridge." Look at all the knowledge we accumulated! Or like, I used to think, "There are no coincidences." Now I realize there are coincidences! Wow, coincidence! If this is all there is, everything means more, not less, right?"

Eventually my dad called me and said, "Listen, it's all right. I disagree with you, but I am proud of you for saying what you really think. Even though I think Satan might be prowling the world, for the ruin of your soul." And I said, "Maybe he's just strolling." And my dad said, "Lurking." And I said, "Sauntering." And he said, "Meandering... with a sinister intent."

I said, "Dad, now I need to tell you and mom something truly important. Can you get mom on the other line?" And my mom got on and said "Now what? I'm afraid." And I said, "Mom and dad, I'm going to have a baby." And my mother said, "But you can't have kids!" And my dad said, " And you aren't married." I said, "Mom and dad, it's a miracle!"


10. Mulan Arrives Be Dad Is Sick

I adopted a little girl from China. Her name is Mulan. Lots and lots of people told me how she was destined to be my daughter by the Universe and how God had planned our union. But frankly, it's a lot more meaningful to me, that out of all kids who could have been mine, it was us who ended up together. Here she is, in the vastness of all of space and time, my kid.

Mulan just so happens to be beautiful. After one party when people were fawning over her, as we drove home, I said, "Well, well. You're very pretty. You're not going to have to develop a personality like your mother had to." And one friend said, "She's so beautiful. When you look at her you just know there is a God." And I thought, "Because, if she were ugly, then there would be no God?"

Of course, my parents were immediately in the thrall of Mulan, and having her allowed us all to have this whole other wonderful, deeper relationship together. My dad started calling Mulan his "little pal," just what he'd called me when I was a kid. The two of them would take naps together on his bed and it was hard to tell which of them was snoring louder.

My father was ill. He had emphysema and as the doctors predicted, it was getting worse and worse. He also had heart problems and diabetes. A lifetime of smoking and drinking were exacting their price.

At the same time, although admittedly not on the same level of concern, my cat Rita also got very ill, an old-age thyroid condition that whittled her from her high weight of twenty one pounds down to six. Rita stopped grooming herself, and started lying around all day in one spot. It was like she was an old lady in a stained housecoat with curlers in her hair saying, "I don't give a shit how I look anymore. It doesn't matter."

My dad got weaker and weaker and eventually he had to be on oxygen 24 hours a day at the highest potency. Mulan and I traveled up to Spokane every month to see him. Soon he couldn't leave the condo at all. And his whole world became about listening to his old Bob and Ray tapes, listening to NPR, and watching reruns of "As Time Goes By" on PBS.

It was hard to tell if it was truly near the end or not. In fact, we had been expecting my dad to be going at any time for years and years. The doctors had predicted that my father could not possibly live past fifty and here he was: seventy- four. Countless Christmas's all of us kids would huddle together and get teary eyed because we just knew this was the last Christmas with dad. Only to find ourselves crying again the next year because surely this was the last Christmas with dad. And we adored him.

Finally, my mother called a couple weeks after a visit to say my dad was unconscious. When I got back to Spokane, my mother and the hospice nurses were caring for him in a hospital bed in the middle of our living room.

The family was starting to arrive, my aunts and uncles and brothers and my sister Meg was flying in to Spokane from Japan with her husband, Tsuyoshi.

The hospice nurses were wonderful. One was particularly religious, and she said, "I think your father is seeing others who have passed over before him."

My mother told me that a couple of days before he lost consciousness, this same nurse said to my dad, "Who will you miss the most in this life, Bob?" Which really irked me, just the automatic assumption that someone is capable of missing someone after they're dead and then be asked to rank them, in order. But for my mom and the nurse, and my dad, this was a reasonable question. And my dad gestured to his right side, where no one was standing, and said, "Janice."

We don't know any Janices. Janice.

There are two things I remember about my dad dying. And one thing I remember not being able to remember.

I remember how quickly his body got cold after he died. I was shocked at what heat we generate. Everyone else I've been around near or at death, their bodies were just whisked away right after they died. But my dad's body stayed in the living room for about six hours after he died, and we all just got to be with him: pet his head and kiss his cheeks, and laugh and cry and reminisce.

And I remember later that night, as I laid in bed, suddenly aware that I couldn't remember the last time my dad and I hugged. What was the last time? My last trip, I suppose? At the coat closet? Did I think that was it? Did I hug him properly, hard? Did I look him in the eye and say "See you later." "Take care." I can't remember!

But I do remember a moment a couple of days before he died, when he was unconscious and I was on the night watch. And he suddenly opened his eyes and focused them right at me. I asked him to squeeze my hand. He didn't. His eyes were bright and blue and it looked like the Universe in there. We held each other's gaze and it still seems to me like time stopped just then. And then his eyes unfocused and his lids closed.

11. A Funeral

My mother wanted to talk to Monsignor Ribble at the Cathedral right away to set the date of the funeral, which we couldn't delay because so many people were coming in already from far away places.

So my mother gathered me and my sister and her husband and my brothers and we got to the church about fifteen minutes before Saturday's five thirty Mass. About thirty people were already in their seats waiting for Mass to begin.

We were on the side of the altar looking into the sacristy where we could see Monsignor Ribble putting on his vestments. To me, it was too late to interrupt him before the Mass, but my mother said, "Follow me." And she started to walk right across the sanctuary, right across where you aren't supposed to go, towards the sacristy, with her head held high.

I followed her and so did my family, heads bowed, shoulders hunched, and coats dangling. Walking across that altar, I never felt so shanty Irish, my mother never looked so determined, and I never loved our family more.

Monsignor Ribble seemed very sad about the news of my father's death and didn't seem to be upset that we'd descended on him right before Mass. Not only was my dad in his Mass every morning, they had also taken an exercise class together for Survivors of heart attacks that Sacred Heart hospital put on. I remember picking up my dad after class one time, and being so surprised to see Monsignor Ribble, without his white collar and in sweats, doing step-ups and step- together-steps.

Monsignor asked me if I was going to be speaking at the funeral.

I said "I guess so" and he took me aside and said, "I'll ask you to refrain from speaking about your knowledge pilgrimage." It was like he said, "sexual orgy, drug induced" pilgrimage. And I said, "I won't, I wouldn't."'

We went right into the Mass, and Monsignor Ribble's homily was all about the need for priests in the Church. He described the situation as desperate. I looked down the pew at my brothers and sister. None of us are Catholic, except my sister Meg who is, so far at least, choosing not to have children. Are we typical?

Monsignor went on and talked about the mystery of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit being one, and the mystery of how God loves us in spite of our faults. And before I knew it, I was sitting in my father's funeral in the exact same pew. I looked around the church at all my father's friends, at our families' friends, my old friends, and my family and I got caught up. I looked at the altar through my father's eyes. And it was rich and beautiful. I was baptized in this very church when I was one week old. In so many real ways, I cannot stop being a Catholic. Christianity helped shape my brain.

Suddenly it seemed inevitable to me that, after all this "searching," I would now return to the Catholic Church. I unexpectedly felt right back where I started, surprised like Dorothy back from Oz.

After all, when I left I didn't know I was going to give up on God altogether, I just thought I would join a different church that made more sense to me. Maybe this time it would be more meaningful somehow because I wouldn't be debating over what I believed or didn't believe, I would know that I didn't believe in any of it.

I mean objective reality isn't always the most pleasant prism through which to view the world. Maybe by using fantasy we allow ourselves to glimpse something greater than we otherwise would be able to. And let's face it: truth is such a poor competitor in the marketplace of ideas. And the love and the community in this church are real and potent, even if God isn't.

We had the wake at the Spokane Club, across the street from the Cathedral. I got up and said, "I wish my dad were here to see his family and friends, he would have liked this night very much."

I had no idea that I had just said something quasi-controversial, and over the evening several people came up to me and said, "I think your dad IS here, right now. Right now in this very room."

At some point, someone said to me; "You know, you're Jewish, right?" I said, "Do you know something about me that I don't know?" And he said, "No, it's that... Jews are expected to wrestle with God. Even if you don't want to struggle, it's like, an obligation. You'd fit in perfect!"

After the wake, I looked across the street at Lourdes Cathedral in the moonlight.

And I thought, "But I can't rejoin this church. I would start listening to the words again and it would just drive me nuts. I do wish there were a beautiful building where I could mark the transitions in my life with ancient rituals and great art. But where what we know about the world, isn't ignored."

You know, a few months ago, Stephen Hawking came out and said that his theory that Black Holes obliterate anything that falls into them, probably his biggest contribution to science, the theory that his fame and reputation is based on, may not be right.

Wouldn't it be great if the Pope could do the same thing? If he came out and said, "Oh my, I've just discovered what science shows us about our humble but spectacular place in the universe, and I have to say: it is thrilling and mind-boggling beyond all imaginings! It makes the Bible so puny and uninspired, and certainly less poetic, by comparison. I'm terribly sorry. I sincerely misunderstood so much. I almost wish there were a God so I could be punished for all the suffering I have obliviously caused in the world. But since there will be no cosmic punishment for me, I will spend what time I have left working in a family planning clinic in Latin America. Good day."

12. More Mormon Boys

Mulan and I came back to Los Angeles after the funeral and two days later our cat, Rita, died. Mulan understood death at that time like a four-year-old understands death. Which means not really getting it. Death is like people and animals are gone, but they must be somewhere. Sometimes she'd say, "Why didn't grandpa come to his party?" And I repressed the urge to say, "Some of the people thought he was at the party."

A couple of weeks later, there was a knock at the door and who was there but two Mormon missionaries. And they said they had a message for me, from God.

I said, "I already got my message from God. A few years ago, two Mormon missionaries came to my door and they changed my life." And they said, "They did?" And I said, "Yes. Because of them, I don't believe in God at all anymore! I mean, I guess they didn't effect me in exactly the way they hoped, but for me, it has been a very exciting journey."

They didn't seem nearly as excited as I was.

On Father's Day that year, Mulan and I and our new dog, Arden, were in Runyon Canyon, hiking, which for us really means walking very slowly uphill with a lot of rests.

And we got to a place called Inspiration Point that looks out over the city, and Mulan yelled, "Mom! It's the whole world! Where's China?" And I said, "You can't see China from here, but if you look way out there you can see Santa Monica." We started up the hill again, this steeper part, with Mulan ahead of me.

And she said, "Mom, who's Santa again?" And I said, "Oh... he's a mythological character that we... " And she turned around on the hill; she was at eye level with me. She said, "Mom! Santa lives at the North Pole and brings you presents on Christmas if you're good!?!" And I said, "Yes. That's exactly right."

My mother says Mulan is going to grow up to be a nun, that's how God is going to get his revenge on me.

Who knows, maybe she will be a nun, but I hope I can teach her, that true mystery is all around her.

Because you know, the Church has it all backwards when it comes to mystery. In fact, it trivializes the very thing it claims to represent: the awe-inspiring grandeur of true, deep mystery. We live on a planet, spinning about in a wondrous universe without any apparent purpose. And the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing is a question we may never know the answer to.

I looked down at Mulan who was brushing the bangs out of her eyes and I thought, "Wow. If even our memories are so transient all any one of us truly has is this very moment."

Mulan looked up at me and said, "Are Papa and Rita together?" And I said, "No. They died. But it's nice to think about them together." And she said, "I think they are together." And I said, "What do you imagine they're doing?" And she said, "Rita is sitting on Papa's lap and she's purring." And I said, "Doesn't that feel good, to think that? People do live on after they die, inside of us, and just thinking about them."

And she said, "What I think about is in my head?" And I said, "Yeah. That's your brain. Anytime you want, you can think and think and think, about whatever you want."

.And she said, "Well I'm thinking about Legoland." And I said, "Legoland?" And she said, "Yeah, Legoland!"

And I said, " All right. Sounds like a plan."
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Re: Letting Go of God, by Julia Sweeney

Postby admin » Thu Jun 25, 2015 6:55 am

Thank You To...

My Extra-Special Creative Consultants: Jim Emerson, James Hammond, Jeff Strauss, Jamy Ian Swiss & Greg Kachel.

Jim Emerson also gave me indispensable music and image suggestions for the stage show. O Jeeem! What would I do without you?

Also, thanks so Michael Patrick King for lending me the use of his Arcade Theater for my first baby steps at shaping these experiences into some type of narrative. And thanks to Michael Shermer for inviting me to tell my story for the first time at Cal Tech, for the Skeptics Society. And thanks to Jim Underdown, the director for the Center For Inquiry. West, for his directorial advice and use of the Steve Allen Theater.

And then, there are some other creative consultants who have spent time thinking, offering suggestions, and tweaking (in no particular order):

Brian Cross, Doug Kass, Chris Marcil, Julia Johnson, Wendy Goldman, Dan Barker, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Steve Benson, Jeff Lowder, Karen Lowder, J Wolf, Steven Strauss, Jennifer Adams, Clark Adams, Kathleen Murphy, Hannah Naiditch. Bill Corcoran, Bobbie Kirkhart, Phil Rosenthal, John Melphi, Bob Blumer, Roberto Clema, Mike Newdow, Gavin Polone, Phil Plaite, Beth Lapides, Greg Miller, Gino Salomone, Steve Hibbert, Maria Semple, Tom Flynn, Ray E. Hall, and Brannon Braga.

Thanks to my agent at Endeavor, Paul Haas. Thanks to my lawyer, Peter Nelson. And thanks to my business manager, Mark Friedman.

Thanks to Jenny Weiner and Jon Steingart for the use of the Ars Nova Theatre in New York and their indispensible advice and appreciated enthusiasm.

Thank you to Pamela Keller who produced the first stage version of this show.

Special Thanks to Joel Blum for Michael Blum.

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