I’ve only just come back from seeing Julia Sweeney’s film “Letting Go of God.” It’s one of those rare non-fiction films that’s going to make itself a happy home on my DVD rack. The woman is side-splittingly funny, and she’s a godsend to the godless. If it swings by your town, I highly recommend it – unless you’re a Christian who wants to hold on to your faith.
This is the film version of her monologue of the same title. It’s filmed as a stand-up, basically: she’s on stage with a set, there’s an audience, and aside from a few entertaining tricks with the lighting, it’s no different from what you’d see on Comedy Central – except for the subject matter. For those of you who, like myself, just crawled out from under a rock this morning and had no effing clue what this was all about, I’ll do my best to give you a decent recap.
Julia’s one of those rare few who invited the Mormon missionaries in when they came a-knocking. What they shared regarding their faith was so bizarre that it led her to question her own. And yes, hearing the Mormon church history boiled down into a few wickedly-funny lines by a comedienne certainly brings out the ridiculous nature of the whole thing. Angels lead a couple of Israelites to America? In 600 BC, no less. And said Israelites breed like bunnies, one side is good and the other evil, evil triumphs (and becomes the Native American tribes – xenophobic much?), the lone survivor of the good tribe buries golden tablets written in Egyptian hieroglyphics in a New York back yard, which are found thousands of years later by Joseph Smith, who gets high to read them… yeah. What the fuck ever. That mythology deserved the sound spanking it got at Julia’s hands.
At least now I have a weapon the next time the missionaries come calling: Sure, I’ll want to hear their message – if they watch the first ten minutes of Julia’s film with me.
(Heh. Yes, I am evil, why do you ask?)
Julia relates how this incident led her to question her Catholic faith, which led her to attempt to understand it better and answer the question, “Do I believe God loves me with all his heart?” This inspires her to read the Bible. Cover-to-cover. Which…. well, let’s just say the results aren’t pretty. Anyone who has two rational cells to rub together and actually thinks about what they read is going to have a hard time holding on to faith after reading that mess of genocide, rape, slavery, and smiting. Oh, and Jesus annihilating a menopausal fig tree.
Jesus really wanted a fig that day. Damned tree.
She shares Bible stories I’d never even heard of: one in particular is a man who promises to make a burnt offering of the first person he sees upon returning home. That person is his daughter. He burns her alive, and God is pleased. Story after story is related that is like this, and she isn’t gentle with what Jesus said about abandoning family either. The question is raised, and it’s an important one: where do Christian morals come from, when the bulk of the Bible is filled with questionable morality or outright evil? She dug up old memories for me – I remember reading the New Testament many years ago, and realizing the same thing. All that emphasis on marriage and family is in complete opposition to what Christ taught. Seriously. There are verses where he urges people to abandon their families. If this sort of shit came out in an atheist’s book, it would be condemned. Somehow, because it’s in the Bible, it goes through a magic lens that turns it into something pure and good.
That lens stopped working for Julia.
When Christianity proved too contradictory and ridiculous, she launched a search for God in Eastern religions, nature, and various and sundry other places. Where she ended up was atheism. It’s a familiar journey to many who have deconverted – it’s hard to just let go of God without looking for the bastard in plenty of other places first. I found myself treading a familiar path, thinking, “Oh, hey – never realized that was you up ahead of me there, Julia! No wonder you look so familiar.” Only I didn’t have the money or the inclination to go as far as she did – all over Asia and on to the Galapagos, finding nothing but fuckwittery all the way.
Until she encountered Darwin. And those islands that led him to the theory of evolution.
I found that fascinating. You see, I hadn’t needed Darwin or evolution to become an atheist myself, and I don’t know of all that many people who can point to Darwin as the catalyst for their atheism. I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there in the world like Julia, for whom Darwin’s wonderful little book was the final nail in religion’s coffin. But I hadn’t met them. And she said something about it that I found utterly riveting.
It wasn’t just the fact of evolution. Is was that this book was so easy to read and understand, not at all like she’d expected science to be. It wasn’t an impenetrable mystery. She didn’t have to be an expert to get it. And she sure as fuck didn’t have to pull the mental contortionist routine with it – everything in Darwin’s Origin of Species follows a neat, logical path, without glaring contradictions. That, from how she described the reading of it, is what impacted her most. Science wasn’t something only a chosen few could access. Science didn’t deal in absolutes. Science, she said at one point, deals far better with uncertainty than Christianity does, and that was a revelation to her.
There is a hysterically funny moment when she’s talking about dating an Intelligent Design believer, who tells her the eye is far to complex for evolution to have created – it must have been designed. So she read up on the evolution of the eye, and discovered the truth: evolution can, too, create something that complex in increments.
She faces tough questions head-on, and admits that yes, in some places, the atheist’s worldview is less rosy. You have to face death without the comfort of an afterlife. You have to face awful happenings without the comfort of thinking they’re happening for a reason. Now, that last is true for her – not for me. I tend to look at the lousy goings-on in my life through the filter of “It’s happening to me because this shit happens to everyone, and I’m not that fucking special. I can let it kill me or make me stronger. Hmmm, no afterlife – I’ll take the “make me stronger” option, thankees.” But I suppose what she means is a sort of meta-reason, a Divine Purpose, and if that’s the case, then yes, that comfort isn’t there. But wasn’t it always a cold comfort anyway? I feel much better about the lousy bullshit in my life knowing it just happens rather than it happened because God has hisself a Plan for me.
And she makes a huge case for an atheist’s morality being stronger than a Christian’s.
There’s an evolutionary basis for cooperation, altruism, and prohibitions against murder. She lays the case out in a few simple sentences: we have moral rules about not doing bad things because we’re social animals who evolved that way, and codified what evolution had already proved. Social animals that deal well with each other reproduce more successfully. That simple. So morality isn’t something strictly limited to the religious. But beyond that, there’s the fact that we’re forced to act.
God isn’t going to save the world. We have to.
God isn’t going to comfort this distressed person. It’s up to us.
The absence of God forces us to take responsibility, to do something rather than nothing (and praying is nothing – there are few things more useless than prayer, although people like to believe it gets something accomplished). Letting go of God forces us to grow up.
She doesn’t ever state this directly, but the end of the movie talks about her daughter reaching for magical explanatio
ns when Julia’s trying to explai
n things like death in rational, material terms. And that struck me: religion is never growing up. What her daughter invented to make herself feel better about things she didn’t understand sounded exactly like the answers most human religions invent.
We as a species have never seemed to mature past the age of four.
And that’s dangerous.
Much food for thought in this movie, to be sure. But it’s not heavy fare. It’s too damned funny to weigh on you. No blog post, especially not one written at three a.m. after a long day’s drinking, is going to do her justice. When you get the chance, see the film. Even if she causes you to let go of God, you’ll likely be very glad you did.