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Sunday, August 19, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Comedienne Julia Sweeney Talks About Giving Up On Religion

Whether or not God exists is perhaps the most perplexing of life's cosmic questions. It is a debate each of us has probably grappled with at one time or another.

For former "Saturday Night Live" star Julia Sweeney, giving up on religion was anything but easy.

"I had spent so much time thinking about what God meant, I hadn't really spent any time thinking what Not-God meant," said Sweeny. "There was this teeny-weeny voice whispering inside my head, I'm not sure how long it had been there but it suddenly got just one decibel louder and it whispered 'There is no God.' I tried to ignore it but it got a little louder. 'There is no God, there is no God.' Oh God, there is no God! It was terrifying. You know, it was a terrifying moment to let go of that idea."

Sweeney's most famous "SNL" character was Pat, the gender-confused character who later starred in her own movie.

Even more confusing for Sweeney personally was religion. She comes from a large Irish-Catholic family. But in her 30s, Sweeney says she began a spiritual quest. It led her away from any notion of God — a conversion she turned into a monologue, soon to be released as a film called "Letting Go of God."

But of course, many people would disagree with Sweeney, especially her mother, Geri. She said it was a great shock that her daughter decided that there wasn't enough evidence for her to believe in God.

"I just couldn't believe that she had gotten to that place. I'm Catholic. I intend to continue to be Catholic," Geri Sweeney said. "I think the Catholic Church is a wonderful place."

As a result of her decision about God and religion, Julia fell out of touch with her parents.

"They both said they weren't going to speak to me anymore," she said. "My dad said, 'I don't think you should even come to my funeral.' After I hung up I thought, 'Just try and stop me.'"

Julia Sweeney is clearly in the minority in this country. From the classroom with the "Pledge of Allegiance" where students declare that the United States is "one nation under God;" to the world of politics where candidates constantly reference religion; even in the movies like "Evan Almighty," God is everywhere.

In a recent CBS News poll, 82 per cent of Americans said they believe in god -- 9 percent in a universal spirit. Just 8 percent say they don't believe in either. They are a small minority, but lately, it seems, an increasingly vocal one.

A new crop of books, written by atheists, is on the best seller list. For example, "God Is Not Great" by journalist Christopher Hitchens. He believes that nothing is sacred. He aggressively attacks organized religion.

"There are unethical things that people do because of religion they wouldn't do without it," he said. "Mutilating the genitals of their children, blowing themselves up in the attempt to murder other people, Banning books, burning each other's churches — things that an atheist wouldn't do."

Atheism, Hitchens says, is the view that there is simply not enough evidence to show that God exists.

"Thus those who claim to know of, by definition, are mistaken," he said. "Well, because those who are religious claim not only that there is a God, which they cannot know, but they claim to know his mind and his instructions, which is much more than any human being can claim to know."

Hitchens believes religion, no matter which faith, no matter where in the world, can bring out the worst in us. Take, he says, his birth-place Northern Ireland.

"Where the Christians kill each other happily and re — reduced the whole level of society to one of practically underdevelopment," he said.

Also consider the Middle East — the cradle of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Hitchens has traveled widely in the region.

"To be a foreign correspondent and to go to countries that could and should be civilized and to see them torn to shreds and their culture reduced to beggary and — misery, by religion is, is a very — is an education I wish everyone could have," Hitchens said.

But Stephen Prothero, who chairs the religious studies department at Boston University, says that atheists miss the fact that religion, while being a source of some terrible evil, is also the greatest force for good.

"And so, if you're gonna criticize -- you know, religious people for the inquisition, then you need to praise them for the Civil Rights Movement," he said. "You need to praise them for getting rid of slavery in the United States, which they did. You can't sort of have it both ways. And similarly, if you're going to praise atheists for these things, you need to criticize the Stalinists, I mean some of the most murderous regimes that we've had in the 20th century were atheistic regimes."

In his recent book "Religious Literacy," Prothero argues Americans, though religious, actually know little about any faith, let alone their own. And he says while religion has always been a dominant force in American society, lately, it's become much more confrontational.

"We used to have a sort of gentlemen's agreement that religion was private," he said. "And so, if you were against religion, you wouldn't trash the religion of your neighbors. That's sort of — you know, un-American and sort of intolerant. But once religion moved into the public arena, anti-abortion or things like that, then it's almost the duty of atheists who are opposed to the religious right and step in and say, 'you know, religion is idiotic. You know, God doesn't exist.' You know, 'Why are we talking about the Bible? It's a pack of lies.'"

It's possible no atheist was more outspoken than the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair. In the 1960s, O'Hair argued all the way to the Supreme Court that forcing her children to pray and read the bible in their public school was unconstitutional. She won.

O'Hair was vilified by many. Ellen Johnson, head of the organization that O'Hair founded, American Atheists, says the stigma persists.

"Atheists are everywhere," Johnson said. "Atheists are your police officers. They are your physicians. They are your teachers. They are your children. We know who the atheists are; unfortunately they're in the closet. But to the people who don't know that, atheists are just your unpatriotic, un-American immoral person."

A Gallup poll not long ago found 44 percent of Americans view atheists harshly and 53 percent said they would never elect an atheist president. The number of people who say they belong to no organized religion, while still small, has been growing. And about 3/4 of us confess to not going to church every week and that's the easy stuff, we haven't even gotten to obeying-following the Ten Commandments. To some, that suggests religion is little more than a habit — a comfortable place to be.

Julia Sweeney says she simply cannot believe in God because of a lack of evidence, but Prothero says that is where faith comes in.

"I have no trouble saying that, you know, we can't prove the existence of God," he said. "I think most Americans feel the same way."

Julia's mother Geri says she was taught in second grade that there was no proof that God exists.

"It doesn't matter a bit to me," she said. "I have a very personal relationship with my God and I don't need any proof. I'm not searching for proof — and she is."

On the plus side, Julia and her family are talking again. They've simply agreed to disagree about religion. But Geri confesses that she still holds out hope.

"I think she will come back," she said.

"I can't say what the future will hold," Julia said, "But I'd be very surprised."

Click here for books by Julia Sweeney.