About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Letting Go of God

A few days ago I went with some friends to see Julia Sweeney's one-woman play, “Letting Go of God.” This being New York City, it was a full house, despite the obviously “controversial” subject matter. And no picketing outside, either! The play is a funny, sometimes touching, always honest and straightforward account of Julia's personal journey from Catholic girl to atheist woman.

Julia tried everything: she studied the Old Testament cover to cover and found out that – far from being “the good book” -- it is ripe with horrible stories of mayhem and betrayal, where god doesn't always play the part of the good guy, au contraire. She then turned her hopes to the New Testament, but pretty soon Jesus came across as angry and temperamental, nasty to his mother, and most decidedly against “family values” (you know, that business of having to hate your family in order to join him, etc.).

Other religions didn't fare much better. Julia recounted her interest in Buddhism, which was much tempered once she realized that children are indoctrinated as monks without really having a chance to experience the world and make up their minds (gee, can you believe it? A religion based on brainwashing at any early age!). She discovered science and flirted with pantheism, the idea that god is nature. But then she went on a wonderful trip to the Galapagos where she witnessed birds picking the brains of their siblings in order to survive, and figured that nature is just nature, no godly love or personal interest added to the wonderful but bloody mix.

Finally, Sweeney “let go of god,” she allowed herself the full realization that religions are just human inventions to make sense of an impersonal universe, to feel better about our own mortality and, of course, to better control other human beings. As it is for many atheists, that felt like an incredible liberation. She was at first a bit surprised that after letting go of god she still wasn't going around killing or robbing people; but then she realized that morality is a natural outcome of living in social groups, where without (socially taught and enforced) ethical principles we simply wouldn't survive.

The play gets the science right, and it's insightful in its analysis of religion. But more importantly it is a stunning example of how a human being can begin to question received “wisdom” and engage in a life-long quest for better understanding. My friends and I had a chance to talk to Julia after the show. She is as warm and funny in person as she is on stage. Her play wasn't a matter of acting: she simply told us her story, and it was a wonderful story.


  1. "But then went on a wonderful trip to the Galapagos where she witnessed birds picking the brains of their siblings in order to survive" ... what a strange duality nature presents. We are so lucky to be human beings with the brains to focus on the good things in life, learning, friendship and the beauty in nature, while still being mindful of that which we find abhorent.

  2. First Dennet's Breaking the Spell, then Dawkins' The God Delusion, now Letting Go of God.

    You know what they say in the cowboy movies: "Never wake up a sleeping gunslinger."

  3. I saw Julia perform this monologue at the Freedom From Religion national conference. It is brilliant. Her story is so compelling and her personality is so likable that I think it will appeal to a range of people who normally would never want to hear a critique of religion. At the end of the FFRF performance I purchased a "hot off the press" copy of CD. You can order it from her website www.juliasweeney.com

  4. It's funny you know, I never experienced true freedom until I became an atheist. I thought I had true freedom as a xtian... how wrong I was! I wasn't truly liberated until I let go of those belief's that had imprisoned my mind. I wasn't expecting it so it made the feeling even more significant.

  5. Jesus Saves.

  6. The reasons listed for her dismissal of Buddhism suggest to me a rather superficial examination on her part. There are many variants of Buddhism and, yes, some are as structured and power-hungry as Catholicism, but others, particularly, zen buddhism, are not.

    If anyone wants a formal way to ritualistically appreciate and remind oneself of the grandeur in life without belief in anything supernatural - try zen.

    I'm more atheist than agnostic but I love the framework that zen provides.

  7. Zen is hardly about god, though, is it?

    I too saw her perform this at the FFRF convention - even on a bare stage it was tremendous. Heartily recommneded!

  8. Julia Sweeney for PRESIDENT! What a refreshing outlook. Funny and at once well founded in rational thinking.

    Wouldn't she be great going head to head with the likes of Robertson, or better yet the hopeless fool in the White House.

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