Julia Sweeney: How Does A Person Go From Believer To Atheist?

Aug 23, 2019
Originally published on September 5, 2019 6:49 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Believers and Doubters.

About Julia Sweeney's TEDTalk

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"I felt so lucky to be Catholic and I loved the Catholic school and I loved the nuns ... then when it came to the belief part of it I was always a little bit skeptical" — Julia Sweeney

James Duncan Davidson/TED

When two young Mormon missionaries knocked on performer Julia Sweeney's door one day, it puts Sweeney on a quest to completely rethink her own beliefs.

About Julia Sweeney

Julia Sweeney is an actor and writer best known for her four-year run on Saturday Night Live and her solo shows. Her recent piece, Letting Go of God, traces a spiritual journey that takes an unexpected turn toward science and ends with atheism.

Her book, If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother, is about parenting and being parented. She performs regularly with Jill Sobule, telling stories alongside Jill's songs, in their "Jill and Julia Show."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

JULIA SWEENEY: Hello. Hello, hello.




RAZ: Hello.

SWEENEY: Oh, you can - oh, there you are. (Laughter) Oh, God. Oh, my God.


RAZ: This is the comedian Julia Sweeney.

What is it that you believe in?

SWEENEY: Well, I think - first of all, the word believe - it has a lot of different connotations. I think when people talk about religion, they take belief to be the same as faith. So I would like to define the word believe in the way you're asking me the question - as in, what do I have confidence in?

RAZ: Yeah. Sure. OK. Fine.

SWEENEY: OK. I have confidence in the scientific method. I have confidence in the biological history of our species being interconnected and tribal and helping each other and connected through love and family and relations. Is this answering your question?


RAZ: This is a complicated idea for Julia Sweeney. She's been wrestling with what it means to believe for most of her life. And it's a story that she told on the TED stage.


SWEENEY: On September 10, the morning of my 7th birthday, I came downstairs to the kitchen, where my mother was washing the dishes and my father was reading the paper or something. And I sort of presented myself to them in the doorway. And they said, hey, happy birthday. And I said, I'm 7. 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 7 means that you've reached the age of reason. And you're now capable of committing any and all sins against God and man.


SWEENEY: 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 7, 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.


SWEENEY: And I said, oh. Wait a minute. You mean all that time up until today, all that time I was so good, God didn't notice it? And my mom said, well, I noticed it.


SWEENEY: And I thought, how could I not have known this before? How could it not have sunk in when they'd been telling me all about 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 7. Julie, there is no Santa Claus.


SWEENEY: Now, I didn't know it at the time, but I really wasn't turning 7 on September 10. For my 13th birthday, I planned a slumber party with all of my girlfriends. But a couple of weeks beforehand, my mother took me aside and said, I need to speak to you privately. September 10 is not your birthday, it's October 10. And I said, what?


SWEENEY: And she said, listen. The cutoff date to start kindergarten was September 15.


SWEENEY: So I told them that your birthday was September 10. And then I wasn't sure that you weren't just going to go blab it all over the place.


SWEENEY: So I started to tell you your birthday was September 10. But, Julie, you were so ready to start school, honey. You were so ready. I thought about it. When I was 4, I was already the oldest of four children. And my mother 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 10 when it was your birthday but you didn't realize it, I made sure that you ate a piece of cake that day.


SWEENEY: 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 7 when I thought I turned 7. I had a whole other month to do anything I wanted to before God started keeping tabs on me.


SWEENEY: Oh, life can be so cruel.


RAZ: (Laughter) This is such a crazy story.

SWEENEY: (Laughter).

RAZ: Did any of this, like, shape the way you thought about any of your beliefs?

SWEENEY: Well, I had always had a sort of affectionate relationship with the Catholic Church, which I was raised in a Catholic culture. And I liked it. I loved the Catholic school. And I loved the nuns. And then when it came to the belief part of it, I always was a little bit skeptical. But I didn't look into it very deeply.

RAZ: Until she did one afternoon, when Julia heard a knock at the door. And there were two Mormon missionaries who were standing there.


SWEENEY: 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 Church of Latter-day Saints people. And, you know, I've worked with them and even dated 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 sort of curious so I said, well, please. Come in. And they looked really happy because I don't think this happens to them all that often.


SWEENEY: So I sat them down, and I got them glasses of water. And after our niceties, they said, do you believe that God loves you with all his heart? And I thought, well, of course I believe in God. But, you know, I don't like that word heart because it anthropomorphizes God. And I don't like the word his either because that sexualizes God. But 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.


SWEENEY: 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 I could answer so quickly. But the question they asked me when I 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 had asked me, do you feel that God loves you with all his heart? Well, that would've been much different. I think I would've 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 that 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.


RAZ: OK. So, Julia, this is how your talk ends. And I have so many more questions for you.

SWEENEY: (Laughter).

RAZ: All right. So at this point, I guess I should reveal that not long after those Mormon missionaries came to visit you, you actually became an atheist. Like, how did that happen? Do you remember?

SWEENEY: Well, it was over a two-year period, but there was a moment. It was a epiphany of sorts - there's a religious word for you (laughter). I had been doing a lot of reading and research about religion. And I was walking through the backyard. And it suddenly hit me that I didn't believe anymore.


SWEENEY: Like, I really didn't believe in God.

RAZ: There was a sign. You got a sign that there was no God.

SWEENEY: No. It was not a sign.

RAZ: Oh, it wasn't a sign. OK.

SWEENEY: It was a developing understanding.

RAZ: Yeah. It's weird, though. Like, we're kind of socialized to talk about these things in religious terms because, I mean, this is your moment of atheism. And it was, like, an epiphany.

SWEENEY: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, it is true. I don't want to overplay it. I mean, I didn't, like, fall down to the ground or anything or change my name from Saul to Paul or anything like that.


RAZ: Is there, like, a part of you, like, even a very small part of you - I don't know - that kind of, like, holds out hope, that almost, like, doubts your doubts?

SWEENEY: No. I don't even think about it really, frankly, anymore. I'm just - I'm living my life as a person who accepts the natural world. You know, and just the whole idea that there's a God who cares whether people believe in him or not - like, why would God care if people believed in him or not? Like, that was one of the many things that I found so shocking reading the Bible is, first of all, how insecure God is.

RAZ: (Laughter).

SWEENEY: I mean, God is so insecure, he needs everyone to say, you're the number one.

RAZ: (Laughter).

SWEENEY: And you're the number one over all the other gods.

RAZ: (Laughter).

SWEENEY: And you're the top god. And, like, it's the most insecure character.


RAZ: So in your talk, you mention this idea of, like, feeling God's love. I mean, is that something that you ever still feel?

SWEENEY: Actually, I think I feel all of those things even more deeply, but I just don't thank a deity in the sky who I think has provided all those things. Do you see what I mean? So like, I don't say, thank you, God, for providing this lovely day. I just think, wow, this is a really beautiful day. It's not thanking an idea of a God for providing it. It's feeling lucky that I get to experience it because of just the serendipitous nature of nature itself and that I'm - happen to be standing here, and I happen to be looking at it.

RAZ: Why is the word belief so hard for you?

SWEENEY: Well, I don't think it's just me. I think that word is conflated with a bunch of things. And so then when you say you don't believe in God anymore, sometimes people say, oh, you're not a believer in anything - like, saying you're denying there's reality. And that isn't what I feel. I have confidence in a lot of things and a lot of different sources of knowledge that we've accumulated and personal experience and all kinds of stuff like that. So I try to be careful using the word belief. I actually try to avoid using the word.


RAZ: Julia Sweeney's TED talk is based on her stage monologue called Letting Go of God. And you can see her talk at ted.npr.org. Stay with us. More believers and doubters in a moment. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.