Letting Go of God: An Interview with Julia Sweeney

Julia Sweeney is an American actress, comedienne, and author who frequently discusses her journey from Catholicism to atheism. She is best known for her time as a cast member on Saturday Night Live (1990-1994), where she created and played the androgynous Pat as a recurring character, and for her autobiographical solo shows. Her three autobiographical serio-comic monologues are “God Said Ha!” about her family's experiences with cancer, “In the Family Way” about the adoption of her daughter from China, and “Letting Go of God” about her journey from Catholicism to atheism. Ms. Sweeney currently sits on boards with the Secular Coalition for America and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Ms. Sweeney’s film credits include Pulp Fiction, Stuart Little, Monsters University, It’s Pat, Gremlins 2, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Coneheads, Stuart Saves His Family, Vegas Vacation, and Meet Wally Sparks. Her frequent guest television appearances include Family Guy, Frasier, Father of the Pride, Sex in the City, Third Rock from the Son, Mad About You, and The Goode Family. Since 2009, Ms. Sweeney has lived in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, research scientist Michael Blum, and their daughter.

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On March 5, I interviewed Ms. Sweeney by email about her professional career and religious journey.

We haven't seen as much of you in film and television since you moved to the Chicago suburbs with your husband and adopted daughter in 2009. How are you doing?

I'm doing well. It was a big adjustment — both moving from Los Angeles and being married. Now that it's been more than six years, I can see that it was harder than I let on — even to myself. But it's been worth it. We love this area. We love our house. We created a three-person family together. I think we're much closer than we would've been if my husband, Michael, had moved into my house (in Los Angeles) with Mulan (my daughter) and me. I think heading into the future with a solid marital relationship and a clear sense of us three as a family is a deeply beautiful thing. I feel both lucky and proud.

What's the best thing in your life right now? 

Ha ha! The honest truth? It's my housekeeper. I just hired a housekeeper for the first time last November. She has transformed my life. Now I'm able to get a lot more writing done. 

Although you still do occasional voice work for television, you've described yourself as a "suburban housewife" in recent years. Do you miss the more hectic schedule of your acting career in the 1990's?

I do. But I also like the slow pace of my life now. I am able to think and reflect much more than before. And I thrive on that. We plan to move back to L.A. after Mulan graduates from high school. So, I may be getting my hectic schedule back again. We'll see. 

You had a number of struggles after leaving Saturday Night Live, surviving cervical cancer and losing your brother to lymphoma. What helped you through those moments?

My friends, my family, my sense of humor, a robust drive to survive, and just plain luck.

Looking back today, what have been your fondest memories of your work in TV and film?

Well, I loved being on Saturday Night Live. It was a heady, thrilling, exhilarating experience. I loved doing certain episodes of TV shows too — I did a short stint on Frasier, and did two episodes as a nightmarish date, and I had the best time ever. I loved the one day I spent filming on Pulp Fiction. I love being in Hollywood, on the studio lots, and knowing my way around. I absolutely loved doing voice over work, too. That was always a blast. And of course all the time I spent writing with other people. I've had some wonderful writing partners over the years. I have so much happiness and laughter stored up from our time together. 

Your gender-neutral SNL character, Pat, seemed to come from a deep place in you.  But critics and audiences panned the 1994 film version (“It's Pat”) that featured you as writer and star. What message did you want people to take away from that character?

Well, first of all, Pat isn't gender-neutral. Pat is definitely a man, or a woman. We just don't know which Pat is. And yes, the movie did not do well. But I still feel deep affection for that film. I'm clearly hopelessly biased. And I didn't really look for the audience to take away anything from that character other than being entertained.

You've always been very funny, but you've also taken a number of serious roles. As your career has progressed, how has the way you do comedy evolved?

I don't need to be funny as much as I used to. I think most people who are very funny develop that skill as a defense mechanism. (I'm not knocking it; we all need and use defense mechanisms!) But as I've gotten older I don't need to be funny like I used to. Also, I'm drawn to realistic drama — which includes comedy — rather than broad sketch comedy, although I still laugh very hard at sketches when they're good and done well. I will always have a soft spot for physical slap-stick comedy. I love (and have always loved) Buster Keaton, for example. But all-in-all, I've veered away from broader comedy to more subtle forms of comedy. 

You grew up in Spokane, Washington, as the oldest of five children. How did your family help form you into the person you are today?

I'm not sure I can answer that! I was from an Irish-American family (with a little German-American thrown in.) We were Catholic. That's the culture I was raised in. My father was quite well-read and he had a very sophisticated sense of humor and an appreciative demeanor. I hope to be like that, too. I think I carry a lot of my upbringing with me, as everyone does. 

In recent years, you've written and spoken a lot about your Catholic background and later journey away from faith.  What was your most positive memory of Catholicism as a kid?

I think I most loved being in a candle-lit aesthetically beautiful church and singing with the congregation. I loved that so much. 

What was the best thing your Catholic upbringing did for you?

Wow. I'm not sure. There are so many good things. I guess I felt very much a part of a community. I was raised during a particularly liberal time for the Catholic Church — it was post Vatican II — and many of the Jesuits and nuns I knew were socially aware, and deeply conscientious, and fighting for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. I liked the symbolism of Catholicism. I guess I'll stick with my first answer: community.

As a kid, who were some of your Catholic role models, living or dead?

Wow, another great and big, BIG question. Well, first and foremost I loved St. Francis. I loved the story of St. Francis and I loved the story of St. Claire. Claire became my confirmation name. I loved the story of St. Augustine too — I appreciated how he was so worldly and anti-religious and became religious later in his life. I loved the Catholic writers like Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, and Muriel Spark. Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood was especially influential.  

What was the worst thing your Catholic upbringing did for you?

This is an easy answer: It quelled the natural sense of curiosity I had about how the world worked. It was reawakened after I became an atheist. But that was when I was older, around forty years old. That breaks my heart when I think back on it. I might have studied science if I had had a more developed sense of curiosity.

How and when did you lose your Catholic faith as you got older?

Now, that question is too complicated! I urge anyone who is curious about it to see my one person show, "Letting Go of God" where I go into my journey quite comprehensively. I was about forty years old. I had begun to need some solace from my faith. I got it, actually! I thought I did, anyway. Then I began to take Bible study classes, and that was basically the beginning of the end for me. I couldn't accept the comfort of the community of the church without being able to sign on, intellectually. And I just couldn't do that. 

You spoke at the Atheist Alliance International convention in 2008. If you had to put it in one sentence, what would you say is the strongest argument against God's existence?

Hmmm.... Here's a stab at it: We don't need God to explain how human beings evolved on Earth. And I think it's much more likely that our human (evolved) psychology — which likes to make up stories and hates uncertainty — created God from our lack of knowledge about the physical world, and a need to control (and be controlled by) others. 

Oh dear, that's not one sentence. I'll let it go there, for now. 

If you had to put it in one sentence, what would you say is Christianity's strongest argument for belief in God?

Well, I'm not sure how you're defining "God" in that question.  If it's the God that Christians believe in, I don't know. I can't think of a "strongest argument."   

As a former Catholic, what is your impression of Pope Francis and the current state of the Catholic Church?

I like Pope Francis very much. I think he's a breath of fresh air for Catholics. I like that he's placing income inequality in the place it deserves to be among the concerns of the church. But I disagree very much about how he reacted to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. He publicly stated that physical violence was justified if people were mocking other people's faiths! That's crazy. I don't think the Catholic Church wants to advocate that! Think about it! It was a startlingly shallow response to the tragedy. I was really very disappointed in him for that. But I do like so much of what he's saying and doing. I like that he's being more inclusive for couples that have been divorced. There’s a lot to love about Pope Francis. Plus, he took the name Francis! That's awesome! 

You continue to do some amazing things in your life and career. What are your hopes for the future?

I'm trying to become a better and more disciplined writer. I'm working on a TV show idea and a screenplay and a novel at the moment. (The novel and the screenplay are the same story.)  I really aim to get as good as I possibly can. I'm committed to it. 

What do you hope people to take away from your life and career?

Hmmm.... I guess that taking the road-less-travelled isn't always a mistake. That you should follow your interests with passion and commitment. 

Any last thoughts?

Yes, so many. But I don't have the time to write them all here!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer atAmerica.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
Great picture of Julia Sweeney twenty years ago or so! And the atheist assessment of Pope Francis - "he's placing income inequality in the place it deserves to be among the concerns of the church". I would follow up with an assessment of Barack Obama by six men wearing white sheets and hoods.
Vincent Gaitley
2 years 7 months ago
Everyone seems to want to fight an old battle even ones they won. You'd be hard pressed to find six Klan members today, thank God. So give it a rest. Ms Sweeney along with anyone else is free to assess the pope, especially since the pope, and all popes, address themselves to all people not only Catholics, thank God.
Stephanie Barrett
2 years 7 months ago
I have been down that road less travelled, and actually lived to return to my faith and Church. I had a sister die of cancer in her mid 30's, she had cancer, non Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Followed two years later by what was supposed to be a fatal diagnosis of my youngest son, with a kidney cancer. It took me a long time to actually even attempt to regain my faith. However, I have in my own family many wonderful people who are atheists today. It is simply a non issue. how could I judge anyone for a stance I lived for years with.
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
Ms. Sweeney is free to assess anyone - including you. What was odd was to find her assessment in a nominally Catholic setting. Irony apparently isn't something you're familiar with, although you seem to be familiar with advising others to give it a rest. Give it a rest.
Gabriel Marcella
2 years 7 months ago
Regarding Charlie Hebdo Pope Francis said this:“One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God..To kill in the name of God is an aberration.” Ms Sweeney says:"He publicly stated that physical violence was justified if people were mocking other people's faiths! That's crazy. I don't think the Catholic Church wants to advocate that! Think about it! It was a startlingly shallow response to the tragedy." Sweeney is wrong. How could let interviewer let this distortion be published in America?
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
The nature of Charlie Hebdo has been falsified by American media. It is not a satirical magazine poking fun at all and every, akin to Mad or Harvard Lampoon. It is pornography disguised as cartoons aimed specifically and only at Muslims and Christians. Stephane Charbonnier - the publisher who was killed - was a staunch left-wing activist raised in a communist family who bragged that he would not quit "until Islam is just as banal as Catholicism." The cartoons were not republished in the American media because they were so obscene and so offensive that American readers would be disgusted. Pope Francis hit this one squarely on the head. As to why this interviewee, if you publish a story that 1 + 1 = 2, no one will buy it to read. If you publish a story that a scientist or famous person says that 1 + 1 = 3, you'll get readers in short order. Julia Sweeney is not a heavy weight intellectual but she gets a great deal of attention for her positions which border on whining about her bad luck. http://www.npr.org/2013/11/22/245953429/how-does-a-person-go-from-believer-to-atheist On the positive side it gave me another reason to disregard Julia Sweeney.
J Cosgrove
2 years 7 months ago
I couldn't accept the comfort of the community of the church without being able to sign on, intellectually. And I just couldn't do that.
What a bankrupt statement. It is one thing to reject the Judeo Christian God, but the evidence that there is a creator is so overwhelming that it cannot be blithely brushed aside. Atheism has no intellectual backing. Why is such a person interviewed? To show how shallow the people are who were once Catholics and then reject it?
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years 7 months ago

Thanks to everyone for reading. I appreciate your willingness to engage Ms. Sweeney's perspective in a critical and respectful way. Let's pray for each other.

Vince Killoran
2 years 7 months ago
The usual snarky comments from the usual folks. Too bad. As for me, I note that my faith did the opposite of "quell[ing] the natural sense of curiosity I had about how the world worked." Perhaps we started from different places, or sought out our faith in different context? But there are many thoughtful atheists out there and they certainly have something to teach us. Sweeney's work in the '90s was great and it's nice to read that she has found meaning and community with family and new work.
J Cosgrove
2 years 7 months ago
But there are many thoughtful atheists out there and they certainly have something to teach us.
Everyone has something to teach others. But atheism is a shallow philosophy not based on any reasonable argument. She couldn't possibly have any real curiosity or else she would have rejected atheism years ago. A thoughtful atheist when it comes to the existence of God is an oxymoron.
Douglas Fang
2 years 7 months ago
J –I’m not sure how you categorize two of the greatest intelligent minds of modern physics – Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking – they seem fall into the category of atheist at worst or agnostics at best. However, they are absolutely not oxymoron. In the other hand, I don’t know anything about you – your credentials, your scientific papers, your peer reviews, etc. It seems to me that all you can do is just go around in several blogs and make grandiose statements about your absolutely correct knowledge and blast at everyone who doesn’t agree with you. Look at Bill Nye, the Science Guy who earns 4 honorary doctor degrees, he earned it. Look at the %90+ of scientists who believe that human is major cause of climate change… they earn it. They spent years of study to achieve the status of being scientists. Anyone can act as if they are very smart on the social network today. However, without real world credentials to back it up, it is just talk...
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
Einstein was not an atheist. I think the point is that people who should know better - Satan was once the Prince of the Angels - fall into grievous error once they come to think they are smarter then they really are. Pride is the first sin. I would also question the equation "academic degrees = wisdom". One would be better off with the faith of the simple Breton fishwife than enter Hell with four doctorates.
J Cosgrove
2 years 7 months ago
Mr. Fang, Thank you for your comments. I didn't say that smart people do not claim to be atheists. Some very smart ones obviously do. I said
But atheism is a shallow philosophy not based on any reasonable argument.
and
A thoughtful atheist when it comes to the existence of God is an oxymoron.
I have never seen a reasonable and logically argument for atheism based on evidence by anyone including Hawkins. I have been debating atheists for over 15 years on science. It is interesting to see the tactics they use but in no way could any one describe them as reasonable or evidence based. Hence the descriptive, "shallow" and "oxymoron." I fail to see the relevance of IQ (pointing to Einstein and Hawkins) or a claim that a person with a large number of publications should be taken as an expert on something they cannot backup. My experience is that the claim to be an atheist is an emotional one, not a reasonable one, based on a distaste for religion. It is more like a fashion for most that claim to be atheist. It is in and some smart people are doing it. If they were honest, they would espouse Deism. That is defensible. As far as my credentials I am not sure what that has to do with it. I can provide evidence, logic and reason for a creator which the atheist cannot refute. All they can provide is speculation and that includes Hawkins. Einstein has been dead for 60 years and was not aware of all the cosmological findings that are now available. Nor was he aware of the biological findings discovered since then. I have a good education including graduating from a Jesuit university. I was a science major and had several fellowships upon graduating but decided not to pursue the Ph. D. program. I later received a graduate degree from Stanford University. But all this is irrelevant just as are all the publications in the world on other topics. I suggest you read 3 books, two by Stephen Meyer and one by Eric Metaxas. These are: Darwin's Doubt by Meyer - http://www.amazon.com/Darwins-Doubt-Explosive-Origin-Intelligent/dp/0062071483/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1426882369&sr=8-1&keywords=stephen+meyer+darwin Signature in the Cell by Meyer - http://www.amazon.com/Signature-Cell-Evidence-Intelligent-Design/dp/0061472794/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y Miracles by Metaxas - http://www.amazon.com/Miracles-What-They-Happen-Change-ebook/dp/B00INIXMGA/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1426882489&sr=1-1&keywords=metaxas Metaxas is not a scientist but has a good summary of the fine tuning argument. Meyer has a degree in the Philosophy of Science from Cambridge. What does Hawking offer? A multiverse that poofs into existence. Atheism has been the scourge of the 20th century and it has undermined Western education and civilization with a wholesale acquiescence by the elite to these bogus ideas. One of the sad things is to see it treated so respectively here on a Catholic site. It is not that America should constantly chastize atheists but it should at least take the stand that it is both vacuous and dangerous to people, especially when they are so misinformed about it. Instead we get puff pieces like this OP.
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
A thoughtful atheist is a contradiction in terms. Sweeney is a good example. Her “analyses” are shallow, her grievances involve petty annoyances. The key to the collapse of her faith may lie in her being “raised during a particularly liberal time for the Catholic Church”. The lack of proper catechesis created a vacuum from which the Church is still trying to recover.
Vince Killoran
2 years 7 months ago
Yes, Cosgrove you have made your position clear more than once on this website about atheists, i.e., they are "intellectually bankrupt." I'm not willing to be so dismissive. Maybe it's just my getting older but I'm surprised continually at how I value more & more others with whom I disagree. What is it that Pope Francis wrote? "If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. 'But I don't believe, Father, I am an atheist!' But do good: We will meet one another there."
Sandi Sinor
2 years 7 months ago
I am always fascinated by stories of individual spiritual journeys, some away from belief in God, some from lack of belief towards belief in God, some from one religion to another religion. The Catholic becomes an Evangelical. The evangelical becomes a Catholic. The Christian becomes a Hindu. The atheist becomes a christian. The believer becomes an atheist. The Holy Spirit acts in mysterious ways. People start on one path, then change to another, and then to yet another. The journey isn't over until we die. All are seeking. What I do not understand is why some people of faith seem to be so threatened by those of different faiths, and especially by those of no faith at all - by atheists. Is their own faith so weak that they cannot even listen to those whose lives and experiences have taken them in a different direction? I love to hear the stories, They open up so many new ways of thinking, force us out of our comfortable boxes, force us to rethink, reexamine, force us to look at what we have always believed with new eyes. Thanks for the interview.
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
What I do not understand is why some people seem to be so threatened by people of faith wondering why a forum should be provided for a propagandist for atheism in a nominally Catholic medium.
Sandi Sinor
2 years 7 months ago
It seems that Catholics actually should be very interested in the stories of those who were once Catholic but who are no longer. The data indicate that 30 million cradle Catholics in the US have left the church. The stories of those who became Protestants, or Hindus, or agnostics/atheists, or "spiritual but not religious" or whatever should be of high interest to anyone who cares about this exodus. The flight from the Roman Catholic church in Europe and the US in the last 30 or 40 years is the greatest outflow from the church since the Reformation. Why did they leave? It is only through listening that the PTB in the church will learn from the once-Catholics. Those who care know that they need to hear the stories.
J Cosgrove
2 years 6 months ago
Those who care know that they need to hear the stories.
Are you implying that you care and that others don't and that you know better than they do. I would not presume to judge others like that. Ask them questions and see if their answers are sincere and relevant.
The flight from the Roman Catholic church in Europe and the US in the last 30 or 40 years is the greatest outflow from the church since the Reformation.... Why did they leave? It is only through listening that the PTB in the church will learn from the once-Catholics.
It is not just the Catholic Church. Nearly every Protestant Church in the Western world is hurting even more. The problem is lack of belief. As to Ms. Sweeney, there is no particular reason to interview her. Atheism is a philosophy that has no basis in reason, logic or evidence yet it is the scourge of Western Civilization at the moment as the statistics on church attendance so clearly show. It dominates the academic and popular culture with its nihilism. People who believe in God are led to believe that they do so against all odds. College professors will snicker at them and subtly mock those who are religious. When it is just the opposite, people who are atheist believe in nothing and they do so against all odds. Everything speaks against it, nothing argues for it. All the evidence points to some type of creator not the other way. So when Ms. Sweeney says she is an atheist, she has to be a shallow person and she cannot be curious.
Now, that question is too complicated! I urge anyone who is curious about it to see my one person show,
This statement has to be one of the most ironic ones ever printed on this site. No one who is curious and honest could be an atheist. As I said below, they could be a Deist but not agnostic and certainly not atheist. That she is not exposed is the real crime. Currently atheism is cool and trendy. It is one of those fashionable movements that people engage in because all the right people are part of it.
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
Why Catholics*should* be very interested in the stories of those who were once Catholic but who are no longer, is not clear unless as an example of what not to do. The Catholic sitting in the pew on Sunday, or involved in some apostolate, differs from the “30 million cradle Catholics in the US” you purport left the Church, which is why she or he is sitting there. In this interview we read of a poorly catechized shallow thinker whose value system (e.g., “income inequality” is a major evil) reflects the secular milieu rather than Catholic thinking and whose “big ideas” consist of slogans. Nature abhors a vacuum and if parents and schools don’t transmit the Faith, little minds absorb television, popular press, and political movements. The solution is fairly obvious - Catholic schools should be Catholic. That’s hardly a breakthrough idea - although the recent hubba hubba in San Francisco might cause one to think otherwise - and if it requires an interview with Julia Sweeney to reach that conclusion, our problems are bigger than one interview, or twenty, is going to solve. Intellectually, as physically, we are what we eat. Junk food like Julia Sweeney is hardly a healthy diet for a Catholic mind.

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