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.
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.