Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Just finished watching Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, her disarmingly clever one-woman show about her journey from Christian belief to atheism. It’s very funny and, for anyone of faith (and, I suspect, even for those who have none) also profoundly disturbing. Ms. Sweeney seeks to eviscerate every spiritual and religious molecule from life.
As charming as she is ~ and she’s really charming ~ there is a frustrating ignorance in her arrogance, as if no Christian has truly “picked up the book and read it” (as she patronizingly extols all Christians to do), and that if they did, they’d immediately realize that it’s so patently ludicrous that anyone with half a brain would see right through it in an instant. Her approach reminds me that there is such a thing as a cold logic ~ an approach that is nothing but reasonable, which is precisely my main complaint about Sweeney’s argument: it is only reasonable and nothing else (and as a result, not all that reasonable in the end). Her delivery, of course, is imaginative and funny and poignant, which means that if you’re not careful, you’ll be beguiled into thinking that her message is as charming as her delivery. But make no mistake: she’s whistling ~ and the tune is charming ~ past a graveyard. The sermon of an atheist, no matter how clever or funny (and this is their ultimate disadvantage), begins with the random accident of existence and ends with the meaningless certainty of death, and no amount of icing on that cake (read charming delivery) can mask the fact that the cake is hollow through and through (sort of like angel-food cake, ironically enough). Reductio ad absurdum.
Okay, so what do I mean?
Julia is very engaging, very smart, and disarmingly real. She gets many of the nuances of organized religion (particularly of the Catholic stripe) perfectly, she understands the catch phrases that are endowed with so much religious meaning, and she seems to have done a terrific amount of reading. All of this leads her, somewhat surprisingly, to whimsically reduce life to its bare and only obvious essentials: that we (and life with us) are nothing but the products of neuro-chemical reactions brought to fruition by random chance in a meaningless universe (well, okay, so it’s meaningful to the extent that we imbue it with our own collective meaning for reasons of socio-biological advantage… but meaningless nonetheless in any ultimate sense).
And this begins to get at what I mean by “entirely reasonable”: her conclusion has little to no resonance with how we human beings actually live. We live as if love were more than the by-product of synapses in the brain; that honor is more than a well-honed instinct wrought by eons of social evolution; that right and wrong have an objective and transcendent basis beyond mere social construction; that mystical experiences, though partially explainable by brain experiments on our right temporal lobe, have their origins in a divine entity; and so on… and so on…
Note, I’m not here insisting that these assumptions we carry around (about love and life, right and wrong) prove anything. I’m only suggesting at this point that these assumptions form the framework for the way 95% of the planet lives and has lived for hundreds of thousands of years. So if evolution is the biological process by which we evolve into beings of a higher order psychologically, intellectually and, presumably, morally, then why do so many of us continue to find the meaning for our existence on the bases of so many false assumptions? Why are we, these creatures who stand erect at the pinnacle of the food chain and who can do so many marvelous and wonderful things (as Ms. Sweeney takes great pains to point out at the end of her show), so woefully devolved in the areas most basic to living; namely, the areas that explain the why of life and not merely the how? How can evolution, to put it another way, depend on so many lies to keep itself going? (And just in case the following objection comes up: that everyone assumed the world was flat for most of human existence, so 95% of people could be wrong ~ that belief was simply the result of inadequate instruments of measurement. All the while, most people continue to believe that Homer, Euripides, Dante, and Shakespeare ~ not to mention Jesus ~ had a better handle on what makes human beings tick than all of the self-help books you could buy at your local bookstore put together).
And why are we humans, evolved as we are out of pure naturalistic causes, so preoccupied with super-natural explanations anyway? Why, indeed, did we ever even come up with that category in the first place? Wouldn’t it have been incentive enough as a species to simply want to reproduce and extend life without submitting to divine explanations? If we’re just animals after all, why the proclivity to worship? Dogs don’t seem bothered by their inability to explain thunder. Cats don’t gather for prayer. How is it, then, that we thirst (for transcendence), and yet there’s no such thing as water (spirit)? (I am now channeling C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity at this juncture.) Feuerbach has a sociological spin on it and claims that religious belief is a necessary social construct to help us deal with mystery. Pinker and his ilk will explain that it’s related to the mystery of consciousness. But these explanations only explain the half of it. Why would we notice mystery in the first place, and accord some mysteries elaborate explanations and leave others untouched? And why did self-consciousness evolve if it could produce nothing more than an exocentric awareness of ourselves that inevitably leads to erroneous conclusions on the part of 95% of the species? Canis lupis familiaris has managed to be around much longer as a species than we have, and they’ve done so without the “gift” of self-consciousness. Clearly believing in God has no biological advantage, at least not from an evolutionary perspective. After all, we’re the only species that has devised a method for our own mass extinction, and according to the New Atheists, belief in God has been nothing but trouble from the beginning.
But this, I acknowledge, is my weakest point.
Ms. Sweeney’s excursion through the Bible is much less convincing because it is much more tendentious. She picks a few passages out of the Old Testament (OT) to show how the God of Israel is really a mutant deity. What she neglects to point out, however, is that most of the Christian world (including her erstwhile Catholic brothers and sisters) does not hold to an inerrant view of Scripture and so does not take the scriptures literally at every turn. And for good reason. A cursory glance through the OT (and the scholarship attached to it) shows that this collection of multifarious writings by a dazzling array of people over the span of centuries is as much a record of God’s dealings with an ancient people as it is an ancient people’s understandings of God’s dealings with them, and one must read its poetry and prose with this in mind. And just because this is so doesn’t mean that its veracity should be totally discounted. We don’t dismiss wholesale a history of the Civil War because it comes from the perspective of a Rebel soldier. A critical reader simply accounts for this limitation as she peruses the text.
Sweeney’s treatment of the New Testament (NT) suffers from much the same difficulty: she cherry picks a few verses from the NT, often achingly out of context, and proceeds to make general conclusions based on a fairly jaundiced reading of those particular texts. To wit, the passage about how one must “hate” his family before he can follow Jesus. What Ms. Sweeney fails to explain is that the Greek word translated “hate” has shades of meaning that indicate, in this particular context, a preference for rather than a disgust of; that if one doesn’t prefer Christ to all else, in other words, one is not following Christ. (This kind of failure happens so many times in her show that it begins to feel like a conspiracy; more likely, it’s simply indicative of her lack of training.) Granted, if this exhortation from Jesus doesn’t strike you as fair, then the rest of the New Testament offers cold comfort. But clearly the man who said we must love everyone, even our enemies, wasn’t advocating that we must despise our family. But of course, Ms. Sweeney leaves it at just that. But perhaps more to the point, the fact that the writers of Scripture kept difficult and enigmatic verses in (making themselves look like shams, bumbling idiots, and traitors, for example) actually adds to the veracity of their account. Only myths enjoy unencumbered re-tellings because myths don’t have this pesky thing called eye witnesses. But that’s another conversation.
I’ll take one more example of her entirely reasonable approach from an argument she makes towards the end of her show. She borrows from Steven Pinker and his work in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to “prove” that a person’s mystical experiences are actually bio-chemical phenomena explainable by means of naturalistic processes. Well, okay, no problem there. Sounds reasonable. My beef is with her assumption that this explanation pretty much sums it all up. But how can it, when it uses a method that, by its very definition, MUST stop at naturalistic causes (i.e. the scientific method)? That’s like insisting that the world was created in six days because the Bible says so. It’s irrevocably circular.
And so where was I left after “Legoland,” the last (and rather fitting) word of her show? Initially, like I’d been punched in the solar plexus. But then, after a few minutes of quiet reflection, with the realization that an intellectual Tower of Bable made out of rhetorical legos had just been constructed, and the whole thing came crumbling down. I was left with two questions:
1) Does Sweeney’s newly adopted worldview have an explanation for all the suffering in the world, or for acts of what we call love, or for things of beauty, or for her love for Mulan (her adopted baby girl)? Sure it does, and the explanation can be summed up in a single phrase: natural selection. Not exactly a satisfying answer, but an entirely rational one. (Chesterton’s musings on small infinities come to mind here.)
2) Is there room in her worldview for a single spec of metaphysical or spiritual miracle, or the presence of transcendent evil, or of love as most of the planet understands it, or for an objective basis of right and wrong that is not subject to social or societal conditioning? No. Not at all. Nowhere. She has managed to explain everything we do and why and how we do it in a single phrase, and then inexplicably ends her presentation by extolling the virtue of embracing mystery. How’s that?
Julia’s view of the world, it turns out, is utterly devoid of mystery in any meaningful sense. Sure, there’s knowledge we haven’t yet acquired (which is her definition of “mystery”), but that’s a quantitative issue, not a qualitative one ~ and hence not a mystery at all in the truest sense, just a lack of proof. Her worldview explains everything, as Chesterton once quipped, but explains it in a very small way (I’m back at those small infinities).
It’s the religious believer, actually, who accepts mystery, not as merely knowledge that we haven’t yet acquired, but as a fundamental truth about God and ourselves and this thing called life. There is a fundamentally qualitative aspect to a Christian’s understanding of mystery, just like there is a qualitative aspect to a Christian’s understanding of life; of suffering in the form of babies born with defective hearts; of the love between two people that has lasted 50 years; of genocides and generosity. But not for Ms. Sweeney. Everything to her can be, at the end of the day, reduced to numbers, to quantitative data. To borrow an idea from Chesterton again (someone she actually mentions in her show ~ along with Flannery O’Connor; two people she needs to read more of), Julia Sweeney is mad (as in “crazy” ~ though plain old “mad” probably isn’t too far off the mark either), not because she has lost her reason ~ she hasn’t at all ~ but because she has lost everything but her reason. Cold, calculated fact is the terminal point of her vision ~ and though that vision may extend to the furthest boundaries of the cosmos, it is a cold and ultimately silent cosmos she gazes at.
For this reason, I ended watching this very clever, funny, witty, often poignant show with a deep sadness. And not for me, or even for her, but for her daughter Mulan (I, too, have a four-year old daughter, so this is perhaps why it hit home in such a dramatic fashion). I pity Mulan because Mulan intuits what Ms. Sweeney, in all her mature and adult wisdom, has argued herself out of: mystery and transcendence. And I pity Mulan not because I don’t believe Ms. Sweeney loves her, but because Ms. Sweeney doesn’t believe she loves her. After all, in Ms. Sweeney’s world, what is love? What is happiness? What is honor? What is romance? What is mystery? All things we made up. Life is a fiction. Which is to say, all of life: every kind gesture, every mean thought, every celebration and tragedy, every musing, every word, every dream and hope and memory, is ultimately nothing more than the result of a bio-chemical process that has no meaning beyond itself. Reductio ad absurdum.
Is that not hell?