A Conversion to Atheism

By Beth Davies-Stofka

DVD Review: Letting Go of God (Breaking Up is Hard to Do)

Written and performed by Julia Sweeney

Release Date: November 21, 2008

Run Time: 130 minutes

I love Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney's one-woman show chronicling her journey from Catholicism to atheism.  A live performance of the show was filmed for DVD, and I love it so much that I bought it and have watched it many times.  I've urged it on family and friends too, so it's been through its share of DVD players. 

Sweeney and I are the same age, but while she underwent a slow and deliberative conversion from Catholicism to atheism, I took the opposite journey, from atheist to high-church Episcopalian.  The beautiful thing about her show is that the questions, struggles, points of overlap, and revelations of our lives are roughly the same.  We live in the same world, and ask the same questions. 

In creating Letting Go of God, Sweeney poured her enormous talents and energies into reconciling religion and science.  As the title suggests, Sweeney ultimately does let go of God.  She rationally concludes that atheism is the only position consistent with all that science has discovered.  But she does this with great warmth and generosity of spirit.  She never ridicules other people.  She has a loving and humble spirit that shines in the theater even when she is brutally skewering the most implausible arguments of priests, intellectuals, and self-help gurus.

Sweeney pursued her journey with insatiable curiosity and relentless honesty using finely-honed skills in critical thinking.  She details her journey to atheism with great clarity, raising and answering the very same questions that cause me to quiver with excitement, and push me ever harder to run down that next question, to learn that next piece of incredibly exciting knowledge.  The things that fascinate Sweeney fascinate me.  Why is there something instead of nothing?  What is the meaning of life?  What am I supposed to be doing?  This is why this DVD is worth owning and sharing.  I can always learn something new from her story, even though I've heard it multiple times.  I know I'll watch it again.

Sweeney's story opens with a visit from a couple of young and dedicated Mormon missionaries, who came to her door in order to deliver a message from God.  A few days earlier, Sweeney had had a powerful encounter with God, the kind that overcomes your brain, your feelings, and your experience, leaving you in bliss and wanting more.  Sweeney was apparently prone to such experiences, and had a profound feeling of connection to this loving, caring, transcendent presence.  So when the missionaries informed her that they had a message for her from God, she broke convention and invited them into her home.

The story she tells is quite funny, and it's not particularly hard to find the humor in a conversation with door-to-door missionaries.  But she doesn't tell the story at the expense of the young missionaries.  She tells it in order to quickly open the door to a much deeper question.  Wouldn't a person hearing the story of her Catholicism for the first time find it equally inane?  She realizes she's only comfortable with Catholic teachings about a God that impregnated a young woman without ever touching her -- a virgin, no less -- because she is used to them.  Hearing it for the first time, it would sound just as implausible, and maybe a little nutty, as the stories of the origins of Mormonism sounded to Sweeney.