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MORE ON 'Julia Sweeney: Letting Go of God'

Questioning Religious Faith and Yet Finding Inspiration

Published: October 24, 2006

Can an atheist lift the spirit? In her searing and bracingly funny solo show “Letting Go of God,” Julia Sweeney traces her bumpy journey away from religious faith in an accessible, no-frills format that suggests the kind of inspirational self-help lecture you might see around PBS pledge time.

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Richard Termine for The New York Times

Julia Sweeney reviews assorted belief systems in “Letting Go of God.”

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But where Deepak Chopra or Wayne W. Dyer, say, come bearing warm broth, distilled from revered spiritual traditions, Ms. Sweeney arrives with a bucket of cold water for all supernatural belief systems, from her family’s old-school Roman Catholicism to the New Age alternatives (including Mr. Chopra) embraced by many of her peers.

In her fluent, friendly and offhandedly riveting account, what started with a visit from two young Mormon missionaries soon became a fitful but unrelenting quest for an adult understanding of the deity she always sincerely sensed was at her side. Ms. Sweeney felt God’s presence, sure — but what did she really believe about him?

She’s almost sorry she asked: upon examination, the Bible horrifies her, and so, ultimately, does the implicit determinism of every spiritual approach she tries, from Buddhism to the Deist notion of God in nature. Once she loses the Christian plot she’d never before questioned, the idea that everything happens for a reason in a universe where someone, or something, is minding the store increasingly rings hollow.

Ms. Sweeney, in other words, has come a long way from the snickering androgyny of the film “It’s Pat!” and gone deeper than her previous solo show, “God Said ‘Ha!’,” about her brother’s fatal lymphoma. Without breaking her affably conversational tone, in “Letting Go of God” she inhabits the emotional memory of each step on her path, from the cozy warmth of her erstwhile prayerful faith to the confusion and terror, and finally the hard-earned peace of mind, that attend her gradual un-conversion.

At a time when religious faith is either the subject of shrill controversy, with prejudice and misunderstanding on both sides (Mel Gibson, meet Christopher Hitchens), or of a lukewarm tolerance that’s fundamentally uncurious about what people actually believe, “Letting Go of God” is refreshingly unrancorous, lucid and, yes, inspirational. Ms. Sweeney may not believe her audience has spirits to be moved, but that’s certainly how it feels.

“Letting Go of God” runs through Sunday at Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street, Clinton; (212) 868-4444.

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