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True Unbeliever

If an atheist screams in the woods and there’s no God to hear it, will the scream still make a sound? Julia Sweeney doesn’t need to fret over that scenario. “Letting Go of God,” Sweeney’s comic monologue on how an Irish Catholic girl ended up showing the deity the door, has been playing to sold-out houses since October at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Hollywood. The 45-year-old writer, actress and “Saturday Night Live” alum best known as the creator of the androgynous “It’s Pat” has consulted for “Sex and the City” and starred in two previous autobiographical hit monologues. Sweeney also is the single mother of a 5-year-old adopted Chinese girl, Mulan. (“One of my horrors was that she had been named after a Disney character before I arrived on the scene,” she says.) Here she reflects on life, motherhood and finding comfort in a world of quarks.

Your show opens with your discovery at age 7 that there is no Santa Claus, and closes with a decision that God doesn’t exist. Do you see both as part of growing up?

Yes. Santa Claus being God for kids didn’t dawn on me until the last few years. The way we think of Santa Claus is, he comes and gives you these presents and you have to be good to get this reward. Somebody noticing what we’re doing. It’s really just setting you up for this other big Santa Claus.

You joke in the show that people are OK with your saying you don’t believe in God, but the word “atheist” gets a horrified reaction. Why do you think that is?

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I think we’ve just been so socialized against that word. It’s sort of like “homosexual.” “Homosexual” seems like a deviant behavior, but the word doesn’t mean anything different from “gay.” But “atheist"--even I don’t like that word.

What’s funny about questioning God’s existence?

It’s such an important topic in our lives and in our society. It’s funny that people believe such ridiculous things. I mean, I put myself in this category. I didn’t say I know Jesus was born of a virgin and all that stuff, but I went along with all of it. If you just walked into any church and had never heard those stories, you’d never stop laughing. Everybody on some level knows how crazy that is, except if you’re evangelical or a fundamentalist of any religion. Yet we make huge decisions based on this belief.

Do you get e-mails saying you’ll burn in hell?

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No. I’ve been shocked at how little I’ve gotten. Groups of Episcopal priests have come, rabbis. I am not trying to make it seem like you’re an idiot if you believe. After the last show on Sunday, I had somebody come up and say, “God is a quark.”

If there is no God, whom do you call in a crisis?

I don’t. I hope my inner strength will carry me. I always say I don’t have faith, but I have hope. My personal feeling is that people who use their faith to propel them through impossible situations are glorified in our culture, and people who get through with their own wits and rationality, and their belief in the human spirit and the human ability to overcome, don’t play as well in the media.

What are the pros and cons of a spiritual quest in Los Angeles?

You have a really strong Catholic influence here, but then Los Angeles also has all the New Age stuff. New York is much more skeptical than Los Angeles. That ditzy Hollywood influence is a nice thing, because they’re a little more open-minded. People don’t think twice about Shirley MacLaine talking about her past lives. I’ve been reading all the stuff about Madonna and the kabala center and I keep thinking, everybody’s looking for a spiritual community.

You’re working on a book. Will it be titled “Letting Go of God”?

No, it’s called “My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story.”

Moving on to another metaphysical conundrum, is Pat a girl or a boy?

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There’s no answer. It’s one of those mysteries.


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