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Atheism with a smile

DIANE WINSTON, Knight chair in media and religion at USC, can be reached at dhwinston@gmail.com.

THE SUNDAY morning crowd waiting on Melrose Avenue acts like any congregation. When the doors open, people take their seats and rustle expectantly. It’s time to reflect on the relationship between God and man ... oops, make that between God and Julia Sweeney.

Sweeney, a former cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” has reprised “Letting Go of God,” her 2004 one-woman show, at the Groundlings Theater. The comical and poignant saga of Sweeney’s loss of faith seems more prescient now against the backdrop of Muslim rioting over cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad, court battles over teaching “intelligent design” in schools and Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections.

How do we know God exists? Why assume religion is a good thing?

Sweeney spends nearly two hours engaged with such questions of meaning and demonstrates along the way why “unaffiliated” is the fastest-growing segment of American religious life.

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It’s also the least trusted, which may be because a goodly number of the unaffiliated, Sweeney included, are atheists. Polls show Americans more apt to elect a gay, Muslim or woman as president than a nonbeliever.

But by giving atheism a human face, Sweeney confounds the notion that atheists are amoral dupes.

Sweeney’s journey began with a knock on the door.

Asked by a Mormon missionary if she believed God loved her, Sweeney, a lapsed Catholic, was stymied. She returned to church to find out. Studying Scripture with the priest, she couldn’t square her vision of a loving divinity with images of a God who flooded his creation and a Jesus who smote a fig tree because it had no fruit.

She quit the church but not the quest. She hiked in the Himalayas. She read Deepak Chopra and pored over the books of Richard Dawkins.

Through it all, a still, small voice grew more insistent: What if we created God instead of God creating us?

What if neuroscience is right?

Scientists say every mental state has a neural correlate, and if mind is a byproduct of brain physiology, then free will, consciousness and faith are physical processes. And because there’s no proof that consciousness does not exist outside the brain, researchers have no reason to think it does.

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So if our brains are it -- why not be sad, mad and utterly bad?

When we talked, Sweeney turned the question on its head.

“I don’t see how you can be ethical with God. You’re good because Daddy will punish you,” she said. “Once I realized there was no God, I saw myself as the person who affected others.

“I started giving more money away. I stopped eating meat. I tried being more truthful and honest.

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“I try to minimize any harm I do through constant vigilance. It’s like Weight Watchers -- and every morning I start again.”

During our conversation, Sweeney spoke appreciatively of her home parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, in Spokane, Wash. She likes the Catholic ritual and enjoys the community. But on a recent visit, she wondered what parishioners would make of her show. She was surprised by one’s reaction.

“I loved it,” the woman whispered during Mass. “A lot of us agree with you, but here we are.”

Apparently, it’s one thing to let go of God, another to give up religion.

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And that’s the mystery Sweeney taps -- a fundamental human need for meaning (hard-wired, according to some scientists). Some find meaning in church community and religious ritual while others -- the self-styled “spiritual but not religious” -- recoil from institutional life.

But both the atheists in the pews and the believers among the unaffiliated implicitly challenge scientific reductionism: Even if God and faith are byproducts of firing synapses, does it make a difference? We still have to decide what’s fundamentally important and how best to live our lives.

Sweeney is betting that these “religious” questions resonate beyond her Sunday morning audience. That’s why she’s added performances at the Groundlings Theater and is releasing a CD of her monologue next month.

“I didn’t know you were so religious,” said a surprised friend after seeing the show. (In some circles, it’s almost a betrayal.) “I have a lot in common with religious people,” Sweeney agreed. “So, what if there’s no God? We can still have religion.”

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